Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Screen – Part 13: Death


It’s the 13th installment, it’s a couple of days after fencing at Abbey– where not only did I get a lot of opportunities to practice dying but would look upon the idea with some favour, given the bruising; and the universe appears to be focusing its energies through me to talk about this sombre event in role-play…

Also it seems that next Sunday’s game could result in player death as well, so best to get this off my chest.

Before commencing, a little about the ‘universe’s energies’ and the meaning behind it. Jerry Holkins (Tycho Brahe) of Penny Arcade, discussed the notion of player threat and death as per his experiences with Dungeons & Dragons. PVPonline, while somewhat less effusive, portrays the popular stereotype of the Games Master being a totalitarian authority whose players’ lives are sustained by whim alone.

I myself haven’t sat in on a game of such draconian design before, though I imagine anyone reading this has or, like me, is familiar with legends and exploits of such games. So I can’t offer what might be called a ‘balanced and fair’ account as to the reasons outside of what I write. To those reading this feeling misjudged to the extent that I would wish not to be one of your players, EVEN MORE than I would now; all I can offer is your money back.


In case I don’t remember to add the hyperlinks to Penny Arcade and PVPonline, a quick summation: Jerry Holkins, upon hearing that a group of new players under the storytelling auspices of PA cohort, Mike Krahulik (Gabriel), don’t get the sense of being threatened, turns his mind toward the notion of running a game of Lovecraftian or Poe-like misery. He also highlights something that runs, at first glance, contrary to philosophy of players being the most important thing in your game:

Players have nothing to fear from a world that literally exists at their whim, or for their entertainment.

As much as a GM tries to leave open avenues, or plan for, the actions of players, there are also situations be it by virtue of dice rolls, or a threat miscalculated, or an ill-fated action, that results in the death of a player-character that you (GM) have invested time weaving him/her into your story.

Seeing that many plot arcs and character relationships disappear, the hardship of introducing a new character, both to the group and to the story, not to mention any hue and cry levied at you by the player may seem like too high a price just because the dice came up with nothing higher than a 3. And frankly, this is a noble idea and likely things will flow along a lot easier between you and your players…

…right up to the point where it happens again. And woe betide you if it happens to another player who raises the point that you spared the other character, so why not his/her’s…

The popular phrase I’ve heard is that “I want the character’s death to mean something”. Whether it adds to the story or you don’t want to tarnish the legend of the character by having it end with the ignobility of falling on his own sword, the ‘good death’ is about putting the player first.

If you mean it.

In the amount of years spent roleplaying, I’ve suffered the deaths of two prized characters. One, by virtue of underwhelming dice rolls against overwhelming dice rolls, the other executed on a matter of character (and player) principle. In the case of the former, the GM obeyed the results of the dice, though not the time at which they were rolled and, through judicious divine intervention, weaved the tale that the character’s life had been extended just long enough to serve a higher purpose before being laid to eternal rest. I give the GM huge props for this – not just because it was my character – because firstly, he altered our story enough to make it work ver well, and secondly, he followed through with the character’s death at the dramatically opportune moment.

The second instance was when a different GM (same group though) engineered a scenario that clashed against my character’s zealotous principles. Prior to this his game – supposedly a meatgrinder of a mission – had suffered because he was new to GMing and didn’t really want to break friendships or the story by killing characters. In the end, it wasn’t the GM who killed my character, it was the other players (one being the other GM mentioned above)– thought this did not stop him from being somewhat angry at me.

I explained the character’s motivations that led to his grisly fate and then explained that his meatgrinder of a mission needed a death. That it would add an element of risk for the other players and would lead to the excitement that he was hoping to achieve…

I think we’re still, some years afterward, at the position of agreeing to disagree.

But that is what it comes down to. I’m all for character death meaning something, but it can’t be used as a crutch to give your players eternal life, simply because each fatal instance lacks operatic gravitas. The first rule is to put your players first. To entertain them. But part of that entertainment, that is often overlooked, is not always giving them what they want. It’s giving them what they need. And what is needed for excitement to take place, is risk.

The universe turns its purpose upon the axis of me this morning as I shuffle randomly through the music playlist and come across something I hadn’t listened to in a while. Last year I attended a lecture by Matthew Reilly – whose literary work I cannot recommend enough if you’re looking for a fast-paced action thriller novel – and, having the presence of mind to record it for future dissection, come across the explanation he offered as to why he killed a much beloved character and co-star of a story, much to the chagrin of the multitude of fans of said character.

Boiled down, it is this. Thrillers keep you guessing. Action should as well. And neither exist to make you feel safe. Excitement is risk’s reward, but like most things you enjoy, it extolls from you a price. And that price is that in order to make you feel good, there is a chance that you could end up feeling bad.

It’s a gamble. Any game is a gamble and this – despite everything else written here or previous about the notions of storytelling or character – is a role-play GAME.

