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Do You Have Any Cake, Instead?

Death is a very dull, dreary affair, and my advice to you is to have nothing whatsoever to do with it. –W. Somerset Maugham

We’ve all been there, when the randomness and challenges of a game prove to be too much for one of the characters and he shuffles off the mortal coil. Kicks the bucket. Takes the Big Sleep. Pushes up daisies. Assumes room temperature. Joins the choir invisible. Cashes in his chips. Becomes existentially challenged. Takes the eternal celestial dirt nap.

He’s dead, Jim.

Nobody likes the next two options:

  1. Someone rolls up a new character. The GM finagles a somewhat logical entrance for her. The normally hyper-paranoid group somehow manages to find a perfectly logical reason to let her join the party. “You seem trustworthy. Would you care to join us in our noble quest?” Verisimilitude is usually kicked to the curb.
  2. “Find a high level cleric” flies to the top of the party’s To Do List. If there’s already a high level cleric in the party, then your Blazing Saddles [1] fan gets to quote Slim Pickens: “Somebody’s gotta go back and get a shitload of diamonds!” The characterless player gets to play video games, recalculate experience, and kibitz [2]. (This option not available in all genres.)

Sure, there are creative and innovative ways to introduce the new character, or to give the characterless player a way to keep playing. But why make work for yourself when there are some really cool alternatives to death? And despite the title, we’re not talking about cake [3].

Genre Appropriateness

Fantasy or high-powered sci-fi are usually pretty flexible when it comes to these alternatives, as limbs can be regrown or replaced, sight and hearing can be magically or technologically restored, etc. Simply put, when the rules allow for full recovery, grievous injuries are an improvement over character death because the player and the character can continue playing, albeit somewhat hampered.

On the other hand, in more ‘realistic’ genres and campaigns, these injuries may burden a character to the extent that retirement starts to look good. Even so, the injured character can still complete the adventure, or at least get to a reasonable stopping point. And the replacement character will have a better reason to join the party, and a more appropriate entry into the game.

Alternatives to Death

Some of these are not pretty. You might not want to read this around mealtime, unless you’re going on a diet.

Bones break (link [4])

(Link is to a search, not a particular video.) A broken arm will take the wind out of any hero’s sails. A broken leg is even worse, especially if it’s the femur (thighbone). And I probably don’t need to talk about skulls or spines…

Penalties are initially going to be more than “you have one functional hand” or “you move at half speed”. If you haven’t had a broken limb, then some pointers: Until properly set and splinted/cast, they hurt like hell when jarred or moved. In d20 terms, I’d penalize any Strength or Dexterity based actions at –2 to –8, depending on the location and severity of the break. These would be halved once the bones are properly set, and would go away over time.

Limbs get severed

(No links, you sick little ghouls.) Sure, maybe you have a clean cut, an ice chest, and a quick route to a Level I trauma center. Maybe the cleric has some troll’s blood and a transfusion kit. But it’s much more likely that someone just got a new nickname, and became the butt of many jokes to come.

Initially, there’s blood loss and probably shock, which sounds suspiciously (in d20ish) like Constitution Damage and a Will Save (adjust to your system of choice). Then there’s either getting that bloody thing put back on (mind the direction, so you aren’t half pigeon-toed), or dealing with a missing limb. Some systems have disadvantages or hindrances for having one leg or one arm, and this sounds like a great opportunity to use them. Missing limbs are a staple of at least one genre [5], and more [6] than [7] one [8] real-life warrior operates without a full set of limbs.

“You’ll put an eye out!”

It’s all fun and games until someone gets their eye poked out. Then, it’s hilarious.

Seriously, aside from a killer eye patch or a creepy glass eye, losing an eye will also give someone a serious depth of field problem until this is fixed. Let’s just hope it wasn’t your sniper, and that they only lost one eye…

Deafness is another occupational hazard of the adventurous. While not as detrimental to the lifestyle as blindness, the inability to hear can make life interesting, and possibly short. If your genre/campaign doesn’t allow for the return of hearing, then perhaps it’s time the party learned something new: sign language [9].

Last Words

There is nothing wrong with death, when it’s appropriate (see #99 here [10]). But when the cupidity of dice and the stupidity of players conspire against the story, there are alternatives.

What do you think? Have I missed anything? Got any mechanics for the above? Sound off in the comments and let us know!

9 Comments (Open | Close)

9 Comments To "Do You Have Any Cake, Instead?"

#1 Comment By LordVreeg On September 28, 2009 @ 8:08 am

Good Topic, pertinent and should be on the ‘second/third year GM curriculum’. Which we will gete around to finishing one of these days.

And as a disclaimer, this is one of the major issues as to why I stopped playing some published games.

1) Importance of consequesnces. You didn’t really touch on that here, so I won’t dwell too heavily on it, but the level of consequences and the incidence of same is one of the most basic decisions a GM has to go through when creating a setting. You offer 2 options at the top of the page, but the ease or possibility of option 2 (raising) is a whole chapter here for me.

