Saturday, December 30, 2017

Player Death

Vasily Vereschagin - Defeated. Requiem. 1879
Thoughts on dealing with player death and the consequences thereof.

Courtney Campbell wrote a good post on player death and consequences and shared shamanistic vision quests (as he does), and Alexander Macris said a nice thing in response to it that I want to repeat here:
To use an analogy I coined for a TEDx talk a few years back, linear paths may taste better but they are not as nutritious for the soul...
And I'm starting a new blog, so I thought this would be a nice way to begin. Why am I starting a new blog? Because Swordfish Islands is ultimately a group project and I want a spot where I can put stuff that's mine and mine alone. So with that out of the way: Player Death.

Player death in RPGs is good because it introduces real consequences. Thus it makes ingame choices meaningful. And this is a dead and beaten horse in the OSR scene. However, I don't believe the OSR scene or anyone else, really deals with the social problems that can easily arise from player death.

Three big potential post-death failure points are:

1. The player has personally invested hours creating their character. The death has wasted that time.

2. The player is now out of the game and does not get to participate until they get a new character put together.

3. The new character must be reintroduced in the game world.

The worst game session I ever ran went something like this: It was 4th edition D&D. There were 10 players. We were all coworkers from various hierarchical ranks at the company. The player most likely to take a leadership role was a prima donna min/maxer. Obviously at this point I had already majorly majorly fucked up.

It was session number 3 and the first 2 had gone surprisingly well. The story was that everyone had grown up together, pooled their money and bought a share of a caravan. And they'd be escorting said caravan to the East to protect said investment. I'd come up with a "selling as combat" mini-game that I wanted to test out, and everyone actually had a fantastic time with it!

And then they met the bandits. It was a simple con. Women by a busted up wagon on the side of the road. Looked injured. A mother and daughter, said they'd been attacked by bandits. The mother couldn't walk due to her injuries, needed to get home. Used the ruse to steal a couple of horses. There were some arrows fired and cussing when the women made their get away, but it was all straight forward.

The women reported to the rest of their bandit crew that they'd found a rich looking, kind hearted mark. The caravan pressed on. Came to a FORTIFIED INN that was their next planned stop. Got to drinking, and settling in for the night. Storm blows in and bandits roll up. I don't remember the exact number but there were between 35 and 50 bandits. Well equipped. On horses, with archers and mixed light melee types. Give an ultimatum (so the party has time to prepare).

Fucking player "leader" dude convinces everyone to leave the FORTIFIED INN, and meet them on the fucking field outside. Then basically solo charges a line of archers and is turned into a pin cushion.

On a positive note, this horrible session was a major reason that I started looking for alternatives to 4th edition and found the OSR blogs in the first place. But to tie all this back into the three social problems of player death....

Let us assume the absolute best about the poor player who tried to get everyone in the party killed.

1. He had spent hours making this character. He'd researched all these builds and gone through all these rules, and picked out all this equipment, and even though he'd gotten a couple sessions out of the character, if I were to add up the time he spent actually playing (only counting active rolling, in character speaking and turns) I am firmly convinced that he was still running a large deficit in terms of time investment. I think that a large part of this (that I want to try and explore in later posts) is directly tied to WotC and TSRs efforts to monetize by selling RULES. The big companies making these games, in order to make cash, sell rules, and thus end up encouraging this sort of pre-game investment on the part of players.

2. By the time this combat happened it was way past the set end time, so it seemed like a good spot to stop, so I didn't technically kill him. However, if I had killed him, and it had been earlier, he would have been out of the game. And out of the game in the middle of a combat. That is immediately going to start draining "social capital" or messing up the "vision quest". It's my experience that a sizeable chunk of players are not super happy about getting killed. Especially if point 1 pertains to them. But then, I also find that they start doing out of game stuff. They get up. They move around. They go get a drink. They go smoke a cigarette. They go piss. The death of a character results in out of game activity which can be distracting to multiple parties. And if they're being pissy about it, it can be that much worse. But it doesn't end there. Depending on the rule system being used, and the player's personal knowledge of that rule system, it's now going to take time (and maybe a lot of time) to get their new character together. If they're doing this while play is going on, it can absolutely end up being an ongoing interruption, especially if they're new and need to ask questions about their new character. So while bad actors can make things terrible (as they always can/do), newer players can be just as draining on game play after they die.

