How does character death work?

Peter Aronson

September 2011

Hi. After I read my copy of Becoming Heroes, I lent it to a friend. He hasn’t finished reading it, but when we last met he expressed some confusion about the the Life Die and character death. I think I understand how it works, but I’m not entirely sure.

If I understand correctly, if a character uses the life die, the opposition (which will usually be the GM) can, if they so choose, narrate the character’s death, even if the character wins the conflict (although they have to be careful not to contradict anything the winners narrate in so doing). And, if the character does not chose to play the Life Die, but the opposition is fighting to kill, then, if the character’s side loses, then, the opposition can if they so choose, also narrate the character’s death.

Is the above correct? If so, it would seem that a player character risks a real possibility of death in any lethal conflict.

In general, then, when would a GM choose to kill a player character, and why? And why would they refrain from killing a player character when they could?

August

September 2011

Hey Peter! I’m Austin, one of the Becoming Heroes developers.

Let me begin by answering your first question. Yes, characters can choose to narrate in their life die and, for whatever reason, also “die”. It’s also possible to have the life die forced in and then, only when losing, “die”. I’ll explain why I use quotes when I say this.

Character death has always been a tricky part of gaming. I am convinced that the reason it’s still around has to do with some very basic simulationist/gamist assumptions that have stuck within gaming like vestigial bone structures - useless but not an actively harmful force in the entity’s evolution. Character death is often a terrible event to bring to the table when it isn’t voluntary. And furthermore, it isn’t interesting.

The real rule here is in the Fates Worse Than Death sidebar. The life die can be used to just kill a character but the GM should only consider doing that when the player really wants it. I have tried for years to martyr several of my characters in various games, so I know that this happens. The real thing to do when the life die gets put in is to corrupt or twist the character if the player still wants them around. It’s an invitation, from the player to the GM, to change their character. Feel free to change, add or subtract Traits when doing this. In the reverse, it’s a challenge from the GM to player, saying “show me what you’ve got”. Forcing the Life Die should only really happen in major plot zones, and then should generally be used when you’re confident that the players can reasonably overcome their opposition.

Also recall that death, in a fantasy world, is rarely ever the end of anyone important. Some arcs require death to hit all their points! I mean, look at fucking Gandalf! That dude dies and gets stronger for it. That’s the approach you should take with character death - use it to tell a good story, not to scrap some friend’s beloved character sheet. Random Guy 37 is not meant to kill your bright, shining heroes. Neither is that waterfall. But the Ravenous Herald of Empty Spiral Destruction, prince of all chaos and enemy of life itself, the man-shaped-thing who killed the hero’s family? Yeah, you might not come out of that fight the same. Ultimately, you have to gauge for yourself which fights are important to the story, and what kinds of changes would make for the best story.

So to mirror your question: a GM chooses to kill a character when the player wants it, or when there are awesome story elements to be gained from it. The GM refrains when it’s either inappropriate to do so, or better to corrupt, change or twist some part of the character instead.

I hope that answers your question!

-Austin

Peter Aronson

September 2011

Austin, thanks for the answer! What you’re saying makes sense, but it could be a bit more clear in the book, or at least, a bit more emphasized. But given that, I find this section from the same section of the Becoming Heroes (page 32) kind of sort of puzzling:

When someone chooses to accept no quarter or expresses the intent to kill rather than defeat, the people they are going to kill automatically get the extra life die. If you win an encounter that forced you to narrate in your life die, your life is not at risk. Heroes encounter villains willing to kill them all the time, but it’s only when the character voluntarily puts their life on the line that they can win but still be killed.

As it seems to say that even if a player doesn’t choose the put in the life die, if the opponent is fighting to kill and the players lose the conflict, then the GM can still kill the player’s character. Since the player didn’t add in the life die voluntarily, there is no clear signal that they are willing for the their character to die or to suffer a fate worse than death. This seems to me to make the whole idea of a life die less useful. Yeah, it would be potentially dickish for the GM to pull something like that, and one should do one’s best not to play with dicks, but still, part of the purpose of a rule book is tell how the game is played. Not just the rules, but the procedures as well. BH seems a little weak on the procedures here (and in the area of creating/choosing setting, but that’s another topic).

Kit

September 2011

So, if I understand what you’re saying: there’s a situation in which the GM can force character death on a PC (when the GM forces the Life Die, and the GM wins), but no clear guidance as to when that might be appropriate to do?

My take on it is that character death is pretty much like any other circumstance or consequence, but with a little extra mechanical padding to make it harder to achieve (that one die can make a big difference in an otherwise tied conflict). So, I think the answer is “kill them when it’s the most appropriate consequence”.

This game puts a lot of faith in the people playing it to act fairly to each other. Personally, I think that’s all a game can do, though I know there are other approaches.

Now, let’s talk about creating/choosing setting in another thread. I’m really interested to hear your thoughts, as it’s something we’ve had a lot of debate over.

Kit

September 2011

Oh, two more things:

First, thanks for the feedback. This is our first game, and we’re still learning a lot. One of the hardest things is taking what we do at the table and making each part of it explicit.

Second, the life die also makes life-or-death situations threatening. It puts you in the position of being willing to do anything, even spend Doom, to live.

Peter Aronson

September 2011

Second, the life die also makes life-or-death situations threatening. It puts you in the position of being willing to do anything, even spend Doom, to live.

Now that is an interesting point I hadn’t considered. If you can’t afford to lose, even spending doom looks … (sort of) OK. I like it!

I’ll try to put the post about setting together tonight.

Kit

September 2011

That’s actually kind of what the Mass Conflict system is for, too: it’s a threat to encourage certain behavior. We almost never use it as such—instead, we do certain things because we want to avoid the horror it can cause.