I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man's. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.

- William Blake

Monday, April 01, 2024

Character death in RPGs, war-games, and storygames

I've tried to differentiate the three perspectives here.

There is one aspect or issue that I´d like to emphasize: the death of a player character.

The  RPG experience requires first person perspective.

But in this perspective, the death of a character is THE END.

No one sees himself as disposable or easily replaceable.

(This is even more of a problem in a TPK. If you send waves after waves of PCs to fight the Tomb of Horrors, you've playing a puzzle, not necessarily an RPG).

The wargame solution is replacing the PC for an NPC or hireling. Easy. The storygame solution could be simply saving the PC or letting death be a relevant plot point.

But, from the perspective of the PC, death means it is over.

So PC death might be a bigger problem in RPGs than even in storygaming (in wargaming, it is not even a problem). 

A story with many characters can easily continue after one death (think Game of Thrones, etc.)

Let's think videogames for a minute. 

In videogames with a single character, death usually requires a "do over". Go back to your most recent level (or saving point) and go from there, otherwise the game has to end.

In Warcraft, on the other hand, nothing happens if an "unit" is destroyed, as long as you have other pieces. This is the wargaming perspective (Darkest Dungeon is another great example - it really feel like an old-school RPG due to its proximity to wargames).

I felt more "character immersion" in Resident Evil than Darkest Dungeon or Warcraft (although FUN can be found anywhere). This is part of the reason I think a wargaming perspective is not ideal for RPGs.

Are there computer storygames? I am not sure. My first instinct is compare storygaming to cutscenes - certain things just happen because they are important to the plot, including the death of a player character. But storygames have mechanics that are difficult to translate to videogames - shared narratives, story tokens, etc.

There is a tension in there I cannot quite resolve right now: if there is no risk of PC death, immersion/simulation is ruined. But if you can simply replace a dead PC, his life has little value and therefore there is no real risk.

My instinct says the death of a PC should be possible but meaningful. This requires balancing RPGs with some wargaming and maybe storygaming perspectives.

But this certainly requires more reflection.


  1. Thinking of more story focused games (PbtA), failure allows the story master to advance 'the opposition' side of the board. So for games with a 'clock' the time lost to regrouping can be the cost with party wipe potentially being recoverable (but maybe not).

    For a static dungeon crawl, this may be lesser stakes, but those adventures tend to be lesser stakes anyways.

    1. Yes, each approach has its pros and cons. Some story-game mechanics are useful for RPGs.