Joss Whedon offered similar explanations about events that took place in Serenity and, as Whedon goes; so goes my nation…

Already rather weighty, this dialogue of death, it cannot conclude without something else being addressed. The GM not only has to be in the frame of mind to offer risk to his/her players, not only to be in the frame of mind to take something from his/her players that represents immeasurable amounts of time and care, but must also understand that this applies to the Non-Player Characters in his/her stable.

Those who follow The Adventures of the Colt Apollo will be aware that a parcticular nemesis/nuisance was killed by the players. He’d been around since the third or so game, had a great riffing relationship with the player of Jack Lightning, had a history, needs and wants. In short, he was a decent character.

I agonized right up to the point when he burst into the room, guns blazing, whether I wanted to put him here in a situation where the players would likely kill him.

Now some of the players will say that the only reason I decided to bring him into the battle was because I was challenged, nay veritably slapped in the face and accused various indecent things because it looked I wasn’t going to. And while I was looking around for some kind of excuse to leave him alone, I knew that when it comes to an adventure arc, there needs to be a payoff. Not putting this villain into the mix would have seen the adventure end with a number of henchmen dead or incarcerated. Throwing him into the mix after a series of battles at a moment where Jack Lightning wasn’t able to use her guns as lethally as normal, was that risk that made the last game sing.

The trap that a lot of GM’s fall into is the one where they’ve created a character as cool as the players and want to keep that player for ever and ever and play along just as if he/she is a player-character too. This isn’t always a villain, sometimes it’s ally, sometimes it’s a mentor. It ties back to ‘Why do I give a shit’ (about this character) and the risk is you can give a diahaorretic tsunami of a bowel movement that leaves the characters with a foul taste in their mouth whenever this pretender-player-character arrives on-scene.

Now I’m not necessarily prescribing death for these characters in every instance, the example I have provided is just one case however where death, used as closure, can enhance the story to the satisifcation of the players. The risk averted was the non-player character being resented because he was just too cool for the players– that he could do things way better and look better while doing them.

Don’t forget who you’re here to entertain.

Little bit of Comics fandom to have with your RPG nerd…

Way back when in the days of Marvel Comics where Frank Miller was writing Daredevil, he introduced the character ‘Electra’, whose purpose was to establish in the mind of the reader that she was kick-ass enought to take Daredevil on, but also form a bond with the reader through her and DD’s romantic entanglement that would serve two functions: Establish how much more kick-ass Bullseye was when he killed her, and to develop pathos in Daredevil’s fight for revenge. After this was done, Miller responded to the fans expectations/requests, simply saying that she wasn’t intended to live, but thanks anyway.

Then Marvel executives noticed the attention she received. And pretty much said that Miller could write a new story in which she comes back to life, or they’d get another writer to do it. Miller, hoping to preserve his character in some form, opted to write the reserrecution in an attempt to his story justice…

Nowadays Electra has been resurrected more times than Jesus and Elvis and hasn’t held a straight 15 issues of quality since her return.

There is one last thing to make mention of here, and it’s how a character’s death is handled by the players. GM’s, if you’re lucky, this will be the roughest thing you’ll ever have to do to a friend, and yet it doesn’t make them any easier to be around for the next 15 to 30 minutes. I’ve had players lose characters in my games before and only once, I think, it actually went well *. Every other time has been a short play on the Seven Steps of Loss and its a show that repeats itself regardless of player or location. The best things I’ve learnt is:

Check the rules. Have your players forgotten something that might save them? Nine times out of ten, the player will throw the character sheet in your face before thinking about opening the game book.

Give them a break. In fact, pause the game to bring things back to a less tense moment.

Try to discourage other players from throwing in their own two cents unless it’s something that
would actually save the character, at least until things have settled down.

Ask the player if it’s okay to return to the game when things have settled. Make sure you ask them if they want to stick around. Usually this character death is what the players are going to use as inspiration for some feat of daring do and it’s good that the character still has some influence in the game.

Don’t ask, or necessarily accept, a new character during the same game if you can help it.

And finally, for the players who are GM’s, don’t give your current GM too much shit. Of all people, you should understand that player death cuts both ways and it’s not like it’s a barrel of laughs for us.

Unless you’re one of those despotic GM’s mentioned earlier.

And in that case, you can eat my entire arse.

*One situation in which a parcticularly annoying player, with a particularly annoying character, managed to get the rest of the party into such trouble that a bounty was called upon them. Said character was also a Munchkin, so it came as a surprise to us all when the weakest party member managed to sneak up behind him and blow the back of his head off.

What made it even better is the annoying player, busy throwing a tantrum and tearing up his character sheet, was frantically asked by the murdering player not to do that.

Because he wanted to see what kind of loot was left on the body. 

Those of us I remain in contact with remember this as the Halcyon Days of roleplaying.



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