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Gaming and Death and Meaning and Mom-Pride

Wolfling and I spent Friday evening and all day Saturday playing in _storyteller_'s one-shot D&D game. I'm not a particular fan of D&D, but as his username suggests, _storyteller_ is an excellent game master (and 4th edition D&D is a significant improvement over previous versions). We players were presented with a meaningful, challenging scenario that was fun to work through.

The highlight for me was doing something I've never done in an RPG before: taking an act which I fully expected would lead to my character's death, and not minding.

The group I played with for some 15 years had a house rule that characters would not die unless it was in a dramatically appropriate manner, usually by prearrangement. I know a lot of people believe that the possiblity of death is necessary for the risks to feel real, but I never shared that perspective. I was there for the story element, and I loved my long-term characters, and I had no problem with "Scriptwriter on Your Side" as an unofficial advantage. We could still fail a mission, but we weren't going to die in the process. And we were not going to die stupidly.

Last night, the PC's had just a few minutes of daylight left in which to continue forward on their path and extend the magical wards of their nation into territory which had fallen to the Darkness. While my companions struggled with several dangerous enemies, I took the opportunity to race further up the path, through an obscuring cloud, not knowing what was on the other side. I had expected to simply find myself running up a mountain path. Instead, I found myself in an enemy city-warren. On my next turn I had the chance to retreat, but the whole point of the challenge was extending the wards. We had volunteered for the task knowing that there was a 50% mortality rate. I decided it was better to die extending the wards as far as possible. I continued to run, expecting at any moment to hear the GM's dice falling onto the table as he rolled "To hit" for hidden archers or other dangers.

I survived.
We all did.

Once it was over, it was interesting to process how I'd felt about the experience, and take a closer look at my willingness to have my character sacrifice herself. Part of it, to be ruthlessly honest, was that this was a brand new character, still rather blurry in details of personality, so I didn't feel a strong emotional attachment. I might have justified another, more dear, character sticking with her friends and fighting with them.

But part of it truly was that this would have been a meaningful death.

In my old group, the GM's sometimes didn't do so well in providing challenges that truly meant something to characters and/or players. It's bad enough to die, but even worse doing so for something that has no value or purpose. One of the things I appreciated most about _storyteller_'s game is that he provided us with a big, meaningful purpose. If my character had died earlier in the game, even without the element of choice that my final act had, it would have been satisfying.

After the game, we started talking about the moral ramifications of extending our wards into this city, far beyond where any of our people had been in 500 years -- and that too was very satisfying: having a world with some complexity to it.

And I was really, really proud of Wolfling.

She had been part of another campaign _storyteller_ ran a year or so ago, and had acquitted herself well, but that was in a setting where most of the players were people she knew. The past two days she spent well over 15 hours with a group of strangers, all of whom were at least twice her age, and she held her own with distinction. She understood the rules, she understood her character, she played well, and she handled herself with both maturity and humor. If we all had been behind screens, no one would have been able to tell that she was significantly younger than everyone else.

When I first played with her I had been very worried that it would spoil my "not-mom" time -- but although the mother-daughter dynamic is still present, it doesn't ever come into the game itself.

I'm looking forward to further campaigns once _storyteller_ is back for good from his deployment.


( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 28th, 2009 09:02 pm (UTC)
Character death is a fascinating phenomenon...It really ought to have inspired several sociological Ph.D. dissertations at this point, but I don't know that it has...

I play-tested a game with someone in Ireland who was famous for nearly everyone dying at some point or other, and my character was the only one that didn't die...Eventually, I became too important to the plot to sacrifice easily (or cruelly) in the GM's mind, which I thought to be a bit of a triumph. These GMs who think it's a mark of distinction to have a high mortality rate in their games are often the same ones who think of themselves as "GOD" for their games...and this person was no exception.

