My name is Phil Harris and I’m a multiple murderer. I killed my first person at the age of nine.
It was a messy death, it wasn’t pre-meditated, it just happened. Everyone else was engaged in other things. The opportunity presented itself but I didn’t expect him to die.
Death comes to the birthday
I’ve been a Games Master (GM) since I was eight. How I got there is another story but, it was at the age of nine, when being asked to run a game for a friend’s birthday, that I was suddenly faced with a mage, low on health, who became an easy target for an Orcish arrow. The damage was rolled. The THACO (To hit armour class zero – keep up) was well and truly beaten and the damage was enough to kill him six or seven times over. No one else managed to make a saving roll and the arrow hit.
For a nine year old I was suddenly faced with a vast quandary. Should some lucky event deflect the arrow or should the character simply die. Indeed if I was making this decision now other factors would cross my mind but whether it was the feeling of power, the need to ensure rules were followed or simply my thoughts on life the arrow plunged deep into his heart and the mage died. Cue one very upset player in a child’s party who ran to mum and a GM who resolved this by giving him my NPC Werebear to finish off the scenario. All happy? Good.
Except… it isn’t quite as easy as that.
The way we deal with life and death in roleplaying is equally important to the way a game can run. It effects character development, decision making, plot and interaction between player’s and characters. It sets a basis of the world that surrounds the gamers and an environment to play in.
Balancing fantasy and reality
Every GM will eventually face the life and death dilemma and it helps, for both drama and pace, if they have a set idea of how it will be resolved. They also have to be sure that they can, and will, take this resolution and be bold enough to take the steps they have defined. If not I’d recommend going back and creating something you can apply.
Having run games from humorous to darkly political I have always changed my viewpoint on how death will work. My funny games tend to fluff the roles so that people can stagger about, injured by numerous contrivances, to the general hilarity of those playing. My serious games tend to deal with realistic damage and players ensuring combat is the final call because they are highly aware of the possibility of death.
As a GM you should lay the rules out early for each new player that joins, as it is essential that they understand the necessities of your world. A dungeon bash is likely to result in death and playing Paranoia insists on it; or the GM has got it completely wrong. The player’s can happily generate a new character to meet, who is about as two-dimensional as the last, because life is fleeting. You simply need to let a player, who is three steps down the family tree and is trying to explain to you why their great-grandfathers work as a fly-fisher is relevant to his action now, know that this is not the depth you are looking for.
In a deep long campaign where that rod and line action, gramps used to do, provides an excellent way of fishing the documents off the diplomat you should allow the characters to breathe. This breath of life allows the character to become loved and the concerns about their death lead to some really intoned choices that will simply enhance a game.
Know your comrades
In some ways, as both GM and player, this leads to a certain knowledge of who you game with. I’m luckily quite gregarious and get on with many. People find it easy to speak with me and so I get to know most well. This means I can consider things in their own past, which hold powerful but tempered emotion, and apply them to their characters to get even stronger emotional game from the players themselves.
I go back to my first kill and said there were more factors I would consider now. In killing his character I didn’t know the players feelings on death and how to appease it quickly (I know we were nine. Gaming first, deep philosophical debates on existence came with the brandy and cigars later). I am not saying that you should all know these things, in fact in one off sessions it is nigh on impossible to do so, but they are certainly things to consider and may explain adverse and unexpected reaction from players, allowing you to deal with them more appropriately. Having pre-generated characters to fill in gaps is good, my own system has simple easy character generation, but it should always be remembered that your players have invested time to play and they should be having fun too.
The Venus effect
By taking these things into account, investing in my players and allowing them freedom to enjoy the environment I have managed to create richer situations which have brought hilarity, deep thought, sorrow and dramatic loss. I’ve managed to gain the best from my players and try things as a GM which others have not and I appreciate this.
I have avoided giving examples but I will give one which I know meant a lot to players, and is still one of many that are oft discussed.
Years ago in my science fiction opus Dark Future the players, on the run from alien forces, were forced to crash on a Venus style planet. With resources thin desperate attempts were made to fix the ship, manage to kick start one of the damaged shuttles, to get off the inhospitable world. These were loved characters all struggling together, splitting their differences to save their souls. This would be their graveyard.
In the growing realisation that this would be their death and towards the midst of the session their attitude started to change. Remembrance and stories of what they achieved came to the fore, they bucked each others spirits and they prepared for death. The journey of emotion and the roleplay seen in that harrowing session was both brave and determined. The choice of the one person to save, as they could save just one, moved from emotional to measured logic.
No-one left my game after that. They came back more determined than ever, slowly building a new force around that one surviving character in order to go out and achieve more. They knew the rules of that game and they took them in their stride.
Everyone has their own reasons to roleplay, companionship, fun, drama, the list goes and any reason to take part is valid. I was inspired to write this article after the excellent @Tw33t_RPG applied a rewind on the players death creating a selection of comment which its creator dealt with applying a great deal of humility and thought http://tweetrpg.blogspot.com/2012/01/facing-grim-reaper-deathfailure-in.html .
Why had the players changed their view on this? Well for one the amazing job he has done has brought his game to the attention of more hardened roleplayers, with stronger feelings on how death is applied, but, in exactly what I have said, he has engaged and understood his player base better and has moved on to the noted satisfaction of the majority.
Enjoy your roleplaying. That’s what is about but take a little time to consider how life and death act in your world, as with tweaks it can become a greater lynchpin to your story.
Phil Harris is on Twitter, @PhilipGHarris, and can also be found running Conpulsion http://www.geas.org.uk/conpulsion/ , chairing a talk on the Apocalypse there and running an Apocalyptic game for charity.