Death and Mourning.

This post has been sitting in my pending file for some time, and Chris over at Deep in the Game reminded me that I never finished or posted it.

I remember a time when ending a game was a thing I never looked forward to. I remember, in fact, dysfunctionally digging my heels in hard and resisting it to the bitter, dissatisfied end. Characters are my emotional sockets to the games I play. They are the conduits that funnel my energy into and out of play, and the catalysts which allows me to play hard, right up to the edge, and not get burned. I didn’t much trust my GM’s to do my characters (or the story) justice in an ending, and that lack of trust was earned in many (but not all) of the games I played.

With the advent of Nar play, where I can push or pull endings of my own instigating, I find myself far more interested in participating in them. I’ve had a number of big ones over the last couple of years, one of which I talked about over on Fair Game in “The End of the Game“, the other was Kika’s end that I rambled about in my my push/pull actual play post.

In reflecting on them in recent weeks, I’ve been musings about character deaths and the preferences of players around them.

I have a friend (who played Dae, the barbarian warrior woman from the that Exalted game) who is adamant when negotiating her social contracts that the possibility of character death is NIL unless the player declares an authorial intention to die. This doesn’t stop other players from choosing to receive the grim stabbies, but it means that regardless of her actions in game, her character will not die by any means but by her own out of game declaration.

Now before anybody asserts that this is a dysfunctional, dickweedy, or assy attempt to play without responsibility or consequence I’ll pre-empt with this info: I’ve been playing with this player for about 12 years, and in that time, I don’t ever remember a single situation where she spit in the face of death and then refused to die. Despite the fact that I introduced you to her as the player of a warrior, she usually plays social, non-combative characters.

Why the !death rule? Well now, that’s a complicated question. I’m not sure I have the answer. I’m not sure she could even tell you herself. I have some theories, though. I may be talking out my ass, here, these are just based on observation and speculation and are not actually from the player herself. She does read this blog though and she’s welcome to clarify or expand on anything I put down.

The concept of possibility is very central to her personality. In life, she’s not someone who’s comfortable with a lot of restrictions. She likes her options open, and she rarely closes doors behind her. She’s so taken with possibility that she often finds herself having trouble finishing things. So on one hand, we could make a fair assumption that she doesn’t like her characters to die simply because it means the end of the possibility of the character and shutting the door to possibility is fundamentally (as opposed to tangentally) antithetical to who she is.

RPGs are the playground of wish-fulfillment, and this player likes the heck out of that jungle gym. Every character that I remember her playing in has at least some element that the player would aspire to be or have something that the player would like to have (freedom to be uncensored or unfettered, considerable social power), and I suspect that she engages in immersion because (at least in part) it allows her the ability to feel like either she owns the quality (when she would actually aspire to have it) or the freedom to play in the quality tangibly.

There are definately times I do the same thing with my characters. mostly my big spots are confidence and power. I often borrow from my characters the ability to be hotheaded, spontaneous, thrillseeking. I borrow their bravery and courage, their right to live in the world without being morbidly introspective about it.

Is this the manifestation of our imago? Is there a creation and experimentation of the ideal us in the characters we make – even in those that aren’t us, or that we don’t like? Do we establish our own potential by being in the playground of someone who can, and is this why giving up characters is so difficult for some of us? Do we feel like what we have proven that we can do becomes unowned when a character dies? Do we mourn the loss of that potential when our characters die?

Now for myself, I’ve discovered that when it come to the end of a character, I actually prefer death as an ending to a living ending, and I had to look at why…

I think that its because unfulfilled possibility is a tragic thing to me, because knowing that there was a character that I’d invested in, that was the locus for such fun is still alive and still out there means that there is still room for exploration, still more to be played. A death means that everything was played out, it means tangible closure. Resolution and reflection are really important to me. I think that when the character dies, I can strike the set like I used to do in theatre and pack the bits and pieces back into me.

Note: I didn’t post this so that somebody could start a debate about what’s better or worse, or what’s functional or not, so don’t bother with those. I’m interested in our psychological and emotional attachment to character and to RPG’s in general.

23 thoughts on “Death and Mourning.”

  1. The way I look at it is not so much about losing a character- it’s about proper closure. Meaningless death means I never get to see the “end of the story” for that character- it’s unsatisfying, incomplete. Meaningful death is a good exit for the character, and though I might really like the character, I know that it ends at a proper time and that I’ve gotten a good chance to say something with tha character.

