Character Death, in the Middle of a War

There’s a certain philosophy within role-playing games that assumes character death to be something of a last resort, only in certain circumstances type of thing.  As with most things, this lies along a particular spectrum within the continuity of RPG’s, where the more narrative, story-based games hold that it should be a mutually agreed event that serves some larger element of the plot.  And the crunchy, number-heavy games can let it all happen according to how the dice fall.

More succinctly, modern games aren’t going to let your character die from a bad throw, where the progenitor games are all too happy to watch it happen.

But what about those games that figure it’s largely inevitable?

Back in the heyday of West End Games, Paranoia was so trigger-happy that characters were generated in packs of clones, with six duplicates of a player character being drawn up to ensure that one of them might live long enough to sniff the adventure’s objective before being packed off to the reprocessing station in some comedically absurd manner.

And well, it has always been my assumption that any session of Call of Cthulhu that ends without a Total Party Kill has been run in a horrifically inappropriate manner.*

In the both cases, character death served the purposes of the particular themes of the specific game.  Murder, misadventure and outright betrayal can be comedic elements of a properly run Paranoia game, to the point that, in an advice column, one of the game designers took issue with the idea that characters should ever be allowed to rank up their Clearance Level.  And well, it’s hard to portray the bleak nihilism of Lovecraft’s works if your characters aren’t walking a knife’s edge the entire time.

Torg Eternity offers an interesting spin to this core element.  Being that the game is set against a backdrop of interdimensional war, there is an underlying assumption that there will be character death along the way.  Part of this is dealt with at the basic level, where it is understood that players can simply roll up a new character of their choosing and have them introduced nearly immediately thereafter with no loss of experience or momentum.  As I recall, no other game has explicitly laid out the rules for replacement characters in this manner.  It’s sort of refreshing.

But to be fair, it pretty much has to be done this way.  One of the enduring cards of the Drama Deck (now spun off to the Destiny Deck, which is the Player Deck for the new game) has always been the Martyr Card.

All the time I’ve run Torg, this card is the one that everyone remembers.  The original text stated that, by playing this card, a character could defeat any foe.  At the cost of their own life.  It was an unambiguous effect that anyone who drew it immediately made sense of.  Nearly every time it was drawn, it was a ticking bomb that no one was quite sure if they wanted to use.  The new version alters it slightly to allow the success of some significant event, but that was already a valid interpretation from the old days.  Through all my time running Torg, I have only seen the card thrown a couple of times.

By defining the effects of character death like they do, the designers have made it so that the inherent trauma of losing your character is balanced by being able to quickly build out a new one to bring in during the next act of the adventure.

There’s another factor at play, which appeared during the most recent session of my local game.  The new Feat system (called Perks in Torg Eternity) limits the acquisition of Realm specific abilities to characters native to the Realm.**

That means (as I have already learned from my current play group) that, in order to get access to the Electric Samurai Perks, you need to build a Pan-Pacifica character from the ground up, rather than simply spend your downtime acquiring the interesting kit and abilities.  This offers a different incentive to let a character act as a Martyr for the sake of the Possibility Wars.  It also goes a long way to ensuring that any PC group be made up of a variety of characters from a variety of cosms.

Finally, they’ve added some new flavor with the Cosm Cards for each Realm.  One of the big ones (from where I’m sitting) is the Inevitable Return card from the Nile Empire.  This card plays to the pulp[ sensibilities of the Realm, allowing a character that had been killed previously to spontaneously return.  (What makes this great is that the characters can even use it to bring back a favorite villain, if they so choose.)

So, with all of this, the designers have weighted the game towards an inevitability of character death.  I mean, it’s not like I tended to pull any punches during my time as a Torg GM back in the day, but this offers a sort of tacit permission to outright kill off any offending character that managed to run up against the wrong odds.

It is a war, after all.  Most of the heroes are remembered posthumously.

*Call of Cthulhu is a game of cosmic horror, after all.  Not only are the odds already stacked against the characters in the first place, they’re likely to go mad with the dire understanding of it all.  Don’t forget, this is also a game that pushed the realism of the preferred setting and time period enough that they included a table to generate the permanent disability that your character was likely to suffer in the process of being committed to an asylum.

**This is a picky little detail that I need to look more closely at.  In the original game, a Reality Storm of sufficient power was able to transform a Storm Knight from one reality to another, and a Disconnection while in a hostile Realm also could serve to push that potentiality.  Since these Perks are (Rules As Written, so it’s easily house-ruled) limited to characters from the Realm in question, would it be possible for a determined character to pick up the necessary abilities through a series of transformations? Signs point to “yes” on this one, so I’m thinking that I will probably just house-rule it to allow cross-Realm abilities, rather than go through the gymnastics of bending around the rules.

That’s not to say that I won’t require specific story-based rationales to accomplish this, so as to keep the idea of new, Realm-specific characters attractive.

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Posted on July 23, 2017, in Current Games, Gaming Philosophy, Kickstarter, Older Games, Review, Systems Discussion and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. I have read it and yeah it is interesting!
    Thanks for sharing!

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