Character Death

When a character dies, it can be a real buzzkill in a lot of games. Some games make this not so—in Fiasco, you can continue to exert influence over the story, in the name of a dead character, just as easily as a live one. In Dogs in the Vineyard, you don’t die unless you’ve had a dramatic death scene, and figured that the conflict was worth staking your life on. But in many other games? Death can happen all too easily, once anything comes to blows.

Austin’s recent post has gotten me thinking about this in more detail. The idea that a failure undercuts belief in a character is tied to the well-established point (first enumerated, as far as I know, in Spirit of the Century) that failure should be interesting. The clincher was watching an episode of the show Leverage (can you tell I’m obsessed?) in which Hardison was in a car rigged with explosives. He couldn’t leave—that would trigger the bomb—and he couldn’t stay—it was on a timer. There seemed to be no way that failure could be interesting. Hardison was rushing up towards a brick wall. His death would have no real meaning, either. I turned to Austin and said, “This is a case where failure is uninteresting.”

Yet, had that episode been a game, the GM could hardly have not called for a roll of some sort—”There’s a bomb in the car, but you disarm it” would be a total let-down. What’s a poor GM to do?

One answer is to avoid such situations. This is probably too limiting. Another is to fudge results. This is indicative of a somehow broken system. Finally, one can reinterpret failure, change what the stakes are. Sure, the situation may be a car bomb, but is the character’s life at stake? This cuts the tension of the situation.

Ultimately, I’m not sure how to deal with this. Any suggestions? Obviously it’ll vary a lot depending on the point of the game you’re making, but general tactics?