Hmmm…you know, I don’t really have many memorable character deaths, off the top of my head. Partly because I tend to be the GM, so I only have half-a-dozen long-running characters in my history, and all of them survived to the end of the game. Partly because I’ve never played particularly lethal games, and never played with (or as) an adversarial GM. So, outside of games that were designed to be about PC death (Dread, Call of Cthulhu, Fiasco, etc.), there haven’t been a lot of deaths in the games I’ve played. But mostly, I suspect, because the deaths didn’t stick with me, perhaps because they weren’t notable even at the time.
So instead, I’ll tell you about the worst character death from a game I was in—the incident that showed me what happens when people don’t communicate their playstyle expectations.
It was AD&D 2nd Edition, in about ’95. I was playing in an excellent long-running campaign run by Seth. He was a great GM, and it was nice not to be the GM for once. However, the storyline had started going in some dark directions, and I realized that I was too attached to my character to enjoy that. So I decided to retire that character and make one I was less attached to so that I could enjoy the game. We were playing a mid-level game (I believe the PCs were around 7th to 8th level), and I consulted with the GM to figure out what sort of character would make me happy, fit the game, and fit with the other PCs. Eventually, we settled on a revenant. For those that don’t know D&D, a revenant is an undead victim of a brutal or tragic murder, returned to seek vengeance on its murderer. This was perfect for me in multiple ways:
- The character was clearly tied to the campaign and the rest of the group by being driven—single-mindedly, even—to confront the Big Bad that had been making our characters’ lives hell for a year and a half of gaming.
- I had created a character born of tragedy and loss, so I was comfortable with seeing the character undergo further tragedy and loss. It was more of a horror-trope or dramatic character, rather than the escapist power fantasy of my previous character in the campaign.
- My character didn’t really have the abilities it would take to take down the Big Bad. I was a ranger/psionicist, while he was a higher level character (to this day, I don’t know his class(es)—I’m guessing assassin/fighter/mage) with a buttload of magic items.
- My character was immune to acid, so I didn’t have to deal with the violation of character that the Big Bad was most fond of. And he would eventually heal from just about anything else.
The last two points combined to mean that while we might clash, neither character should be able to get the upper hand. Freed from my worries about character death (both because the character was hardier than my last one, and because I created this character basically to watch him struggle and eventually die), I could have my character obsessively pursue revenge, but there was just no way he’d actually succeed—not where the entire party acting in concert for dozens of sessions had consistently, and abysmally, failed. But neither could he easily completely fail (i.e., die). So I anticipated a long and delightfully agonizing stalemate, with neither character able to walk away or to permanently defeat the other.
I loved playing that character, though it was a little creepy getting myself psyched into a headspace driven by hatred before each game—I realized that I’m not very good at “hate”; it’s not an emotion I usually feel. I’m pretty good at “obsession”, however.
So, anyway, we introduced the character, and things went swimmingly for the first two sessions. Then in the next session I got a bead on the Big Bad and managed to track him down and corner him on board a docked ship. Unbeknownst to me, some NPCs had stripped the Big Bad of most of his magic items. I’m not sure now (2 decades later), but I believe that this was due to actions of the PCs, but that none of the players (or PCs) had any inkling of just what they’d set in motion “off stage”. The Big Bad laid an ambush, and for some reason my character survived the initial attack. I don’t remember now whether it was dice luck, the Big Bad being mostly disarmed, or my character’s relative hardiness. So I made my attack. A 20! I hit! Our house rules had crits, so I rolled another d20 to determine the severity. Another 20! The Big Bad was beheaded, and the various healing and protective magics he usually carried/wore were nowhere in evidence. He was dead!
This was literally this character’s first ever attack against the Big Bad. It was only the second time they had met in-game (so, not counting backstory, which really doesn’t count), and the previous time the Big Bad had escaped before my character could even attack. So here I was, 2.5 sessions into playing my new character, and the raison d’être of both my character’s existence and his presence in the campaign had just been removed. And horribly anticlimactically—no grand struggle, no accumulation of frustrations or exchange of unpleasantries, not a word said, not even a protracted or difficult struggle. Just a single swing of a sword, his very first, and the Big Bad is dead. And to add injury to insult, my character even survived the retributive explosion that the Big Bad’s one remaining magic item triggered when he died. [Just barely: it was something like 78 points of damage and I had 82 hps.] The entire point of my character had just been removed. Even if a revenant hadn’t ceased being undead and become a regular corpse again once they killed their murderer, there would be no point in keeping the character around. As it was, I had to retire my character because he was as dead as if he’d been killed in the confrontation—just without the dramatic satisfaction.
Now to me, this was an obvious mistake. I had obviously built a character designed for a prolonged conflict, and doing some GM handwaving behind the scenes (we had no idea the Big Bad was so underequipped, for starters) in order to prolong this conflict would be the superior choice. To the GM (and I suspect the rest of the players), I had obviously “earned” that outcome, through the luck of my die rolling, and to not respect the dice would be cheating, and of the very worst kind: the GM undermining player victory. The others, particularly the GM, were seemingly completely baffled that I was upset and disappointed—hadn’t I just defeated the Big Bad? And, on top of that, wasn’t it with a character whose sole goal was to defeat the Big Bad?
I had discovered other styles of RPGs a few years before this, but had continued to play gamist/simulationist games (like D&D and the World of Darkness games) for much of my gaming. This showed me that I don’t value success, or even verisimilitude, nearly as much as I do a good story. I made another character for the game, but I soon stopped playing with that group (despite the fact that literally all of my friends were in that game—and since RPGs were my only hobby at the time, I don’t have any recollection what I did with my Friday nights for the rest of the year). So while it was an NPC, I’d have to say this is my most memorable RPG character death. (Sadly, my own character’s death wasn’t at all memorable, or even on-screen: having survived the revenge (rather than going out in a blaze of glory), he was left to wander off into the sunset (figuratively—I don’t remember if it was west), headed back to his grave to lie down permanently.)