20
May
10

Alas, Poor Black Leaf

It gets worse, as is to be expected from Jack Chick.

Suicide in D&D is less about the fate of poor Black Leaf’s player than it is about drawing a bloody line between your old unwanted character and your shiny new one.

It’s a story as old as D&D itself. A player doesn’t like their character—these things happen!—and decides to play a new one. But instead of a pleasant retirement, the old character suffers a drastic and terminal end. Methods vary from self-inflicted injury to lurid player-narrated tales to the time-honored “death by goblin,” where the character is thrown into deadly situations until the dice take their grim toll.

Why suicide instead of peaceful retirement? There are, I think, three reasons:

1) The Reroll: By the book, if you don’t like your character’s stats, you can’t reroll. You have to play the character you rolled. Character death provides an end run around the problem! Just view your replacement character as your “reroll.”
2) Player Authority: In a world where the DM controls everything other than your character, you may feel that surrendering control of your character is anathema. Killing your character is a final gesture of defiance in the face of the DM’s implicit tyranny.
3) Closure. What’s the end of your character’s story? If the character recedes into the quiet mists of NPCdom, you may never find out! Better, perhaps, to write your own ending to the story while you still have authority to do so.

Personally, as a DM, I find it annoying when players casually kill off their PCs. Characters in which the group is emotionally invested are valuable assets to the DM, and I hate to see such assets tossed away thoughtlessly or inefficiently. On the other hand, I can see how players can find such an attitude grating. This tells me that this is one of those things that should be talked out between players and their DM.

The important thing is that if you’re going to wipe the slate clean of old characters, that you incorporate it into the story of play just as you would everything else. Adventuring is a ghastly profession. Does it drive people to suicide? Does it welcome those with a death wish? Is it a magnet for character-killing weirdness? Of course!


21 Responses to “Alas, Poor Black Leaf”


  1. 1 Brock
    May 20, 2010 at 5:25 am

    Personally, as a player, I find it annoying when DMs casually kill off my PCs. Characters in which the group is emotionally invested are valuable assets to the group, and I hate to see such assets tossed away thoughtlessly or inefficiently.

  2. May 20, 2010 at 2:08 pm

    Depending on what you mean by “casually,” “thoughtlessly” and “inefficiently” (which you may be using differently in your cut-and-paste response than in the original), you may find that old-school D&D is simply not a good fit for your preferred style of play. And that’s alright!

    Also: did I kill your character? Because that snark looks a lot like it’s directed at me, but I don’t think I know you.

  3. May 20, 2010 at 3:06 pm

    I think it’s interesting to take the perspective that, if D&D is a fantasy roleplaying game – here taking the sense of “fantasy wish fulfillment,” although there are certainly other senses – what are the fantasies?

    One of them is overcoming death. There are explicit ways this happens in the game – which is, I think, why most gamers don’t want to play without raise dead but also don’t want it to be trivially easy; we want the fantasy of triumphing over death to be a meaningful event.

    The implicit way we get to play out the fantasy of after-death survival is to have a character die but to experience a more-or-less unbroken continuity of experience as a player by rolling up a new one. From this standpoint, killing an old character is more fulfilling than retiring it because it plays out that fantasy.

    There’s also the idea that PC death equals a judgement on one’s player skill; you see this stated in places like Gygax on fudging dice rolls in the AD&D DMG, where he approves of it to save a PC’s life if it’s just bad luck but not if it was bad player decisions that killed the PC. Even when a DM does this, I think that most players have an awareness (maybe from play-history experiences) that the DM does have this power to decide whether the character lives or dies based on their judgement on the player’s worthiness. Being the one to kill your own character takes some of this DM-power into your own hands as a player, and lets you demonstrate “look, this death was my own choice, not a referendum on my player skill.” (Likewise, I think my player-desire to not give the DM the power to fudge dice rolls is part of a desire not to be judged.)

