Tag: death

RPG-ology #33: Flirting

This is RPG-ology #33:  Flirting, for August 2020.


There was a Game Ideas Unlimited article of this title that addressed these ideas (not, it should be noted, romance).  That article appears to have been lost, and this is an attempt to address the ideas afresh.

We roleplay for many different reasons.  Ron Edwards has identified three fundamental motivations, ways in which gamers enjoy games, identified as gamism, narrativism, and simulationism, and described at Places to Go, People to Be in the article Theory 101:  Creative Agenda.  It is the third of those, simulationism, which is of interest in this article.

What characterizes simulationism is the love of learning, of exploring what something is like; it is in some ways the broadest.  We explore places, from Narnia to Saturn 5 to post-apocalyptic earth to Toontown.  We explore milieus, from medieval Asia and Europe to the wild west to outer space.  We explore professions, real and unreal, from gunslinger and swordfighter to wizard and starship engineer.  We even explore what it’s like to face death.

Yet I think one of the most interesting, subtle, and overlooked things that we explore is our own identities. Read more

RPG-ology #28: Character Death

This is RPG-ology #28:  Character Death, for March 2020.


A couple times recently I have seen social media posts calling for role playing gamers to express their opinions about character death.  The promoter indicated that he was planning to write an article on the subject, and eventually I had the opportunity to read it–but honestly when I read over his survey I found no response even close to what I think and feel on the subject.  So I thought I would broach it here, and see if I can help other gamers with it.  Diana Jones Award winner Ron Edwards once wrote that my game, Multiverser, had some of the best answers to the problem of player character death, and I’ll get to that, but lets not start there.

I believe it was the first time I had ever run a role playing game, and I had never previously played one nor seen one played.  It was what I’ve come to call Basic Dungeons & Dragons 1st Edition, or BD&D1, often identified as the Holmes version or Blue Box set.  My three players, all also novices at role playing games, took four characters into the dungeon, encountered four goblins, killed them all, but lost their party leader, a first level human thief.  There was some expression of disappointment and some statement that they buried him, and then the player created another thief whom we identified as the son of the original, plus a fighter, and they hired another fighter and continued their adventures as a party of six.

I have written a couple times about how game characters don’t seem to mourn for their fallen comrades, most recently in Faith in Play #16:  Mourning.  This, I think, was the closest I have ever seen to characters holding a funeral.  I have mentioned the time one of my Gamma World characters was killed and I played the other from the couch across the room, but although the player in that game mourned the loss of the character, the other characters did not, not even the other character I played.  I also remember another Gamma World game in which I had started with an upbeat optimistic raccoon-based character and a depressed pessimistic lizard-type.  In the third game session the raccoon was killed, leaving me only the pessimist; by the end of the fourth session, the referee canceled the game and had us create new characters.

The point is that character death can be very disruptive to the game.  After that first session I started running games with kid gloves, doing my best to keep the player characters alive without letting them feel invincible.  One of my Multiverser referees once said that the game let him remove the gloves, because the way it handles player character death means it is no longer a thing to be feared.

That, though, is the other side of the coin.  For there to be tension in play, the players have to fear something, and therefore they have to have something at stake.  A great illusionist referee of my acquaintance was able always to keep every player character alive no matter what happened, while at the same time making us all feel as if death were one wrong step away.  It has been suggested that one of the functions of non-player party members is to provide a member of the party the referee can kill so that the players all feel as if it might have been their character.  I know a referee who never tracks damage done to the monsters but rather remaining hit points of the party members, so that the monsters will die or flee when the player characters are in dire straits and see the end looming.  Yet if player characters never die, players get suspicious, and once they see through the trick the fear is gone and the game is not so exciting.  Player character death must be possible, and sometimes it happens whether the referee wants it or not.

I have come to recognize two factors that are essential to making character death work in a role playing game.

The first is that the death has to have meaning within the game world.  Even a total party kill can be a fun and memorable game if they were facing the ultimate villain of the game, and the more so if they brought him down with their last breath.  The character who dives on a grenade to save the party leaves behind a player who is satisfied that he saved the lives of his companions, that he was the hero they will remember.  If the character gives his life to save the girl, or get the maguffin, or destroy the One Ring, it gives his death meaning in a way that it doesn’t get from taking one too many hit points from an orc ambush.  Try to make the death count, even if (illusionist technique) you have to backwrite a reason why this particular orc ambush was important.

