LESSON A Prescriptive Analysis on Player Character Death

Discussion in 'ROLEPLAY MECHANICS' started by Slade, Jul 21, 2016.

  1. A Prescriptive Analysis on Player Character Death
    -Slade

    The question and subsequent discussion about how the GM should approach the death of player characters is one that I have not seen discussed deeply. Rather the GM in question simply establishes whether or not PC deaths will even occur and how it can go about happening, with none of the players questioning the thought process (whether good or ill) on how these decisions came about. Of course this is only RP etiquette as it is rather improper for players to question the rules of the GM, unless there is a very good reason to do so. Therefore I’ve decided to write this small essay to give my thoughts on this little discussed, but extremely important topic that can permeate every aspect of our hobby.

    The first question that any GM needs to ask themselves in regards to this subject is whether its going to even happen at all. To many GM’s, especially some of the ones I know personally, the idea of any RP without the potential to kill off player characters is borderline heresy. After all, the post-by-post RP is an offshoot from the tabletop RP which must incorporate the the death of player characters in order to give games like Pathfinder and D&D challenge and feelings of triumph when overcoming obstacles (and of course those feelings of utter defeat when deaths occur). Of course, the post-by-post method that we utilize here on Iwaku and that is seen on other various roleplaying sites such as RPGuild is very removed from the technical and story-telling elements of tabletop roleplaying. Tabletop roleplaying is always about the player reaction and the spontaneous improv’d development of the story that comes from the chaos of four to six players who think differently from each other. All moving along through a campaign that if it was put entirely into word would not only be an insane mess in terms of literary narrative but incredibly cliche. As much as a DM tries to bring lore fluff into his world with a pantheon of Gods they specifically created, a map of the world, and maybe even original races, they are just that: fluff. In every single traditional tabletop campaign, no matter the twist it will always go back to the party killing the bad guy and saving the realm.

    As a written story, there is hardly anything original about the tabletop plot formula. However the actual plot of the campaign really doesn’t matter. It’s generic nature leaves room for player interaction with each other and the world the DM has created as well as responding to the various twists and curve balls a good DM will throw at them. The actual motivation of the of the evil wizard in question doesn’t matter, whats more important is how the player and their avatar in the game responds to the wizard’s machinations. Narrative in the literary sense does not matter, player interaction matters and it is through player interaction that the Tabletop RP becomes enriching.

    The post-by-post RP however is completely different. No matter how many stats and skills GMs incorporate into their RP to make it feel as much like a tabletop experience as possible. It will always fall incredibly short simply because the player interaction is so radically different (and arguably even removed to an extent). Players for one thing have a significantly longer period of time to think and plan their next move; whether it be how to engage an opponent in a fight or how to engage a person of importance in conversation. The player has from a few days to even a few weeks to think about and plan their every move which results in a refinement of the character that is rarely seen in the tabletop alternative. I originally referred to the tabletop characters as mere “Avatars” of the players for a reason. For as much back-story and personality quirks as the player will come up with for their character, more often than not in those spontaneous, spur of the moment situations the player will have their characters act more like themselves than as “the character” simply because the nature of the tabletop means that the group of players probably only have a few hours to spend gaming. While the post-by-post player can use those same hours to truly craft an actual character in a literary sense and is not restricted or pressured by a time crunch to make hasty, character defining decisions. This and this alone is the reason why the flawed but traditional character alignment is so crucial. It serves as a general, broad guide for how the player wants their character to general act without the character going all over the place in terms of character choices but as a consequence the characters in question are broad and vague. Less of a character and more of an aforementioned “avatar”. Player death is absolutely necessary in the tabletop RP because the prime focus is not a story or a narrative but the players overcoming obstacles and there must be consequences for failure to further entice and motivate the player to try harder.