    So that’s my take on the player-side psychology. I’m not as sure of the DM-side thinking. Why is a player killing a character more annoying than retiring one? Both deprive the group of a personality they’ve invested in, and I don’t see any intrinsic reasons why a voluntary PC death couldn’t be incorporated into the story of play as easily as a retirement. If anything, the DM has more latitude to work with the narrative of a deceased PC, because the player no longer has protagonism over that character: you can describe a magnificent funeral or the effects of the death on the community without having to worry about contradicting the player’s agency.

  4. May 20, 2010 at 3:29 pm

    Why is a player killing a character more annoying than retiring one? Both deprive the group of a personality they’ve invested in … If anything, the DM has more latitude to work with the narrative of a deceased PC, because the player no longer has protagonism over that character: you can describe a magnificent funeral or the effects of the death on the community without having to worry about contradicting the player’s agency.

    Huh! Clearly we’re working off of different definitions of “retirement” with regard to player characters. My understanding of PC retirement in old-school play is that the retired PC does not simply vanish from the setting; rather, “retirement” indicates that the character becomes a non-player character under the DM’s control. Hence, the player has already abdicated authority over the character; protagonism and agency are no longer relevant.

    (This is distinct from simply not playing a specific character in any given session. If you control a PC but don’t bring it “on screen” for an indefinite period of time, this isn’t the same as “retiring” your character; you’re retaining control over it for future use. Even so, the character is presumed to exist somewhere in the setting—it simply isn’t doing anything relevant to “on screen” play.)

  5. May 20, 2010 at 3:55 pm

    Yeah, that does point out a difference in our assumptions! In games like Call of Cthulu, I’d expect that a PC falls under the GM’s control if they lose all their Sanity, and I think the rules there (and maybe in some other games) explicitly talk about how some consequences of the mechanics or player choices will cause the character to become an NPC under the GM’s control (and thus potentially an adversary to the other PCs).

    But if I say “my guy is retiring to tend grapes,” I expect that what I’m doing is moving him from the shared imaginative space to a private one where I can daydream about him mashing the vats barefoot. In theory I reckon that the vineyard doesn’t have plot immunity, but if an evil cult conquers that area I’d expect that the DM would ask me what my retired guy is doing about it. I’d be taken aback if my retired dude re-enters play as a willing stooge of the cultists, because I don’t see saying “I don’t want to play him any more” as meaning “I abdicate all control over his actions and personality.”

    So yeah, this suggests that killing one’s own character is an assertion of player-power in another way, in that it says “I have final authority over this guy and declare that nothing more will happen to him.” I think that players are more likely to reach for a move on this level because that’s the normal level of action when we’re playing the game; ordinarily we make things happen by saying “this is what my guy does”, not by having a conversation with the DM about what we expect.

    Note that this doesn’t resolve the different expectations – the DM could still assume that a deceased PC is also under their control and have them reappear as a resurrected willing stooge of the evil cult. However, I don’t think I’d find that as jarring as with a retired PC, I guess because there’s an understanding that the fate of a dead PC, like that of an insane one, is no longer mine to control.

  6. May 20, 2010 at 4:26 pm

    But if I say “my guy is retiring to tend grapes,” I expect that what I’m doing is moving him from the shared imaginative space to a private one where I can daydream about him mashing the vats barefoot.

    Another “aha!” moment. In my experience, putting a loved PC aside usually includes the prospect of maybe bringing that PC back into play someday (unless it’s a closed-ended game, in which the point is moot). Actually retiring a character for good has tended to be associated with actively disliking the character and finding it un-fun.

    In theory I reckon that the vineyard doesn’t have plot immunity, but if an evil cult conquers that area I’d expect that the DM would ask me what my retired guy is doing about it. I’d be taken aback if my retired dude re-enters play as a willing stooge of the cultists, because I don’t see saying “I don’t want to play him any more” as meaning “I abdicate all control over his actions and personality.”