The second factor is that the player whose character has died has to be able to continue being part of the game, if the game doesn’t end there.

One way to do this is to have players run more than one character.  I generally have my D&D players start with one character each, but once they have a solid sense of who that character is I permit them to start a second character of a different type.  This not only gives them more to do in play, it strengthens the party as they go against tougher opponents, and it means that if one of a player’s characters dies he’s still got the other to continue play.

Some referees don’t like that, but instead have players roll more than one character at the start of the game, and then choose one to begin.  Then if that character is killed the referee finds an excuse for another of the player’s characters to join the party.  In games expected to have a low death rate referees will sometimes have the player create the new character when the original one dies, while the other players continue the game.

Another option converts the player into a sort of referee’s helper.  Typically this means that the referee gives control of significant non-player characters, possibly party members or allies, possibly villains, to the player.

I promised to give you Multiverser‘s answer to the problem.  When a player character dies in that game, he immediately returns to life in another universe.  Because of this, as Ron Edwards said, death advances the plot.  It is always best if the character’s death is part of a critical scene, and that often happens, but the essential aspect is that the story continues–which addresses the second part of the problem, because the player is still playing, the character who died is still alive, and we have now moved to a new scene, a new plot, a new chapter in the story.

So my attitude toward player character death now is that it’s a good thing when it has meaning in the game and moves the player into new adventures, new play opportunities.  Find a way to do that in your games.


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RPG-ology #21: Living In the Past

This is RPG-ology #21:  Living In the Past, for August 2019.


All four of my grandparents have died.  I have also lost my father, and both of my wife’s parents are gone.  I had a long list of great uncles and great aunts at one time, but it has dwindled to nothing, and of my uncles and aunts I might still have one.

The five and dime at which I bought candy on my way home from school is gone, and I am one and a half hundred miles from where it once stood.  There’s a long list of good friends with whom I have lost touch—Jay Fedigan, Artie Robins, Jeff Zurheide, Jack Haberer, not to mention Peggy Lisbona, Nancy Codispoti, Ann Hughes, and the girl to whom my mind often returns, on whom I had an impossible crush for two or three years beginning in second grade, Christie Newcomb.  At least two of those people, all within a couple years of my age, are dead; and although I have spoken or corresponded with some within the past decade, I cannot say for certain that any one of them is still alive today.

No one will be surprised that the past is disappearing into—well, into the past.  That’s expected.  Young people will wonder why I even mention it.  You’re living in the past, old man.  Get over it.  Life goes forward, and will leave you behind if you don’t keep up.  I know this; I can sigh and let life leave me behind, or I can keep moving forward.

But I’ve got news for you.

You’re living in the past, too.

That talk you had with your girlfriend yesterday—that’s now in the past.  Get over it; the moment has come and gone.  Whatever you should have said, well, you didn’t, and you’re not going to be able to go back and fix that.

You got beat up last month.  It’s in the past.  It’s over, and fading faster and faster into oblivion.  Ten years and you might not remember his name.  Twenty years and you won’t remember that it happened.  Yes it hurt, and it hurts, and you’re angry and upset about it.  But it’s the past now.  You can’t hold on to it; you might as well let it go.

That A+ you got on your math test (or was it the “letter” you received in varsity football, or the badge you earned in boy scouts, or the award you won for your picture or article)—well, that’s also in the past.  Time is leaving it behind.  You will eventually forget it.  And everyone else will forget it long before you do.

Was breakfast good today?  It’s gone already.

You are living in the past.  Everything you know, everything you remember, everything you’ve ever said—even the thoughts you had when you started reading this article–everything is in the past.  You can’t have it back.

Don’t feel bad about it.  It’s the same for everyone else.  In fact, it’s the same for the world, quite apart from the people.  I’m one of those who are often quoting C. S. Lewis.  There are enough of us out here that there ought to be a DSM-IV classification for us.  So you’ll probably see his name in a lot of these articles if you stay with the series.  This time he comes to mind because of a very simple observation he mentioned more than once:  most people are already dead.

That is, of all the people ever born, only a very few are alive now.

