Handling Character Death by Genre

by John Kim

         This is one of a series of essays on techniques for emulating common genre conventions in RPGs. My assumption here is that you have a given genre -- such as "superhero comic book" or "period martial arts movie" -- and you want to adapt it from its original medium into the medium of RPGs. This is similar to the problem of adapting a novel into a film, or any other change of medium. For more on the meaning of genre in RPGs, see my essay on "Understanding Genre in Roleplaying". Specifically, I will be looking at problems with adaptation that come with the death of a main character.

The Importance of Character Death

         Because of the nature of role-playing, main character death has an even stronger meaning than in other media. A player tends to have a particularly strong emotional connection to her character, and often reacts negatively to PC death even if it is otherwise appropriate for the story. Further, on a purely mechanical level, character death removes the player's input to the game, at least temporarily. Lastly, PC death in RPGs is often perceived as a fault of the player for acting stupidly, or if not then of the GM for being "killer". In contrast, the death of a major character in many genres is typically portrayed as either fated or perhaps as a noble sacrifice.

         There are three major ways in which character death can be problematic:

Frequent Character Death

         The most difficult problem is how to deal with the deaths of main characters if they are called for in the genre. One approach is to ease the impact on the player of PC death, to avoid the negative connotations mentioned. The other is to simply find ways to avoid true PC death while still staying faithful to the genre.

         In easing the impact of PC death, I find that the most sure technique is if the death is pre-planned and the player participates in the planning. Deaths of major characters tend to be central events which are foreshadowed and integral to the plot. This is difficult to achieve with truly unplanned and/or random deaths which would occur in many systems. That does not mean that everything needs to be scripted, but the player should be alerted to the possiblity, and a plot designed around the death or near-death which is expected. This of course has the drawback that there is no suspense for that player about the risk of death. For this and other reasons, this technique may be unpalatable.

         Another technique for easing PC death is for players to have one or more "backup" or "alternate" PCs. This allows the players to lose a PC and quickly rejoin play. This can include the "troupe" concept from Ars Magica mentioned earlier. The drawback to this is that it weakens the player/PC connection.

         Lastly, there is avoiding PC death while still staying true to the genre. For some comedic or light genres, this is easy: major characters are just not supposed to die. You can use either a fortune point system or simple GM fudging to avoid PC deaths. Fortune points are a type of mechanic dating back to an optional rule from Top Secret. The player has a pool of points, and can spend a point to save his character, or perhaps to succeed on a roll, or some other function.

         If some major character death is expected for the genre, then you may have NPCs who stand in some traditionally PC roles. The party might start with a number of NPCs mixed with PCs, but a number of the NPCs then die. This approach reasonably fits many genres where the characters killed off tend to be less three-dimensional than the survivors.

Lack of Character Death

         Low PC death is usually the simpler problem. There are a number of fairly standard solutions:

Making Deaths Meaningful

         This is an essential third part, though it relates to getting players to accept a PC death. Even if the player accepts the PC death, that doesn't mean that the death will really fit with the genre. There are three aspects to this:

         Preventing random and/or unplanned death is covered in the section above on lack of character death.

         Planning death pretty much requires the pre-consent of the player, as I mentioned before. However, as with most pre-planning in RPGs, you should never get too attached to the plan. From experience, I suggest that if you are going to pre-plan it, don't try to make it look accidental to the players. The deaths for me that worked dramatically used overwhelming force with no chance for survival. In most cases it should stem from a conscious choice of the PC: such as sacrificing themselves for some important gain, or choosing a risky action for evil gains. Really, though, the structure of giving meaning to an RPG story is too broad to cover here.

         Giving meaning to unplanned death is not something I have experience with, but I can share some thoughts on the matter. One idea is to use contingencies: prepare fatal flaws, dark secrets, or dreams for characters that could be used to explain their death. Another vital part is the aftermath. You could play out a funeral scene or some other way of looking back on the character's life. This is crucial for trying to make sense of what might not be clear at the time -- both for real-life grief and for in-game stories.


         Death is obviously a very powerful and sensitive issue, yet it is one that frequently is at least threatened in RPGs. This is just intended as a jumping-off point on the peculiarities of PC death for the format of an RPG. The issues of death for story in general are clearly much broader and need to be covered separately.

John H. Kim <jhkim-at-darkshire-dot-net>
Last modified: Mon Apr 21 00:29:25 2003