Worth Dying For

Death. It gets us all in the end.

There is a school of thought in Dungeons & Dragons that PCs live brutish Hobbesian lives and players must use every clever trick in their arsenal to keep their characters from shuffling off this mortal coil. I grew up in a different sort of environment, playing character-centric games in one-on-one sessions. I don’t think I’m alone when I say I grew attached to my fictional creations and didn’t want to see lasting harm befall them.

Over the years my attitude changed. Somewhere along the line I stopped viewing my characters as default extensions of myself and started seeing them as pieces in a story. Stories are bigger than any one character in them.

“The mightiest man may be slain by one arrow, and Boromir was pierced by many.” —Pippin, The Return of the King, by J.R.R Tolkien

Boromir, a bearded man in a cloak, sitting against a tree and impaled by three arrows.Boromir dies. Ned Stark dies. Sean Bean plays them both in the screen adaptations, which we all know is no coincidence.

Recently I played a game of Pathfinder with some friends. My character is an elven alchemist named Brithangel (bri-THAN-gull). On a side quest of interest to the party rogue, the party travelled to a dig site in search of relics. There we encountered some unarmed minotaurs gambling, and a human man down in one of the holes. Naturally they were hostile. Brithangel knew he couldn’t go toe-to-toe with the minotaurs, and the human was secure far enough in the pit that he couldn’t hit him with an alchemical bomb. So he decided to climb down into the pit to get a better shot. The human had a bow and arrow, but Brithangel wasn’t made of paper and I knew this. If he were shot and fell off the ladder, he would be injured, but damn it he was an adventurer!

Halfway down the 20-foot ladder, the arrow found its mark. Critical hit. 17 points of damage to Brithangel’s 13 hit points. -4. CRASH! he fell down to the first ledge, for 3 more points of damage. -7. In five rounds—assuming no further abuse—he would perish.

I got some ribbing from the other players for making “a stupid move,” but I don’t see it that way. I took a risk. Sometimes those don’t work out. Perhaps my character was doomed to die in his second session of existence. I accepted that. If I planned every move assuming my character might receive a critical hit in the next round, there’d be no point in playing!

The cleric healed Brithangel, who proceeded to nail the human with an acid bomb. Screaming in pain, he gave in to Brithangel’s demand he surrender—and just then two of his friends up on a hill pinned the elf to the wall with two more arrows. After the next bout of healing he lit a smokestick and wisely took cover.

“Everybody dies alone.” —Malcolm Reynolds, Firefly

It wasn’t quite Boromir’s blaze-of-glory ending, but it was enough arrows to make me think about the parallel. In many ways, Boromir is a notable character from The Lord of the Rings trilogy because he dies. His sacrifice isn’t even effective; the Uruk-hai still make off with Merry and Pippin. If his death accomplishes anything, it is to redeem him (in his own eyes) for his previous actions, where he succumbs to the lure of the One Ring.

When we assume the role of a character in an RPG there is an inclination to view them as an extension of ourselves. It can be because we view the character as ourselves (the actors among us), or we have a vested sense of pride in them (the optimizers).

This can lead to players taking ridiculous measures to protect their characters. I have seen people grow deeply frustrated when their fighter takes even one or two points of damage. I’ve witnessed players cry foul when a monster bypasses their character’s high armor rating, or a wizard ensorcels them in spite of their otherwise indomitable willpower.

If you find yourself falling into this trap, I say to you: Let it go. 

“Everything went according to plan” is a terrible story. Let your character get hurt a little. Let them die from time to time, maybe for no good reason whatsoever. You might find that the tales that spring up from these unfortunate events outlast the sorrow of losing your creation.

Every once in a while, let your character be Boromir.