Playing with Youngers: Death

This post was directly inspired by my seeing this image. Thanks, A. Shipwright.

This is part of the “Playing with Youngers” series, but requires no additional context to read and enjoy. Find the rest of the series here.

Here comes the heavy stuff…

It’s a bit dark to talk about death with kids, right?

Eh. They brought it up first. 

Young one: “What happens when we die?” 

Me: “Um. Well, we all go to rainbow Valhalla. There’s unicorns and dimension bridges and cupcakes for everyone. I’m gonna be riding a magic carpet.”

Young one: “…Mr. Sam…”

Me: “Ah, you meant in the Adventure Game. Got it.”

Now my philosophy in these games I’ve been running for younger players has differed from past games I’ve run. In my games influenced by the OSR (Old-School Renaissance) sphere, death was a regular occurrence. In my Maze Rats campaign, twelve of the twenty-five total characters died by the finale. I take it as a badge of honor when players still talk about the game being a real challenge to survive in. They tended to take the game more seriously that way. It always became a truly emotional moment when a player character died for everyone at the table. Each death was another reason they had to complete their mission and save the world. As a rule, things have more weight when death is on the table. The threat of death and the possibility of ultimate failure keeps people focused and alert. This is especially useful at my table (filled with extra funny theater folks) to stop a handful of jokes from turning into an all-out laugh fest. Put the fear of death into players and follow through with dropping the hammer. Death is a tone-setting occurrence.

But in games for kids? Does it really add to the game?

It’s realistic, for sure. Having a kid’s character die may even be a good lesson in handling loss. That sounds brutal, but hear me out. Would it be easier for a kid having to go through the passing of their pet with or without having experienced similar feelings on a smaller scale in the controlled environment of a game? Based on the research of exposure therapy, experiencing negative emotion in a role-playing situation will make children better equipped to deal with real-life situations that contain similar types of negative emotion. RPGs are truly a fascinating tool, no?

But as a day camp counselor, it’s not my job to say which children should try role-playing games as a form of life skill development/therapy nor guide children through said therapy. Maybe someday. I’m just making the point that there are benefits to these exercise of role-playing games and the frequent brushes with death that occur in games that revolve around going on adventures can’t be overlooked.

But for this series of of games I’ve been running for younger players, I made the conscious choice to never kill a kid’s character.

Talk about full reversal.

So now the youngers are playing the same characters every game, which has led to some interesting effects. One is that they know what to expect. One character means there’s no split in their brain about “Oh I’m not playing Jeraldis anymore. He died. I’m Smerdawald now. He’s the one where I do my Yoda impression. Got it.” Every session has the players playing from the same perspective, but in a different situation as the last game. And to them, the novelty of a new scenario outweighs the novelty of a having new character.

A second effect is the players focus on their goals in the game rather than their goals as their characters level-up or they switch to a new character. Now that’s partly because I’ve done away with levels and all other extraneous forms of advancement but in games where death is more common the game has to introduce more and more customization options, like classes and races, to make one character feel different from all of the previous ones, even though the player hasn’t changed. Without the “which race/class/feat/background combination will I choose after I die?” question, players focus on the one character they have now and play with what they’ve got. Focus on the now, not the next.

Another effect is that there’s no weird meta-knowledge that transfers from character to character. There’s no “we bring Xander up to speed on everything that his previous character knew.” This change to death made me realize that players just function as a silly “knowledge save point” for other players.

Another effect is that the divine right to private property in ensured. How’s that for an American idea? If characters just NEVER die, they keep their stuff. No looting player character corpses, especially for the items that defined them as cool characters. “That’s BRANDON’S fire sword. It’s his as long as he’s alive, which is forever.” It makes me more willing to give out powerful items knowing that one clever, patient player won’t just slowly accumulate magic artifacts off of other characters like Thanos with his infinity stones or General Grievous with his lightsabers and become an all-powerful character. Now you will ALWAYS have that kid who tries to steal from the other players, but it’s no longer justified with “well if WE don’t take our dead friend’s stuff, a bad guy surely will!”

Without the characters dying in the game, I’ve also opted for another change to the game: no character names. It makes things easier for the game to start AND you eliminate the obligatory five to ten to FIFTY minutes of the “what-bland-but-not-too-bland-name-should-I-pick-for-my-character” minigame. “Should I find a word in a different language that means something cool and special to me? Or should my first name be the street I grew up on and my last name be my favorite soda brand? Or should just be named “Snarles McDingleberry?”” Ulgh. Sorry. Rant over.

