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.
When we last looked at death in games for kids, I came to the conclusion that death is best off the table in games with younger players as it helps them deal with consequences. RPGs are made unique by the ability to show players how to make choices and the effects of the decisions they have made. In order to not rob young players of these features that are filled with life lessons, it’s best that their characters stay alive.
But then I got another question from folks after addressing death: “what can I threaten?” If the lives of the players are never on the table, what gets them to care? Can a meaningful game be played without death? For example, I got this comment on reddit:
“I think death adds to the fun of the game. Because remember folks, it’s a game! You can lose.”
“…My question is what are the stakes of losing? Without fear of losing something can we still call this a game?”
Is life the only thing you can lose in a game?
Let me tell you (or remind you) of a very popular video game series for kids. It’s filled with adventure, humor, puzzles, and challenges. You “die” a lot, but don’t take any serious penalty. I’m talking of course about the LEGO video games.
I grew up playing LEGO Star Wars on the Xbox and GameCube. You could be R2D2 or C-3PO or any of the Jedi or whoever else from the Star Wars universe. You would play out the events of the movies, while attacking bad guys and getting beat up. If you lost your four hearts in a fight, you came back not five seconds later. The catch was that as soon as you “died” you exploded in a shower of studs, the currency of the game, which could be recovered by yourself or your teammate. But some studs would fall off of a cliff or disappear after a couple of seconds. The point was that sometimes death would cause a permanent, negligible effect. You could always just get more studs, but they were limited on each level. Your “high score” was reduced.
Was it still a game with death out of the picture? Absolutely.
As long as you kept playing and didn’t get super stuck on any of the puzzles (most were fairly intuitive), you were guaranteed to win. Same goes for Pokemon and other games where “death” isn’t that big of a deal and isn’t the total end of your adventures. They still function as games. In these games with a small impact for losing, you still have choices for how to deal with problems. In LEGO Star Wars, you could comb every level, trying to find all of the studs and mini-kits (think trophies). You could blast through the level, making it a speed run of sorts. And whenever you “died” (although “stunned” is probably closer to it), it was no biggie.
So is answer to the question “what do I threaten” money? That seems shallow and greedy. Well, it’s close. The closer answer is assets. Start seeing the world in terms of value and then things begin to fall into place.
Money? Asset. Treehouse? Asset. Items? Assets. Friends? Assets. Reputation? Asset. Limbs? Assets. Food? Assets. Vehicles? Assets. Family? Assets. Information? Asset. Spells? Assets. Anything of value to the players is something that can be threatened and subsequently lost or taken away. Anything.
You can even place them in comparative value: when the princess is being captured at the same time as pigmen are stomping through your house, which do you save? What are the consequences of choosing one over the other?
The first Spiderman film featured this type of dramatic storytelling. The villain Green Goblin held the girl of Peter Parker’s dreams in one hand and the lives of children in the other before saying the line that captures the point of the entire film:
Then he drops them both. Who does Spiderman save?
Was Spiderman’s life in danger at that moment? Nope. Was it dramatic? Absolutely.
Again, anything of value to the players is something that can be threatened and subsequently lost or taken away.
It reminds me of the story of Job. Here’s a guy who was stuck in the middle of divine wager, which is quite the pickle. God and Satan both wanted to test his faith; Satan was convinced that without all of his stuff, he would lose his faith. God thought differently. So the poor fool was struck by many calamities. Job got sick and he lost his house, investments, and kids. Even his friends and wife turn on him. But he was still alive. Did he lose? Well, yes and no. From a raw “stuff” perspective, total loser. But he was still alive, so the story continued. In the end Job got to choose his reaction to what happened to him and that’s what makes it an interesting story. “What will he do? Will he give up his faith?” Just like in an RPG, he was able to make decisions regardless of the situation he found himself in.
Now, am I advocating that you take players’ stuff away willy-nilly and see how they react to it? Naw. What I’m saying is that the story continues and can remain to be interesting when things other than the PC’s lives are taken away. The Count of Monte Cristo had to claw himself out of prison after losing what little he had. Maximus was exiled after losing all of his belongings and forced to fight in a combat arena. William Wallace survived terrible treachery, unlike his father and brother, and had to be educated in the countryside. If you’re scared of taking things away from players, just remember that even taking everything they have is STILL not the end of the story.
It reminds me of this Pixar short.
If you don’t have time, it goes like this: A little sheep loses his fluffiness and with it his confidence. A friend comes along and tells him that:
“…sometimes you’re up and sometimes you’re down. When you find that you’re down, well, just look around. You still got a body, good legs and fine feet, get your head in the right place and hey you’re complete!”
The sheep recognizes his ability to still be confident even without his fluffiness and is better off for realizing it. The End.
If the sheep character just died when he was sheared, it would’ve been game over. When their PCs are left alive, kids are able to “get [their] head in the right place,” and learn from their loss, they can move on to more adventures. You might not be able to recover that lost magic sword. You may need to buy repairs for your treehouse. You will need to save the princess from the pigmen if you want to restore the throne. But you get to choose.
Find what’s of value, threaten their assets, make interesting choices.
No dying required.