Wednesday, 29 February 2012

I Am Become Death, Temporary Interruptor Of Campaigns

Death. The greatest theoretical obstacle to any player character. I can't help but feel that it has lost it's sting a little. Granted my main game of choice is 'that one where everyone goes mad and dies' but even so, I have noticed that players are noticeably blasé about the prospect of character death. I think this could be influenced by one of two things, or rather one thing from two different perspectives. Namely commitment, from both me as GM to getting adequate buy-in and from the players to their characters.

Naturally I'm going to start by offloading as much blame onto my players as possible. Unfortunately, I'm not entirely convinced that much blame can actually be passed on this one. Fundamentally, this is a problem of players not caring about their characters. Some people (I fall into this category as a player usually) care about every character they create automatically and spend endless amounts of time crafting quirks and gimmicks both physically and mentally, that have nothing to do with stats, or often even the campaign at hand.

For example, my current Dark Heresy character is a voidborn cleric. With DH you roll for background and quirks, I got 'born on a space-hulk' and 'elegant hands' as my recognisable quirks. Focusing on the first, Akadia became almost tribal in her dedication to the god-emperor due to her uncivilised upbringing, gathering totems and items and using vicious weapons (an eviceserator being her current favoured toy) as the campaign developed. These include the skull of an adopted bird that was eaten and an unhealthy attachment to a lamp which she has an almost maternal bond with. These details (both from the character gen and from the campaign itself) and the anecdotes that accompany them are what make me love a character, the fact she can dual-wield hand-cannons and wave a chainsword almost her own height are bonuses and fun to mess with. So come on players, invest a little in your characters and crucially make these things pop-up in game. Going back to my DH group, one of my comrades plays a pacifistic psyker who refuses to kill people unless absolutely necessary. This is actually quite fun when you get used to it (and as he is easily the most powerful character in the group, get used to it we did) and makes the character memorable.

Memorable characters are mourned and protected, the schadenfreude that drives me as a CoC GM loves the anguish experienced by a player losing a well-developed character, which is one of the reasons I try not to kill my players every session. The guy who's characters die every other session and do so because of his intended decisions is unlikely to mourn character #7 any more than #1, but equally he will not be memorable for the other players or myself and that seems a bit pointless really.

So, what's the GMs part in this? I think one of the other key faults lies with GMs who don't require enough from their players. If you just roll up stats and stick a name at the top of the sheet without anything else and then jump into a game, what message are you sending? That your pen and paper character is like a video game character: a list of numbers that interact with other numbers and when the health bar runs out you get a new one, probably nearly identical to this one. That's certainly how I felt with my first character. A Dragonborn Paladin in a 4e D&D game who breathed poison and could heal people once a day or so. He was just a stat block so I didn't care if he died or lived. And it's the same in my current CoC campaign, when I started I didn't ask for enough detail (I asked basically for occupation, hometown, siblings and a single memorable event from their history). Now a couple of players went beyond and detailed histories but these tend to be the ones who are roleplaying more anyway. The others simply picked a stat, pumped it up really high and then built a flimsy concept to explain it. In conclusion, while GMs can do somethings to encourage player engagement, at the end of the day it's all about engaging your players if you want deaths to be memorable and a decent deterrant.


  1. I find there is a correlation between how much the players care and the amount of time taken in Character Generation.

    If a new character only takes 10 mins to create, and there isn't sufficiently detailed to separate out the types and flavours of characters then what does it matter?

    1. Yeah I agree.
      I'm torn with Call Of Cthulhu, on one hand easy character gen is a huge plus, espescially for new players. But it doesn't promote investment. Then again, maybe I'm taking my advice from the wrong game seeing as I've had players die the same session they were created. Easily.

    2. Yes, if they are destined to die quickly there is little you can do.

      I haven't played CoC for a long time but I do remember that over the Campaign about 50% of the characters survived, and most of the others lasted several sessions. I remember being very smug I had survived although the character was never used again iirc.

      If you are killing them all in a single session perhaps you should build up the suspense and drama more gradually? I don't know CoC well enough to give real advice though.

  2. I'm not sure if I buy the character creation time = commitment theory. My group (which admittedly plays a lot of 2e AD&D and generally refuses to let me run CoC) can find loveable characters just by rolling some stats up.

    I would argue that commitment and connection are fundamentally the player's prerogative BEFORE the game has begun, but once the game is in swing it is the GMs ability to bring out the elements of the character that grant that sort of deep and abiding connection.

    For example, in all of the CoC games that I've run, I've had PCs that spend a good deal of time on character creation, figuring out who and what their characters are and then once game begins I make sure to socket those elements directly into the plot. CoC, being a much more linear storytelling experience than D&D (at least insofar as you can't sort of wander around and explore the setting, but you must rather focus on an immediate mystery at hand) enables one to pull in personal experience (characters' and players') in order to draw a tighter connection.

    This brings up some interesting thoughts for me, since I ran a yearly CoC one-shot for five or so years in a row. I've always had a problem engaging the FEAR and balancing it with the other aspects of the game. I have several long-time CoC players that simply aren't frightened by the sort of deep existential questions that HPL presents... and so I've worked very hard to overcome that and deduce theoretical methods of bringing fear to the roleplaying table.

    1. I think you're probably on to something there, in that it's not necessarily time spent on the character that gets them invested. I think it is something that is distinct for 'investigation' games that try and draw the personal connections of a character in (as opposed to games centred around 'adventurers' where each is there for death and/or glory sort of thing) in that it may attract players who are more into personally connecting with their characters anyway.

      So it's more about the player's interest in the character rather than necessarily the time taken creating it I suppose. I shall have to think about good ways for the GM to use character specifics in games for a future post I think...

      I know what you mean about fear in the game as well. As I have stated elsewhere, I am more into the supernatural investigation elements anyway but even so the themes of the game do promote a very specific sort of fear that is very hard to replicate in a living room.