    I’ve found that this varies from DM to DM. I prefer to ask players if I can run their characters as NPCs when appropriate, while I’ve seen others do it without asking. But it’s usually a moot point because “retired” PCs generally become so because their players have left the game entirely. I’ve very rarely seen a player say, “I’m switching to a new character and I don’t want to play my old character again, never ever.”

    I think that players are more likely to reach for a move on this level because that’s the normal level of action when we’re playing the game; ordinarily we make things happen by saying “this is what my guy does”, not by having a conversation with the DM about what we expect.

    This is another example of stylistic differences from group to group and from player to player. I don’t think “this is what my guy does” is in any way inherent to old-school play. And I believe that there are times when having a conversation about what we expect is the better approach.

    Note that this doesn’t resolve the different expectations – the DM could still assume that a deceased PC is also under their control and have them reappear as a resurrected willing stooge of the evil cult. However, I don’t think I’d find that as jarring as with a retired PC, I guess because there’s an understanding that the fate of a dead PC, like that of an insane one, is no longer mine to control.

    Interestingly, I did bring back a deceased PC as a ghoul a couple of sessions ago, but under the control of the deceased PC’s player! I didn’t ask the player for permission to do this with the PC, nor did I ask whether he was OK with playing the PC again in this state. He said it was fun, though, so everything turned out okay.

  7. May 20, 2010 at 4:43 pm

    I do think that “this is what my guy does” is the basic mode of old-school play. If I overhear a player saying “I climb into the pit, what do I see when I light my torch?” I assume they’re playing TSR D&D (since in WotC editions they’d use a sunrod!) whereas if the player is saying “Can we set up a scene that revolves around my character’s fear of falling and darkness?” I assume they’re playing a story-game.

    For sure you need to talk about expectations when different ones are causing friction, but in my experience folks avoid doing so whenever possible because it breaks out of the normal kind of interaction that makes the game go.

  8. May 20, 2010 at 5:20 pm

    For sure you need to talk about expectations when different ones are causing friction, but in my experience folks avoid doing so whenever possible because it breaks out of the normal kind of interaction that makes the game go.

    And sometimes refusing to break out of that “normal kind of interaction” leads to friction.

    Two examples from actual play:

    1) “You hear a rumor about location X, involving peril and treasure.”—Is the DM simply putting out a scenario hook that the players can either take or leave as they see fit, or is this the only thing the DM has prepped for tonight?

    2) “I go to the general store and greet the shopkeeper heartily. ‘Hey there, good fellow! I’d like to examine your wares.'”—Is the player interested in playing out the shopping scene just for the fun of being ‘in character’, or is this a prelude to some sneaky effort to get equipment more cheaply?

  9. 9 Brock
    May 20, 2010 at 6:55 pm

    Eric @ May 20, 2010 at 2:08 pm,

    Actually the point of my quote was to test whether you actually believed that “characters in which the group is emotionally invested are valuable assets to the group”. If they are, then neither the DM nor the player should be free to kill them “thoughtlessly or inefficiently”. If they aren’t, then either the player or DM should be free to hit the reset button whenever they choose.

    But you are now asserting an asymmetry. Why can the DM kill off PCs thoughtlessly or inefficiently, but a player cannot?

    I guess I should note three things:
    1: whether or not I believe the the position I stated in my original comment varies from game to game; rather I am just testing to discover whether you actually do.
    2: no we have not played together.
    3: I’m a big fan of Socrates. :)

  10. May 20, 2010 at 7:00 pm

    To lay out some of my thinking here:
    – one level of interaction is like being an participant in the action: “My guy starts a fight with Prokopius”
    – one level of interaction is like being a director of the action: “In this scene I want to establish a physical conflict with Prokopius”
    – some story-games are designed around this second level of interaction, but that feels very different to me than old-school play
    – many gamers accept some steps into director-mode: “Do you guys mind going this way because it’s what I have prepped” or “What are you trying to achieve in the scene with the shopkeeper? Can we cut to the chase?”
    – many gamers prefer to achieve their aims in participant-mode: “Henchmen, go into town and buy us the items on this list” reflects the desire not to get caught up in long conversations with shopkeepers
    – moves toward director mode increase the chance of getting what you want (a long conversation, or not) at the cost of disrupting the sense of being a participant

    To tie this back to the original topic, I’m saying that killing off your old PC instead of retiring them is a participant-mode move; the fact that it annoys you means you’re not getting what you want out of the game, so it’s worth moving toward director-mode to sort it out.

