Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Death Is A Plot Hook

Death is good.

Some people are like "OMG someone died! How could the game possibly go on! What a bummer for everyone." and some are like "So what, somebody died, roll somebody new and move on."

At least for my own personal D&D games, I disagree with both of them.

Death is good. Death is a great opportunity to give a campaign some real (as opposed to suspension-of-disbelief-based) drama.

Here's how:

Why don't players like it when their PCs die? Because they identify too closely with them? Maybe, but it's more this, I think: They put a lot of effort into imagining and--often--levelling up a character and now it's gone.

And what's a character? It's essentially, a decision to play the game in a certain way, or move toward playing in a certain way. If your first-level barbarian dies, you aren't gonna be Conan anytime soon. First level pirate dies, and you're that far from getting to play as King of the High Seas.

In other words, when your character dies, you are actually, really being barred--at least for a few weeks--from playing the game the way you planned, so now you have to play a different way. And since high-level play is, in a sense, a different game, it's like you're being prevented from playing a certain game for a while.

And you like the game. And you like playing your way. So when you are told you can't, this is genuine privation. Not imaginary. You didn't make it as a pitcher, son, try right field. You can't play guitar, try drums for a while...

This is your real life: playing a game. This is a real consequence: you can't roll like that any more. Or, if you want to, you'll have to start over from scratch.

So, in my games, I like to make use of this rare moment of genuine (if low-level) emotion. Characters should be threatened with death. And if they die, it should matter in the game. And maybe the next thing happens in the game has to do with it.

I prefer the best of both worlds: characters die a lot, and it hurts every time. Drama drama drama.

PC death is a plot hook. Shakespeare knew it.

Shooting today, after the show I'll mail out all the remaining Secret Arneson Gift Exchange requests and then I'm done, so if you got one, e-mail me before midnight Pacific Time. After that, it's outta my hands and we get to see what y'all come up with on Gary's birthday. Though maybe send me a link so I can show people.


Brian Moon said...

I haven't watched the episode yet, but your thoughts on death prompt me to ask: when a character dies and the player has to roll up a new one, do you start the new character at 1st level, or start at an average of the party level, or some other choice?

I've been doing "party level -1" for introducing new characters but that's only because the highest level character in my current campaign is 3rd. If they were much higher I'd re-think that but I'm still not sure what way to go.

fishlemons said...

Great episode

Joethelawyer said...

great show, as always.

Zak, did you ever tell us what you use in terms of equipment, computer, and software to produce the show? I'm guessing Mac, right?

Anonymous said...

Note to self: when playing with Zak, relax and have fun NOW, not dream of how cool you're gonna be when you are King of the High Seas.

Zak Sabbath said...

I have 'em start at the lowest level in the party, usually.

mac, final cut, 2 home video cameras--1 HD, 1 not HD, Advil, tungsten lights with blue gels

ze bulette said...

Great episode. The looks as you describe the heart eating are priceless. apx. 8:00-8:45. Dare I say, they are officially no longer D&D virgins? Cheers

Rick Marshall said...

Wow. That was a very good episode (well edited, good music, etc.) and it was also a well-played and well-DMed sequence. Thanks to you and your players for sharing this with us.

Anonymous said...

Some of my most memorable and FUN games have been the ones in which my character died. Why play if there is nothing at stake?

SirAllen said...

The music starting during your soliloquy of death dreams and the look on KK's face almost made me cry myself.

Herobizkit said...

I don't remember where I read it, but I've used the rule "one level lower than the party average" for replacing dead PC's or adding new players "off the street".

Adamantyr said...

A good episode. I thought you handled the situation pretty well. Frankie and Mandy were able to pull most of the party to safety, any reasonable retreat plan had a good chance of success. I also think if Satine hadn't been surrounded and a wood elf (natural enemy), you may have had them "capture" her instead.

Or maybe not... you sounded like you were enjoying describing her eviscerating death. :) The girls did look pretty sad and unhappy at the end, so it's understandable you defended your position as "it's what the goblins would do."

Besides, now they have a reason to kill goblins... vengeance! And they certainly won't be underestimating them in the future.

AGCIAS said...

Having seen the episode (and re-watched the last one) I apologize for bringing the alternatives to death up. Yes, the players walked into it and I, had I been Dming, would have probably killed more of them (Lessee, firing arrows into blackness ... I can't decide it I would have made it -6 to hit or required a natural 20). I stand by my belief that, when unconscionably bad luck, and nothing else, leads to the strong possibility of a TPK, the DM should consider alternatives. This was not one of those cases and my reaction was emotional rather than logical -- for some reason the first episode reminded me too much of times that has happened to me. Sorry that I brought it up. But it will be interesting to see if they run the next time.

Oh, and I thought the last 2 episodes were possibly the best yet; thoroughly entrancing. Thanks to you and Escapist for doing this.

Story: the players case Darkness on a spell-caster’s horse when he was standing off and casting and they were in melee with his bodyguards. The (not-war) horse panicked, depositing the caster on the ground, and I got to describe the hemisphere of darkness fleeing wildly across the plain before sinking a few feet into the ground, staggering unsteadily up and wobbling in a different direction again and again until most of the players were blinded by tears of laughter and the player who had cast the spell felt so bad that he caught the near-foundered horse and nursed him back to health.

AGCIAS said...

BTW, my most enjoyable games were either full of amusing situations or had the players winning against seemingly hopeless odds by playing intelligently and well (or, preferably, both). I love hearing the DM say "I didn't think of that" or "I can't believe you managed to pull that off."