A LARP I did in Spokane, that was quite good, which lasted for a number of months, has us being told at the start to take a certain number of character points, make something "interesting," and then create huge back-stories for the characters. Mine was a pretty decent-sized back story (three pages or so...short, in my book), and in fact was the most extensive one of the campaign, so my character got to be the focus of a large part of the overarching plot. Then, when everything resolved the way it was supposed to, at the final party after everything was done (which was an in-character party that then just became a party), after the big dance that everyone did, my character was supposed to die dramatically, as was agreed between me, the storytellers, and the NPCs in the game...after 1,200 years of life, it was exactly what my character wanted. And yet, as soon as it happened, all of these other people jump in and tried every single one of their possible powers to get my soul back and so forth...and finally, out of character, I just told them "He wanted to die, and he doesn't want to be alive again, so don't waste your energy," which they didn't understand. These were young players (by which I mean 18-22; I was a little older than most of them at the time), and couldn't think of "character death" in any way other than "MASSIVE FAIL, MUST USE CHEAT CODES TO REVERSE," it seemed to me. It was satisfying to me to have played the role I did, and to have accomplished the goals of the life of that character; from a dramatic perspective, it was the most appropriate thing in the world. I wish that other people could have been convinced of that...
Jul. 1st, 2009 12:44 am (UTC)
I think you're right that attitudes toward character death would be an interesting study.

I suspect that as a culture we've lost track of both the concept of having a good and/or meaningful death, or an authentic sense of tragedy in the classical sense, not just "oh-gawds-that's-awful!".

Jul. 1st, 2009 06:41 am (UTC)
Yes, exactly...

There's often an interesting thing that I sometimes ask my religion classes when we study Christianity, which is something that my Sacred Theatre of the Middle Ages prof during undergrad asked us: is the Christian story (specifically the Gospels) a tragedy or a comedy? Is overall Christian salvation history a tragedy or a comedy? Technically speaking, tragedy in the classical Greek sense cannot exist in the Christian milieu (except in some productions of Jesus Christ Superstar!). This is why Gay Godfather Ash says that Christianity, in certain ways, is the ultimate religion of sore losers: their founder gets crucified, so they say "Well, he didn't actually die permanently; oh, and you were wrong about the messiah and what he would do and what he would be like, it was actually the guy you tried to kill..." And then almost every story of Christian martyrdom goes the same way--you didn't succeed in your aims, because now St. XYZ is in heaven enjoying eternal reward, and you lose! And so forth...

I'm often amazed at how even in pagan circles, where death is supposed to be something which people embrace and accept, that it is somehow devalued and gotten around, and that the "tarot card death interpretation" is put on everything, i.e. someone doesn't actually have to die in a myth, they just "get changed/transformed," or someone in an initiation ritual doesn't really have to die (metaphorically, of course!), they're just renewed...they get the benefits of resurrection and rebirth without any of the pains or fear or anything else associated with death, and I think that's an abuse of the rules, personally...

Anyway, as ever, all of these things connect to a billion others! But some gaming theorists really ought to take up that research...Perhaps I can propose it to WotC and see what they think...perhaps they'll fund me? I doubt it...
Jul. 1st, 2009 03:01 pm (UTC)
I went through the same lecture/discussion about tragedy in a Christian universe during one of my theater history classes as an undergrad. I'd grown up as a Christian with a taste for Greek tragedy, but had never made that connection before.

The other aspect of it is that many (most?) modern Christians in this culture believe that God both knows and controls all the events of life, so even a terrible, traumatic event in a modern, non-heroic life is stripped of any aspect of tragedy. No matter how apparently senseless or accidental and awful event, "it's what God wanted" or it would not have been allowed to happen. Which I find personally appalling, because it not only presents a very callous god, it denies the survivors the full authenticity of their grief. They're not allowed to be "too sad" or they call their personal faith into question.

I agree with your comments on the Death card as well. While most of the time it does simply mean the end of a cycle, or an important point of no return in someone's life, I've had two occurrences when it heralded something much more critical: a car accident brought on by the sudden emergence of a seizure condition, and uncrowned_king's actual death.

Personally, I think the ultimate example of death-denial in geek culture is Spock's death in The Wrath of Khan: a tragic, meaningful death, portrayed with dignity -- and then stripped of its tragic power by bringing the character back at the next opportunity, including aging him back to where he had been before the death, denying the character even a true experience of transformation.
Jun. 29th, 2009 04:58 am (UTC)
That sounds fantastic. I miss D&D like crazy. I had planned on starting my own campaign, but nothing is really coming together, and as much fun as it sounds, I don't know that I want to go through the endless amounts of effort to DM.

I'm super glad you enjoyed yourself, hun!
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )


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