I mentioned a bit ago when we were talking about how important a good villain is, that there’s more than one type of death in an RPG, and to be very careful with permanent character death.
I stand by that statement. Be VERY careful with permanent character death.
The laws of magic in game are such that there’s two kinds of dead.
“It just so happens that your friend here is only mostly dead. There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive. With all dead, well, with all dead there’s usually only one thing you can do… Go through his clothes and look for loose change. – Miracle Max, The Princess Bride
“Mostly dead” can be interesting to RP. Getting the absolute snot beaten out of your character can be, in a sort of twisted and macabre way, fun. They have a lesson to learn, or a growth experience to encounter, or just a chance to recouperate and take a rather forceful break. Beat downs are part of RP, and when you’re RPing in a raid or instance or PVP situation, “mostly dead” is a fixable sort of thing. A quick trip over here to the spirit healer and everything’s back to how it should be, and you deal with injuries as you see fit, depending on the situation.
But “all dead”… well, permanent death you can’t fix so easily.
It sounds a little flippant to say it that way, but I’m being very serious when I suggest that you really think about all the possible consequences of actually killing a character.
For example, killing a character because you’re quitting wow doesn’t always work out how you’d think.
If you’re a solid part of an RP community, there will likely be a fair amount of RP around your character’s death, followed by your character becoming part of the guild lore. At which point, if you decide to come back to the game, it is VERY HARD to resurrect them in a way that won’t a) be ridiculous and b) make people angry. When people put in a lot of time and energy getting past a character’s death, having them magically show up 6 months later is more than a little bit offputting.
You’ll end up having to either negotiate a massive guild retcon (to deal with all the stories where your then-dead character had a featuring role being dead and to address everyone’s having gone through the grieving process over your character) or start over with a new character (even if you just name change the old one) and re-build the connections and friendships in a new way.
Both ways are hard, and they can put a real damper on the excitement of coming back to the game. If you leave in an open ended way (retirement is always a good option, random disappearance works too), you can return and enjoy being welcomed back. You can always start a rumor of your character’s untimely death, fill it with possible inconsistencies, and leave people to sort out their own conclusions, which gives you the option of coming back two years later with a story all ready to tell.
Killing a character because you just “don’t like playing them anymore” is also fraught with potential pitfalls. What happens if, next expansion, situations arise where that character would really fit in? What happens if they radically change your class, and you can’t wait to try it out again?
Obviously, I’m pretty leery of killing people off in interactive situations like RP. (If you’re writing a novel, feel free to disregard this advice. Then it’s just YOUR story, and you can do whatever you like with your characters.)
It can be very powerful to kill off a character in a story, and that can add a lot of weight to the storytelling. Maybe that means rolling up a new alt with the intent of getting them killed. An alt that you’ve played on and off can pretty safely be eliminated (especially if they’ve languished in your character selection screen for two years). A main character, though, is much harder, and generally when people talk about killing off characters in big stories, it’s characters they – and everyone else – are attached to.
It boils down to being really careful about making decisions that you can’t reverse easily.
Gaming is weird, and people come and go, leave and come back all the time. In the last seven years, I’ve seen people leave the game because they start having kids and will never have time, only to have those kids hit preschool and suddenly they have time again. I’ve seen people start school and quit WoW, only to be back for the next expansion. I’ve seen people quit because their significant other couldn’t stand them gaming, only for them to be back when the relationship didn’t last. I’ve had my own health crisis, that took me away from blogging and gaming for the better part of an entire expansion.
If you know you’re going to be gone for awhile (or possibly for good), it’s natural to want to have a reason for your character’s disappearance. However, it’s probably better to write up a story to wrap up loose ends in a way that leaves open the possibility of coming back. You really never know what the future will turn up.
For me, a lot of this concerns maintaining a sort of gravitas around permanent death.
We play in a magical world where there really is such a thing as “only mostly dead.” Real, actual death is rare, and it loses its effectiveness if we’re constantly killing and resurrecting characters as a way to manufacture drama. Sure, a death can be dramatic – it’s a powerful statement and a powerful thing to write and experience. Do it too often and it becomes cheap, losing the power it has to hold us and create strong emotions and stories.
I think it’s wise to avoid situations where people start to wonder if your character really is dead or not, or how long it will be before they’re magically alive again (but not Undead, of course). Anything that is overused can become cheap, and in a world where we cheat death on a daily basis, it’s important to keep what little severity we can for death as a plot device.
We may joke about leaving bodies in the canals, but our characters are constantly bound up in the business of bringing death to foes. This is World of Warcraft, after all. When its one of our own that has died, there’s a weight there that I find important to hold on to.
Having death be legitimate keeps our characters human.
We’re working to write believable, real characters in an often unfathomably unrealistic, magical world, at some point there has to be some depth to their experience. Our characters have all had to come to terms with the idea of being bringers of death in some form or another. Being on the receiving end needs to balance that out in some way. Otherwise, death loses its value, and we lose some of the humanity of our characters.*
While death is a huge part of our characters’ everyday experiences, real character death is rare to nonexistent in game. Use it sparingly, if at all, and keep in mind that there can be strong OOC and IC consequences both for killing off a beloved character and for trying to resurrect them later.
*For the record, I feel similarly about pregnancy and babies in RP. Life and death both need to have a certain level of believability for our characters to remain human and real. RPing through a pregnancy is a Big Life Event, and results in a Baby. Babies are not things to be taken lightly. Perhaps Bricu can guest post about Naiara sometime.
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