The Beauty of Character Death, and a Shameful Confession

Surrounded but Alone - The blank side of an overgrown tombstone, photo by RootsResearcherRabbit
Tombstone Photograph taken by RootsResearcherRabbit in 2011.

In the many years I’ve been a devotee of role playing games, I’ve very rarely had a chance to be a player. For the most part that’s fine by me. What initially drew me to the game was the mystique of the GM. He or she is master of the entire world, knows what’s behind every door, understands the desires of every NPC. I like playing that role, which is why I’ve spent almost a year of my life writing about it. None the less there’s something to be said for being a player. GMs never get to experience the game’s most exciting moments in the same way the players do, largely because the GM never faces any real struggle within the game. The player characters might live or die, but the world that the GM embodies is eternal.

I’ve played in perhaps a half dozen campaigns, the majority of which have used D&D 3.5. The most notable among these is the Zalekios game, which has lasted for the better part of a decade, and which I’ve written about several times. Until recently, only one person had ever GMed for me. We’re old friends, and after all these years we’ve got a rhythm going which is always a lot of fun when we get a chance to play together. Much as I enjoy my friend’s games, though, I’m excited to finally have an opportunity to broaden my horizons in my fellow blogger Brendan‘s Vaults of Pahvelorn game. He’s a fantastic game master, and I’ve already learned a lot after seeing his GM style from a player’s perspective.

The other night was our second game session. We had a new member in our group, and returned to the vault to continue our dungeon delving. It was a damned lot of fun, but I won’t bore you with the details. If you’re interested our fighter has already taken care of the session recap, but I’ll skip straight to the important part. The party encountered a number of undead, and eventually came upon a necromancer controlling them. There was a lot of scary stuff on the battlefield, so I didn’t think it was right for me to stay completely out of danger. My party needed me. My character, Margo, hefted a sledgehammer he’d brought along with him. I thought it would be particularly effective against the skeletons. He took a swing, and missed. In retaliation, the skeleton punched Margo in the face.

And that’s how Margo Waggletongue, first level Magic User, met his untimely end. The skeleton’s mighty punch was just too much for Margo’s measly 3HP. And after I failed my saving throw against death, it was all over. The party mourned, and I was already rolling stats to promote Margo’s squire, Higgins. The game went on. And here’s the part I hinted at in the title of this post; my shameful confession:

This is the first time any character of mine has ever died.

How did I feel? I was disappointed and sad! Margo Waggletongue was an awesome character, and I had a lot of plans for him. Like my serious in-game goals of building a tower someday, filling it with books, and being the most educated wizard in all of Pahvelorn. If this setting ended up with any kind of longevity, I wanted future players to encounter Margo the Archmage, and learn spells like “Margo’s Black Disk,” Margo’s Floating Tentacle,” or “Margo’s Flinging Roof Tiles!” I had a lot of fun character traits I wanted to work into the character as well, such as the fact that his robe was literally just a blanket, or that he was a virgin. But none of that will ever happen, because he was punched in the face by a skeleton, and died. God damn, it was awesome.

Honestly, it was. I’m sad that all of my plans were foiled before they could ever get off the ground, but more than that, I’m exhilarated to know from personal experience just how dangerous this game world is. True, no young magic user will ever shout “Margo’s Floating Tentacle!” in the heat of battle, but if my next character does achieve success on that scale, then that success will be all the more meaningful because I will know I was always just a skeleton punch away from complete failure. And as it turns out, my new character, Higgins Dreadgrin, has an even higher intelligence score than his former master did, so I may not need to scrapall of my plans just yet.

I’ve written before about the importance, and the fun, of character death. But when I did so, I wrote it as a GM. I was drawing on what I’ve read, and what I’ve observed, and what non-tabletop experiences I could draw conclusions from. And now I reaffirm that statement with player experience to back it up: character death is fun. The game would be diminished without it.

By the way: welcome to all my new readers from the Penny Arcade Report. There has been quite an influx of you, and I hope you like what you’ve seen and choose to stick around for awhile.

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6 thoughts on “The Beauty of Character Death, and a Shameful Confession”

  1. There is nothing quite like that sense of accomplishment you’ll get when you just barely squeak by on a whisker, knowing that you were always inches away from certain doom or failure. I think it explains a lot about why old video games have such lasting appeal. There’s more than nostalgia, it’s that failure is cheap (in terms of time to get back into the game) and often, but its easy to pick back up and keep trying. But even when failure isn’t cheap and frequent, victory is twice as sweet when snatched from the jaws of defeat. Just ask they olympic athletes, I’m sure they’d all tell you it’s incredible when you win knowing you were .01 seconds from losing.

  2. Yeah it was sad to see Margo go like that, he saved my fighter last session with his incredible anti-rat tile flinging. His death was especially ignominious given that the retaliating skeleton was turned at the time and his sorcerer boss was gurgling away his life from Higgans’ crossbow bolt. Yet it’s stupid deaths like this that make OD&D feel so intense and encourages crafty sneaky play that makes it fun to me. Regardless I’m sad to see Margo buried, but I think one death so far is incredibly lucky… I expected a TPK twice in the first session…

  3. I agree that death is indeed fun– or at least, the tension of knowing that the possibility of death is very real. That being said, it’s not for everyone. Some people don’t like to have their characters die because, like you, they had plans for them. They were supposed to be great heroes, or they were gonna take that ability at next level, or anything else. I’ve even had a player stay bitter for weeks because his character died in a one-shot session. A one-shot! We’d never even play those characters again.

    Incidentally, that same player also runs games as a GM, and I left his last Pathfinder game because he’s the kind of GM that would never kill PCs, unless it was part of the story. Long story short, it was BORING. Simply knowing that there would be no risk, and that we’d always survive due to some convoluted divine intervention sucked all the fun and feeling of accomplishment out of it.

    Finally, I’d have to point out that dying in a system where character creation is a complicated, involving process that can take 3-4 hours would get old pretty quick.

    1. Edit: That’s what I get for trying to reply to comments when I’m in a hurry, I misread them.

      A game with excessive character death would be boring I think, but I doubt I would ever want to play in a game where there was no danger. I think most gamers would agree with that. And after that, it’s just about figuring out where on the “deadliness” scale your type of game falls.

      Regarding your last point, I actually discussed the inverse correlation between character investment and the fun of character death way back in “The Fun of Character Death.”

  4. “I know that feel, bro”.
    I understand you reaction, especially because my very first character, a CM rogue halfling who gutted everyone he crossed for the glory of Vecna (or at least wanted to do so) died at level 2 of a death even more pitiful than a skeleton punch : he drowned in the ditch of a monastery while trying to wash up. The DM was a douche and made me roll a Swim check “for fun”, I rolled a natural 1 and drowned in 3 rounds because the DM didn’t even know the rules about drowning !

    I am currently preparing a campaign as a beginner DM and I am going to create three home-made spells : Margo’s Black Disk, Margo’s Flying Tentacle and Margo’s Flinging Roof Tiles. All three of them will be as famous as Magic Missile or Charm Monster, and Margo will be a renown wizard of ancient times !

    1. Oh wow, you made me laugh for a full minute there. Thank you, I needed that today!

      I look forward to hearing how your first GMing experience goes. And thanks for commenting!

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