This moment in time is interesting; if you could know everything that is happening at this instant, it would overwhelm you—even if your knowledge was limited to your own town, there would be more happening this instant than you could grasp, enough ideas for a lifetime of stories.  Yet when compared with the past, this instant is no time at all, a desert devoid of interest.  In trying to get readers to think and create, I often focus on now.  Last month’s article, entitled Pay Attention, might at first glance have seemed to have been about the past—but it was actually about capturing the present, living in the moment and learning from what is around you immediately.  Writing it down served to preserve it, certainly; but it also served to force you to notice it.  The present is always a source of ideas.  But the ideas you can get from the present are dwarfed by those you can get from the past.

Assuming you can find them.

My father was a ramblin’ wreck from Georgia Tech, and a helluvan engineer.  He drove a reconditioned Model-T to school, poured fifty-weight oil into the crankcase to keep the worn bearings running smoothly, and had to crank-start it by hand on cold mornings.  He played fourth sax (tenor) in a dance band to help pay for college, and went to work in an electronics lab for Western Union.  When he was head of the lab, he proposed “Young’s Law.”  Accidents occasionally happened in the lab, usually because someone didn’t have the right piece of equipment and so tried to use the wrong piece of equipment on the theory that it really wasn’t different; the results of such experiments were always strange and confusing.  My father’s law reads, “Things that are not the same are different.”  He missed World War II, having been enlisted just as the war ended.  All this, and more, was before my birth.

He later took an interest in computers, and in the late 60’s spent a lot of time nagging the few computer tinkerers at the company to explain things to him.  This led to a few courses, more investigation, and ultimately to his position as head of engineering for Western Union Data Services Corporation, where he designed systems before there were PC’s.  He holds a couple of patents in focusing microwaves, but he says they really aren’t worth much because modern microwave applications rely on reflection rather than refraction.

He met my mother, a New York girl, after he started work in New York; he courted her for a while.  She tried to pair him off with a girl from Virginia, thinking that two slow-moving southerners would be a good match, but he wouldn’t hear of it.

As for her, she got her bachelor’s degree from City College in New York at nineteen.  She had skipped a lot of half-grades in the New York City schools, and excelled in math.  For quite a few years she worked as an efficiency expert for, I think, General Electric.  If you visited her at home, you would see the efficiency expert side of her still maintaining everything in order even now in her nineties as her grandchildren are all adults and she has a couple of great-grandchildren.  She left work to raise a family, and when the youngest was old enough she returned to teaching, mostly math, as a substitute primarily although she got roped into substituting full time for several years at one point.  She has always looked young; the day after her college graduation, an immigrant bought her a lollipop.

When they were courting, they would ride the train together from Freeport Long Island to The City; they sat with an older man who had known my mother for some time.  He did not think that the quiet, slow, polite Mississippi gentleman that was my father was at all right for my fast-paced New York mother.  But one day, as my mother was yacking a mile a minute about nothing of any importance and the other two sat in silence listening, she abruptly stopped, and said, “Oh dear, I forgot what I was going to say.”

Quietly my father replied, “Don’t worry, dear. You’ll think of something else.”

Their companion roared with laughter, and accepted my father as the right man for my mother from then on.

So, what did your parents do?  Have you ever asked?  Did they tell you?  Their lives are fading from their memories even as you read this; and they were full of stories.  Life itself is an adventure.  I’d think you’d want to know about them merely because they’re your parents, and thus in some sense your story.  But if not, consider it a source of game, world, and character ideas.

This article has been slightly updated from Game Ideas Unlimited:  Living In the Past, published at Gaming Outpost in the summer of 2001.


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Next article:  Snow Day.

Faith in Play #16: Mourning

This is Faith in Play #16:  Mourning, for March 2019.


Dearly beloved, we gather today to mourn the passing of our companion Ralph, a bold adventurer who met his fate defending his friends and companions.  Although we are greatly saddened at this loss, we can take some comfort in the knowledge that Ralph was a non-player character, and his loss of little consequence to the ongoing game as he will be replaced by a new recruit during the party’s next visit to town.

I once commented in Game Ideas Unlimited that game characters often died with very little recognition of their deaths within the game world.  At the time I had just helped my sons bury a family cat, and noted that the life, and the death, of this small animal mattered to them, impacted them.  I wondered that in so many of the games I had played, the deaths of character party members were of less consequence to the other characters in the party.  It was as if death did not matter to them.

