This is RPG-ology #46: Deceased, for September 2021.
Our thanks to Regis Pannier and the team at the Places to Go, People to Be French edition for locating copies of many lost Game Ideas Unlimited articles. This was originally published as Game Ideas Unlimited: Deceased, and has been reproduced here with minor editing [bracketed].
The subject matter of this article was reproduced in part in Faith in Play #16: Mourning in March, 2019. Although that was recalling this, the articles are substantially different.
A few minutes ago, I helped two of my sons bury their pet cat Neko-Chan under the forsythia in the side yard. After the grave was dug, I unwrapped him from the plastic bag in which the vet returned him to us, and laid him on the worn torn piece of towel which was to be his shroud. Then I said goodbye. I told him that his life with us had been short, but perhaps longer and more comfortable than the life to which he had been born in the woods where we had found him; and that I hoped we had brought some pleasure to him as he had to us.
I suggested to the boys, my second and third sons who most thought of him as their pet, that they take a moment to say goodbye. I think the older one, who found the kitten lost in the woods, said something; the younger, who convinced his mother that he would take care of a cat if he could have one, stood in silence for several minutes.
I folded the shroud over Neko, and placed him in the grave, along with a chipped bit of garden brick that would serve as a marker, dare I say a headstone, for the plot. The three of us then covered him with earth, and stood another moment before returning to our daily lives.
And as I returned to my office, I opened the file in which my notes for the next column were waiting, and realized that I needed to write something different; so I saved those notes for next week, and turned my attention to the simple funeral we just held and the sense of loss we feel for a creature who never spoke to us and was only with us perhaps two or three years, whose greatest practical contribution to our lives was killing the mice that invaded us in another house, and whose idea of showing affection was to grab your hand with both sets of front claws and attempt to bite it. He had been part of the family for a brief time. He was certainly not the first pet I buried in the yard over the years; but he was the first one for which my sons were old enough to help. I never had pets as a child, so I don’t really know how the boys feel. But I have lost enough as an adult to know that it’s something more than giving up your favorite shirt when you’ve outgrown it.
I have been playing and running role playing games for over [four] decades now, and have clocked more hours in this hobby than—well, let’s say I would be [at] a loss to guess the number of “zeroes” an estimate should have. In that time, I have seen many characters die—some of them my own. They have been hacked by swords, eaten by monsters, caught in grenade blasts, turned to stone, poisoned, dissolved by sonic forces, burnt by laser fire, shot by bullets, irradiated, skewered by arrows—death has come to them in many forms, and sometimes the loss left me numb.
But I do not recall even once having my character attend a funeral for another character.
And with the death of a family cat fresh in my mind, I suddenly wonder why that is.
It is not, I think, because I didn’t care about the characters. I cared more about my own, certainly—I was numb for hours following the unanticipated death of one favorite years ago. But even when I’m the referee, the player characters are like friends to me. Even the associated non-player characters are like people I’ve visited in other worlds. I usually do care, perhaps more at times than is appropriate. One of the things that really sold me on the ideas of Multiverser is that player characters don’t die, because I really hate it when a character I’ve come to love dies. I care about the characters.
It’s not because the worlds aren’t so real to me. If you’ve been following this column, you know that I am often there, and can see in my mind some of the places I’ve never been, memories just as vivid as reality, and just as charged with emotion.
Don’t think that I’m one to gloss over details, either, at least in that sense. Oh, there have been times when I’ve let half a year of game calendar pass on a few words about what the characters were doing in those months. But I’m also the guy who knows what time his character stopped for lunch, and who was responsible to wash the dinner dishes.
And it’s clearly not because I’m not interested in ritual. Anyone who would feel a compulsion to say a few words before burying a dead cat obviously values some ceremony in his life. No, there is every reason to expect that I would want some sort of closure after a character dies, some sort of funeral played out in the game.
Yet if it’s ever happened, I don’t remember it. I doubt it would be a moment of such trauma that I blocked it (I do, after all, remember the deaths), nor one so trivial that I forgot it (I recall a lot of trivial moments). I think we never played it out. Maybe one time there was a passing comment that a player character was buried, but there was no funeral.
Perhaps it’s because roleplaying the burial of a close friend is not something which we would in any sense consider fun. But, you will object, we roleplay many things which are not fun. Consider the death of the character whose funeral you suggest. It was not fun for him to die. Oh, but it was. Death likely was not the desired outcome, but in all probability it happened in the midst of some high moment in the story—a battle, a confrontation with an enemy, a dangerous part of the journey, an assassination by an adversary. For most of us, part of the fun of the game is surviving and succeeding through situations in which we were very reasonably afraid, even expectant, that we would fail and die. The sting of death is often a reminder of how close we came to losing everyone; remove the possibility of death completely and the great tension of the game is lost, or at best reduced drastically (the reason why Multiverser characters still suffer some consequences of being killed, even though they don’t stay dead). The possibility of having a character die, even if we know we could bring him back to life, gives us the thrill of victory when we beat the odds to survive and perhaps win. And if that possibility is never realized, it starts to lose reality, the players feel their characters are immortal, and the fun is sapped from the game. No, death might not have been what we wanted to have happen, but it was an important part of the fun. And funerals are not fun.
But they are part of the story, an important part; they are part of the lives of the characters. Don’t our characters grieve for their lost loved ones? Don’t the problems of life impact them, change who they are and how they see the world? If the dragon ate our friend, are we angry? Are we upset? Are we afraid? Or are we just going to say, “Bad luck, that, but we’ll get the treasure next time”?
So the answer seems to be that too many of our characters are shallow. They don’t really seem to care about the things that should affect them deeply. Their friends are quickly reduced to the Monopoly™ Top Hat or another life for Mario. They don’t really feel, and we don’t pretend that they do. They become less than real, less than human, in that way. And our stories suffer for it.
Obviously, you can only take reality so far. No one expects characters to follow the Kubler-Ross Stages of Grief through the process. Very few games are going to be well served by several hours of Sitting Shiva, or a long indoor funeral service followed by carrying the coffin to the cemetery—and especially not if character death occurs frequently in your world. But perhaps a brief memorial, a moment of quiet reflection, an in-game prayer for the soul of the departed, as appropriate to the beliefs of the characters, would go a long way toward making the lives of our characters have more meaning than just the video-game deaths that last only until someone pushes the reset button. And perhaps it would help our players instill into their characters some of the appropriate emotions, whether it is an angry determination to get the killer, or a healthy or phobic fear of the monster who did this, or a pervasive sorrow and sense of loss that recurs when little reminders of the deceased arise. That can only lead to more interesting characters, more interesting stories, and more interesting games.
In Risk™ it is appropriate for entire armies to be slaughtered without anyone batting an eye. In role playing, a single death should have the same meaning to our characters as it would to us.