The Undiscovered Country

Reposted from Gametime

Your character will die. Despite your best efforts and your carefully hoarded Fate Points, sooner or later, your character will die. Seriously. Be it to a lucky swing from a goblin, or a bolt through your eye whilst sleeping, that’s a part of Warhammer and it’s all part of your characters story. Embrace it and move on.

– Dale Elvy’s #1 House-Rule for his unbelievably cool Warhammer campaign.

Gametime is one year old, and so we 5 had a brief spate of e-mails deciding how to mark this. Marking birthdays is a celebration of life and growth, and so naturally our inner ironies coaxed us into selecting some discussions of Death as a suitable celebration.

Whatever else may happen in a game, the moments we remember the best are those where the story possibilities of a character are forever curtailed. So, obviously, I’m not interested in a D&D-esque pseudo-death which really only means missing out on a few encounters and having your share of the loot stolen before you return ready to avenge yourself. No, I am talking about the one-way trip to the afterlife of stories and fond reminiscing.

Let me just insert a caveat that you need a certain amount of character life before you can usher in the grim reaper. I have been tangentially involved with more than one CoC game where massive character turnover transformed the horror into a grotesque parody. If that’s your cup of tea, you might as well just play Paranoia and do it in style.

About 8 years ago I was involved in a Planescape campaign run by a long-time friend of mine. Seeing as how the planes are infinite, I decided to play a Klingon. Why not? I’ve always liked Star Trek. He was a multi-class Barbarian-Cleric, and was CG with a veneer of “honour”. He hooked nicely into the grand plan of the GM by getting involved in trying to find the source of some disappearances in the Hive. Well, to cut a long story short, he and his companions were eventually captured by the evil High Priest behind it all. We were in a holding pen, when they began to usher in victims for the sacrifices. Enraged, I activated his “rage”, and broke my restraints, handily dispatched the 5 or 6 guards between me and the priest, and then got horribly skewered on a soul-stealing knife that was a save-and-just-die weapon. Ouch.

It remains my favourite moment in that entire game. It was what that character had been building up to for the 4 or 5 months of elapsed game time. It may have been more satisfying to roll the necessarily obscene amount of damage and kill the High Priest, but I doubt it.

Well, 6 months later, I am once again face-to-face with the High Priest. Different character though, and this time my companions are not merely enclosed, but all unconscious and bleeding around me. Petal faced off against him, gritting her teeth for the inevitable horrible death. He laughs at us, and departs instead of facing her wrath. I know why: with Petal dead and the rest fallen, it would have been the end of the game. What is known as a TPK: Total Party Kill. It was the right ending. The game pottered on for another half dozen sessions, but the life was already gone and we left it rather inconclusively hanging in our imaginations.

For a long time afterwards I pondered the different responses of the same GM, with the same NPC, and a similar situation. The conclusion I came to was that he was protecting his story, the story of the game, rather than my character’s miserable life. Killing my Klingon didn’t really jeopardize the main storyline as the other 4 characters would live. In effect, by sparing my Halfling fighter, he had prioritized the game over my character’s individual storyline. I think the empty tailing-off of the story after that stemmed largely from realizing this, and from our consequential deprotaginization.

The problem was that this was no Vulcan ‘needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few’… but the needs of just one: the GM. We had collectively gone into that situation, knowing the possible risk. The greater the risk, the greater the reward, and by underwriting the risk, it was removed.

As a player, I want to get the most from my time as whichever character I play. I invest in exploring stories, and creating hooks of my own. I try always to drive the story, and I have found risk to be a great story-creation device. It prevents characters from living in a vacuum, and it makes achievements feel more satisfying. There have been many times when I have been grateful to an understanding GM for just tipping the odds enough in my favour to let me play this way. But I have had many many more occasions where a GM has spared my character to preserve a story in which my character’s death would have been just a part. Particularly as games near their natural end, GMs will not only cut me slack, but take their hands of the reigns completely. This is almost never fun for me, and the games afterwards feel hollow and mechanical: just going through the deus ex machina to get to the end. The machinery may be well hidden for most of the game, but sudden reversals of impending doom are a hole through which it can be seen for what it really is.

My conclusion is: don’t spare the characters! Let them complete their natural life cycle, and die with dignity. Let your story encompass these things, not end with them.

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