Why So Brutal?
Admit it. Part of the fun of playing Dragon's Lair was watching Dirk the Daring die over and over and over again. Here's the thing though, as long as you kept pumping quarters into the machine, Dirk never actually died. He simply re-spawned (as the kids like to say these days).
Not so in an RPG. Dead is dead! Well, almost. Actually hardly ever. Nowadays with the influence of healing potions and high hit points and resurrection spells it is getting to where you probably couldn't kill a character if you tried. News just recently broke about Hasbro adopting the Essence20 TTRPG system for a bunch of its IPs, most notably GI Joe. Apparently you cannot die when playing Essence20. You can be defeated but your character can never actually die. I guess that's quite fitting for a game based on a cartoon where they shoot off every weapon imaginable but no one ever gets hurt.
Yet, is that the way we liked it?
As a kid back in the 80's I watched GI Joe. It was alright. You put up with the lame parts because you knew it was being created by adults who cared far more about your safety than you did. When we actually played with our action figures? They died all the time, at least for a few seconds. When we moved on to RPGs? Those body counts ran high. Of course our characters were barely recognizable compared to what passes for a character these days. Our characters had no backstory, bonds or ideals. If your character had any flaws it came from rolling a 3 for your Int score and being rendered as dumb as a sack of sling stones.
All About Bob
I swear this is true. If you've heard it before maybe it came from him, but it could be he wasn't the only one doing it. However I did have a childhood friend named Bob who always played a fighter named Bob which was nothing more than a pack mule for magic items. Whenever Bob got killed (which happened with uncanny frequency) he simply erased the damage from his sheet and incremented the number behind his name, so Bob played Bob #4 then Bob #5 and Bob #6. The end result was that Bob never died, despite him dying all the time.
Hmm, who does that remind me of?
That's not how the game was meant to be played, but it's the way we played it. I wasn't that callous but I did have a folder full of characters. When one died I would just whip out a new one, asked if it worked with the rest of the group (it usually did) and ushered in the new guy. The few times we tried playing by the book and forcing people to start over at 1st level while the rest of us were up around 7th level - we ended up losing players - the worst possible outcome. Keep in mind we were all in Junior High at the time. A certain amount of moronic callousness should be expected.
Old school gaming was truly lethal, but it was balanced by the ease with which new characters were created and players brought back into the game. If anything our characters were not personalities so much as vehicles we drove around in, the pencil/paper/dice equivalent of a bumper car.
Enter Mary Sue
Here in the 21st century, everything is about my character. The cult of My Character seemed to start with D&D 3rd edition. It probably had a lot to do with there being far more money to be made selling books to players rather than just the DM. Here in the 20's it has grown to where there are people out there playing with Death Panels (for lack of a better term) where everyone in the group needs to agree that a character may die before that character is allowed to.
This is very hard to wrap my old school brain around.
I have seen juries deliberate and all I can say is that thank god they don't do this for the monsters the characters encounter. And yet it makes sense from this new school perspective where D&D is less about killing monsters and grabbing treasure and more about forming a dice-based improv theater troupe. No one wants to lose an important character, especially to something as stupid as rot grubs or green slime. Imagine a Miami Vice where Crockett & Tubbs die in a car accident mid-season. Actually, remember when David Duchovny left the X-Files? Very quickly they pulled in Robert Patrick to play his replacement but it never truly worked. Patrick felt like what he was - a replacement for an established star - the show was watchable but you could tell that everyone thought it was past its prime and slowly grinding to a halt. Character matters. Even back in the days of disposable heroes, when we managed to get a character to stick around for a couple of levels, despite having little more than a clumsy name, a class and a smattering of stats, our characters naturally accrued personalities. You could not help but get attached to them. Their adventures became their back-stories. You might even lament losing Bob #9 once you realize there will be no Bob #10. Possibly.
Honestly, I don't know what should be done.
If anything it makes me think of the recent Jumanji remake. In it the players are sucked into a video game and quite quickly discover that they have just three lives to live. Three mistakes to make before the end - in so far as they know - maybe they leave the game or maybe they die for good. It is all left deliciously uncertain.
Those people who think System Doesn't Matter should watch this movie. System very much matters and will influence the way people play a game. In Jumanji it starts out silly with characters dying in comedic ways. About midway through the movie the characters realize that there is power in being able to pop back from the dead and start dying in strategic ways, sacrificing themselves to achieve their objectives. By the end of the movie when everyone is down to just one life left, it becomes dramatic and serious. The movie gets us to love these characters just in time to care that they are living in brutal world that could kill them at any time - something which we know might happen on a whim because we've already seen it happen a few times over.
That works for a movie because movies have a beginning, middle and end. A TTRPG can go on forever. So what should be done? Stick with hit points and healing potions? Go with the video game system of multiple lives? Respawns? Forbid death altogether? Ultimately, what it comes down to is we want cool evocative characters running the risk of dying without ever actually running the risk of dying. I'm not sure if that's possible. This is the same problem with dice-fudging and railroading. How can you ever truly feel the thrill of victory without the possibility of defeat? Is there success without the chance to fail? Life without death?
Why So Brutal?
So why were we so brutal back in the day? I think it was because for us it was a different game. D&D was akin to a pencil & paper based video game where the objective was to kill the monsters, take the treasure and grow in power. Our characters died. Often. But for most of us they never had much character to begin with. You only experience loss when you have something to lose.
If anything the brutal nature of the game made up for that lack of something to lose. When your character died in some terrible way you felt it and yet you also laughed your ass off because you knew it didn't really matter. To try and play that way with modern characters bearing multiple chapters of backstory and a list of valuable relationships is just cruel and probably best not done if you want to keep your friends.
System does matter. We often don't want it to, but it does. This could be why it irks me to see D&D being used for everything and anything related to TTRPGs. D&D 6e has not yet come out, but both WoTC and Renegade Game Studios (makers of Essence20) are in the pocket of Hasbro (isn't everything at this point?) so it makes me wonder if Essence20 isn't an exploratory venture for them. Imagine a D&D where death is forbidden. Where you literally are not allowed to die. It makes sense for a Critical Role style game, but it's not the D&D I grew up with. My mind wraps around it as easily as a corvette wraps around a tree after losing control on a wet road. I can see it happening, but I'd rather not.
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