2) Systems of scars, injuries, wounds, et al. By the title and first paragraph, it seems you are using one of these other debilitaing options as a substitute for death. We are kind of skipping over, probably for the sanity of system wars, the idea that the whole mechanics of death (when does a character die vs wound) need to be looked at here. Becasue it is better to have this change made BEFORE the Farm is Bought by a PC.
For instance, let’s say for example your system used some measure of health. We’ll call it Hit Points in our caffeine-driven lack of originality. It would be better BEFORE all of this happens to decide that 0 HP is not death, but unconsiousness, and that maybe down to -5 is a serious injury, and -6 through -10 is a maiming type of wound.
I’ll not get deeply into it, just tying your truly excellent examples of possible alternatives to the first paragraph, to call attention to the need of the mechanics being in place before the inceident.

3) I want to point out another factor that speaks in favor of your alternative. I’ve been doing this for a little while, and I have always found that the level of versimilitude and consequence both dramtically increase player emotional investiture in the setting, as well as increase immersion.
As an example, it just so happens that in my IRC game, a PC lost an arm when the group ran into a were. The rest of the PC’s roleplayed around it very seriously, and the consequence really rallied the group together, as well as bringing home to them the seriousness of their quest.
Adventurers lead dangerious lives. A game where they have 20 combats and the player characters have no scars, marks, injutries, where their existence and lifestyle has no lasting affect is ‘less real’ (I know. Fantasy game. I know. Bear with me) and therefor less important than one where characters have ‘earned their stripes’.

If circumstances (and later posts) dictate, maybe we’ll delve more.

#2 Comment By Tommi On September 28, 2009 @ 9:28 am

I find death to be easily handled by rules that do not have inappropriate character death as an option. Wounds in place of death is certainly one way of keeping combats meaningful (and having meaningful consequences) while removing unwanted character death.

I find resurrection to make death largely meaningless, so the meaning of combats must be derived from other consequences.

#3 Comment By Hawkesong On September 28, 2009 @ 9:28 am

Our game group has combined Cake and Death.
If a character dies, the player gets consolation cake.

Then we all rag him about his death for an hour.

Meanwhile the GM decides how to best resurrect or replace the dead character.

#4 Comment By Scott Martin On September 28, 2009 @ 9:37 am

Maiming is an excellent substitute for death– you learn a lot more from it. That said, maiming a character may just slow the replacement of the character– wait until the end of the current quest, when they decide that one armed men are at a severe disadvantage against warriors with sword and shield…

I am fond of rules like Saga Edition Star Wars, where falling below zero HP means unconsciousness if you opt to save your character. I suspect if you maim occasionally and play up the pain of a slow recovery from the bruising and trauma, you can work good roleplaying in to wounds. Spirit of the Century handles it very well by treating wounds as aspects, like any other– so “broken arm” is invoked against the character when he tries to jog across the room without fainting, and the mechanic is the same familiar one that applies to everything else.

For low magic/tech settings, both Shadowrun and White Wolf have a mechanic that makes the character less effective until they recover– which seems like a big part of what you’re trying to model. Of course, those systems fall prey to “death spiral” claims, where getting wounded makes you less able to hit your enemies… and easier for them to hit, making you even more wounded.

#5 Comment By Volcarthe On September 28, 2009 @ 10:25 am

Cake is all fine, but stupidity should always be punished.

If you said death first, that’s what you get.

#6 Comment By Nojo On September 28, 2009 @ 12:42 pm

1. But I *meant* to say cake…. 🙂

2. Whatever you do, you don’t want to lose the “Oh my god, my character is going to get #$%^ed!” feeling.

3. Seeing one PC go down, and stay down, gives that feeling to the others. So it’s not *always* a bad thing.

4. If your system uses some kind of player controlled way to cheat death (Fate/Hero/Wawa Points), you can combine the death cheat with some consequence. Example from my Dark Heresy game: “You are horribly burned and your eyes melted out of their sockets, but you live.” Now he is scared and has two cybernetic eyes that glow purple in the dark.

#7 Comment By rekenner On September 28, 2009 @ 10:57 pm

I just want to say:
I’ve never understood exactly why ranged combat got a penalty for someone having one eye.
In any situation where you aim (which, okay, in a 6 second action, you can’t really do. But you also can’t effectively shoot an arrow in 6 seconds, so we’ve already thrown realism out the window), what do you do? Look down a scope, using only one eye. Or close one eye as you aim.
So, unless you’re doing spray and prey or snap shots… It wouldn’t really matter.

#8 Comment By Swordgleam On September 29, 2009 @ 7:01 am

@rekenner: It’s because you need two eyes for parallax to happen, and parallax is how you get depth perception. You might be able to get the little sniper dot over the target with one eye, but you have to judge the distance with both eyes first.

#9 Comment By Havukin On September 29, 2009 @ 2:25 pm

[11] – About the “death spiral”: I don’t see the problem of a death spiral (I’m not sure based on your post if you do it either). How many enemies are going to spend the time to finish of a guy who is not able to fight efectively and is trying to get away (assuming the player has any brains) if they also have enemies who are a real threat? I’m assuming here that there is no fast healing method available which would make it sensible to kill him before the cleric brings him back to the battle. I personally think accumulating penalties for being wounded so the character has time to try retreating or decide to sacrifice himself for the group is the way to go most of the time as opposed to losing hit points without any mechanical effects until the character finally drops dead.

[12] – Actually humans rely quite heavily on using known sizes (i.e. you know a human male will most likely be around 180cm tall) for things when estimating distances even if they have both eyes. I would assume someone with only one eye would learn to be better at this quite quickly.

#10 Pingback By Alternatives to Death | The RPG Hub On October 9, 2009 @ 2:50 pm

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