Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Missing the Pointy End

Ok, I'm going to spoil the hell out of Game of Thrones. It's been on TV now, so I can't feel too terrible about this, but on the off chance this is an issue, I want to give some heads up before I dive right in.

Game of Thrones has been hugely influential on subsequent fiction, and I think this has mostly been a good thing. There are some folks who do not like this, feeling that this has overly darkened fantasy, but overall I think it's been a good thing. If nothing else, I'm pretty sure it's made Fred a much happier man.

That said, I think that a lot of people take a different lesson from it than I do, and it jars at time. I think a lot of people take the lesson that Ned's death is an indication that the right way to grab a reader (or a player) is with the death of a well liked character. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm all for killing off the occasional character for the drama of it, but that's not the important thing.

The reason that Ned's death is so potent is not that we love the character, but because it violates our expectations. Ned is a protagonist, and the expectation is that he'll get out of the situation, no matter how bad. There are lots of reasons for this, but the thing that I think is really important is about is about expectations and status quo. We're pretty well trained by fiction (especially TV and comics) that after a status quo has been established, things are going to find their way back to that state.

Ned's death breaks the status quo of A Game of Thrones quite profoundly. That, far more than the death itself, is the shock to the system.

I bring this up because it's a marked contrast to killing off a character who is important to the protagonists. If, for example, a protagonist develops a love interest, and that love interest is killed, it's often the opposite of disruptive. Usually, the disruption would be if the love interest remained in play, since that sort of thing tends to change the overall dynamic. It's the reason the pulps are full of dying love interests, the difference is that they tended to make less of a big deal of it.

Anyway, what does that have to do with your game? Just this - death is sad, but unless the players are REALLY attached to an NPC, a dramatic death is not going to move their needle much. What's going to matter is what that death _says_, and what it _changes_. This is a reason why PC death can be such a powerful thing when it happens - if players don't think it's on the table, it can shake things up. But like most powerful tools, that's a reminder of why to use it cautiously.


  1. The threat that anyone might die provides a much grittier base to a show. Take for example the BBC series Spooks (which I think is marketed as MI5 in the US), where none of the characters are covered by plot immunity and may even disappear from the show mid-season. It escalates the tension when you realise that anything can happen. Not only do you get the chance of failure, but you introduce the opportunity for failure (and the risk of same) on a much more personal basis.

    I think the same holds for RPGs themselves. The only valuable, truly irreplaceable part of the game is the character itself.* There is always the expectation that ephemera, such as money, equipment, and dependent others, can be replaced (or provide the fodder for anguished role-playing in exchange for their loss). This means that the only serious wager you can make in the game is with the character itself. Anything else can be (potentially) written back in.

    If you don't have this element of risk inherent in the game, if the players have plot immunity, then I generally find that the game lacks a certain something. [At least for games with a strong combat orientation such as most fantasy RPG.]

    [* In a mechanical sense the character is the very definition of the replaceable commodity, except that people don't generally think like that. They strongly identify with a particular character, and when that character goes, they look on the new character as something fresh. Very few games attempt to make a direct connection between subsequent characters.]

  2. I always felt that Serenity successfully used the pattern of breaking expectations when it killed off Wash. From that moment on in the story, there were no promises that any main character would live...which made the rest of the movie harder to predict.

    "is anyone going to make it out alive?"

    I would argue that 24 took the pattern too far. The first season was quite good at spoiling expectations, but by the end of it, you could pretty much assume everyone was an idiot/in the employment of the badguy/has a crazy girlfriend(boyfriend,family member)/all of the above. Effectively, it set a new expectation that you couldn't assume the writers were doing anything but making shit up. :)

  3. a sudden injection of death where it isn't expected can make things real. Sometimes this is harder with PCs, because they may be under the illusion that they can die at any given point in time. NPCs, well, we're programmed to think of them as sub-humans anyhow.

  4. I think you make an excellent point here, Rob. The act is stunning because it breaks the status quo and expectations for the show; his death sets the precedent for a world-spanning epic saga that does not center on a single faction or house (Within the first novel I had largely assumed that the Starks were the main characters. They had direwolves!).

    But while we're dealing with RPGs, I think there are ways to shake up genre and expectations beyond simply removing the plot immunity of the PCs. You can threaten the nature of and ideas about the PC or the game without risking death.

    One can, I think, threaten the motives, believes, and central tendencies of a character without pointing a gun at them. And these moments are the most potent, when a player suddenly realizes that his character must forsake a loved one, give up his theological conviction, turn on his friends.

  5. Dread is good for this sort of thing. We go in knowing the rules. No one is untouchable. Fudging can't happen. And, when the tower falls, it's still a shock.


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