Friday, December 17, 2010

A Campaign Without Death

I am likely to be lambasted by other gamers by posting this, but here goes:

When I run games, 99.999-percent of the time, I do not allow characters to be killed by the roll of a dice.

According to old-school gaming etiquette this is just plain wrong. I've heard lots of GMs and bloggers state flatly that without the threat of death hanging overhead, it just isn't a 'true' role playing game. To a certain extent, I can agree with the theory behind this. I remember playing 'war' when I was a kid. I remember 'shooting' someone else and that person saying "Nuh uh! You missed!". I remember BEING the person who said "Nuh uh!" The reason that RPG rules exist is to prevent a game from becoming a matter of a person never allowing anything bad to happen to their character. The mechanics of a game give a framework for success and failure in a variety of endeavors. And I agree, without the possibility of failure, any game can loose a bit of its edge (at least if you have players only interested in 'winning'). Where I cease to agree with that theory (and with most other GMs, it seems) is that 'chance of failure' ultimately equates to 'chance of arbitrary death'. To me, this has always been a matter of GM and player preference.

I believe that how you handle character death also has a lot to do with what kind of players you have. If you have those who really are in it for the 'roleplay' (i.e. playing their character, reacting how they would, liking being challenged morally and mentally as well as via combat or other physical challenges), then the removal of the threat of death isn't such a big thing. In fact, it's a little more liberating from a dramatic viewpoint. A player might make his character react to a situation in an irrational and emotional way- because that is how their CHARACTER would act in that situation. The actions taken might, therefore, not be the 'smartest' action in a given situation, but it is, perhaps, more emotionally charged and (from a certain viewpoint) 'realistic'. Afterall, when in stressful situations, most real people often do NOT make the best choices. When we should stay calm, we can panic, or lash out in anger or run away in fear. Knowing that their character won't be arbitrarily KILLED just because they do something irrational has allowed MY characters more leeway in really playing their characters instead of ALWAYS playing the smart-rational side. To a greater or lesser extent, all of my players seem to fall into this category. They're there to play their characters. THAT is where the fun comes from.

On the other hand, if you have a player who is in a game to 'win' it, mechanically, then you might have a problem without having that threat of death. Take your stereotypical power-gamer- The guy who wants to always be the biggest, baddest, toughest person in the room. The guy who NEVER wants to lose a fight and who ALWAYS wants things to go in his favor. This person might always be looking to the rules (and any loopholes within them) to give them an 'edge'. Without the consequence of death for poor choices, such a character might just take their 'immortality' for granted. "Sure, I'll charge entrenched platoon of Stormtroopers" says the gun-bunny. "the GM won't let me die, anyway." Admittedly, this is a worst case scenario kind of player. But yes, if you say up front that there is no way a character is going to die in your campaign, such a player might take advantage of it. That's where the .001-percent of my personal philosophy comes in. My players know I'm not just going to bump off their characters. But at the same time, they continue to play smart. They don't take outrageous risks when they don't have to. They don't 'flaunt' their in-game invulnerability. And if they did? Well, then maybe they'd find they aren't so invulnerable after all.

In further support of this no-death philosophy of mine, I think that setting matters as well. In a relatively light-hearted setting like Star Wars, having the characters dropping like flies in their early adventuring careers just totally wouldn't feel like Star Wars. None of the heroes died in the movies. The Characters are the Heroes of their own story. Thus, none of them should die either (at least not by a random roll of the dice). In another, darker setting (Call of Cthulu?), such a rule may actually run contrary to the bleak feel of the game. Though I have never really run a completely 'straight' D&D campaign, I don't see a problem with allowing character death here- as it feels like part of the game. It was intended to be part of the game. And truth be told, I'd like to try it some time! But Star Wars is a lot different in tone than your typical dungeon crawl- and so I feel it can use a different attitude towards character death. Not every rules set is conducive to the feel of every setting (except for D6, which is perfect of course. Ahem.).

I should also point to another caveat to this no-death rule: No ARBITRARY deaths does not mean no deaths at all. There may come a point where a character may actually WANT their character to die (or at perhaps just 'let the cards fall where they may'). This could be for dramatic purposes alone, or perhaps because the player is 'bored' with their character. From a GM's perspective, why just have a player 'disappear' from the campaign when you can have them go out with a BANG! In fact, the player and GM could work together to ensure that the death is a surprise/shock to the other players- and this in turn can spark lots of roleplay as the surviving characters deal with the death of their comrade. In this way, you can make a death as arbitrary or dramatic as you want. For example, your doomed hero could make a heroic last stand against hordes of stormtroopers. On the other hand, he could suddenly and unexpectedly have a reaver ship shoot a spike through his chest when you think everything is somewhat safe. Either way seems (to me) to be a bit more dramatic than: "Oh, you rolled a three on your strength? The guy you were in a random bar-fight with rolls an 18 damage with his knife. You die."

So, yeah. Assuming any other 'old school' gamers actually READ this blog, I could expect to catch a lot of flack for this decidedly 'wussy' policy of mine. But meh. I don't care. I've been running a Star Wars since 1991 and we've been having fun. And there hasn't been a single player character death that whole time. So to each his own, and make mine death-light.

p.s. I like the term 'lambasted'. It brings to mind the image of a lamb, roasting on a spit, being basted (which is probably where the word comes from...). Mmmmm. Lamb.

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