Character Actions Have Consequences

We all invest time and energy in coming together to play our favorite games, whatever they may be. There is no right or wrong game for you or your group. Each group needs to find the game(s) that work for them; damn the naysayers! The only wrong game is one that does not support the type of stories you personally want to be involved in. For example, I am not a fan of Sci-Fi; therefore, I tend to avoid Sci-Fi games. With time and effort put into our characters and shared fiction, no one wants to see anything horrific happen to any of the characters, but as in real life, that may be unrealistic.

Actions have consequences within the fiction of a tabletop roleplaying game, just as in real life. This is not a new topic; it continues to surface and be discussed across social media platforms, which are horrible platforms for involved discussions and only seem to excite the situation. Before I plumb the depths of my opinions on this topic, I want to be clear on a couple of points. First, gaming is, first and foremost, a collective storytelling social event for all involved. Second, we all play games for different reasons, and not all games support our reasons for playing.

Every action must have a consequence, positive or negative. For example, a character sticking a finger in an electrical socket should get shocked. A character fighting a bear runs the real risk of getting mauled, possibly to death. These are realities. Yes, they can be hand waived, but I would offer for your consideration that most players are not looking for a game with only positive consequences. And if they are, they should ensure they are playing a game that supports that goal. It is how that consequence is woven into the fiction that matters. The onus is on both the Gamemaster and the players to make the consequence one that propels the story forward in a meaningful direction. That is one imperative of all roleplaying games; the story must go on. The type of consequences, if and how they are introduced into the fiction, seems to raise the hackles for some.

One position out there is that character death in any roleplaying game is taboo. While I do not ascribe to this camp myself, going back to the idea that all actions must have consequences, I believe that if a character does happen to die within the fiction, it needs to have meaning and context. That is to say, it should not be gratuitous violence for the sake of violence, and it should not be arbitrary on the part of the Gamemaster trying to rack up kills. It should, however, be a result of consequences from actions or bad decisions (or lousy die rolls) made by the character. In the latter case, it has meaning within the fiction and can still propel the story forward. It may now give their compatriots a new reason to keep on keeping on. It might reveal a new archenemy. Or perhaps give them some new direction in which to push the fiction.

I’m not here to tell anyone how to play their game. I am not the arbiter of correct or incorrect play, but I would like to offer a few thoughts for those interested in considering them.

  • Know why you run or play games; find or build a community of like-minded friends.
  • If you do not want characters to get hurt or die, find a game that supports this.
  • Ensure everyone is on board with the ideas surrounding consequences and even character death.
  • Ensure positive and negative consequences are meaningful and always propel the story forward.

Regardless of the game, be it D&D, Call of Cthulhu, or something else, no one relishes the idea of their character meeting their demise. I honestly believe that most players, should it happen to their character, would want it to be meaningful and impactful to the story, just like in their favorite novel or movie. Something they can think back on down the road and possibly say, “I remember when my 10th-level Rogue got immolated by that ridiculously complex trap. The dice hated me that day, but damn, it was an impressive death, and I saved everyone else from certain death!”

Speaking of movies, my editor asked me if I saw this attitude toward negative consequences and even character death being influenced by American films? In which the lead characters, while not immune to consequences, are often spared the worst of them and rarely meet an untimely demise. Whereas in foreign films, lead characters are not spared, and the consequences within those storylines often reflect a grittier reality. While I cannot say for sure that there is a solid connection here, I am sure it is possible. I believe it is more of a generational shifting of attitudes, the ebb and flow of things. Perhaps it is a shift toward a more risk-averse style of play. I don’t know, and I not going to claim to know. Ultimately, I know the type and style of game I enjoy.

I’ll leave you with one final thought—having only positive consequences in a high fantasy game is akin to a fantasy novel’s main character being immune to all negative consequences, including an untimely demise, from their actions.

Photo credit:  Robert Laszlo

~ Modoc

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