On Death and Dying in Role-Playing Games

When it comes to pen-and-paper role-playing games, one of things that causes the most consternation for non-gamers is the concept of character death and the effect this has on players in the campaign. While those with religious objections may focus on the spell-casting and pantheonic aspects of games like Dungeons and Dragons, I’ve found that most mainstream concerns focus character death, and the alleged effect this has on players.

The logic goes like this: an individual plays a character, and over the course of several months, becomes so emotionally invested in said character than when he or she shrugs of this mortal coil, the player can’t handle it. He or she becomes unhinged with results running from suicide to murder to pacts with the devil.

As a gamer, this never made much sense to me — after all, actors are able to play their roles without offing themselves when their characters die and writers don’t breakout into mayhem when their creations fall upon their own swords. But when it comes to gamers, its assumed that players can’t differentiate between real and unreal.

This is old news for gamers (and anti-gamers alike) but I find myself returning to the morbid (and moribund) topic after the recent death of own of my own characters, the dwarven bard/barbarian Torthan who fell last Friday to a vile and terrible undead creature known as a shadow.

Death is a Temporary Thing

Truth be told, in 20-odd years of gaming, I haven’t lost that many characters. Oh, a few have died here and there, but the big secret of gaming that the mainstream doesn’t get is that for the most part, characters don’t stay dead. From spells to wishes to storyteller fiat, there are numerous ways for a character to come back from the nether reaches. The average Dungeons & Dragons character has about as much chance of staying dead as Spock or Superman; if players want a character to come back, generally speaking, he comes back.

Still, some do stay dead, and they’re usually the ones who’ve died in the most spectacular ways. Zilanderan, my half-crazed fighter-wizard, fell fighting the forces of the Temple of Elemental Evil … and was sacrificed to the Temple’s Dark God before he could be rescued. It’s never good when your character becomes a Scooby Snack for a Horror out of Space and Time … but it sure is memorable. Likewise, Torthan’s death at the claws of a pack of life-stealing shadows was unexpected and somewhat disappointing, but when he rose again as one of the undead monstrosities, well, it certainly was unique.

And ultimately, I think that’s what players want most of their character’s deaths: something memorable. If it furthers the story, and acts as a great shining example of heroism, all the better … but if it ends up as a story told around the gaming table for years on end (as is the case of my friend Bob’s paladin, who has the dubious distinction of having been sacrificed to the self-same Dark God by the evil cultists, which rewarded them with a magical ring. We eventually defeated the cultists … but all that was left of the paladin was the ring, which my wizard Merwyn now wields).

Public Doom

When all is said and done, I don’t think a character’s death is a particularly traumatic thing, nor is it something that players get overly caught up in. Oh sure, there the possibility that someone will argue the point, and it’s a time honored tradition to poll one’s character sheet in search of some hidden modifier or forgotten magical effect that can forestall the Grim Reaper, but in the end, gamers take such deaths a heck of a lot less seriously than some people think we do. After all, in the end it’s just a story, perhaps one well told, perhaps not, but either way its an excellent excuse to roll some dice and come up with a new character.

So why does the public think we’re so affected by character deaths? I know from first-hand experience that people think we take these things seriously, as was evidenced way back in college when my friends and I formed a gaming club, and one of the first questions was whether or not our members would kill themselves if they lost a character.

I think it’s the fundamentally alien nature of role-playing. While we may try and rationalize role-playing into the mainstream, providing examples such as theatre or even fantasy football as examples of its normalcy, most people just don’t get it. The public doesn’t role-play, and when they hear gamers talking about it, they can’t help but have trouble telling the difference between stories I tell as regular Ken-of-Easton and the fantastical Torthan of the dwarven Clan Urtchek. And if they can’t catch the difference, it seems they just assume we can’t either.

For our part, Torthan’s death has given rise to an enthusiastic discussion of his replacement, an as-yet-unnamed cleric follower of the god of travel. This is what we do: we kill off a character, then turn around and geek out while making a new one. It may seem strange … but it’s not dangerous.

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