Making death interesting has come up on my “RPG content writing consumption” multiple times this week. Once from Luka over at WizardThiefFighter and another time just recently from u/AllUrMemes on Reddit. Luka’s system involves replacing “die at 0” with more interesting options than “just croaking.” He includes things like:
Nope. Nope. I Quit.—Hero is knocked back, armor torn and blood gushing from a superficial wound. Their life flashes before their lives and they immediately quit. They pass their weapon to a follower and exit the stage as soon as possible. The follower gains 1d6 advantages.—Hero retires and a follower immediately gets half of their experience, three choice items, and a keen desire to prove themselves.
Narratively, these are far richer than just dying. There’s a story to be told there, whereas with keeling over, the story comes from everyone else’s reaction to their death. The focus is on the other PCs reminiscing about the PC who died, while the player whose character died just watches from the outside. After all, what can they say or do? They died.
If I was playing a PC who rolled this, I’d feel more in control. Sure, my PC quit and I can’t control that. But how do they quit? Who do they say goodbye to? What are their last words to the party? Which follower do they pass their weapon to? In all of these things, *I* get to decide. Very cool from the player side.
My only problem with this system is that all of the entries are *too* specific. For example:
Betrayer of Friends—Hero ducks behind a nearby ally and they take the killing blow instead.—Hero has one friend less.
For this one to work, you need a friend nearby. Now, it’s still a great entry, but it requires that you have a friend there. Gaming solo? Some person you met has to come swooping in and die. It might work and be awesome. It might flop. Something like character death shouldn’t have to be engineered like that.
Some of the entries are also too damage-type-specific. For example:
Spitting Teeth—Hero falls for a round, then gets up again, spitting out a tooth. They regain 1d20 life and gain 2 advantages.—Hero is now gap-toothed.
Oh man. So many movies. Honestly, that’s just a fun entry. But what if you were shot with an arrow? You spit out a tooth? I mean, I guess you could. It just gets a little slap-stick. Electric Bastionland has some of this too where the wound has a chance to not quite match up with the weapon that caused it.
So there’s a lot of cinematic options here that give room for some choice. But I *really* like u/AllUrMemes’ solution:
When Resolve (HP) is reduced to 0 or less, the hero must decide:
FALL or FIGHT
Fall: Hero is out of the battle. They can RP it as desired- unconscious, writhing in agony, curled in a ball, etc. Enemies will ignore Fallen heroes. If all heroes Fall, they are captured. I don’t allow healing because you reached your failure condition and chose to pack it in, and it can turn into anti-climactic whack-a-mole, but do as you will.
FIGHT: The Hero bravely Fights On, risking life and limb. Draw from the FIGHT ON deck. The stress-induced effects in this deck may be harmful or helpful; likely a bit of both.
If you reach -10 Resolve (HP), you die immediately.
This system gives you a choice from the outset: get “taken out” or “go for broke”. You can push your luck or leave everyone to deal with the problem themselves. It’s clever, simple, and puts power in the hands of the players. When you take the option to keep fighting and die, you have no one else to blame. You could have just gone down, but chose not to. I could talk more on this system, but honestly, I just want to talk about applying these principles discussed earlier.
What does this mean for Red Ink Adventures? Well, here’s where the rules are in their current iteration:
When a PC drops to 0 Health or lower, the player rolls 1d. If they were dealt more damage than they had remaining Health, add the excess damage to the roll.
• On a 1-5, you obtain a Scar. Increase your maximum Health by 1 and then set your current Health to 1.
• On a 6-7, you are unconscious.
• On 8+ you are dead.
Here’s an iteration using Luka and u/AllUrMemes’ solutions:
When a PC drops to exactly 0 Health, they obtain a Scar.
When a PC drops below 0 Health, they must choose to either Fall or Fight On.
• Fall: The PC is out of the battle. They are incapacitated, unconscious, or immobilized and cannot participate further in the fight in any way. Enemies ignore fallen PCs.
• Fight: The PC continues to fight, risking their life in the process. Set their Health to 0, but do not gain a Scar. Then roll 1d or choose one below:
1. Retirement: If you die, you will instead later give your weapon to an ally and enter the quiet life.
2. Death Grip: Gain advantage to STR Danger Rolls while you Fight On. If you die, deal 2d damage to a target within your reach.
3. Last Breath: Gain advantage to DEX Danger Rolls while you Fight On. If you die, you may take one last turn.
4. Inspirational: Gain advantage to CHA Danger Rolls while you Fight On. If you die, your allies gain +1 to all Danger Rolls until the end of the combat.
5. Seeing Red: Gain +1 AT while you Fight On. If you die, you will also make one last Attack Roll against all enemies near you.
6. Tenacious: Gain +1 AR while you Fight On. If you die, you will instead gain a Scar. Then lose “Tenacious”.
If a PC reaches -10 Health or lower, they die unless prevented by their Fight On choice. If all PCs have fallen or died, the enemies decide what to do with them.
Death is obviously important to OSR games. Lethality is huge. The question is: “how can we design the most impactful death system possible?” What feels fair, has replayable value, and is flexible enough to fit the chaos of combat and random rolls?
Next time: Resurrection.