• Random Movie Quote

    Nick Chapman: What is it?
    Emmet Sumner: It’s this stupid movie. It’s called :”Coffins from Hell.”
    Nick Chapman: What is it about?
    Emmet Sumner: Coffins from hell.

    — The Big Picture (1989)

Encourage Awesome – Death is for Red Shirts

I discovered an important concept in storytelling at a young age. My parents allowed me to stay up to watch the original Star Trek series during its first run on NBC in 1966. In many of the episodes, the audience would be shown how a deadly monster or weapon worked. They would use it on an extra that commonly wore a red shirt. The poor victim would then have all their salt sucked out of their bodies, be instantly disintegrated, or turned into a cube. This would show everyone what sort of trouble the main characters were in and the consequences for failure.

However, the main characters never managed to die or be permanently harmed by these weekly dangers. Were they able to avoid death by being incredibly badass? Not really, even though they were badass. It was because those characters were the stars of the show. Killing Kirk, Spock, or McCoy would have seriously altered the story and may have ended the series.

So, why is the death of player characters such a big part of traditional roleplaying games? In the original Star Trek RPG by FASA, a phaser set to Disintegrate could take out a character in one shot. That’s it. You’re gone. There isn’t even a body to mourn over. The reason for this is that traditional roleplaying games are an outgrowth of war games. The design goal was to simulate the “reality” of combat as closely as possible. That includes the likelihood of death for even the main characters.

No one likes having their character killed. That is the reason why resurrections are so common in fantasy games and why the Gamemaster will often fudge a die roll in order to save a character. It is also why the players will often have the characters act in an unheroic manner. They make certain the characters always make the safest possible choices in order to make sure they survive. In other words… Not Awesome.

Why have a rule in a game that is going to keep the players from doing cool things for fear of death? Design can fix this by taking a step away from reality and towards good storytelling. Main characters can only die when it has significance in the story. Spock willing exposes himself to radiation poisoning in order to save the Enterprise. McCoy sacrifices himself in order to save Kirk and Spock from a bizarre alien experiment. Kirk loses his life in a battle with Spock.

Yes, they all recovered from these deaths, but the point was to create drama and a good story. The only ones that had permanent deaths were the Red Shirts. Death should only be for the minor characters. Heroes should not fear death.