Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Character Death, Consequences, Drama and Story

Spinning off the Facebook discussion I mentioned earlier, the conversation which inspired me to write about my ideal LARP is now talking about the merits of having games dangerous - possibly to the point of lethal - for the player characters (if anyone is interested, the discussion is happening at the Wyrd Con page).

For purposes of this post, when I refer to 'character death', I don't mean an occurrence where a character dies but then is resurrected or resuscitated or otherwise brought back. That I consider to be story. The sort of character death I'm talking about is the permanent kind - no one can restore your character to life. They are dead and gone, forevers. Make a new PC, this one has been permanently removed from play. 

Some players, especially for long-running games, don't like the idea of their player dying in the middle of a game. Which, admittedly, is something I can understand. Especially for games which are comprised mostly of camping events; because if your character dies on the Friday night mod, what are you going to do for the rest of the weekend? Even though making a new PC might be mechanically simple, odds are good you didn't think to bring an appropriate costume or weapons or props. I personally don't have a problem with jumping in to help NPC (I usually pack extra costuming with me just in case), but some players disagree with that idea. For many games, NPCing is usually free or low-cost, whereas the players of PCs usually have to pay a higher fee. I can understand some people being upset at paying the PC fee and then being expected to NPC for the majority (or even a significant portion) of their game time. That being said, I disagree strongly with the argument, 'I paid my PC fee, so my character should be safe from death!' If it's really an issue, the GMs should be up for crediting you a prorated PC fee for the next game.

An argument I can get more behind is the idea that players don't want their character's stories to be ended abruptly or arbitrarily. Real life is arbitrary enough when it comes to inflicting suffering, and game should be at least something of a respite from that (when was the last time a PC was diagnosed with cancer or dropped dead from an aneurysm or heart attack?). People put a lot of creative resources into their character, and it can be disheartening when all those resources vanish in an arbitrary death - sort of like having your favorite TV show get cancelled halfway through the season. It's a let-down, to be sure.

But, on the other hand, LARP is all about story, which means conflict and drama and tension. Part of what creates that conflict is having something at risk. Maybe its your PC's life, or maybe it's something they value almost as importantly (the lives of loved ones, their honor, etc). Fearing the loss of that provides motivation, depth, character growth and story. And fear of death is the easiest one for a GM to invoke. It doesn't have to be personally tailored to individual PCs - everyone intrinsically wants to avoid death.

One story from a recent game I attended: I'm playing an engineer named Irene in a post-apocalyptic fantasy LARP. She has a brother, also a PC, played by a good friend of mine. We were orphans together before being taken in by our adoptive father. My PC pissed off one of the local leaders, who issued an order of banishment against her - leave the city or face execution. While this order was being drafted, my character was meeting with some fairly shady folks. Shady enough to threaten to kill her brother should she attempt to leave the city. ICly, my character fully believed both these NPCs were capable of killing her. And from a meta perspective, I, the player, was pretty sure Irene was toast unless she figured out a way to make both NPCs happy.

Conflict, tension and drama. Now, instead of wandering around the camp with nothing to do except glare at people, my character was scrambling to try and find information with which to bribe the first NPC to let her stay in the city so she could protect her family. And because of what Irene found out, I got to participate in a very cool endcap scene wherein my engineer yelled at a construct of the god of knowledge. Now, my poor little engineer has effectively been coerced into working for a group of fairly violent criminals, who will probably break her legs and kill her brother if she fucks up badly enough... but may lead her to accomplish one of her long-term goals if she manages to work well with them.

The game designers threatened my character with death, and put her in a very difficult situation. Maybe they actually would have killed my character, maybe they would not have. I don't know for sure. What was important, though, was that I believed they were capable of killing my character if she failed. The death would not have been arbitrary - everything which happened was a direct result of choices my character made. If Irene hadn't shot the Arch-Lector, he probably wouldn't have cared enough to want her banished. If she hadn't tried to track down a local criminal, she wouldn't have ended up being threatened by his coterie. I went home from that game feeling like I'd had an awesome time, and now I can't wait for the next game to see what will happen as a result of the choices made at the last one.

I have been to games which I consider to have been played in 'Easy Mode,' and games which I consider to be 'Hard Mode.' In the Easy Mode game, healing and resurrection magic was abundant and NPCs were rarely empowered to be a lethal threat to PCs. In the Hard Mode games, there was no resurrective magic and the setting actively encouraged PvP. Neither of those games were fun for me - in Easy Mode, I felt like nothing was ever going to be at risk for my PC. If I was going to 'win' anyway, then where was my story? In the Hard Mode games, I felt like I had to participate in an arms race to make sure my character had adequate defenses on her sheet so she could get away if a boot squad jumped her. There wasn't much time left over for story or character development after that, and the game staff was too busy adjudicating PvP combat after PvP combat to pay much attention to personal plot.

Now, I understand some people love games in Easy Mode, and other people don't have fun unless they're playing Hard Mode. Different play styles is what makes the world go round - and game designers should be up front about the level of lethality players can expect from their games. That way, if I pay my PC fee for a game I know has a definite lethal potential, I'm accepting the risk that I may end up having to NPC for the latter part of the game.

I, personally, play for story and character development - ideally, I'd like my games to be somewhere between Easy and Hard (though if I had to pick, I'd rather attend a Hard Mode game than an Easy Mode one). I want a game where I will have freedom to explore my character's hopes and pursue her goals, while at the same time fearing what will happen if she fails. And if she does die, I want the scene to be awesome and have a meaningful impact on the story (though, rather than die, I would much rather be given the opportunity to roleplay her response to failure and loss). That middle ground is where I've managed to find the most story and have the most fun at games. Of course, it's also the most demanding in terms of Plot Staff - to create a feeling of impending lethality without having the game become so lethal that half the characters permadeath at a game. And it means that, instead of creating overtly lethal situations, they have to craft story where other, equally important things are at risk (which itself means encouraging players to create characters with complex goals and motivations). It means monsters and challenges have to be carefully calibrated, and the amount of available healing resources has to be monitored. It also means they have to pay close attention to what has happened and the choices PCs have made, so the story can evolve in direct response.

So, to all the game designers, Storytellers and Plot Staff who have created the Moderate Mode games I've played and had such a great time in - my hat is off to you, and thanks for all the story! 


  1. If you want to read a fiction short story apropos to this post, especially your fourth paragraph, check out "The Dungeon Master" by Sam Lipsyte, from the October 4, 2010 issue of The New Yorker:

    I would love to play with that DM.

  2. That article was depressing... I'm not sure I'd enjoy that game. In fact, I'm positive I'd never play with a GM who gave my PC rectal cancer for no good reason.

  3. If you have character progression - that is leveling up and all that(at least in my oppinion) crap, you need permadeath to keep the game fun. Its NOT fun when two level bazilion fat guys just start tossing beanbags around.

    1. I have a post in the works about that very topic; one of the games I'm heavily involved in has a system for mandatory character retirement. After about 2-3 years of consistent game play, you have to retire your character. You get a special retirement arc, but it's expected that you'll eventually give up playing the character altogether and make a new one. It helps avoid many of the pitfalls of long-running games (hyperpowerful PCs, power creep, etc).