Friday, July 11, 2014

Character Death

Sometimes characters die. If you game long enough, normally you experience your fair share of tragic and unexpected character death. Now opinions vary considerably on when and where character death is appropriate, I just want to talk about my evolution on the subject and how that influenced our development of Sertorius

I started gaming in the mid-to-late 80s. I was in elementary school when I first got exposed, but probably wasn't until I reached Middle School that I started GMing and playing more actively. My first experience with Dungeons and Dragons and similar games was frequent character death. I believe, if I remember correctly, my first D&D character was killed by a zombie. One died drinking the wrong potion. Another was killed by a dragon (which was under the command of another player character at the time). 

At the time, this never really bothered me. A character dying from a stray arrow or a slip down a cliff was just part of the game, and I never really felt it interrupted the flow. But by the time I picked up 2E, there was definitely a shift in how GM sections and columns of Gamemastering death with the subject. And back then those were like holy words flowing down Mount Sinai. 

The emphasis started to focus more on keeping the story going, not allowing the dice to produce a death that was either undeserved or not fitting. So a common saying would be to only let the PC die for outrageous acts of stupidity. Fudging behind the GM screen to protect PCs was encouraged at times. My purpose here isn't to criticize this approach, just mention it was what I was being told at the time by the books and magazines I read, and I embraced it. For a while it did seem to work. 

Eventually I found myself getting frustrated with this approach, both as a player and as a GM. There were other issues circling it as well (how adventures were constructed and how much the GM should plan ahead). A lot of the advice was producing very linear approaches to play. I don't personally think there is anything inherently wrong with that. It works for a lot of people. For me I started to feel like I was not GMing but writing a novel or telling a story that already had an ending. So I re-evaluated how I played the game. 

I changed a number of things but chief among them was my approach to PC death. I stopped shielding player characters from harm. I didn't set out to kill them, or view it as a "me against them" scenario. I just told them that I would roll everything on the table in the open, no characters would be protected, and that death could come at any point (whether it was dramatically appropriate or not). This along with a less linear approach to running adventures really freed me up to enjoy the game more. It allowed the game to surprise me, for there to be some excitement both for the GM and the players. 

As a player, I found myself enjoying games more where my characters could die when the dice said they should. I simply found this more fun if that possibility was clearly present. At the same time, I didn't want a grind-fest where I was constantly rotating from one character to the next. 

That said not all games require character death as a serious possibility. This does assume something more like Dungeons and Dragons where death is a pretty frequent threat in the air as you explore dungeons and face supernatural foes. A game that is more political in nature, isn't going to require this as much. 

When we made Sertorius we wanted character death to be a possibility. But at the same time, our game has a wound system and we wanted characters to be able to get away with a bit of dungeon crawling before needing to rest for a week. This was partly behind the reason for amplifying the nature of Sertori. It had already been settled that Sertori were divine in nature, the reborn fragments of Senga. But they still had just as much health as anyone else at that time and we found this made dungeon crawls tough to do. So given that they had the soul of a god, we figured their bodies could be stronger and more resistant to harm as well. It was a case of the needs of the setting and the needs of the game both being in agreement. So we increased their wound total just enough. 

That said, Character death is still quite possible. There are no hero points in the game or mechanics to protect player characters. They can and do die. We had a number of such deaths occur in our play tests. Some of the spells are potentially very lethal, as are many of the monsters. At the same time, it isn't a grind-fest, caution and careful planning definitely keeps the toll down. 

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