What if your character dies?

The Mixed GM recently posted I cannot keep my character alive…and that’s okay. But I’m not so sure about that.

He makes a good case, but I’m not fully convinced.

True, it’s exciting when you know the next move could be your character’s last. Your heart starts pounding and you sit trembling on the edge of your seat. I’ve been there. It’s amazing how something fictional and seemingly abstract as a few letters and numbers on paper can wind you up so much.

But there’s a limit. I tend to get really attached to my characters, and there’s a point where knowing that my guy is more likely to die ignominiously two hours into the first game session than to survive to second level (let alone get to the really cool stuff you can do when you hit level five or so) starts to take some of the fun out of it.

I loved George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (better known now as Game of Thrones), but I haven’t been tempted to read it again. The Lord of the Rings and Bernard Cornwell’s Richard Sharpe series, I’ve read start-to-finish at least 10 times each. I liked Martin’s series at least as much as those on the first read. But what makes the difference? Why don’t I revisit Game of Thrones while I reread (and re-watch) other favorites again and again?

Heroism, that’s why. That, and the knowledge that the characters I’m emotionally invested in (or most of them, at least) will still be around at the end of the story. In Martin’s Westeros, people who aren’t actively horrible suffer terribly and drop like flies, while Gregor Clegane and Cersei Lannister are apparently immortal. (True, Gregor may be little more than a bloodthirsty, nominally sentient zombie at this point, but he wasn’t all that human to begin with.)

I do enjoy dark and gritty games and stories from time to time, and realism in roleplaying games is good. But there’s a point where gritty realism stops being fun and starts to get depressing. The real world is depressing enough on its own — I don’t need fiction and games to give me even more of the same. I read and play for imagination and escape. And if you’re one of those people that uses “escapism” as a pejorative, please leave now. Before I reach through this screen and strangle you. You’re not wanted here, and nobody really likes you.

I’ll freely admit that there’s a contradiction here. All good roleplaying games provide for plenty of armed combat (Yes, all…don’t sass me, you hear?) and any game system that doesn’t provide for combat in some detail isn’t worth playing. I love playing fighters in my games more than anything. Yet any remotely realistic roleplaying game is going to be very dangerous to player-characters, because the reality is that people routinely die in combat, even against seemingly weak adversaries.

And it’s usually not very okay with me if my character dies. I don’t enjoy that part very much. So how do I get around that?

Back in the ’90s when I was using Rolemaster to play around in Middle-Earth every weekend, I house-ruled a “fate point” system, which PCs could use as a sort of plot armor to get them through those inevitable betrayals of the dice. Rolemaster’s combat system is exceptionally deadly; at any time a single roll of the GM’s dice could outright kill you, even if you’re a 6th level warrior going up against a 2nd level orc.

My house-rule fate points were hard to earn — you had to do heroic things to get them, and the most any character ever accumulated was five. They were hard to keep, too, given the lethality of the combat system. They’d get chipped away pretty quickly keeping your arms and legs attached, and escaping a lethal critical strike took all of them away, no matter how many you had.

Characters didn’t often die, but since the things you had to do in order to earn a fate point could also use up the ones you already had, it never felt like anything was guaranteed. Players without fate points got very nervous. Even players who had fate points were nervous, because your security blanket could disappear in an instant.

And a good time was had by all.

So that’s the kind of playing experience I’m trying to evoke with FAR Western and the FAR System.

Combat is going to be dangerous and gruesomely detailed and as realistic as I can make it, because I like that. And because I don’t like it when half the PCs die off within a couple of game sessions, I’ve got something going a little like those fate points — I’m calling them “story points” right now for lack of a better term. They won’t preserve you if you repeatedly do stupidly dangerous things, but if you have any sense of character preservation, you and your alter ego should have a satisfyingly long adventuring career.

And if the dice go against you (they’re always against me when I’m playing a character) and your Old West avatar bites the dust, there’s a mechanism to help you get a new character up to speed quickly.

So maybe it actually is okay if your character dies… Isn’t it?

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One thought on “What if your character dies?

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  1. Mechanics like fate points or story points can be done well and really aid good role-playing. I like the idea of having a mechanic to model stuff like the wagon full of hay or trusty horse who appears just in time or the pocket watch that stops the villain’s final bullet. Or even that moment in Shanghai Noon when Roy O’Bannon steps into a hail storm of bullets and comes out unscathed, because he was finally doing something right. At their worst, mechanics like this can break immersion when they feel undeserved or aren’t tied into the game well enough. I’m excited to see what you have come up with!

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