    Therefore if a GM of a post-by-post RP is asking themselves whether they should include Player character deaths they should ask themselves what type of RP they want. Are they sticking more with D&D traditions and care less about the story or characters and more about the enrichment of the players and their interactions with each other and the world? Then generally the GM should incorporate Player Character death as a general rule to keep the player from being bored from lack of any real consequence for their actions (especially true if you are going to use stats/skills for your players). Then there is the narrative RP, these are often of a slower pace then their player interaction counterparts due to the focus on actual character development and heavy-duty world building as well as constructing a plot that one could read and actually be interested in. Things such as character stats, combat oriented RP’ing and even the players themselves aren’t all that important. What is important is the writing in of itself and the characters that are given ample time to develop and actually have something resembling a character arc throughout the RP. While outright stating that banning Player characters dying from this sort of RP would be foolish, I believe that if Player character death is an element of the narrative, it needs to be substantially less prevalent than the Player-interaction RP. As too many deaths can result in the total destruction of narrative as well as cutting short the arc of player characters that had they been allowed to complete would have resulted in the GM’s world being further enriched.

    As an example of this, lets imagine that instead of being a hit cartoon, “Avatar: The Last Air-bender” is instead an RP that you, a Player, have seen in the group RP sub-thread here on Iwaku. It’s got a basic, but good premise and you are one of the companions of the Avatar, the GMNPC, whom you must help train to become master of all the four elements! A small group of four players joins the RP and you are ready for your great adventure, except halfway through the Water-bending arc, Sokka dies and is replaced, then halfway through the Earth-bending arc, Katarra dies and is replaced. Then by the time you get to the Fire-Bending arc, Zuko has already died and now instead of a meaningful relationship and a redemption arc to tie the whole story together another character must be quickly made as a replacement. This is a silly, simplified example but it’s good to show the problems that come with too much death in the Narrative RP and how it can completely demotivate players and destroy an RP.

    I’ve heard GMs state that in terms of PC deaths these characters are often just simply ordinary people who are subjected to death like any other insignificant person and that ultimately the character is not all that special in order to justify character death. I believe this is a flawed line of thinking that stems from the tabletop origins of the post-by-post RP, more specifically the concept of “leveling up”. In theory the player character should start out “not special” and that in the event they succeed in their epic quest and live to tell the tale they are far more powerful and are now “special”. While it is important to make sure characters start off relatively weak in order to give them a goal to achieve (get stronger). I would argue that every single Player character in an RP of any kind is innately special and often times just better than the average person. Through solely being the player’s character they are already more unique and special than the majority of NPC’s. This is seen in video games, especially the Elder Scrolls series where the Protagonist is often “The Chosen One” Archetype. Even in games like Mount & Blade that make it clear that you are just an ordinary shmuck that must fight their way to the top, you are still better that the average NPC and have the potential to be better than everyone else. For only the player character can (if they so choose) save-scum like the best of them until the battle goes their way and even when the player is defeated in combat, they never die. They are simply knocked out. Death in Mount & Blade, one of the most in depth, stats based RPs I’ve ever played, is impossible. Defeat and the loss of your massive armies instead is the consequence for failure.

    Even in Tabletop games, the ones where death is around every corner because on a technical level is has to be for the game to function. The avatars are more special than everybody else. Only they can save the world! Only they can stop the Big Bad! Only they can get the magical McGuffin! The journey is completely about them and it plays a massive importance in the fantasy world at large. I believe that if one is to argue that the player characters aren’t special then they should try an experimental RP in which they play as peasants shoveling shit all day long. Might even work and I’ll be caught with my foot in my mouth.

    It’s important to note that my classifications of “Player-interactive RPs” and “Narrative RP’s” is deceptive as I believe its impossible to separate these from the post-by-post format. Post-by-posts are inherently narrative by their very nature and yet while it is distanced from its tabletop roots, it is impossible to completely separate the connection. Thus post-by-post RP’s are a combination of the two with just a bigger focus on one or the other. So more often than not Player Character death will at least be an aspect of the majority of RP’s (it has not occurred to me until now to mention that this logic applies strictly to the group RP dynamic, the 1x1 RP is a entirely different beast that I will not cover in this essay).

