Handling Player Character Death
Today, I was thinking about death mechanics. I was thinking about Character death and how unsatisfying the mechanics presented in various systems are. To my pleasant surprise I discovered that I’m not the only one who’s been thinking about this recently. There are two other RPG Blogs that I am a huge fan of: The Angry GM, and Gaming Ballistic. If you aren’t already familiar with either of these blogs, you should stop reading mine and go read theirs for a while.
In any case, I was pleasantly surprised to see a write up from The Angry GM about Player Character Death. If you don’t feel like going and reading the article, the summary is “Death is important for games and stories, and so it is appropriate that it sucks. If you really want to avoid it, here are some alternatives”. I agree with this sentiment – I’d go so far as to suggest Resurrection be removed from D&D. However, The Angry GM’s arguments for how death sucks involve a lot of meta-game pain for the players, as opposed to in game pain for the Characters. That in itself is something I tend to want to avoid, but beyond that I always favor mechanics that increase player choice.
What’s Wrong With Death
If you’ve played a lot of RPG’s, you’ve probably experienced character death. Some of those times it’s probably been a very memorable experience that had a deep impact on you and the story and while you didn’t feel happy, you appreciated the mechanics in the game. Other times it probably felt so random, so undramatic that you felt like maybe you didn’t even want to play anymore. This divide is something we’ve experienced in media as well. When Tank dies in the first Matrix we feel sad and angry at the Cypher and the machines. When Trinity dies in the third movie, we just feel angry at the writers. There is a huge difference between each of these deaths, and while it’s good to keep the former in our games, we want to keep the latter out of them.
As you may have noticed I talk about three different RPG’s on this blog as my reference point. Fate, GURPS, and D&D. Each of these systems has different death mechanics, and I don’t find any of them satisfying. In GURPS you start making death checks when you are below at negative hit points equal to your maximum hit points. So if you are an average person you have HT of 10, and when you are at -10 or below you have to roll 3d6 under your HT (10) or die. Which pretty much means your average person has a 50% chance of death when they lose enough hit points. This does fit well into GURPS general philosophy on mechanics which is to model how things work, and with other rules like wounding mechanics and bleeding it does a good job of creating variety and drama. However it still allows for Trinity deaths.
D&D 5e has a similar system, except you get to 0 hp (or below which is the same as 0), and then you make Death Saves. If you fail 3 of them before you succeed at three of them you die. You are only instantly killed if you take more damage than your max hit points. This actually avoids being killed out of the blue, but it is entirely mechanical. You basically always have at least three rounds of survival, and the damage dealt is not especially relevant. I think this system is a well designed compromise solution to issues of Death – but D&D is a high-hp, high combat, high death game. The system more reflects a way to balance the games combat focus with a need for balancing risk.
Fate is sort of the opposite direction. The game doesn’t actually have a mechanic for death, it has a mechanic for “taken out”. Taken out is basically “the GM decides what horrible thing happened to you, and that could include death”. Now, Fate would never have the Trinity problem with Player Character death, but it also is very hard to die. It works very well for the narrative play style that Fate tries to emulate.
What I Want
You might have noticed that I don’t really mind any of these three systems handling of death. They’re all reasonably worked out with respect to what they want to focus on as games. Certainly all of them have outdone their predecessors in handling this situation well. In the bad old days games pretty much were “zero hit points and your dead”, which meant characters dying all the time from errant rolls. I suppose even that had its own fun, but not if you were really emotionally invested in the story.
Living Myth facilitates a different sort of playstyle than any of the three mentioned systems. Living Myth is intended to facilitate a traditional playstyle (like GURPS and D&D), while simulating stories (like Fate), all while maximizing player choice. So what does this mean for death? Any death mechanic needs to present consequence to the player character which is powerful enough to appropriately motivate play – which should include the possibility of Death. What I want to do is retain the death mechanic, while still offering the Player a choice about death.
This requires that the choice be interesting for the player. It’s not as simple as “You ran out of hit points, do you want to die?”. That choice is, for most players, so obvious as to present a false choice and is effectively the same as “there is no death”. In order for the choice to be real, the cost of the alternative to death needs to be so high that death is a reasonable option.
The Consequential Alternative
Once upon a time gamers thought it would be cool if there were Critical Hit Tables that were rolled against when an opponent rolled a natural 20. It didn’t take long for the humor of having everyone in the party missing some part of their body to wear off. When one uses a system like that the first result gives a feeling of “cool, it’s so realistic”. After a little while playing, the novelty wears off, and the players realize it’s the furthest thing from realism.
That being said, it created a method for removing limbs, which seem to generally be missing from RPG’s. Now, before you start getting mad that you don’t want your character to lose a limb, hear me out. In The Empire Strikes Back, Luke loses a hand to Darth Vader, the scene is epic in so many mays, but Luke losing his hand was important on multiple different story levels. It’s a shame that Players don’t have opportunities to experience this in meaningful ways.
But maybe there is a way. Fate offers the opportunity to trade damage for consequences – in most respects these consequences are really just alternative damage mechanics, not a death avoidance mechanic. There is one underutilized rule in Fate that does offer this opportunity though, the “extreme” consequence. When you take an Extreme Consequence you permanently change one of your aspects to reflect something that just happened. For example, you might absorb damage by permanently taking the “Severed Limb” consequence. (In the case of the scene in Star Wars that would actually just be a Moderate or Severe consequence, but that’s reflective of Fates unusual playstyle).
Okay, so how do we leverage this in other games? Well The Angry GM already resolved this for Dungeons and Dragons as “option 2” in his list of death alternatives. Basically you offer the player to take a GM specified disadvantage in lieu of Death. Given the way 5e mechanics work, I’d offer it instead of the hit which removes the player below 1 hit point. So you are saying “You can risk death, or keep going by accepting a lost eye” or some other consequence. This gives the Player the option to take a death alternative. Though even there, why not let the player make the suggestion “Can I lose an eye instead of having the threat of Death?”; this is especially worthwhile as an alternative to instant kills when the damage exceeds the characters max hit points, though in that case the death alternative might need to be more severe.
Really, it’s GURPS which has the best opportunity for this and the most elegant way to handle it. In GURPS you could simply allow players to “Reduce damage by taking an appropriate disadvantage equal to the points of damage you want to remove”. The only tricky part is the meaning of ‘appropriate’ – a Phobia (spiders) would not be appropriate as a disadvantage when getting stabbed, but might be if you are exchanging for damage caused by a giant spider bite! Most importantly, the PC doesn’t get those extra points as character points, in a way it is a permanent liability. I would allow them to take the difference, a PC could take a 10 point disadvantage to remove 3 points of damage and get a 7 points back to spend elsewhere, but the just lose those three character points. Finally, this doesn’t even necessarily mean they have to keep playing the character – a fall from a cliff might do enough damage that Quadrapalegic is needed to save them – that’s fine! The character survives and can be retired if the player wants – or the player can just decide to let that character die.
Application to Living Myth
Living Myth, as it is a point buy system with Flaws, can pretty much just use the system described for GURPS above. The damage system is already designed with player choice in mind so it fits in really nicely with that, and with the expectation of soft failures. The game retains essentially all the positive traits of having death in a game, without forcing the issue of death specifically on the players. Finally of note – this is a great way of keeping villains from dying too early at the hands of the players without the players feeling ‘cheated’ because you saved the villain with a Dues Ex Machina! A player that lops off the hand of a villain can be satisfied with that victory, but even better an adversary who is turned insane by taking an appropriate mental flaw, might come back as a villain later of the PC’s creation!