(Photo by Terrestraza.) Our last blog discussed death in larps but mainly focused on how it was handled in freeform events written with a theme of death. It’s definitely worth a read and you can find it here. However, I realize that death in campaign games needed its own treatment. As I discussed, not many people are ready to deal with death in their real lives. It takes an incredibly strong, self-aware, and reflective individual to have prepared themselves for what we all inevitably face. Therefore, facing it in your hobby rarely creates a safe and enjoyable space for the person who has lost a long-term part of their life. No, it’s not the same as losing a friend or family member to the great beyond, but campaign characters are years-long fictional companions which the player has usually poured in a great amount of time, money, thought, and emotional space. I even wrote a piece about giving yourself the permission to grieve when losing such character relationships, but it didn’t really touch on how players and game runners design to better handle death. Frankly, it’s something a lot of games and player don’t handle well, so it’s worth examining.
Handling Death as a Campaign Player
Recently, there has been a fair bit of discussion on Character vs Character (CvC) or Player vs Player (PvP) play. While there are reasons to use all these terms, whichever term you use, you need to check in with another player if you plan on removing their character permanently from play. A designer friend commented on the fact that sometimes even people normally quite UP for PvP could be having a rough week and are in no space to deal with the permanent loss of their character.
I couldn’t say it better myself. If you are going to engage in the act of trying to remove another player’s character from play, possibly permanently, it’s a show of respect and maturity to do a brief check in with that person so they can prepare themselves out of game. Larping is collective storytelling — we are all playing the same game — and as fellow players we should make certain other players are able to have a healthy time with our actions. The same way you’d check in with someone before a highly triggering scene dealing with sensitive topics (abuse, racism, torture are the first three that come to mind), you should check in with someone before tackling death. It can be as emotionally jarring as the topics mentioned above. If you don’t trust another player not to meta-game or cheat to get out of the scene if you give them warning, then do you really WANT to be roleplaying such intense situations with someone like that?
Secondly, if you are the sort of player that really cannot handle the death of your character, then it is worth doing your best to not ‘wave the CvC flag’. Why you cannot handle it is not of consequence — whether you see your character as a too-large investment of time and money, death is very triggering for you, or you cannot handle the bleed that death would cause, be mature enough to recognize that is something you do not wish to incorporate in your gaming style and take steps to remove yourself from the potential of such situations. It is unfair to game runners, and players, if you aren’t prepared to handle character death but constantly make decisions that make other players want to kill your character. Everyone should practice self-awareness of their gaming style and take cautions to ensure they are playing within their own boundaries. Now, that won’t always stop random plot from killing your character, but this is where you can reach out to your game staff and ask for some assistance.
If your character dies and you aren’t prepared for it, lean on your game staff resources. Ask the plot staff if there is anyway you can work on getting closure for this character. Sometimes it will be a goodbye ghost scene, a plot run funeral, or one last epic fight where you die gloriously. If your game has safety staff or counselors, ask to take time with them to process the feelings you are having. If there are NONE of those things, then lean on your trusted friends who play with you. Don’t be scared to ask for support, ask for someone to go out of game with you, or even just get off site for a little while so you can touch base with the real world and figure the best strategy for you to manage emotions. Don’t let the need to ‘get back in game’ or ‘help the plot along’ force you into playing in a space you aren’t emotionally ready to encounter. Try to make certain your friends have an in-character funeral and attend, even if just for out of game closure. Losing a character is A. Big. Deal. Treat it as such. That being said, I think game runners have a responsibility around this sort of roleplay as well, therefore…
Designing for Death in Campaign Games
I love what some of the American Freeform campaign games are doing with death. For both Dammerung and Velvet Noir, the players decide when their character dies. With Velvet Noir, we’ve specifically put in a system to reward players with more knowledge of the world and different character options after they have voluntarily, permanently killed their first character. It encourages players to tell a full story and not hang onto a single character for the sheer fact that the campaign is an ongoing game. At After the End, they have a forced retirement system. Once a character gets to so much build, their ending story is planned with the game runners. They might die, they might have a cool plot and go off into the sunset, but character retirement/death is planned in such a way that it rewards the player for all their time/money/hard work, gives the character’s friends closure, and lets the game staff naturally end the story of characters who are too powerful to keep the game healthy. However, I acknowledge that this is too narrative a system for many campaign players and that people like the risk of an unplanned death, so there are other options.