Instead, I just say “Calvin, you see this happening. What do you do?” or “Jenny, Calvin’s character is being attacked by pig men using large clubs. What do you do?” The division of player and character just melts away. You aren’t trying to figure out some way that “Herald Greensword” would react in this situation. Instead it becomes “how would you, that’s right YOU react to this?” Again, the situation, the problem at hand, the conflict to be resolved is infinitely more interesting to young players than learning how they think a fictional character would think. It frees up players to not have to commit to a part, like they might’ve had to endure in a school play. Instead, it’s THEM. It allows them to play a different version of themselves, one in a fantastic world but also one that can act differently from themselves if they chose. Do you want to take on a persona that is more courageous than you really are? It’s still you. Just try it. Want to play version of you that cheats everyone out of their money and steals from people’s stores? Sure, let’s try that out as a long-term strategy… Good luck.

That leads me to the biggest point about removing death: everything that is done by and happens to the characters persists. There’s no take-backs. When things happen to a character, it’s permanent. When a player makes a choice, their character has to live with the consequences. It’s helped me realize that in a role-playing game, death is just a cop-out and can often be one of the least interesting choices. Did you make some huge mistake by upsetting some major players on the political playing field? Well, you die. The Angel of Death comes swooping in and gives you eternal relief from your suffering and troubles. It’s over for you.

So while it sucks to die in the “you lose your progress” kind of way, it’s great as a player because nothing can hurt you anymore. All negative consequences are moot. The city guards won’t remember that it was you that burned down the city if you reincarnate as a gnome.

And what a twisted lesson to teach kids anyway? “Dying solves your problems when things get toughhh.” What?! That’s absurd! How about “live and learn?” What about “take responsibility?” And “you are free to choose, but you are not free to alter the consequences of your decisions.” That’s the one.

Closing thoughts

I still like death in my dark and brutal games. It sets the tone, it keeps things dramatic and serious. These are stakes. There are also stakes in a game without death. You reap what you sow, the good and the bad. You have to live with having lost an arm, having received a magic blessing from a temple, having released that angry spirit on the town, and having defended that man in court who was unjustly accused of murder. That’s all you, dude.

Finally, death being frequent in a game for adults reminds us that we only have so long to live. The lack of death in a game for kids reminds us that we have to live with the consequences of our actions. Both are good lessons, both have their place.

So carpe diem or what have you. Go on an adventure, but keep yourself safe. Or is it “keep yourself safe, but take every opportunity to go on an adventure?”

Whatever it is, make the most of it.


18 thoughts on “Playing with Youngers: Death

  1. That’s a very interesting approach and way of thinking. In fact I think you’re right about teaching kids to deal with consequences.
    I like my games to be mortal as a challange. But I also miss non-death repercussions. We’re always reading about characters taked as slaves and having to freed themselves or something on sword and sorcery novels, but we don’t often see that same adventures in PnP.

  2. I went into this post thinking I was going to disagree since I usually do with games that remove death as a consequence, but you make a lot of good points. I think the reason some people, myself included, have a problem with games like FATE is because the removal of death often goes along with the removal of a lot of other consequences in the name of giving the player all the control. But you’re right – death is an exciting risk, but it’s not a very interesting one, aside from making a new character. As long as you can still fail and suffer the consequences of failure, there are way more entertaining fates than death.

  3. What an amazing way to express this concept! I’ve always been apprehensive about killing off kids’ characters, but I’ve never been able to say anything other than, well, it feels kinda mean. I’ll definitely keep this one bookmarked.

  4. I’m going to use No Thank You Evil as a language teaching tool to improve (non-native speakers) English skills, this is really useful stuff, thanks!

  5. I’ve been working on some genre rules and rulings guidelines to match the feel of Avatar: the Last Airbender, and this is seriously one of them. While difficult to referee at first, removing death as a consequence allows for a whole suite of horrible consequences that can have ginormous impact.

    You can always take a character’s stuff (Sokka’s Space sword), but more interestingly, you can lose a friend, make an enemy, lose an ability, lose a golden opportunity, lose your title/name, lose people’s respect, or lose a loved one.

    I’m the game I’m running, where death is not usually on the table, death feels much scarier when it does appear. Not only that, but my players react in similarly scared ways to all of the other consequences listed above (which I made into a huge table so I don’t default to “you lose an arm”).

    It doesn’t have to be deadly to be scary!

      1. I should make a WordPress account so I’ll be notified when someone replies to a comment of mine!

        As it stands, my Avatar game is all handwritten scratch in a notebook, so it’ll be hard to share! However, I’ve been considering publishing it on my blog, with some hesitation. When I do finally type it out, I’ll definitely share the link!

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