A Fate Worse Than Death

Dungeons and Dragons is different from any other game in that it offers the player a chance to create a character who exists in a world outside the common restrictions of the imagination (or time constraints) of the software developer or rule-writer.  You can't hit 'B' and make Mario urinate on a goomba.  You can't make the main character of Grand Theft Auto learn how to play the harp.  You can't turn Cloud to the dark side and follow Sephiroth in FFVII.  All this and more is possible in Dungeons and Dragons.


Having this freedom encourages players to spend time developing and getting to know their character.  You don't think about Mario's reasons for wanting to save the Princess or how he got to be such a good jumper through his experiences working as a plumber.  You don't think about GTA's main character's interest in learning to play a musical instrument.  You don't put time into thinking how to develop Cloud because FFVII takes care of character development for you.


The player characters in Dungeons and Dragons are usually caught up in a heroic campaign spanning the game world.  Their actions can have severe effects, for good or bad, for the entire world.  They can end up as horrible villains, heroes, great kings, or even gods themselves.  Having this destiny while allowing the player to create the back story for such a fated character is a huge draw to playing the game, and it is precisely what sets Dungeons and Dragons apart from other games.


It's easy for a highly-involved player to develop a connection to the character they create.  Players spend a lot of time and effort thinking about where their character came from, the experiences they've had, and how they became who they are.  Players also can spend a lot of time and effort formulating a way to insert this back story information into the campaign through the character's personality, habits, or fighting style.  In doing so players also become more connected to the overall campaign and to their character's and group's success inside it.


The death of a player character has grave consequences on both the character itself and the campaign in which it exists.  It not only stabs the player in the back for the time he or she has spent developing the character and integrating all facets of the character into the storyline, but it also betrays the storyline as a whole.  This is what I want to present in this discourse.


 
Effects of Character Death on the Group:
In any story, the death of a main character is a big deal.  I know a few of us read the Chronicles series of Dragonlance books, so I'll use those as an example.
 
After Goldmoon was all but liquefied by a black dragon's acid breath (in Xak Tsaroth I believe), her god Mishakal intervened on Goldmoon's behalf.  Divine intervention.  The character received the focused attention of a god.  She was supposed to be the disciple that brought restorative magics back to Krynn.  After she was resurrected by her god, Goldmoon became the pinnacle of dedication and drive for the will of Mishakal.  Riverwind didn't just throw her over his shoulder and haul her to the nearest church.
 
When Flint's heart exploded in the middle of that crater (wherever it was), they didn't cast Gentle Repose or whatever on him to make his body not rot so they could transport the corpse to the nearest rezzer.  When he died, he was gone for good (and I shed tears because of it).
 
When Sturm was skewered by Kitiara (the mother of his child) on the field of battle, I despised her for killing off one of my favorite characters, and I questioned Tanis' judgment in loving her.  They didn't drag Sturm's corpse into the healer's tent, resurrect him, and give him a pat on the butt and a "Better luck next time, soldier."
 
Caramon Majere had his share of tough times, but he persevered and overcame.  He fought vast hordes of beasts and monsters, and he killed dragons.  He survived characters betraying him, inner squabbles, and nationwide wars, all the while protecting his twin brother Raistlin, even after his brother stabbed the party in the back.  He received more than his fair share of injuries and wounds that would have killed a lesser man, but he saw it through to the end, and now he's a Hero of the Lance.  His name will be known for all eternity, and songs will forever praise his name throughout Krynn (and in his bar in Solace).
 
When Riverwind stood against the great red dragon Malystrix and destroyed her eggs sometime after or during the War of Souls, he knew he was going to die, yet he knew what had to be done and did it anyway.   After his death, I was happy his soul would be at peace because he could once again be with the love of his life, Goldmoon, in the afterlife.  No one was going to sneak into Malys' lair to get his body to bring him back to life.
 
What I'm trying to get across here is that the death of a main character in a story is a big deal.  Bringing that character back from the dead, without a damn good reason, would completely wreck the story.  What would you think of Caramon if he had to be resurrected five times throughout the war?  What would you think of Flint if they threw his preserved corpse in a sack and brought him to a church of Reorx to be resurrected?  They lose all sense of hero-ness and become more of the average, run-of-the-mill loser.  They aren't Heroes of the Lance; they're a bunch of average people that were forcibly pushed through the whole war.


In our Age of Worms campaign, I think it's safe to say that our characters are the main characters.  They're going to become the saviors of the world in preventing the age from dawning, or be the all-time villains of the world for bringing about the age, or become prominent figures in the new age in one way or another.  If they've had to be brought back from the dead from dying to some unnamed grimlock in some fucking cave somewhere, it doesn't make much sense that such a character is going to end up being the savior/destroyer of the planet.


Story aside, character death penalizes the group.  As written in the rules, death comes with both an experience and gold penalty.  If a character died, the group was therefore unable to keep him or her alive.  How is decreasing both the experience and resources of the group going to make this better?  It's setting the group back even farther for the next tough encounter.  The goal, in my opinion, is progression of both the story and of the characters.  Character death goes against this goal.  The problem may be magnified in our situation in that we play seldomly.  A level's worth of experience is months of playtime.  Many hours of searching for feats for that next level, or planning your skill training, or thinking about tactics using that next new feat are put off for months, and the active player sits around with a thumb up his ass until he's back to the same level of experience.  Other players that have built their characters for synergy with the dead character's build also now have to wait.  Lastly (and maybe most importantly), it's not fun.  It's not fun for the player, and I don't think it's fun for the DM either.

