Society for Interactive Literature West

Game Design

An Afterlife?

Copyright (c) 1993 Stephen R. Balzac
Society for Interactive Literature

So, it's 9:30am Saturday morning and you've just been killed. Terrific. You'd planned for this weekend for months, and now you're dead. What's the point? What will you do for the rest of the weekend? Why do GMs allow characters to get killed off anyway? What possible good does it serve? Surely it couldn't hurt the game if death weren't possible. At the very least, the GMs could provide extra characters for the first few people to be killed, maybe with additional plots for them, or something.

At its most basic, the option of death in a game provides a threat that can touch all characters, no matter how powerful or clever they are. Sure, some people may be harder to kill than others, but rarely is anyone completely immune. Thus, it forces even your most powerful players to continuously reevaluate their situation. They can't just wander through the game getting people angry at them; rather, they must consider that even they can be put out of the game if enough people get mad enough.

On another level, if you know you won't die, risks become cheap and easy. There's a demon wandering the hallway? No problem. A bomb needs to be disarmed? Big deal. At the worst, you'll spend a hour or so recuperating and then get back into the game. Someone else may get the prize (the treasure held by the demon, etc), but you really haven't lost anything. On the other hand, if you know that the demon may eat you for lunch or that the bomb may make you one with the wallpaper, you'll think twice about taking stupid risks. Is it really in character, or were you just after the reward? When there's some really negative consequences to an action, it's quite amazing what a difference it makes in people's attitudes.

Death also has another purpose: properly used, it keeps your plots from getting locked into a mold too early in the game. You have to be a lot more careful when you, or some critical member of your team, can be taken out of action at any time. Death can be the tool used by the "have-nots," those players currently shut out of the major plots, to force their way in.

Does this mean that a good game is one in which dozens of people die and no one dares stick their head up lest it be shot off? Of course not. That's swinging too far in the opposite direction. If it's too easy to kill people, then nothing can happen because everyone is too busy hiding. And, of course, a game in which everyone kills each other off is generally not much of a roleplaying game; more likely, it's a game of killer.

As in all aspects of game design, you need balance. Death should be possible, but not easy; difficult, but not impossible. The relative balance will vary from game to game (and genre to genre). If you're going to run a game in which death is impossible, just say so, don't play around. The following really happened in one game:

Player: "If I knock him out, put my uzi to his head, and empty the clip, will he be dead?"

GMs: "Not necessarily."

The fact is, unless the GMs are prepared to go to such lengths (which I have rarely seen the players appreciate), it's virtually impossible to keep death from happening in a game. As a case in point, in Rekon-2, death was supposed to be impossible. However, one person was knocked unconscious (which was possible) and one of her enemies found her before she recovered. This person called the control room to say that he had found his unconscious opponent, and was strangling her. She died. Oops.

Most GMs who don't permit death do it because they don't want to face the problem of dealing with dead players. It is a real problem, there's no denying that. Someone who has come to a game and is planning to play all weekend isn't going to appreciate dying at 9:30am Saturday. Unfortunately, disallowing death is frequently a very poor solution.

There are two things you can be sure of: if you don't permit death in your game, you'd better have plenty of other ways in which people can accomplish their goals, or they're going to be bored. And if you do permit death in your game, and set your game up so that killing people will help other people accomplish their goals, you'd better have plenty of other ways in which people can accomplish their goals or you'll have a bloodbath. Neither is a good outcome, and it's awfully hard to say which is worse. However, if you permit death and don't necessarily make it directly useful in accomplishing goals, then you have a much better situation. If death isn't directly useful to the person doing the killing, he has to decide whether the in-game consequences of his actions are worth the risk (you do have in-game consequences, don't you?).

Of course, if you do have death in your game, you have to decide what to do with the dead. What do you do with all those corpses piling up outside the control room? They're starting to mutter angrily and beginning to raise a stink. There are several options.

The resurrection option: as the name implies, the dead person simply comes back to life. While this may be very appropriate for a fantasy such as Dragon, where people are supposed to be resurrected, it kind of dodges the issue in other genres. If people in a modern day political thriller keep coming back to life, well, it's not much different from not allowing them to be killed in the first place.

The clone option: in this option, the character reenters the game as, essentially, a clone of himself. He doesn't necessarily know who killed him, but otherwise he's got the same plot and the same character as before. It's almost as though he hadn't died. While this worked very well in Foundation, as it simulated the psychohistorical idea that individuals don't matter, only the great sweep of history, in many games it just doesn't cut it. Unless your genre is such that you can work this into the plot in some way, it's artificial and it shows.

What about ghosts? In this case, the dead continue to player their characters, but as spirits. They generally have a number of limitations on their actions, and have certainly lost a great deal of their influence. This can be a pretty good solution for some games. In Secrets of the Necronomicon, for example, it worked pretty well. But then again, Secrets is an HP Lovecraft game, all about occultism, black magic, and things that go bump in the night. Ghosts are not exactly out of place. They even appear in the occasional Lovecraft story. However, ghosts are a little less appropriate if the genre of your game is hard science-fiction.

Well, perhaps the GMs could have a few characters set aside for the first people to die. That way, they could continue to play. Sounds great, but let's face it, someone is always first. How many extra characters can you write? Most games have enough trouble finishing the basic set, to say nothing of loads of extras. If you have only one extra character, what happens to the second person to die? You haven't solved anything, just delayed the inevitable by a tiny bit. And if that character is critical to someone, what happens if he doesn't enter the game until late, or not at all?

How about giving the dead players bit parts? This is one I've always favoured. Dead people generally come back as The Fuzz, aka the local police force in whatever form it may take in that game. Bit parts are certainly easier to write than full length characters, and a small set can be replicated and handed out as needed. One nice little side-effect of this technique is that as the murder rate increases, so does the number of Fuzz. It is not, however, a perfect solution. For the sake of discussion, I'll refer to generic bit characters as Fuzz from now on.

Some players won't deal very well with having their plots pulled out from under them. Being a Fuzz means suddenly being on the outside of most, probably all, major plots. It's not easy for a Fuzz player to really get involved, although plenty have managed it. Mostly, being a Fuzz means you get to roleplay a lot, but you probably have very little plot. For some people, this is understandably boring.

So why not have special Fuzz plots? Well, the major problem is that you have to have enough Fuzz to make those plots work. And since the Fuzz plots are irrelevant to the rest of the game, many people will feel that there's no point to them anyway.

Then why not have Fuzz plots that are important to the rest of the game? This seems like a pretty good solution. It just has one problem: how critical are these plots? What if no one dies for a very long time? What is that going to do the groups who are depending on those plots? If the plots are really critical, perhaps people will end up getting killed just to force those plots along, perhaps not quite what you intended. And if those plots aren't all that critical after all, well, what's the point of them? You haven't solved your problem.

Is there one perfect solution? Unfortunately, no there isn't. The genre of your game and your specific situation may suggest novel solutions, or better ways to use those listed here. Dragon used the resurrection option, since it fit the world. Atlantis, as a modern-day espionage thriller, made heavy use of the Fuzz. Certain science-fiction games could work cloning into the plot very elegantly. In an upcoming game based on Chinese mythology, the divisions between life and death are rather vague. In this case, the dead can and do have their own plots, because you can guarantee enough dead characters to make the plots work. Since the living and the dead can interact and influence one another, and the dead have their own (ahem!) lives, a sizable chunk of players can start dead.

In the end, what counts in your afterlife is that the dead have some, probably lessened, means to participate in the game, and that in your contortions to make the game fun for the people who may die, you don't make it unplayable for the living. Good luck!

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