    It’s sort of like getting interrupted mid-sentence and not having a chance to finish your thought.

  2. Hi all. I am Dae, for lack of a better identifier. 😉

    Mo, you forgot that I recently made a character whose sole purpose in life is to die, and die SPECTACULARLY. And the only roadblock to that seems to be the other player in the game.

    But that’s a big leap forward for me, and came only from the fact that you’d been so awesome about letting death happen to characters, so I figured it was time to give it a go.

    Anyway, you’re right that I am not too sure why I don’t like to die IC until I’m ready to. Maybe some of it is possibility – and that’s a pretty fair assessment of how I go about life in general – but I think most of it has to do with wish-fulfillment. RPGs are about being cooler and fightier and -different- than you are in real life. Knowing I can die in a stupid (and thus, meaningless) way is irritating, especially when you’re playing heroes, who don’t die until there’s something huge at stake. Putting the ‘I don’t want to die’ out there is a little like a seatbeat or something – it doesn’t stop dead, but it prevents my character’s death from being an accident.

    When Isolde and Chuni were left alive and Ruger was dead, that was one time where I wished my character -had- died. You and I had lost pretty much everything but for our lives, and that seemed meaningless in comparison. So I guess it’s not death that I am against, it’s stupid meaningless death – in a situation where the death is a good ending, I think I would generally be okay with it, if I felt it was a good place to end.

    I also used to have a thing about not dying alone IRL. But I realized that, as the Buddhists say, we all die alone, no matter what. So, maybe that perspective has changed me as well.

  3. Question bor both of you… or anyone else for that matter:

    Option 1: A character you are invested in dies in a manner that doesn’t give you closure.

    Option 2: A game you are invested in just gets dropped, and never gets picked up again. It was left at a place that doesn’t give you closure.

    Is one of these better? Is one of them worse? Do they equate to the same thing?

  4. I’d usually take option 1 if it is going to be a game in which I have some ability to influence the game after my character has died.

    Tara’s death in Buffy, for example, happened pretty damn fast and without warning — but the reactions of the other characters gave it meaning that lasted the rest of the series.

    The Mountain Witch has some interesting mechanics for dealing with issues like that, as after you’re dead you can still use Trust.

    However, in a traddy game where character presence = ability to author the game, I’d look at them as pretty much the same thing.

  5. Speaking for my two favorite traditional campaigns, I like the fact that the games just stopped. The characters aren’t dead, they’re just “out there”, somewhere. Maybe someday I’ll find out what happened to them, maybe not.

    I wonder if there’s a connection to my earlier MBTI self-evaluation on Brand’s blog…checking…well, I’ve got a “lower-case perceiving” in my “Gamer” profile, but Mo has a capital-P in the same row. So that doesn’t work. What might is the fact that my entire judging-perceiving column is weak, while Mo’s got a big “J” in her character row.

    On the other hand I haven’t really had much experience of character death–it’s just something that didn’t happen in the long-term games I used to play. Not by my choice, though–in my opinion it was more of a property of the groups I played with in the 80’s & early 90’s.

    Then again when I read that “Rurik” of RQII fame was an actual character who advanced to Runelord status before being killed by a lucky attack by a trollkin, I like it. Because what attracted me to Runequest (although I didn’t get to play much) was the interwoven tapestry of the setting. (The possibility of) a “meaningless” death adds to the tapestry and makes it seem more alive.

  6. Wow Elliot, you and I like really different things in our games.

    If we relate this back to the MBTI thing, I really don’t think it has much to do with judging or percieving. I’d be more like to think of it as either an N/S or T/F issue, depending on what your relationship to the game is.

    Between you and me and our difference here, I think it’s very definately a N/S issue in our gamer type. You like the availablity of meaningless death because it enhances your sense of the game’s myth, while the myth itself means very little to me as an N. I want my worlds to be malleable: to bend to the needs of the story or of the character. In fact, if something in a game happens that (to my sensibility) interferes with the maximum potential of the story just because “that’s the “reality” of the world, I’d get extremely frustrated.

  7. Hi Mo,

    Think of this: option 2 can happen for all manners of reasons outside the game itself- option 1 only happens because of what people agree to AT the table. The not-fun of option 2 is just how life goes at some times, the not-fun of option 1 is the result of group collaboration to create it.

  8. Chris,

    Agreed, and so there is a difference in regards to my relationship with the other players in the game and how I feel about personal control over what happened (life’s like that vs. we did that). I meant more: is there a difference in your sense of loss of the character between the two scenarios?

