Character death is not something I have dealt with a great deal. In general, I’m opposed to player character death determined by the roll of a die. This is odd, of course, because most of the games I play include this as a possibility and, indeed, as the assumed method of character death.
In my mind, player characters are the heroes of the game, and heroes don’t die meaningless deaths. It is certainly possible for a meaningful death to come from a dice roll, but I don’t have an objection to those – and I think them the exception rather than the rule.
Why do I bring this up? I had a character die on Wednesday. It wasn’t a character I had an investment in – it wasn’t even one I’d played before . In thinking about it, though, I can’t remember the last time I had a character who died in a way that wasn’t pre-planned. It seems like, in many cases, GMs I’ve played with have bent the rules of the game in order to keep characters alive… because their deaths at that point would have reduced the fun of the game.
…yet games continue to allow for the possibility of random death. The purpose of doing so, I take it, is to add an element of challenge and a sense of danger to things like combat. Death seems to me to be the easy (and unimaginative) way out – there are plenty of other things that could be at stake. The neo-forgey way of dealing with this seems to center around setting those stakes on the fly, but I don’t see why stakes other than death couldn’t be built into a system.
For example, imagine a mighty warrior who loses a battle badly. He is dishonored, shamed, and loses his self-confidence. He lays down his sword and is reluctant to fight. This sort of thing happens all the time in fiction. How could we do this in a rpg? Take d20:
When a fighter is reduced to 0 hp, he either falls unconscious or is dishonored. A dishonored fighter suffers a -2 penalty on Will saves (-4 vs. fear or compulsion), attack and damage rolls, and all Strength and Dexterity based skill checks. A dishonored fighter must make a dc 15 Will save to pick up a weapon and a dc 20 Will save to initiate combat.