3. I often wonder if the reintroduction of characters is really only a personal problem for me because of the people I've traditionally played with. Normally the guys I would play with always wanted reintroduced characters to "make sense". The expectation was that the DM was going to come up with some way to work in someone new that didn't break the suspension of disbelief. And then these players would also often start pulling shit about "Well, my character isn't sure if they should trust this elf that they just rescued from that spider web. I mean they're not my bonded brother like dead-bro was. I'M BEING IN CHARACTER."

Now yes, of course, we can look at my personal experiences and snootily say "Well Jacob... don't game with assholes, and if you are gaming with assholes put on your big boy pants and deal with it." And that's all well and good. But just because I can, (and have) deal with problems like this, doesn't mean that the problems don't exist.

I guess in the end my point is, I think that it's really good to encourage DMs to kill their players, and it's good to help them understand WHY they need to be doing it. However, I think there could be much more sharing on how to elegantly recover from character death, because every character death is a speed bump to the entire game.

How do you deal with it? Does it depend on the nature of the character death? Do you tend to stop the session? How do you readd characters to the party? Do you treat them like a new character spawning in in Quake? Or do you try and wrap it into everything in a way that "makes sense"? And if I've been blind and there are tons of posts on dealing with "character death recovery" please please please link 'em to me!


  1. I usually have a mixed party of PCs and NPCs, including allies they pick up along the way (rescues, guides, opportunists, enemies with info that have to be kept close), so if you die you lose the character you chose, but you immediately have someone else to be, and maybe you don’t get full authorial control but there are some secrets you can add to them.

    It doesn’t work for _every_ game, but it does for _most._

  2. I let them know when they're risking death and make sure they're ok with it. If they're not, we talk it over like adults.

  3. Dealing with character death?

    Usually this:

    Unless there's a henchman the new PC is waiting in town. If the players want to obsesses on why they let the new character in let them, it's not a GM issue.

  4. A lot of "traditional" chores for the DM I dump right back on the players. How do the PCs know each other? "You tell me," I say. So the whole group is involved when bringing a new character in to replace a lost one.

    Also, when doing this I totally let the players "take advantage" of me. Would it be really helpful for the new character to speak a certain language or be a native of such-and-such a place? I totally let them do it and then I actively reward them for it. Why? Because I totally want to encourage my players investing in the setting and work with each other to bind their characters together socially.

  5. I've played 3.5/Pathfinder for a long time and like to think I'm fairly well-versed in its rules, but I never get along well with the type of player who talks about "builds" and thumps the rulebook. Especially when they expect "rules mastery" to cover for bonehead choices as in your example.

    However my group sounds somewhat different from yours in that we just don't take the introduction of new characters that seriously--kind of an unavoidable thing when you have people popping in and out as work schedules change, school semesters start, etc. if Jimmy doesn't show up for a session, then Jimmy's character just isn't there--we don't sweat about where he's gone. Likewise when a character dies, his replacement comes onstage at the soonest convenience and accepted as a new comrade in arms with no qualms. This has been the group's tradition since long before I siddled in behind the screen. Undoubtedly that's partly due to the complexity of making a PC (esp. over 1st lvl) for Pathfinder--it's enough of an inconvenience without requiring a dramatic entrance for the new guy!

    For this reason since I started DMing, one thing I ask is everyone have at least one backup character ready to go. The backup PC needs to be kept "up-to-date" i.e appropriately leveled so they could be dropped into the campaign at any time. Unfortunately my players aren't the best at this, but since I've started adopting Followers and Hirelings as part of my campaigns, like Richard, that's a ready source for replacements in a pinch.

  6. " It's my experience that a sizeable chunk of players are not super happy about getting killed. Especially if point 1 pertains to them. But then, I also find that they start doing out of game stuff. They get up. They move around. They go get a drink. They go smoke a cigarette. They go piss. The death of a character results in out of game activity which can be distracting to multiple parties."
    Basically, at my table, they can deal with it or play another game. I don't care which. Agonizing about the loss of a PC is retarded. Make a backup. Make three. Hire henchmen that you can take over. But some mook gets offed in an easily matched battle and you're butthurt? Please, leave, and stay gone. That's like crying because your cataphract got killed in a war game. Story games with powerful characters and plots focused around the super-important PC abound, why the Hell should D&D be modified to suit these players when they can just get into another game?