Monday, January 18, 2016


We had a death in the family and I'm going to the funeral tomorrow. (The weather does not incline me to head there today...if I read the forecasts correctly, it will be worse today for the visitation that tomorrow for the funeral. We'll see. I've been snowed in on the Bruce peninsula more than once. I digress.)

Anyway, death is on my mind, so let's turn it to the topic of this blog...superhero roleplaying.

It seems to me that there are a couple of ways or reasons for death to happen:

  1. One is that it's actually the beginning. If you're planning on doing a supernatural kind of campaign, it could well be the event that starts everything: each character dies, and then returns as the Spectre, the Wraith, the Revenant, the Ghost, and so on. In that case, you're really talking about death as part of the characters' origin stories. (The actual mechanism of death isn't actually important; there's no chart of "Death Origins" with "2-4 Shot by criminals/5-6 Hit by radioactive meteorite/7-9 Infected by other supernatural creature" or even "1-2 Vengeance 3-4 Justice 5-6 Redemption.") Since death-as-ending is on my mind today, I'll leave that one there for another day and just note that it exists.
  2. Crappy dice rolls. It happens sometimes that the bad guy rolls really well and the good guy rolls really badly, and it's out in the open. Good guy loses, and we can't think of any other consequence than death. If everybody likes the character, this is a fine reason to have a during death and revivication scenario and adventure where he or she comes back.
  3. Another is the fitting end, usually for a single character. The character does something so awesome, so perfectly in-character, that you respect it even though the logical consequence is death. If you feel this way, let the character stay dead. 
  4. There is the forced end, which is a kind of fridging where the player is leaving, usually for good reasons, and the character's death motivates the other characters to do something, even if it's only investigate the death or extract vengeance. This is actually the one that feels most like comics as currently written, because the character could come back, when Tina the player visits again from the far-off land.
  5. There is the disposal. The player is tired of his character and doesn't want to play any more, either the character or the campaign. Usually the GM engineers a good death, but perhaps the player is easily bored, and this is the twenty-third time this has happened. The GM is tired of carefully crafting a meaningful death, and suddenly a bus jumps the sidewalk and kills the character. Sometimes the GM can find some reason to make the death motivate the other players, but then it would be more of a forced end.
  6. The last I can think of is to clear the decks. In this case, the GM is bored or frustrated, all die, o the embarrassment.

Of those six, less than half call for the character to come back to life: to deal with crappy dice rolls, because the player returns, or sometimes because someone has changed minds about a particular death. (This might happen years after a disposal or a clear-the-decks moment.)

It's totally in keeping with the genre to have someone apparently die (in our group, we often say, "No one could have survived that!" ironically, because we know full well that the GM can haul them out two sessions down the road). That tradition goes back as far as the second appearance of the Joker, back in the first year of Batman.

And, in fact, that's the way I'd play with crappy dice rolls. Ideally, the fact that the character rolled badly doesn't mean that he or she dies; the character might be kidnapped by the bad guys, or teleported away at the last moment (introducing the character with an unhealthy fixation on our hero), or the villain had the device's dial on "mind swap" instead of "disintegrate" (homebrew devices often have this disadvantage).

But if the death is to motivate or to complicate an investigation, it can certainly help...though it's sad for the characters involved. And unlike real life, you can certainly spin out a tale where the character comes back.