The Sacrament of Death

Character death is a significant special case in most schools of tabletop roleplaying, including what I like to call “the tradition” — adventure games with a scenario-presenting GM and players immersing into character roles in investigating and experiencing that scenario. Anything from Runequest to Rolemaster and from C2020 to Exalted, all games that rightfully consider themselves to be contributors to a shared tradition of play. Normal roleplaying games, for the most of us, even in the post-millenial age. Player characters dying can have different significance within the tradition, from heightened distress and loss to outright bugfuck blue screen of death game tilt; whatever the case, character death is always very important, a special situation that is set aside and understood differently from the usual contents of play.

I’m writing this essay to share some observations I’ve developed about the way character death functions in traditional roleplaying games. Much of this is applicable to various progressive and experimental forms as well, but the basic focus isn’t on the clever and exceptional things you can do in the medium of tabletop play; the prey I’m hunting here is the question of how we deal with death in traditional roleplaying games, and how to sharpen that understanding. The titular “Sacrament of Death” is a specific strategy or technique that is common in the play cultures of some few games, that I think could be artistically valuable were it known about more widely and applied consciously.

Theory background

I don’t want to bore you with things you already know, but just for refreshment’s sake, I’ll discuss a few of the more prominent rpg theory concepts that I rely on here. Maybe take this as a short glossary for the technical language I use below. It’s particularly useful because of how little shared vocabulary theory talk even has in the rpg scene. I’ll note that this is the real language I use to talk about these things with my friends, the word choices aren’t intended to carry any secret subtextual messaging and I’m not trying to be intentionally difficult with them. Words are tools, and you develop new toolboxes when thinking new thoughts. Feel free to rephrase the actual ideas in your own words, that’s how you do cognition in this language-seeped reality.

Traditional roleplaying game sounds like a generic term for any tabletop games with dice and character sheets, but I like to use this phrase for a slightly more specific thing arising from my favoured historiography of roleplaying: I think that tabletop roleplaying only solidified into an unitary, coherent form around the early ’80s, and that the subcultural cohesion itself caused a specific ideological tradition of roleplaying to emerge, distinct from the medium of roleplaying itself. This “tradition”, or simply “trad roleplaying”, has had a fairly long day in the sun as these things go, but I think we can by now pinpoint how questioned — embattled if you will — the tradition has become starting around millennium. Still, the tradition remains a core touchpoint for us, whether cleaving closely to it or seeking to upend its assumptions.

Old school D&D is not “traditional” in this sense, to clarify; the tradition was born out of the antithesis-synthesis of Runequest and ultimately D&D itself refuting the wargaming past and developing into the stable form of tabletop adventure game we know today.

Adventure game is a form factor indicator closely related to traditional roleplaying games that I like to use; it’s particularly useful when contrasted with its peer concepts, “drama game” foremost in line. Adventure games are those roleplaying games that feature a GM who presents an adventure, and a team of players playing characters that form an adventuring party to experience the adventure. Probably sounds familiar. There are adventure games that are not trad rpgs, and in fact not roleplaying games at all; recreating D&D as a boardgame was a big trend in the 20th century, and continues to this day.

Princess play is a specific character-centric content strategy often used in traditional adventure games: the player creates a character and then, via play, celebrates the character’s identity. This is often described as “pretending to be an elf”. It’s one of the enjoyments available in roleplaying, which I named after a common children’s play activity. I wrote about the wider theory background in an earlier essay.

Character death in trad rpgs

Traditional roleplaying games have a problem with character death. How pressing the issue is has changed over time, with some games being basically functional about it, while others are practically unplayable as written due to the problem. I’ll characterize the problem by drawing attention to three cornerstone ideals of the traditional adventure games:

Player characters are a big deal. The earliest roleplaying games had a much smaller character focus, but by the time the tradition crystallized, rpgs were specifically about character, with more and more rules revolving around the player character as an unique, customized individual with hundreds of bytes of data devoted to the character mechanics, and potentially pages of prose to character backgrounds. By the mid-’80s that was the selling point par none for a new rpg: hundreds of new skills! Endless character customization!