  11. 11 Brock
    May 20, 2010 at 7:22 pm

    I’m saying that killing off your old PC instead of retiring them is a participant-mode move; the fact that it annoys you means you’re not getting what you want out of the game, so it’s worth moving toward director-mode to sort it out.

    This is perceptive, but I disagree that killing off a PC rather than retiring them is a “participant-mode” action. Unless the PC has real reasons to be suicidal it’s clearly a case of the player acting “out of character” in order to force an outcome that’s good for the player, not the PC.

    That’s why I find PC suicide annoying. Not because it’s a question of free will for the player, but rather because it breaks the immersion of the game. Rather than “Ferazir is being suicidal”, the perception is “Brian is being a jerk.” The suicide only makes sense when you look at the player’s motivations, rather than the PC’s.

    Retirement is different. Adventuring is dangerous business, and frankly it’s odd that more PCs don’t retire more often. The amount of gold acquired during just a few adventures should set up most people quite comfortably for the rest of their lives – or at least allow them to buy an Inn or vineyard to tend into their old age.

    P.S. If anyone actually used the phrase “In this scene I want to …” at my table I’d slap them. If you want to do something, just frakkin’ do it. The “Director mode” method of play implies a control over outcomes, which cannot exist in the real world and does not exist in my games. The only thing you can do is your best, and leave the rest to God and the dice.

  12. May 20, 2010 at 7:26 pm

    @Brock: Tone does not come across well in online discussion.

    If your question was, “If it’s not all right for players to kill PCs by fiat, is it all right for DMs to kill PCs by fiat?” then my answer is that neither is all right; the cases are not entirely symmetrical, but in this respect they’re close enough.

    If your question was, “If it’s not all right for players to kill PCs by fiat, is it all right for DMs to kill PCs by allowing them to die because of unlucky dice rolls or poor decision-making?”—which is what is generally the topic at hand in such discussions—then my answer is that the latter is all right, because the two are asymmetrical in method and intent.

    Also, the Socratic method only functions when the participants know and trust one another. Outside of such a relationship, the method tends to evoke hostility; this isn’t conducive to good communication.

  13. May 20, 2010 at 7:27 pm

    To tie this back to the original topic, I’m saying that killing off your old PC instead of retiring them is a participant-mode move; the fact that it annoys you means you’re not getting what you want out of the game, so it’s worth moving toward director-mode to sort it out.

    And that’s indeed what I’ve been doing. Vindication!

  14. May 20, 2010 at 10:06 pm

    In any case, I think it’s telling that I’ve never seen this phenomenon outside of old-school D&D.

  15. 15 1d30
    May 21, 2010 at 12:02 am

    Another thing to consider is that if a PC just throws himself into the nearest poison dart trap, the rest of the PCs get his loot. Which may include money or magic items. But if he leaves the party and retires, he typically takes all his things with him (perhaps giving some specific item to a friend, if he thinks of it). But for a suicide, the party becomes richer. For a retirement the party becomes poorer (assuming the new PC comes in with less loot than the previous one).

    One scheme I’ve often seen, even with new players, is the attempt to will everything to “my brother who will probably be along any minute to take my place in the group”. As a referee I don’t want to quash players’ decision-making, but when I see this happen I don’t give the new character any special starting money or equipment, regardless of his level. New 6th level M-U who is coming to inherit his Thief brother’s equipment? Well, I guess there have been lean times because you have your 3d6x10 GP like any other starting character. But if that Thief left with all his goodies, your 6th level M-U will come in with 3d6x10x6 GP, a couple scrolls and potions, and a low-end permanent magic item or two.

