Death and Destruction of Campaigns

Death Worship

‘Death worship’ is a term I’ve been spreading for a while now. It’s basically just a shorthand for people having a firm view of how death works in TTRPGs. When you hit 0 HP, or get enough wounds and fail your rolls, you die. Simple as that. Why I call it worship is that almost no one questions it. Almost no one challenges it. It just exists, because people think it’s realistic and it makes sense.

Very few games do anything with the concept of death itself, and instead of being a feature of its own, it’s just an extension of damage systems and the like. It’s put there because it belongs there, even if there is no good reason for it.

Most people do not enjoy character death. Much less so when it is dependent on randomization. Even less so when it involves the death of an entire party, a TPK, and usually the whole subsequent campaign. People complain about characters shoddily introduced to the campaign, and about campaigns that died to a GM’s mistake. But very few people call into question the real culprit behind it, the shallow mechanics of death.

Why It's bad

I get it. To us, death seems like an extension of wounds taken, and avoiding certain death, often called plot armor, takes us right out of the moment in other types of media. But in tabletop RPGs, death has so much more meaning. It is the end of a character’s journey who could’ve been part of your life for years, it’s the abandonment of their storyline. When you add an entire party’s death to it, it is amplified. This means that due to what is often a freak accident, the heroes are dead and either a fittingly similarly powerful group comes out of nowhere or that world is doomed. And the campaign, months and maybe years of playing comes to a halt, often because of dice rolls and bad planning by the GM, maybe even game mechanics that are bad.

My only question is: Is it worth it? Is the threat of dying actually worth it when you balance it out with throwing away this intricate story you have been constructing with your friends? Especially when a single character death can be so impossibly stupid and anticlimactic, even more so with an entire party.

To me, the answer is no. Nothing in the rules is worth more than the story you’re constructing with the other players.

Death as the only solution

My other problem with death is its place as the only way to be defeated. Most situations are able to have 3 possible end results: Total success, someone dies, or everyone dies. This is because combat is often relegated to being the last resort, as it should be. However, this takes away the ‘defeat’ possibilities that do not involve your entire group dying. How about if the bad guy wins and takes over the world? What about being captured by the opposing nation? What of being put to trial for the crimes you have committed? What of losing someone close to you and facing the consequences? These options are often barred away from most games due to a simple fact: They can never happen, because the players will be dead before they could happen.

How to fix it, one method

My solution to the problem is simple: Kill characters only when it matters. This is not the GM’s call, this is the player’s call. Only when the player is ready to sacrifice their character for a cause should their character be killed. This was accomplished beautifully in Tenra Bansho Zero, where you have a ‘Death Box’ in your character sheet that you tick if your character is in a situation where they are ready to die for their cause. I recreated this partially in Misfortune, where players die only when they use up enough rerolls and fail critically, leading to a situation where players can be immortal if they want.

Why is this solution good, you might ask? Doesn’t it take away the stakes from the players, when their characters are no longer in danger of death?

In my viewpoint, it does the exact opposite. It forces the GM to make situations where the players are ready to throw their lives away. It forces people to get into character and create things their characters care about. It forces the game to focus on the characters and not some nebulous thing the GM wants to run. Because to challenge the players, suddenly, the GM needs to challenge their characters instead of just throwing dangerous things at them. It also allows the GM to just throw extremely lethal things at players, knowing that they will not die even if they fumble around. It also allows for very easy access to stuff like grievous injuries, and allows those injuries to exist without them being a lethal detriment to the entire team.

And ultimately, it saves the entire campaign from dying to “Oh damn, that dragon was way above your level, you weren’t supposed to fight it!”.