 

EDIT:  After reading that last section, I had a mini-epiphany.  The 4.0 character I developed for the off-weeks has far more personality and flair than Urshak, and it's because (at the current time) I'm not fearing that the character will just be killed off without a storyline reason.  He's not min-maxxed to high heaven.  He has flaws.  His build was fueled by what would be fun (in the purest sense of the word) to play, not necessarily the most effective.  I figured this may be insightful information to the reader, so I thought I'd add this comment.  END


 
Effects of Character Death on Players:
As mentioned above, the savior/villain of the world is fated for an epic destiny.  Through some will or way, they're destined to become something awesome.  Having them die for no good reason is not only against this concept, it actively works to undermine it.  We want to play heroes.  We want to develop a character that's going to have a legacy.  We don't want to play characters that have to be carried through the campaign.  We don't want to play characters that aren't good enough to survive what the campaign throws at them.  This degrades the characters from a party destined for greatness to a party of incapable nobodies that limp and hobble out of just about every tough situation.


-It's not "Yes!  We were able to defeat boss X, save Y, and look at all the loot we got!"  Instead, it's "Thank Christ that's over.  I sure hope the next one is fucking easier than that."
-It's not "Let's go to the tavern and celebrate this victory!"  Instead, it's "Let's each choose a corner and start begging for gold to get our friend resurrected."
 
Also mentioned above, the death penalty as described by the rules places a huge delay on our character advancement (which, in my opinion, is half the fun; the other half being story progression).  In our situation especially, the loss now of 2780+ experience is months' worth of playtime.  I am scared of what the time penalty of 20,000 experience will be.
 
Character death also discourages character development by the player.  Why spend time thinking, developing, and writing about your character when they can simply be killed off?  I want to develop a hero.  If he's not treated like one inside the world, there's a separation from what I want my character to be and what he is inside the game world.  What's the fucking point then?  It's like the work I've put into developing my character has been worthless.  He's just some nobody that can be killed off just like anyone else.  I can be some nobody every day in real life.  I don't want to spend my free time role-playing one.


 
Proposed Solution:
If a character is brought to zero or less health, a Will or Fortitude save (whichever is higher) should be thrown.  This symbolizes a character's will to live or toughness.  Either the character willfully refuses to go down, or the character is just one tough son of a bitch.  If the save is made the character will accept a heal and be revivable as usual during this encounter.  If the save fails, the character is not revivable until the encounter is finished, no experience from this encounter will be given to the character, and a stacking -2 penalty to all attributes will be given to the character after they're healed (after the encounter is over).  The penalty will be removed after an extended rest.  Instead of the current "take away" or "hurt them" theory of the current death penalty, these rules simply "hold back".


I have not determined a DC value for this save yet.  I haven't thought that much about a DC value that would be fair and balanced for any type of character.


This keeps the integrity of the story, the characters remain heroes, and this also imposes a strong enough penalty for the characters to still fear death.  Take enough "deaths", and your character becomes so ineffective the party can no longer continue and must retreat.  This "holding back" is penalty enough.


 
Conclusion:
I'm playing a character in a movie/novel, and I don't want the movie/novel to suck.


If we're instead playing a chess game with black and white pieces, I can play a piece.  I will not develop a story about my black knight having an affair with the white queen however.  I'm going to sit down at the table knowing what my piece is capable of, and treat it as such.  That's realistic.  There's no separation of what my character is in my mind and what my character is in the game world.


I am in no way opposed to the strong version of character death as long as there is a reason for it.
  For example, say Phage dies.  Her soul travels to the foot of Wee Jas' throne, and Wee Jas tells Phage's soul that the current interpretation of her teachings and control of the undead are completely warped.  The undead must now be used as a tool without restriction for the obliteration of parties or forces that cause unnecessary death.  Phage gets resurrected with a special purpose of spreading the new gospel of Wee Jas and is now granted the deathtouched domain (or whatever it is that makes your undead minions stronger).  The Cult of the Green Lady starts to hunt her down, and a side-quest for Phage would be to lead a group of new followers of Wee Jas against the old, incorrect followers that refuse to accept the new gospel.  This turns out to be a fairly quick battle as Wee Jas refuses to grant spells to the old followers.  They either die, leave the faith, or convert.  This would be awesome.  This is story.  This is character development.  Phage's heroic-ness is maintained.  Things like this don't happen out of the blue though.  This is something that happens when the DM makes it happen.  Phage shouldn't be dying otherwise.  No character should be dying otherwise.

 

To summarize, I like to play by the rules.  It puts everyone on an even playing field, and you know what you can and can not do.  However, in some cases (like the death penalty), the rules actually hurt the story or character development and impose too severe of a penalty.  Severe enough to end one of Pete's friendships a while back.  Severe enough to upset me for a few days.  Severe enough for some to lose interest in the story or their character.  I don't play to be a disciple to the rulebook though; I play for the story.  When the story suffers due to enforcement of the rules, burn the Goddamned rulebook.  Some may say "the lows make the highs higher," but if you can't progress the story, or when you aren't playing a heroic character anymore, there are no highs.  Who gives a fuck about the story then?  Who gives a fuck about DnD in general then?  It just lost everything that set it apart from other games.

A Fate Worse Than Death

Age of Worms Urshak