The resolution rules are unbiased. Traditional roleplaying arose out of a tradition of wargaming where open and unbiased rules-application was creatively paramount. While the creative motivations were left behind, the form of the rules remained, which is why trad rpgs usually have unbiased rules structures: the players are supposed to read the fiction, recognize a situation where a given rules procedure (e.g. combat system) applies, and then execute the described system for resolving the situation. The rules are symmetric for player characters and monsters, and they are consequence-agnostic: the rules do not care who’s winning or losing, or whether the fight is an important one or not.

Play is deadly. Another historical artefact, the traditional rpg revolves around deadly stakes: your PC is part of an adventuring party, the party goes on adventures, and they regularly face deadly peril.

I should think that everybody can see the glaring “issue of death” in a game that respects all of the above ideals. Namely, how can player characters simultaneously be a focus of creative attention and be dead? The second and third points imply that practically speaking, on average, your character already died, yes? If the game has resolution rules that produce deaths from deadly situations, and play revolves around deadly situations, you will have dead player characters more often than not. How can the game work that way? Why would you pour your creativity into a character only for them to die trivially?

I’ll note that traditional game texts are culturally ambiguous for reasons I won’t get into in detail here. The ambiguity means that resolving the issue of death is largely left to the GM and their learned culture of play. Some games provide some rudimentary tools, either rules or techniques. I’m not trying to say that this is somehow an unresolved problem, because if it was, traditional adventure games would categorically be unplayable. Groups that manage satisfying play with these games have resolved the issue of death in some way, and sometimes the rules text has even been helpful.

So the question for us is, how do you resolve that issue? How do you take a game where the players care about their characters, where the rules are deadly, and the topic of play is deadly, and have a successful game? I’ll be going into the particulars in a bit of detail below, but to make the material digestible, consider this: I know of three possible outcomes to the issue of death in trad games:

Tilt the Game — Be a good boy and follow that rules text, drive the game off the cliff, find a better hobby
Cheat the Triad — avoid character death somehow and you escape the problem
Sacrament of Death — Embrace the knowledge that your character will soon die

Why is that last one the title of the article? It’s because the first option is non-functional in the technical sense (been there, tried it; not sustainable as a gaming activity) and the second is the orthodox trad rpg theory of how to deal with character death. The Sacrament, though — that’s a bit novel, I don’t see everybody and their FLGS pushing that one. It has long roots in the culture, but rarely as something verbalized as a conscious creative strategy.

Some practical experiences

I’ll provide some quick notes about my own play experiences that relate to how traditional games deal with death. If you understood the above material, feel free to skip this; I’m just trying to provide a bit of a concrete description of the kind of play that we’re thinking of here.

I’ll note here that Sami Koponen has been a key collaborator in my program of research here, such as it is; we got simultaneously invested in learning how to trad around the late ’00s, which led to a number of small-time one-off sessions with “research glasses on”; this essay is mainly rehashing my conclusions from those experiments, with minor polish from later development.

Tilting the Game

I think it was 2006 or thereabouts when, in the course of figuring out how to actually play trad adventure games well, we did a few sessions of Praedor of all things. Praedor is a well-known Finnish fantasy adventure trad rpg that I generally summarize to foreigners as a mechanically superior, slick take on the ’80s skill list games like say WFRPG or Runequest. It’s from late ’90s, but the design evokes pre-Vampire times hard. For many Finns, myself included, Praedor fits in seamlessly as a continuation of the ’80s “high trad” era of games that we learned roleplaying with throughout the ’90s. (Actual ’90s games weren’t in vogue in many parts of Finland at the time for various reasons that are besides the point here; it suffices to say that I personally first cracked open Vampire in like 2002.)

So anyway, this was in Helsinki, and I think we played like two or three sessions of Praedor with a small crew (three players is my recollection), and it was very conscious in the sense that we read the rulebook, debated the creative goals and ultimately ended up playing a few disjointed sessions with very different strategies on what to even do with the game. This wasn’t teenagers puzzling out their first game, but it was experienced gamers going back to a trad game with the intent to understand and get more out of playing it.

I’ll come back to our Borvaria stuff later, but one of the things we did (I don’t remember if this was first or second) was running the game “rules as written”, with one of the ready-made adventures in the book. Raise your hand if this is at all familiar a roleplaying game experience:

  1. We did about 3 hours of character creation. Praedor does the whole song and dance with skill point-buy, advantages and disadvantages and equipment purchase. Familiar stuff from other trad adventure games. We got three characters from this, I think the GM (me?) made one as well for the funsies.
  2. The adventure started in a tavern, I think. A mysterious stranger, conducted by the GM, gave the party of newly minted adventurers a task that involved traveling somewhere. I forget the particulars, but it was one of the adventures from the Praedor rulebook.
  3. On the way from point A to point B, the adventurers were accosted by some highwaymen. A fight ensued and the party died.