    So if a GM will most likely have Player Character death be the norm how should they go about deciding who lives and who dies? The most common and practical is of course, the die, or in this a case a simple random number generator to replace dice in our digital age. This is arguably the best way to carry this out as anyone can see that the GM just deciding who lives and who dies can result in some very bitter feelings along with accusations of favoritism. The randomness of the dice ensues that the GM is entirely neutral in handing out deaths. Still, using dice is not a full proof system as its randomness results in players feeling powerless to things they feel like they should be fully in control of: “My master swordsman got killed by a fucking lowly guard because the die hates me? What bullshit!” And to be fair, the player raises a good point. The problem is that there are no truly better alternatives. But the sting of death in the post-by-post is far greater than that of the tabletop for two reasons: the first is the narrative element results in the character feeling like an actual character and not the player’s avatar. Therefore like a character dying in a good book, we are sad they are gone, with the added pain of it being a character you created. The second issue is that a tabletop campaign has miniatures and tactical planning of the party is actually a possibility. If you die in D&D you know why: because your healer is a putz. Tactically playing battles in post-by-post RP’s is almost impossible unless the GM is willing to just open up MS Paint and literally draw little circles and squares representing people and update it throughout the whole battle. So everything feels very vague and when something happens to your character it can feel very frustrating not exactly knowing why you got wounded/killed and what the hell happened in the first place. If your GM says “And then the Goblin back-stabbed you and it rolled a crit”. not even knowing there was an enemy behind you. In a tabletop environment, the players can see the whole layout and not be blind sighted by enemies they aren’t aware of because the entire battle is taking place in their mind. In D&D if you have a good GM, a death can be a shitty moment, but it will always feel fair. In post-by-post you can have an amazing GM, die in a battle and still feel frustrated because you felt that death wasn’t deserved because its all subjective and there is no map with miniatures to give everyone an objective grounding.

    Therefore I wish to present my own mindset to going about character deaths that perhaps will help others in approaching this subject for their own RP’s. I wish to present you with two hypothetical players: Player 1 and Player 2. Both of these players are independently put into the same scenario: they are on their own and must face off with three enemies and can’t run away. Player 1 is a very smart player who comes up with a plan for dealing with all three enemies that even the GM thinks is a great plan. Now all that is needed are the dice rolls. For the sake of this essay, I will present only two solutions to this scenario: either Player 1 rolls a natural 20 and successfully dispatches all three opponents flawlessly. Or, he rolls a one; so what happens? I have a suspicion that many GM’s will say “welp, he dies, good plan but it didn’t work out. Best laid plans of Mice and Men, ya know”. I feel this is a radically horrific mindset and through my hypothetical Player 2 I will show you why.

    Player 2 is not as smart as Player 1 and doesn’t really approach the situation with any sort of tactics, instead he takes his big fucking sword, screams Leeroy Jenkins and charges at the three enemies. Now let me present you with the same two solutions: He either rolls a Nat 20 and kills all three enemies and by the luck of the dice his reckless decision has resulted in him being a temporary badass, or he rolls a one and dies. No one will argue against his death. He decided to charge in against three enemies without any planning, any GM worth their salt will tell you that such players do not last long. By virtue of dice, the brazen stupidity and unwillingness to think creatively on Player 2’s part results in him generally only having a 50% chance to live. But what about Player 1? The player who invested time and brain power into thinking of a creative, tactical solution to the problem, only to be utterly destroyed by chance. If Player 1 is to die because of his bad roll then what this means is that the GM is inadvertently supporting the type of aforementioned Leeroy Jenkins syndrome that many RP’ers despise. For what is the point of playing smart, of taking your time to think of creative ways out of the GM’s obstacles (and therefore contribute to the world building of that RP) if the schmuck with the sword who just brute strengths everything because they are not not original enough to think of anything else has just as much of a chance as you do? Player 1 in this scenario would have been far better off being more like player 2 since in the end his planning and effort spent putting into the game is just a waste of time since its all hanging on a random element they have no influence over. Whether you play smart or dumb, you still only have a 50% chance of survival.

    I would say that in this hypothetical scenario a smart play should always be rewarded no matter what. Player 1 who present me with such a well made plan shouldn’t be punished for it by dying due to the roll of the dice. If Player 1 receives a dice roll of one, his attack should fail, maybe even suffer a debilitating scar or wound that affects him permanently, but should avoid the fate of death as a reward for playing it smart. Player 2 on the other hand, who plays lazily and dumb, should never be rewarded for his behavior and should be killed if he indeed rolls that one.