  9. Hey, Mo. So you’ve got INFP for your approach to the game and I’ve got ESTp. Yes, that’s a pretty big difference, and the N/S split makes sense. So does the I/E split, now that I look back at how you guys defined it for the game “row”:

    Introverts are those that approach a game primarily through their character. Extroverts are those who approach the game primarily through the world, setting, or situation. [That’s the tapestry. –EW] If you want to play in the world of Wheel of Time, you’re going the E road. If you want to play a farmer who grows into a great leader, in whatever setting, you’re going the I road.

  10. Hi Mo,

    is there a difference in your sense of loss of the character between the two scenarios?

    For sure- in the “game falls apart” situation, I can still have the “open door” that I could, theoretically finish telling that story with that character, whereas in the “meaningless death” option, I would have a harder time trying to get that open door to see a good closure for the character.

  11. The more I read here the more I think I am out of step with what people have come to call “Gaming.”

    Since I have no particular interest in emotional investment in my characters the idea of “meaning” in death matters only in how it serves a story.

    If a game ends unexpectedly, then the game is over similiar to the unexpected cancellation of a Tv series. If the game was fun I will miss playing it but could switch to a new game just as easily.

    However, I would like to point out that meaning in a death can come after it happens. I’ve RPed post-death scenes with players or ensured the players learn of the consequences to their actions. I think no one wants their contribution to the story to come across as meaningless.

    But I can recall “death streaks” in LARP games. I know I lost 2 characters in 2.5 sessions once, and I went through a period where about 8 sessions was my average life expectancy on characters. Never bothered me much…

    Maybe I’m too much the game master and treat my PCs the same way I’d treat my NPCs. They’re tools to advance a storyline and the resources I have to bring to bear to a problem solving exercise. That’s an element being overlooked here. The game part of role-playing game.

  12. Dude, that is one small part of what the word “game” means. Though, for the record, you just described a person with a T focused story or game socket.

    You’re also only about a step off from where I am. I don’t care about my characters in the way, say, Mo or Nic do. My characters are part of a story, and I care about them about the same way I care about Aragorn in LOTR. I do sometimes get upset when they’re lost pointlessly, but more because it makes the story lame than anything else.

    So you aren’t out of step with “what people call gaming” you’re just missing the idea that there are about 50 bajillion different hobbies that cluster under the same name and pretend to be the same thing.

    Someone playing map-based D&D, someone playing freeform Hearts and Souls, and someone playing Vampire LARP are not doing the same thing anymore than three people playing Rugby, Calvinball, and First Nations lacrosse are.

  13. “Dude, that is one small part of what the word “game” means. Though, for the record, you just described a person with a T focused story or game socket.”

    I don’t know. To me the core of what sets up a “game” is a shared set of assumptions (or ‘rules’) and an problem to be overcome within them. Even in gambling you have rules and a problem (someone else has money you want) to overcome.

    Remove the rules and the problems you have a shared imagination exercise better described as playing with toys rather than playing a game. Unfortunately, toys have an even more negative stigma in our culture than games which drives people who would prefer to play with toys to seek out games instead. One need only look at the esitance of chaet-code God modes and sandbox modes on numeroud games to show that some people are not interested in adapting and adjuting to a set of parameters but simply want to exist in a different worldspace for a time.

    So, are there Role-Playing games and Role-Playing Toys? Is this distinction meaningful? Helpful?

  14. You know, I’ve been thinking about making a set of terms just for my own use to cover this sort of thing….

    However, “game” can mean a lot of things. Social games, children’s games (cops n robbers, yo), and many other things are games.

    Plus, you do not have to have an IC/In world problem to overcome in order to have a set of rules that structure play in a way that can be deemed a game. Something that is a collaberative storytelling excercise that has rules about who gets to say what and when, in which you have to use the rules to tell your story, is certainly a game. The focus of “what you’re trying to do” is just not “complete a mission in the game world.”

    Ditto a game in which you are given a set of rules and told to come up with something emotionally engaging to yourself and your audicence. If your rules are actually set up to help focus and modify that, then you’re certainly playing a game.

    Of course, I could also whip out the OED at this point and be all like, “the primary definition of game is ‘An activity providing entertainment or amusement; a pastime'” — so your definition of game is a pretty particular one.