It’s possible that you haven’t encountered this particular failure state of adventure gaming yourself. I suspect that if you haven’t ever Tilted the Game, then that’s because you’ve always and fluently been Cheating the Triad, which I’ll discuss soon. Us, though, we were playing dumb here — this was with “research goggles on”, remember — so off we go and play the game the way it’s written: characters are created with all the attention to detail the text suggests, the adventure text is played the way it reads, and the combat rules grind to their inevitable conclusion. We could even, theoretically, have avoided the Tilt if the dice had been more lucky with the highwaymen (and if we were entirely fucking dumb, we could have even imagined that the game was working well because it didn’t crash yet).

What makes this a Tilt is of course not that the party died; that’s a functional feature of many games. What makes the Tilt is that the game is creatively dysfunctional when it asks you to carefully create a character and then has that character die for no reason a short while later. You’re left with a specifically tilted game table, metaphorically speaking: the players are confused and angry, and don’t know what to do next, and the game doesn’t really offer any answers. What happened, and whose fault was it? The GM was “just running the game”, so maybe it was not their fault? But the players were just following the plot, so surely it’s not on them either? Wherever the fault lies, the game experience was merely frustrating. That’s Tilt.

(Actually, what’s really Tilt is when a player upends the table because they’re so angry at this stupid fucking hobby. But that doesn’t occur every time in the dataset, so let’s assume the underlying technical phenomenon still exist even without the table flip.)

Tilt isn’t super-common, mainly because it’s such a blatant dysfunction in the game that you learn to avoid it as a GM (see Cheating the Triad, below). I remember having had Tilts often (both as player and GM) in trad games as a teenager, and a couple years ago a first-time GM conducted WFRPG 2e to a first-encounter Tilt for us (not unlike that Praedor session). Most of the time anything I run isn’t even close to Tilting because the game never gets close to the game table so raw and naïve that we’d get trapped by the death triad.

My most prominent Tilting, though, has been with D&D 4e, which I think does encourage Tilts more than many games; it seems to suggest, after all, that it’s a really stable boardgame-like experience, one where the GM should just play the rules as they fall. I’ve played roughly half a dozen one-shots, more game demonstrations than anything else, with prepped modules, and the game Tilted I think 5/6 times. Always in the first 1‒3 combats, the monsters would just overrun the party, causing a TPK, and that’s the Tilt because the game has no recovery tools whatsoever, so you literally have no choice except to sit there angry and conclude that yeah, that’s enough 4e for now.

(Because this always comes up with 4e fans, an epilogue to that particular story: when I later tackled 4e seriously as the chassis for an epic middle school D&D campaign, it ran 50 sessions without Tilting. I blame the fact that I was running my own material, including self-designed combat encounters. The encounter design rules aren’t nearly as buggy in 4e as the introductory adventures make it seem. I did admittedly Cheat the Triad fully as well, but clearly the game wasn’t giving me TPKs nearly as often as it had in those one-shot tryouts.)

Cheating the Triad

So anyway, Tilting is uncommon in the actual play culture, and it’s because we escape the issue of character death by Cheating the Triad. I’m using that name because it’s part of rpg theory to make gaming sound like a Freemason lodge meeting, but also because I want to intentionally lump all the ways you can cheat death into one box: for our purposes here it doesn’t really matter how, but somehow you escaped that triad of trad game premises I introduced earlier, and now your game isn’t Tilting by having all those player characters die for no damn reason.

Some common methods of cheating:

Disposable characters are the worst examples of Cheating, and that’s because they usually come with some form of the Sacrament of Death (discussed later). It is, however, technically possible to make a trad adventure game functional by allowing the rules to be unbiased (read: deadly) and allowing the subject matter of play to be perious situations (your usual adventure gaming fare), and simply making dying so inconsequential and functional that the game can proceed without Tilting even when characters die. Consider Paranoia, that’s my best example here, and it can certainly be quibbled.

