You may be asking, ”Why would I even consider looking at death as an option in my games?” I know that for a while it was something that I actively avoided. It can cause lacunas in the story, hurt feelings, and angry players. I used things like plot immunity, enemies that played a bit dumb, and even captured the PCs when it didn’t make sense to instead of letting them die.
I am not saying that any of these techniques are wrong or even worthless. I still actively employ most of them in the games I run. But to be clear, I am not talking about avoiding death in the final session when everything is on the line. As I have delved into the OSR community and begun looking at a variety of rule sets for this blog, I have begun to see the benefit of including death in my games. Just like with the other techniques I use, I believe that there is a time and place for system’s death rules to be run rules as written.
Deaths in the course of a campaign, as in the course of our own lives, serve as milestones. They cause moments to be defined in relationship to their occurrence. Campaigns’ memories cling to these markers for players, and campaigns can become defined by what happened before and after the death. The stories that are retold in my gaming group usually center around the character deaths. In my Exalted game, which took place in 2006, the single moment that is brought up most often is when Loki died to ensure that the Mask of Winters would be destroyed for eternity. In my D&D games, people still talk about Chris’ heroic deaths, which are usually sacrificial in nature. In my last 13th Age game, the fight with Marrowbreath, which claimed the lives of two characters, was often referenced during downtime. While your campaign may still be highlighted by other moments, and I assume they are, don’t discount death as potent mile marker.
A character death can serve as a powerful expression of party motivation. It can cause a dramatic shift in a game’s direction. A character who sacrifices himself to ensure a party’s escape is immortalized in canon by the survivors, causing the group to anneal or dedicate itself to the dead character’s ideals. A minor encounter with a villain that slays a character or two suddenly causes the group to focus the story on a hunt for that villain in the name of vengeance. In my opinion, there are few mechanical components of a game that have as strong of a narrative impact as the death rules.
As in nature, death can lead to renewal. Players get to experience a wider variety of characters, classes, and role-playing if they embrace character death. Deaths can also introduce story changes that, while unexpected, breathe new life into a campaign. While I do understand the draw of seeing your PCs cross the finish line intact from the inception of the game, I am beginning to believe that it should be an unexpected bonus and not a forgone conclusion.
Sometimes character death is a learning experience for players. It reinforces an aspect of the playstyle or game play of a system that they may be unaware of. Perhaps you should not go charging into the room in front of the fighter. Maybe sleeping in the camp of the recently slain bandits is a bad idea. Maybe you should not lick the walls of strange cave systems…ever. While OSR games tend to treat character lives as cheaply as the paper they are printed on, they do lend themselves to mastery. If an action leads to a character death, you might be back in the game in 10 minutes with a new character, but I bet you won’t take that action again.
These are just a couple of reasons why character deaths, for all the pain they can cause, can have a positive impact on your game. I am looking forward to seeing how these ideas continue to play out in my 13th Age games.