The Deadlands Campaign of Alliance Larp was the first place I ever encountered design for permanent character death which took into account caring for the players around the topic. Alliance has a few options after their character perms. They can immediately take the death there, where in there is a spell to bring the spirit back if the PC’s friends which to say goodbye. However, a player can also ‘last life’ their character, which means they get to bring the character back to play one last time for as long as the character survives to the next death. It means, if a player REALLY is not ready to end their story, they are not forced to lose the character no matter what. Lastly, the Deadlands Staff (including Samara Metzler) wrote a system called ‘Epic Death’, where the character doesn’t die in that moment but will perm before the end of the weekend in some truly epic fashion planned out between the staff and the player. All these options soften the blow around the death and give players the ability to have some sort of closure instead of abruptly losing a massive part of their lives.
When designing for death in a campaign system, these are the things game runners should take into account:
- Player’s inability to cope with the loss of a long term investment
- Designing something which will allow the player to get closure on their character
- Designing something which allows the player’s friends to also get closure on their loss
- Still leaving the element of chance in the game to keep it interesting and risky
- Which staff members are most sensitive to helping players handle a character death
- Some possible refund of experience or bonuses to help the player get excited about a new character
First thing to keep in mind: Players who see their characters as NOTHING but a time/money investment to level up as much as possible are never going to have a happy resolution to their PC’s deaths short of getting full build and experience on the new character. I do NOT think this is a good solution (it creates real dinosaur characters in most campaigns which are an anathema to new blood.) Most games handle this by giving a player’s new character half the build they have earned on the old one — a nod to the time/money they put in playing but not a full rebuild. I’m not a huge fan of this system, I think it’s good for everyone to start from the beginning, but I’m a different kind of player than most campaign gamers. So, let’s look at the things which aren’t mechanical but help soften the blow of death for any given character.
A Goodbye: Designing some way in the system for the characters to say goodbye, even after a permanent death, is a great way to give players closure. Be it a return of the spirit one more time, a ghost, an echo of a memory, or one last walk through down on a dying breath, these scenes create incredible impact for all involved in them in character and give some emotional closure to the players off-game. Giving gentle encouragement to having in-character funerals is another nice way to ensure the players are taking time to find proper closure on the end of that story.
A Good Death: If a player is content with their death happening because they got forgotten on the corner of a battlefield or came across the wrong zombie at the wrong time? GREAT! If not, being willing to negotiate with the player about a good way for them to go out and create a memorable end to their long term investment is a great way to put salve on the wounds. Sure, it takes some of the simulationism away, but the player did not narratively plan for a death that game. Giving them a chance to take ownership of it and briefly wrap a long term story empowers them to start healing from that loss quicker, instead of leaving an open wound of so many lost chances and such an abrupt ending.
Becoming the Enemy: Several games give the players the option of returning as some form of undead, ghost, zombie, big-bad-guy if your character has permed that event. It gives the player one last chance to showcase themselves on the field and creates interesting drama for their friends who have to put their character down. If your players are interested in it, this is another great option for helping a player feel like they had a control over their ending while still creating story for others.
Supportive Staff: When I was storytelling for Dead Legends, there were certain death scenes I was specifically asked to run for certain players, because we knew that player was not ready for their character to perm and I’d be able to emotionally support them through that bleed if it happened. Having at least ONE staff member who understands debriefing techniques, is willing to be an open ear, a non-judgmental shoulder, and be accessible to a player who has lost their character is essential. Even if they aren’t a trained counselor, just being a space where the player can talk through their feelings is a step in the right direction. Identify your staff members who are willing and able to do these things and make certain you know if they are up for it going into any given gaming weekend. If you have identified who is on deck for this task at the beginning of a game weekend, it makes it easier to grab them if the worst happens and a player is having a breakdown over a permed character.
Special Rewards: I’d love to see a campaign larp incorporate a system of bonuses/rewards for players who have taken one (or more) deaths. Far too many players cling to characters for years at a time because of habit, comfort, investment, etc. If every time someone took a permanent death, they opened up access to different character types, story lines, certain powers, or just some Cool Thing <™> they didn’t get before, it might encourage players to create stories with ends instead of characters that live on far past the interest of their story.
In short, I find it unacceptable in this day and age larping to run games where permanent character death is treated like just another aspect of the game and if you can’t deal, suck it up or walk away. We can play interesting, simulationist (or even game-ist style) larps with unexpected loss of characters and STILL take care of each other as players. We are gaming together to create story with highs and lows, not just to be the most powerful kid on the block. Therefore, I ask designers and players alike to take a step back and consider all of these things when a character is permanently lost to the story we’re all creating together.