↑Photography by: Tomas Castelazo↑ ⊗ Creative Commons License
There is a peculiar penumbra between human death as we understand it, and the death in RPGs. Then, when you cross over, you wind up with fictionalized death, which is yet another thing.
However, RPG death and Fictional death (the latter you have more familiar with, I’m betting) do have some things in common. Let’s start there, first. After all, our fictional experiences are the framework with which we see reality unless we have some other principles or values intertwined. Even then, the fiction either reinforces or questions that framework– which is getting ahead of things.
One of the least popular truths in this world today is the idea that we all die. Most people in my circles, if they aren’t Catholic, are likely to change the topic to something more pleasant, like life extension technology, or the much vaunted technological singularity, etc. It is to the point that even mentioning things like lost socks and other continua of human life is depressing to some.
Most RPGs don’t go there. I mean, sure, with modern D&D, you can have all kinds of resurrection spells and the like. Those are more of a modern day hack. Back in MY day (the 1980’s) there was no such thing, and if you died, you were dead. You just rolled another character, unless it was a more role playing instead of roll playing.
↑ Public Domain. ↑
Indeed– all you really need to know, is that the more a character is really a character– the less likely character is to die. That is not true for Indie games, which self consciously go against this trope. That is, real characters die, but always die for reasons. But that’s a special set of cases that I will go into later.
Admittedly with our crew character death was, for the most part, written out of play in the social contract. You don’t kill player characters without permission. But when you did, it was a Big Deal. None of this dying from an infected battle wound or tripping over your toenail and falling to your death in a ravine. I actually had a fairly powerful NPC get pushed off a building– and thanks to her so-called saving throw, wound up getting gacked by a +24000 Rose Tree of Death .
Because it came directly from player directed action, I could not weasel my way out of it. It was against our social contract. However, the resulting plot wound up being MUCH better, and the ahem, real villain turned out to be far more diabolical and evil than the spiteful spellcaster. Also, they’d denied themselves understanding how a key part of the plot worked. They could have infiltrated her organization and learned what they needed to learn about the machine and what was done to it. But… no, they decided to kill her instead. In that case, there had to be a cost, but I couldn’t just strike them with lightning or cause meteors to blot out the town that they happened to be living in. That’s just no fun.
Also, her death was the climax of the scene, and most of the mop up had already happened. In retrospect, I suppose I could have had her pet dragon show up, but… again. Not generally how I roll. Instead, I gave them the win and extracted my cost elsewhere, where it wouldn’t necessarily be noticed. But they sure did notice later.
Okay, so absurd death of NPC tells us more about the cost to benefit in RPGs than it does about death. But it’s far more fun than talking about death, right?
↑Painter: Jacek Malczewski ↑ ⊗ public domain
No, my aim was to talk about player character death. Again, in my circles it was A Big Deal. We would have secret meetings in advance, where what the ideas and boundaries of what was reasonable would be discussed. I had one character die, a character named Maxwell, who wound up dying heroically saving the party members.
In every story game I played in, the deaths had meaning– or at least portent. Sure, it could be spun more realistic and start from some small thing– but the act and thrust of the whole movement toward death had to be something that contributed to the character send off to the Great Beyond. Even if said characters just cease to exist (we rarely had ghost cameos or things like that…for reasons) it is still a big transition worthy of some kind of meat.
No matter what we do, or what we believe, we have to give that last act weight, visual emotional, and dare I call it spiritual. We do it with ideas, as we do it for ourselves.
The only people I know who consciously work against this– tend to want to destroy meaning itself. It’s like they gouge their fellow man in the eye for acting rationally. It may be a gut reaction, it may be a facet of instinct on behalf of humans. Above all, it is an act that makes sense, even if you are a materialist. In fact, you can argue that the dweller in a mechanical universe has far more need to make a big production of the last send off– than those who believe in Eternal Life. After all, in most cases, we can make an argument that we are going to see that other again– one way or another.
The casket, the body, and the cold clay is all they have, and it is right and just to make the most of it. Only the nihilist would dream to rob them of it.
↑The death of Louis 14th↑ ⊗ Public Domain.