Fudging the dice, on the other hand, has emerged as the time-honored dominant way of cheating the death triad. Some corners of the vast space of traditional roleplaying have all but made it public knowledge that the GM just kinda-sorta-most-of-the-time follows the rules, but not if it would lead to a Tilt. The two specific most common death heuristics are “only kill them if they deserve it” and “only kill them in climatic situations”, for what it’s worth; nearly the same thing for our purposes.

Non-deadly rules is the more sophisticated cousin: if the rules actually can’t kill PCs, the GM doesn’t need to fudge, and you still don’t need to worry about what to do when the PCs die. WFRPG famously has an early solution with actual teeth in the form of its fate points: when things go wrong and your character would die, you instead just lose a fate point and drop out of the scenario, to be reintroduced by the GM later. The game treats this as a demented resource management thing (because me am 20th century, me no design too good), but what it’s basically saying is that “PCs do not die in this game”, which is of course a very clean creative statement that neatly resolves this entire thing.

Non-deadly situations is an obvious consideration, what with the way I broke down the conundrum: your game can be character-centric and have deadly combat rules if there are no combats! I hear about this adaptation occurring in the wild, in individual campaigns of whatever (D&D often be like “we didn’t roll the dice a single time in the session!”), but game texts with it are surprisingly rare; traditional game texts love their fantasy violence, games that do not revolve around perilous situations are few and far between.

Enough about the theory, though. I have certainly Cheated the Triad in practice, as have most GMs with any trad experience (which is most of us), so it’s just a question of picking what experiences to consider here. Thinking back to those experiments we were doing in the late ’00s with Sami, I think we didn’t focus on the Cheating a lot. It was the default way of thinking about traditional games, and we were trying to specifically figure out ways for making the games work without fudging the rules.

Since then, though, I’ve had some master-class experiences in this area. Our ’18 Chronicles of Prydain 4e campaign (mentioned in passing earlier) was a big example of completely conscious death management, for instance: your character could only die if you lifted the death flag yourself, otherwise losing a fight only resulted in a “bridge scene” with the bad guys taking taking the good guys captive and carrying them to the next scene in the adventure. Player character death was simply formally impossible unless desired. Worked swimmingly, and I would generally suggest that most trad adventuring games would benefit from a critical consideration of why you keep lugging character death with you. Doing it because you want to pretend that the game is macho is just about the dumbest possible reason, note.

An observation about Illusionism goes here: the question of how you Cheat the Triad used to be a major one for rpg theory in the ’00s. We even have well-established Forgite theory terminology for “Illusionism” (the GM pretends that the rules are lethal) and “Participationism” (the GM acknowledges that the game’s not actually lethal because they’re fudging it) and I would like it if there was also a word for when the rules manage it instead of GM fudging, but apparently not. This isn’t new ground, so the key take-away for me is to notice that it’s still a discussion about how to Cheat death, rather than about whether death has to be Cheated at all.

The Sacrament of Death

Finally, let’s circle back to that Praedor project we had in ’06; it’s interesting because it was where I recognized (and named) the Sacrament of Death. Let’s say for the argument’s sake that this happened after we Tilted Praedor as discussed earlier: we’d created some characters and played an adventure as instructed, dying to a scene that for all intents and purposes seemed to be there strictly because adventure games are supposed to have combat scenes in between plot scenes. (I’d say “random encounter” because that’s probably what it’s evoking, but this sub-genre of trad doesn’t do random content.)

So we continued a few days later and decided to resurrect the characters for something different, a Borvaria adventure. In nutshell for foreigners: Praedor is set in a sort of “aquarium world” called Jaconia, the last remnant of a world burned by magical catastrophe. The titular Praedors are adventurers who journey beyond the bounds of Jaconia into the forsaken hellscape of the destroyed world, called Borvaria. Praedor is traditionally played as a Jaconian sword & sorcery adventure game (think WFRPG, similar content), but ostensibly the game is about going into Borvaria to seek treasures and face peril.

At this writing Praedor has grown and has all kinds of Borvaria material, but at the time we were more making it up as we went, and the game we got out of it was actually pretty interesting: we played GMless, with the players ad-libbing the endless randomly generated ruined cityscape of Borvaria, using random tables and such for monsters and treasure. Fun time, and worthy of consideration for various reason even today, but not our focus here.

