Character death is a touchy subject in RPGs. Some people think the PCs should always be at risk, and that an adventure is an outright failure if at least one character doesn’t get killed off during the action. Others never have PCs bite the dust, using house rules that cause a hero to go unconscious but not die when the rules as written would have them pushing up daisies. And, as with any divisive topic with extreme opposite stances, the majority of players fall somewhere in the middle of that scale.
Since RPGs began as an offshoot of wargaming, it makes sense that character death was one of the first major consequences of failure. Character creation was quick and simple, and PCs tended to be less detailed alternate personae and more fantasy reflections of the player, with traps and puzzles testing the player’s abilities. But during the late 1980s and especially the 1990s, which featured the emergence of White Wolf’s Storyteller games, RPGs became less tactical and more story-oriented. Even in old standbys such as Dungeons & Dragons and its offshoot Pathfinder, the PCs are now less tactical figures and more protagonists of a larger tale…hence the popularity of ongoing campaign settings such as the Forgotten Realms or the success of Pathfinder’s adventure paths, which are written to be enjoyed as both RPG adventures and reading material.
The shift from a tactical focus to a storytelling focus means that character death has a different meaning nowadays. Sure, there are still plenty of games where the main draw is a group of PCs going into perilous situations and hoping just to survive, but there are also games like Spirit of the Century and Mutants & Masterminds, where PCs almost never die. In short, character death is just one possibility in a growing number of ways for the players to “lose” a scenario.
Using my own games as an example, I am a self-admitted candyass GM. I very rarely kill PCs in my games. But that doesn’t mean that there is no risk to the heroes going on their adventures. With a detailed campaign setting and long-term plots, there are many different fail states that can happen with some bad luck or poor planning. In one of my games, for example, the PCs put a long-term investment into a church in a local town, which one particular villain nearly burned to the ground. In games with a strong cast of NPCs, putting one of those individuals in harm’s way can serve as an excellent motivator. In terms of winning and losing a scenario, there’s a lot more to factor in than just PC survival.
Is Death All it’s Cracked Up to Be?
Outside of RPGs, I hear plenty of writers state that you need to kill main characters once in a while to keep readers on the edge of their seat. And while that is a valid approach to storytelling, I disagree that stories need to be that way. Look at serial fiction, particularly superhero comics. Everybody knows that Batman isn’t going to get killed off in his comics, and yet they sell better than almost anything else in that industry. Heck, the one time that Batman did actually die, people immediately started placing bets on when he would return. People read Batman comics to see how the character develops, to see if he and his son Damien can patch up their shaky relationship, to see what consequences the Joker’s next homicidal plot might have, and so on. Readers have bought into the franchise as a whole, not just the individual character at the center of it.
Similarly, the consequences for PCs in an RPG are all a matter of where the players’ emotional investments are. In my aforementioned Pathfinder game, there’s a lot of emotional investment placed on the NPCs adventuring with the group. The overall plot of the bad guys doesn’t need the PCs to die in order for it to succeed, so there’s always the chance that they might survive but fail to stop a bunch of aboleth from taking over the world. And there’s the Red Mage, my recurring antagonist, who riles the players up so much that they would gladly sacrifice their characters’ lives if it meant killing him once and for all.
Even when combat gets involved, there are more potential consequences than just PC death. At one point during my Pathfinder game, the group went in against a black dragon and nearly got killed off. Although I allowed them to escape, it was a definitive “loss” for them, the result of which left the session feeling very somber. Later on, after a few levels, they returned and killed the thing, which made the victory even sweeter. Had this been a 1st edition AD&D game, the same thing might have wound up being a total party kill, followed by the players making up new PCs and later going in to avenge their old heroes. Either way, the end result would have been the same: PCs face dragon, PCs lose, PCs return and defeat dragon later. Just because one involves the same PCs while the other involves new heroes controlled by the same players doesn’t make either approach superior to one another.
This isn’t to say that games that are heavy on PC fatality are going about things the wrong way. It all comes down to the preferences of the group. Some feel that a constant life-or-death struggle is the best way to enjoy their games, while others don’t mind a GM who has an implicit policy of always letting the heroes survive. The point is that the idea of risk doesn’t have to just be about a PC’s hit point totals. It’s the GM’s job to identify where the players’ emotional investments are, be it their own skins, the supporting cast, or personal goals like building strongholds or achieving fame. Once you have that figured out, you can control the dramatic tension of a game in any way you wish.