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Character death is yet another example of where there seems to be a great divide between modern and “old school” players, and as with all other issues, my answer tends to fall somewhere in the middle. According to the latest social media dust ups, 1e AD&D players generally see character death as a necessary ingredient to making the game fun. Without the risk of failure, not only is there no thrill of victory, but also there’s no “game” all. Moreover, the more at risk, the greater the reward. I largely agree with that, so the structure of this post is to operate from that assumption and then pull back on it a bit.
In my experience, modern players react emotionally to losses. I like the attachment they have to their characters, but more often than I’d like to see, that reaction is embarrassingly extreme. I’ve had plenty of players complain if they didn’t find every single magic item in the adventure, solve every single puzzle, or even when they get hit by a trap for zero damage. This appears to be taking failure far too seriously and “out of character.” In contrast, I see such failures as a fun learning experience. Nevertheless, I do acknowledge the modern player’s yang to the old school player’s yin, though I gather it’s not for the same reasons.
Too Much of Anything Can Be Too Much
I was in a 4e Dark Sun campaign run by Matt James. Among other writing credits to his name, he’s the author of Soldiers of Fortune. There was a stretch in which I lost 5 characters over the course of 9 weeks (i.e., my character died in week 1, then the next in week 3, then week 5, 7, and 9). All but one of those deaths was grandly heroic. NPC bards would sing stories about their sacrifices for centuries to come. But there are two reasons that much death sucks. First, I wrote up backstories at least one page in length for each of those characters. I’m particularly proud of my shardmind’s backstory. Having to do that every other week was a bit of work and eventually would have left me with little room to do something radically different from all I had written before, yet still fun for me. Second, for a character to really matter to a player (or at least to this player), the player must be invested in it, but a player shouldn’t get invested in a character with a shelf life of two, four-hour sessions. Doing so will make the game far too frustrating.
In my 1e days (1977-1982), due to limited interest and accessibility to a player pool (there was no internet back then), there were never more than five players around the table, and even five was rare. Moreover, adventures were designed for as many as 10 characters at a time. That meant we pulled double duty in the party.
Playing multiple characters militated against getting too attached, and while that has the downside, it also had the upside of giving me a wider variety of options on my turns.
I want to know that, in a fair fight, my character has a reasonable chance of survival, but at the same time I want to know that poor decisions on my part, or even just a string of bad luck, can make adventuring as risky as you’d expect it to be if it were real. That’s my often-cited “immersion in the game world/story” that I love to have in my games as either a player or DM. However, it’s ultimately a game and should be playable. Moreover, an investment in your character is another, equally legitimate path to immersion that old school players don’t seem to acknowledge.
Clearly, both sides have a merit, and I prefer them to be balanced rather have one than chosen to the exclusion of the other. YMMV.
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