    Which leads us to the quesiton of whom it is we’re trying to get on the same page. When I introduce non-gamers to RPGs I don’t normally have to have this kind of conversation. This is the sort of thing that only happens when one experienced RPer is taling to another experienced RPer and both of them assume they know what the other is talking about. (And normally they don’t, because their hobbies aren’t the same hobby despite sharing the same name.)

    So, for those of us already in the mess, I think that having some terms could be useful. I just don’t think any one method has the lock on the word “game.”

    For the record, I’ve started thinking of these types of things we call RPGs:

    Storytelling Games
    Adventure Games
    Exploration Games
    Individual Character Focused Tactical Games
    Joint Theatre/Improv Games

    and so on.

    Any more to add to the list?

  15. Hey Dave, welcome to Sin Aesthetics, I didn’t know you were reading.

    But… (and Brand, listen too)

    I was pretty specific in the post about what I was looking to talk about here, and what the definition of a game is, really is not it. Can you take it to the Forge or somesuch place, or, you know, like, call, since you live six block away from each other? 😉


    So, are you saying that you emotionally feel better in the second option because at least you can hope? In both cases there is no closure, but the character death option feels worse than the game death. Does that point to something? If so, what?

  16. Option 1: A character you are invested in dies in a manner that doesn’t give you closure.

    Option 2: A game you are invested in just gets dropped, and never gets picked up again. It was left at a place that doesn’t give you closure.

    Is one of these better? Is one of them worse? Do they equate to the same thing?

    I had Option 2 happen to me a few weeks ago, but I’ve never experienced Option 1. Option 2 is sucking pretty badly, but I don’t know if Option 1 would be better or worse. It’s hard to really imagine.

    One of the first things I said, when the GM rang me the day before we were due to play and said ‘[Other player] refuses to ever play this game again, so the game is over,’ was that I wanted some sort of closure with my character. However, I couldn’t at the time, and still can’t, imagine what that closure would be. I was going to do things with that character that I was so excited about, I literally can’t think of something that would provide closure. I’m upset about not being able to play that character, the loss of that potential, the opportunity to play with really cool NPCs, and so on. The rest of the game, not so much. The other PC was becoming less and less interesting to me, as her player seemed incapable of drawing her into the sorts of plots we’d agreed to have (in fact, this was the reason the player ended the game, as she couldn’t find a way to do so that didn’t break her enjoyment of the game).

    I’m not sure my observations help much, since I’ve only experienced one side of your question.

  17. Hi Mo,

    Yeah, it’s not just “hope”, but it’s knowing that if the group decides to reconvene and make another go at it, that it is possible to pick things up again. Meaningless character death is a pretty good sign that the group isn’t about what I’m into.

  18. Hiya Claire,

    It helps. I was asking that specific question in order to try and disambiguate if the whole thing was a closure thing or if there were a closure thing combined with an attachment to character thing.

    That sucks. Do you ever solo game? Could the game go on that way and the PC be sucked into NPC land?

  19. “I was pretty specific in the post about what I was looking to talk about here, and what the definition of a game is, really is not it. Can you take it to the Forge or somesuch place, or, you know, like, call, since you live six block away from each other? ;)”

    Nope actually. I’m not comfortable with such narrow restrictions on where a discussion can range.

    However, it is your site so I’ll respect your wishes and simply try to avoid posting.

  20. Dave,

    I didn’t mean any offense, it’s just that I created Sin Aesthetics for a pretty specific purpose: to explore and improve the social mechanisms of gaming and to experiment with game theory around social, psychological and emotional techniques and to enhance support for these in a post-GNS context for design.

    Your post started out in the right field, but the conversation you were in, or at least heading into, was a qualitative discussion around GNS modes. Topics like that have a tendancy to overtake discussions in blogs and forums and take derail the original purpose of the post, so I’m just moderating to keep things on track.

  21. Option 1: A character you are invested in dies in a manner that doesn’t give you closure.

    Option 2: A game you are invested in just gets dropped, and never gets picked up again. It was left at a place that doesn’t give you closure.

    Hi, Mo!

    For me, 1 is unambiguously worse.

    Part of the way I approach games is that I take characters I am invested in and embellish them outside of play – I write stories about them or from their perspective, I mess around with visual character designs, etc. But all this stuff is bent around the core fiction of the character – the fiction of play.

    So, when a character dies, that pulls the plug on non-play character development for me. I can’t say anything more; the character is over.

    If the game dies down, then I can write, for a long time if need be, until the character closes itself.

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