    But I look at that as a referee’s generosity, which nobody is entitled to.

  16. May 21, 2010 at 12:56 am

    Eric Minton @ 7:26 pm,

    My question wasn’t about whether DMs can kill PCs or not per se, but solely whether you really believe that “characters in which the group is emotionally invested are valuable assets to the group”? I’m still not sure what you believe.

    You asserted in your post that players shouldn’t commit suicide for this reason, but when I presented the symmetrical argument you said “you may find that old-school D&D is simply not a good fit for your preferred style of play.” This seems odd to me. If character investment is truly a valuable asset, then DMs should not kill them off willy nilly.

    Of course, at 7:26 PM you’ve walked back from the fact that DMs can kill PCs willy-nilly (in your first paragraph). How does this square with the assertion than anyone who opposes unjust PC death should find another style of game?

    If I may, I think the truly valuable asset isn’t player investment in the characters, but player investment in the larger campaign. PCs can be killed by the DM because, hey, that’s the game. But they know that going in. The problem with PC suicide is that it breaks the fourth wall between the campaign and the players. PC retirement and DM-induced deaths do not.

  17. May 21, 2010 at 2:06 pm

    @1d30: Interesting! So you have house rules for bringing in new characters at higher than first level, with a corresponding amount of gold and magic. To what extent is this formalized (such as the fixed level multiplier for starting gold) and to what extent do you make up the bonus magic items and such on the fly?

  18. May 21, 2010 at 4:26 pm

    Over at Grognardia, James Malizewski has an interesting discussion going on about character suicide as a means to escape sucky stats. Click here to read it.

  19. May 21, 2010 at 9:48 pm

    Brock, can you restate your opinion without referencing Eric’s? I’m having trouble following you.

    Here’s what I’m tripping over. You’re saying that player investment in their characters is a good thing. I think you’re also saying that because of that, DMs shouldn’t be able to kill them off. Is that right? Because to me, both those things can be true: playing investment in characters AND DMs killing characters can be good for the game.

    For example, there’s not a lot of tension in my game for first level characters because of player investment. Players know that their characters are probably not going to survive to second level. But if they do make it to second level, suddenly the investment in that character shoots way, way up. Heck, I’d argue that without the possibility of the DM killing off our characters, our investment would remain pretty low.

  20. May 21, 2010 at 9:50 pm

    Whoops, typo. I meant to write “player investment in characters AND DMs killing characters…”

  21. May 22, 2010 at 3:47 pm

    cr0m,

    I wasn’t really presenting my own opinion, but trying to nail down exactly what Eric was getting at in his post. He has stated explicitly that players shouldn’t kill their PCs because player investment in the PCs is a valuable asset. My argument was simply that if that were true then DMs shouldn’t kill PCs either, but when I made that argument Eric said I shouldn’t play old school D&D if I felt that way – which implies that he DOESN’T believe that PCs are valuable assets.

    So we have two statements from Eric which seem to contradict each other, and so far we’re not sure which one he “really” meant. I’m guessing he means the one in the second comment and misstated the one in the post, but of course I cannot know his mind.

    My own opinion, which I only stated in the last paragraph of my most recent comment, is that it’s not player investment in the PCs that’s valuable, but player investment in the campaign/adventure and immersion in the setting. This is compatible with both DM-icide being part of old school D&D (because you can make a new PC and still be invested in the campaign) while PC suicide is usually bad (because it implies a break between the player’s satisfaction and the campaign).

    Eric,

    Regarding tone, Socratic method, the presence or absence of snark, etc., please understand that while this blog is new to me it has quickly become one of my favorites as I work my way through your archives. I only subscribe to four D&D blogs, and this is one of them. Further to the extent you can learn to like someone solely through their writing, I like you guys. So please read my comments in that light, if you can.

    Thanks,
    Brock


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