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Game Dream #14: He's Dead, Jim!

There’s been an issue with many roleplaying games that’s been bothering me for a while, and I managed to turn it into a potential Game Dream topic for Doc. (I'd say he liked it!) Simply put, it’s the consequences of player character death in a campaign.

    Many "traditional" RPGs incorporate the possibility of the irrevocable death/disabling injury of a player character into their basic mechanics, yet often skirt the issue of what happens to the game in such a case, instead encouraging the GM to "fudge" the results if the GM doesn't want a given PC or PCs to die.

    How has your gaming group, current or previous, handled character deaths due to system-legitimate causes, i.e. combat or traps (assuming no intent on the part of another GM/player to kill a given PC or PCs)? Which methods worked well, and which didn't?

While a character appears no more than a set of statistics on a piece of paper, it is, of course, more than that; not just the alter-ego of a given player, but over the course of the campaign it becomes a significant investment of time, emotion and the coin of the realm, “experience points”.

That’s why it’s bothered me, especially lately, that many roleplaying games allow the possibility of and opportunity for in their systems, but very few seem to invest any column inches in discussing the metagame consequences of the sudden nullification of that investment by dint of the dice. I’m not talking about paced, dramatically appropriate death here, just a legitimate in-game situation where character death is risked and a character’s number comes up.

What happens to the group? If the player in question wants to continue with the campaign, how do you look at including a new character? Does the GM “penalise” the player by giving his or her character a portion of the total XP his or her last character earned, or does the GM treat XP as player-earned instead of character-earned and let the player create a new PC with the same experience, and does doing so mitigate the “risk” of combat? Should a GM open system and campaign “lethality” to discussion with the play group, or simply factor it into campaign planning and inform the players of how things will be without discussion?

The best advice many RPGs seem to offer to GMs is that they should make rolls behind the game-master’s screen and “fudge” the result should it be “unfavourable”, which to me doesn’t seem fair to GM or players. It’s something of a cop-out, and it takes away that element of risk that many players find attractive, often without their consent. A game’s rules are geared to a specific style of play, and if that style doesn’t suit a particular play group, the best advice the game product usually offers is “ignore or change what you don’t like” without any recommendations on what can be changed to suit given styles, or how.

The Corsairs Campaign uses the Second Edition Heavy Gear rules, which can be quite unforgiving at times. Thankfully, though, we’ve not had any player deaths so far. There was one during sim-training, which was mainly due to me forgetting a couple of important rules that should have kept him alive. (This is actually one of my big worries; I tend to not have a good memory for the rules of a game and regularly mis-read my own statistic crib-sheets. I keep waiting for someone to die, we get halfway through the adventure and I suddenly say “Oh shit! Gav, you shouldn’t be dead!”) We also had another serious injury, but that was due to meta-game causes, when one of my players went to China for a year. Because of the Heavy Gear rules, though, there’s likely to be a legitimate, rules-based PC kill sooner or later during the campaign, and while I’m not looking forward to it, I hate the idea of having to “fudge”.

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