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The Lighter Side: Death in Tabletop Gaming

I recently wrote an article about resurrection in tabletop games, and how I typically don’t want to bring characters back after they’ve died. Something about their story having run their course, et cetera. That’s all fine and dandy, and certainly just my opinion, but it got me thinking about some of the other things that I said in the article, and how it might have come across to others.

There was a heavy amount of emphasis on the idea of stakes and how, without the threat of death within a game, it can be difficult to get invested into a character. If the character is never receiving push-back, or if there isn’t really a genuine feeling of danger, I basically said that it would be hard for me to connect with that character and the game as a whole. This blanket statement is the one that I’ve been thinking about recently, since I seemed to imply that all tabletop games need death in order to be good.

That’s a ridiculous, kind-of gatekeeping statement for me to make. Even if I try to convince myself that an implication like that is just my opinion, I’m finding that even I don’t necessarily believe it, to be honest. And that’s what I want to clarify here:

Your games don’t need character death to be great.

There’s a lot of great stuff going on in the world right now. If you think about how far technology has come just in the past twenty years, and how it’s connected people, saved lives, and improved quality of life for so many, that’s pretty incredible. People are making their voices heard, open to new ideas, and trying to change the world to make it more inclusive of other cultures and ways of life. It’s awesome.

On the other side, there are still tons of things wrong with the world. Hate. Violence. Poverty. Disease. The list goes on and on, and I don’t need to give specific examples because they’re relatable to everyone. You turn on the news and 90% of the stories are going to be negative. Newspapers and news sites can be the same way.

Turn on the Lights

This constant barrage of negativity can be emotionally and physically draining. It’s all around us, slowing seeping into our subconscious and sapping our positivity away from us. Frankly, we have enough problems in the real world, and creating a grimdark, gritty campaign doesn’t necessarily help that. Our tables should be places of refuge and safety where we can use our imaginations to create stories that are better than ourselves. We should be able to use tabletop gaming as an escape to recharge our batteries with good times and enjoyable friends.

Sometimes playing a game where we are heroes making the world better is all that we need to accomplish this:

  • We can be extraordinary people doing extraordinary things.
  • We don’t have to be posed with a Sophie’s Choice to make a campaign memorable.
  • There doesn’t have to be an evil plot to conquer all of humanity and enslave them for some grand nefarious purpose.
  • The paladin doesn’t have to spiral down into a deep moral dilemma, questioning the core of his being and flirt with becoming an anti-paladin.

Is there a time and place for these stories? Definitely! It’s just that it can be helpful to step back from these emotionally draining stories every once in a while and place something a little bit lighter.

  • Building an idealistic kingdom.
  • Assisting villagers with mundane problems.
  • Investigating ancient lore by delving into caverns that have been left untouched for centuries.

These can be fun games too!

Let’s bring it back to my previous comment of getting invested. How can I feel connected to my characters if everything is always going right? And that’s just the thing – these lighter games don’t necessarily mean that everything is going to always succeed.

So long as there are still consequences to actions, or choices that have meaning, then there are still stakes. Your character still has some skin in the game. The difference between a lighter and a heavier game is that, typically, these consequences are going to be more extreme in a darker campaign.

Failing to save that cat from a tree could mean that the cat (who is really a shapeshifting demon) is going to go on a personal vendetta to eliminate all of your friends and family because you failed their test to see if humanity has any compassion if they aren’t rewarded for their actions.

Pathfinder Second Edition Fighter Iconic, Valeros, holds a red kit shield and a longsword, ready to fight.
Valeros, the 2E Iconic Fighter

In a lighter game, ignoring the cat could mean that the cat’s owner is going to have a more hostile disposition to you, which could impede your progress on another quest where they might be a key player.

One scenario, two different outcomes. Two different games.

Consequences can be in both; you have the power to temper the consequences so that they’re not so drastic.

Look Around You

Again, I’ll reiterate that I never intend to imply that doing x is the only way to run a game. We all have certain interests and some people can easily compartmentalize the game world and the real world. Maybe playing a gritty campaign doesn’t affect you, but it might affect the player to your left or right.

It’s important to run through everyone’s expectations before investing time into a length campaign to make sure that people express their personal limitations and things that are out-of-bounds. Something as simple as a Session 0 can work wonders in ensuring that everyone is on the same page and can prevent build-ups of anxiety or fury being revealed months down the line.

Games are memorable, great, and fun even if there isn’t character death present. I play the game for the story and because I immensely enjoy the people that I’m generally sitting alongside. Your table is going to be different than mine, and that’s how it should to be. Even if we’re running the same exact Adventure Path or module, we are going to create radically different stories.

How awesome is that?