As I’ve said many times now, I cut my tabletop teeth not on D&D, but on Mutants and Masterminds. Starting out with superhero RPGs kind of gave me a weird first tabletop experience. They work differently than the stereotypical fantasy RPG. The focus is on different aspects of a story, the characters are created differently, and gameplay elements that are common in one style may be rarer in the other and vice versa. Character death is one such gameplay element.
In D&D, you die by reaching 0 HP or lower (depending on circumstances and how quickly you could theoretically be treated and yada yada). In Dungeon World, when you hit 0 HP you take your Last Breath, which might kill you. In M&M, you have to be incapacitated, then attacked successfully and put into the dying condition, fail a stabilizing check, and attacked yet again while dying to push you fully into dead. See the difference? In D&D or Dungeon World, the GM can just be swinging with their monsters, doing what they do and then be like “whoops, uh, guess you might be dead.” In M&M, the GM has to actively try to murder you about three different times in order to kill you.
In Mutants and Masterminds, it is literally harder to die because the one in charge of the game has to put in so much extra effort to make it happen. This creates an environment where death is really more of a plot device than a thing that can happen to your character. In two campaigns of M&M with my tabletop group, not one person died. At least not in a way where they had to come back as a new character.
When my group switched over to Dungeon World, character death was something none of us were familiar with – not me as a GM or any of my friends as players. I warned them that it was much more likely, but still, when their first major boss fight rolled around and two different people had to roll Last Breath, it came as a shock. We were like “oh…this just got real.” Particularly since one of them legitimately died. Three sessions into the campaign and someone’s character was gone, having to be replaced with a new one. By the end of the story, everyone had “died” at least once, even if they managed to get a good Last Breath roll and come out on the other side of it. It was a pretty dramatic change that added a whole new element to the game.
Now as you can imagine, different players reacted to this in different ways. Some of them loved having the opportunity to change characters, to try out new things, and they liked how the tangible possibility of losing their character increased their attachment to that character. It’s the Fire Emblem effect, or what you might experience in a Nuzlocke of Pokemon – when the possibility of loss is real, you take more care not to lose the characters that are important to you. One thing I love about the way death works in Dungeon World is what happens when you partially succeed on your Last Breath. Death offers a bargain, and if you take it, you live. Refuse it and die. I like Death to play hard ball in my campaigns, and he drives very hard bargains. Because of this, I’ve had just as many people reject bargains as accept them, and as a GM it’s really rewarding to see players roleplay their character right to the grave.
Conversely, some players hated having a tangible possibility of dying. My wife, in particular, has a tendency to get very attached to fictional characters. Her favorite characters in television shows, novels, and games are like real-life friends for her. I don’t mean this in a creepy, she can’t distinguish between reality and fantasy kind of way. She’s just very in touch with her emotions, and has vivid emotional responses to loss and heartache. Her empathy causes her to feel what other people are going through even when those other people aren’t real. So for her, attachment is already there whether she has the possibility of losing a character or not. Playing a tabletop game where it’s a lot easier for her to die does make her more invested like the other players, but not necessarily in a positive way. To borrow a phrase from my homeland of Kentucky, she’d rather dance with who she brung.
Now another tabletop that my friends and I enjoy playing is Dread, where death is something of an inevitability. But here, there’s another facet that isn’t as readily accomplished in other games: the idea of the heroic sacrifice. If you aren’t familiar with Dread, imagine an RPG where a Jenga tower replaces the dice. When the tower falls, you die. If it falls on accident, you die AND you fail at your final action. Conversely, a heroic sacrifice is a voluntary death: you knock the tower over on purpose. Your character goes down, but in a way that helps everyone else live to see another day. A person could try to do this in a different tabletop, I guess, but in Dread the mechanics make it a lot easier. You literally just shove over the tower. Done. Sacrificed.
I’ve found that with this option present, everyone will gladly die, as long as they perform a heroic sacrifice. I’ve had multiple Dread sessions where the only death was due to heroic sacrifice. In a way, that option pulls players out of the fiction. They see the tower get a little rickety, and they’re like “welp, I’ll just shove it over to do something cool and the rest of you can have a clean tower to play with. Deuces.” The ability to die voluntarily and do something cool in the process takes away their fear of dying, and also takes them out of the fiction. It’s kind of an interesting conundrum to me, one that has briefly led me to consider forbidding the heroic sacrifice in a session or two just to get people back into the real meat of Dread. If the tower isn’t scary, then the game doesn’t have an impact.
Different players look at character death in different ways. If there’s any take away from this, it is that every GM needs to know how their players feel about death and should probably choose games for the group accordingly. A group of players who are all rigidly unwilling to die should not play Call of Cthulhu or Dread. A group of players who want high stakes and death as part of their experience will probably get bored with Mutants and Masterminds. That’s part of the beauty of the tabletop world – there are tons of games out there because there are tons of players out there. Everyone likes a different experience, so find the experience that works for you and then when you’re ready, move to a game with a different feel.
I now turn the question to you, adventurers. How do you feel about character death in a tabletop game? Does it make you uneasy or thrill you? Do you shy away from it or embrace it heartily as an aspect of your campaign? Feel free to discuss it in the comments below!