Friday, March 12, 2010

On Character Death: Live Fast, Die Young and Leave a Beautiful Character Sheet

It's better to burn out, than to fade away...
The chainsaw burr of Joseph's SAW and the rhythmic thumping and booming of Piotr’s grenade launcher mixed with the screaming of the frenzied angels that kept pouring into the warehouse. They came to protect their boss, their patron, the Archangel Raphael who stood raging and howling at the center of an ink-black sphere of magical darkness. He was pinned there to the floor, pinned to this world by silver spikes driven through his feet and legs, spikes forged in the Vatican’s armories and blessed by the Holy Father himself to assist the team in their job, the total destruction of the renegade angel. Bogart was down, felled by Piotr’s stun grenades after Raphael had taken control of Bogart’s mind. Hunter destroyed one angel with a long burst from his SPAS 12, wiping the smug look from his face and sending him back to heaven. Half a dozen of Raphael's cohort appeared on the catwalk with Piotr and Joseph, only to be vaporized by a massive breaching charge that Piotr had rigged by way of a trap. The big Russian stood next to Joseph and lobbed grenades into the fray, alternating between the Lord’s prayer and prayers to Saint Barbara. Joseph made a quick mental calculation, turned to Piotr and said, “Give me range and bearing.” Piotr could just make out Raphael’s vague shape through the darkness, and gave Joseph the numbers. Joseph handed Piotr his pocket sec, went down the rope they’d rigged to escape, and walked straight into the darkness with Raphael. A moment later there was a shattering, fiery explosion as Joseph embraced the renegade angel and detonated all of his grenades, sending both to their respective rewards. Piotr, weeping and offering a prayer for Joseph’s soul, read the message on his friend’s pocket sec, “Bleeding one of us to bleed Raphael is worth it”.

And just like that, Joseph was gone. It was a beautiful ending to a grueling combat that none of us expected to survive. It was, in fact, as bad as Joseph had thought. Raphael's angels were never going to stop coming. He had possessed at least three of us, and half of our team was either bleeding to death in this empty warehouse in Detroit or were fully under the angel's sway. Piotr, my character, Joseph and Hunter were the last ones standing, but for how long? Grenades and ammo were running out, we weren't making a real visible dent in Raphael's defenses and his boys kept pouring into the warehouse. Our plan was a good one, but like every plan it was only good until first contact. Raphael was winning, and all of our blessings and holy weapons were of no avail. We needed something drastic, or we were all going to die there. Joseph, played brilliantly by Riff, knew what needed to be done. He sacrificed himself to save us.

We sat there in silence for a moment, considering what we'd just witnessed. A player had played in character, and had sacrificed himself for the good of his teammates. This was a character that Riff had played for nearly a year, and had taken hours to make. All of us, from the GM down loved it, and Riff even got bonus Karma to make his next character for it. It wasn't just awesome, and I'm here to tell you gentle readers, it was awesome, it was an uncommon bit of role-playing that you don't see very often. Think about it, when was the last time you had a character die in one of your games?

By and large, as players we tend to shy away from character death, which is odd considering the kind of activities we get up to so often. Let's face it, we play characters who are largely professional killers, or in the service of professional killers, and to paraphrase Steve McQueen in The Magnificent Seven, we deal in lead. We take part in a hobby full of books packed with firearms and swords and robots and jet-fighters and all manner of weapons of mass destruction. We play these larger than life, crunch-walking badasses who stomp on the terra and swing our dicks around and do whatever we want, typically with no consequences. Then one day the chickens come home to roost. We get too cocky or reach too far or find ourselves in a situation where the death of our character is the best alternative.

This is where the wailing and the gnashing of teeth and the beating of breasts comes in. Players love to cry about "Killer GMs" and beg and plead to have our characters survive some impossible situation. Players are great at dishing out death and destruction, but you know we largely can't take it. There's a good reason we like to gloss over the consequences our actions might have, though. Whether we admit it or not, many of us put a lot of ourselves into our characters. For a lot of us they're not just numbers on a page, but examples of what we'd like to be, how we want to think of ourselves. So it's natural that it should sting when we lose one of these powerful avatars of all our inner needs and desires, but it shouldn't be the end of the world. Instead, it should be seen as yet another opportunity to stretch our legs as players and hone our role-playing skills. It can also become one of those stories you tell for years in your circle of gaming friends. A legendary glory or cock-up that you tell and retell, like we do with the story about Joseph up there.

Personally, I'd hate to lose Yuri/Piotr or Sir Bail, but if it came to it, and it made sense in the context of the game or was even the result of my own stupidity, I'd welcome it. As attached as I am to Yuri, as much as a part of me wants to be Yuri, just the idea of the role-playing opportunities that could lead to his death excites me as a player. The fact that I know there are consequences to my actions helps me relate to the game setting better, and enhances my enjoyment of the game in general. I'm not saying that you should just go out and try to get your characters killed, but if it makes sense in the context of the game, grit your teeth, spit in your enemy's eye, and go down fighting.

1 comment:

Jason said...

I agree with you as far as taste in games and stories goes. My only quibble is that some games make creating and developing a character into such an asspain that you don't want to go through it again. Shadowrun with BeCKs, to pick the obvious example, means that killing your character means significant work with a calculator, and potentially a loss of character effectiveness. Want to encourage people to risk their characters' lives? Make it ready to come back with a different but equally (or more than equally) awesome character.