At a gathering to watch some football last night, roleplaying came up as it inevitably does with this group. It’s the most significant shared experience we have.
One way or another (which is to say, I probably did it but I don’t remember how), we got on the topic of D&D and random character death. And I posed the question “Is random character death ever fun?” I have never seen a circumstance where dice were rolled and a character died that the group was satisfied with. In fact, I’ve seen this occurrence torpedo more than one campaign. We argued about it a lot, and the main contention against removing random character death was that, in order for succeeding to be fun, there needed to be the possibility of failure. This might be true, but I don’t see that failure and death are always connected in either direction. Another problem people had was that they always assume any combat is deadly and so the don’t fight unless they’re willing to die. I hypothesize that this makes more sense in, say, L5R than it does in D&D. Rarely can a fighting problem be resolved by talking in D&D, much more rarely than in L5R. Yet another issue was that sometimes people truly are willing to have their character die in order to accomplish something, and this should be possible.
In any case, this brings me to a bit of technology to deal with making character death happen at appropriate times in the story. Initially I thought that a good way to manage this would be to simply ask before a combat – “Raise your hand if you’re OK dying during this fight.” Someone pointed out that this would totally break their immersion, and would not be acceptable. So, my idea is to give everyone a signaling device that they can set in two positions to indicate whether they are OK with lethality. This could be a poker chip with different colors on each side, a miniature that could be standing or laying down, whatever. The key to it is that the GM needs to be able to see it from across the table so they don’t have to ask and interrupt the game. Some players will never change their answer; they need only set it once per game and leave it there. Other players will be OK with dying if it’s sufficiently epic; these players may switch back and forth.
There might even be consequences of having your signal in both positions. Perhaps if you’re in “non-lethal mode,” you’re responsible for suggesting an appropriate complication other than death, but you get bonuses to social skills. And if you’re in “lethal mode,” you get bonuses to combat, but are responsible for something else. The exact effects of both modes will probably depend on what game you’re playing.