I have run many hours of Multiverser, and in that game we have what Ron Edwards said was an excellent answer to character death:  when a player character dies, he starts again in another universe in a new adventure.  However, I have also run many hours of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, and played in several other role playing games.  I remember when a beloved Gamma World character was killed I was in such shock that I played the rest of the night from the couch across the room (the living room end of a long living room-dining room), despite the fact that I had two characters in the game and the one who was still alive was the leader of the group.  Even in Multiverser, non-player characters who matter sometimes die.  Yet player characters somehow fail to mourn them.

Mourning is something of a sticky issue in Christendom.  I am at an age at which I sometimes hear that people I have not seen for decades, such as college friends, have died.  My reaction is often that they were always more fortunate than I, and now they get to go home first.  There are churches in which funerals are if not upbeat at least positive.  One woman who had reached the age of one hundred and five and still got someone to transport her from the nursing home to church every weekend commented to her pastor that she’d better die soon or the family was likely to think that she’s not coming.  We speak of the joy of the afterlife, but find ourselves mourning when those we love have entered it.

Of course, the best explanation is that we are not really sad for them, but for ourselves.  I lost my father a few years back, and I still miss him.  Our best man and the girl who sang at our wedding have both succumbed to cancer, and many times I had wished I could see them again.  We have lost opportunities to connect again in this life with people who mattered to us.  We should be glad for them, but still we are sad for ourselves, for our loss.  I am not sorry that they died, really; I am sorry that I have lost them.  For now.

Yet what do our characters believe?  How do they regard the deaths of their comrades and companions and acquaintances?  Do they even have friends, and if so will they miss them when they’re gone?

If so, why is it that I don’t recall ever having a game character attend a funeral?

It seems that our imaginary characters fail to be human in this critical way.  We fail to feel the pain of loss when one of our number dies.  It is a real pain which we feel in our ordinary lives, and to be human in this way, to have our imagined characters care about each other, communicates something about love to others in the game.  It says that we care about them, that people like them matter to us, reflected in the fact that people like their characters matter to our character.  It is a sad moment when someone dies, and it should be so for game characters—even for those non-player characters whose loss doesn’t really impact the players.


Previous article:  Gamism.
Next article:  Narrativism.

RPG-ology #3: History of Hit Points

This is RPG-ology #3: History of Hit Points, for February 2018.


Some time ago the Christian Gamers Guild republished the excellent article by Charles Franklin, Hitting Them Where It Hurts. Charles Franklin is the nom de plume of a marine who testifies as an expert witness on issues like that, and a long-time gamer. He was not the first to take issue with the notion of “hit points” as a determinant of character survival, but his was the first effort I saw to address it based on real-world combat statistics (back when it was originally published in 1999 in The Way, the Truth, and the Dice). Since that time many systems have devised ways of dealing with damage and death that avoid some of the criticism of hit points, but it is still a popular mechanic used in many games and adopted to computer and console role playing games (properly “CRPGs” but frequently confused as “RPGs”).

The criticism is that it is unrealistic: people do not take so much damage and then die. Some people are killed sometimes instantly by a single hit to a vital organ; others are riddled with bullets or cuts and stabs and bruises but continue fighting or make incredible escapes. The notion that a character can look at the weapon in the hand of an attacker and think, that can’t possibly kill me without him getting several lucky strikes is really not consistent with the reality of mortal combat. It’s only a knife, but in the spleen it will be fatal, and in the jugular very quickly so. Hit points do not represent that at all. Everybody knows it—and indeed, everyone has always known it. So why do we use them?

Part of it is the history of the game. Read more

Faith and Gaming: Bad Things

By J.J. at the English language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0
By J.J. at the English language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

Last month we talked about Settings, one of the foundation stones of role playing, the worlds in which we play. We could go on and talk about characters, plots, deities, philosophies—but in addressing settings, we opened an important issue that we didn’t address. What do you do about Bad Things, and is it appropriate for Christians to think of these?

At first glance, the answer would seem to be no. “[W]hatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.” (Phil. 4:8, UNASB) Should we be dwelling on evil that has never happened, perhaps which never would or even could happen?

Yet if we fail to allow that there could be anything bad in our game worlds, then there is no conflict in our stories. We need evil villains so that our characters can be great heroes; or in the absence of such villains, we need catastrophes, disasters, destructive beasts—there has to be something bad in our worlds, or there’s nothing to tell. Read more