What is important about that session of play is that we entered the game very, very conscious of what we were getting into: Praedor has lethal combat rules (high trad realism-motivated, with hit locations and all), there’s no particular reason why the described Borvarian lifestyle of an adventurer would lead to anything but a horrible death, so let’s live it up! The player attitudes towards survival were cynical and resigned. My own character rather quickly developed a personality, what with death haunting the party not far behind.

(This is, by the way, an encouraged aesthetic in Praedor: the game makes a big deal of how “making it out alive is a success, bringing back treasure a miracle” and so on. Nothing in the game’s processes or rules addresses the issue of death, and I understand that people generally cheat out of it rather than having characters die all the time, but the game does encourage playing with the imaginary pretense that your characters are tough guys in danger of death.)

What ultimately became of that session of play was the best Praedor session that I’ve ever played: we got some cool pulp fantasy imagery out of desperate adventurers, dodged some perils, then half of the adventurers died fighting some Nameless Beings while the others legged it. Old school D&D imagery, yes, but remember that we were playing a game with detailed character creation and no particular survival goals. Yet it was still fun doing the activity! Somehow we had cheated the triad without actually cheating on any of those three points:
The game was still character focused
The rules were still unbiased
The content was still about braving death

And we got the meaningless character deaths we expected, yet the game didn’t Tilt. In later post-session correspondence I formulated my theory of what had happened: by acknowledging the dumb futility of the exercise we had entered a “Sacrament of Death”, a sort of alternate creative reward cycle where the players of a traditional adventure game (well, traditional enough, what with the session having been a weird GMless thing) get over the hurdle of having their characters die by mentally preparing for it and actually turning the moment of death into creative energy for the process of play. “Consider your Praedor dead even as you generate him”, as I suggested at the time, if memory serves.

The sacramental hypothesis

All right, so I think that a traditional adventure game can conceivably deal with the issue of death in a way that is not either of Tilting or Cheating, but something different. Embracing death as an outcome of play: to play the game is to look towards the character’s death as a part of the character’s story arc. Death does not need to be a problem if the techniques and procedures of your gameplay actually make it into a strength. It does not need to be staged, woven into a dramatic storyline; it suffices to prepare for and look forward to the death to turn it from a catastrophic Tilt into a strength. You can “play the find out”, genuinely leave the character’s fate up to that crazy whirligig of a combat system, whatever the game at hand presents in that regard. Maybe live, maybe die, it’s good either way.

As for how to do that, I’d like to turn attention to the fact that some games already do it. It’s not a new idea, the only new thing in my story was that we were applying it to a fantasy adventure game instead of… Call of Cthulhu. Check it out:

Cthulhu has heavy and intricate characters.
Cthulhu has unbiased rules.
Cthulhu has deadly scenarios.

Smack dab in the middle of the deadly triangle, and sure, people Cheat a lot in Cthulhu, but I also think that it’s not the most dominant way that the play culture deals with the deadliness of the game. Rather, what my experience about CoC says is that players use a range of adaptative techniques to accept and internalize the game’s deadliness… in other words, they’re relying on the Sacrament of Death! Some practical methods that are common in the CoC culture of play:
Macho attitudes towards expectations of character death
A literary context that promises character death
Generally clear pacing for when death comes, with a dash of surprise
Fun death-related mechanics (insanity rules offer thespian opportunity)

The one thing CoC doesn’t do is encouraging players to orient towards their character’s death, but I imagine that’s mostly because the game isn’t extremely character-centric anyway, so it doesn’t talk a lot about character play compared to how much it focuses on investigation. I do think it’s a good example of the Sacrament of Death in action (rather than cheating by minimizing character importance) due to how much work the character creation is, and how the game encourages a strain of period social roleplaying (at least for me the game has a distinct character play element that way) — the PCs in CoC are not just pawns you push to their deaths, the player really does put work into the character. It works despite that character dying because you knew they’d be dying from the start.

That’s the practical gist of the Sacrament as a technique of play, by the way: I think that you can turn the deadliness of a trad game into a strength by being aware of the death to come. You have to be able to trust the GM and understand the rules, to know that we are really, truly playing this dumb game where my character has like 50% chance of dying in their first combat encounter. Embrace that, orient towards that, and perhaps you will discover some grace in doing something interesting with this character who is but a mayfly. That’s what the CoC players routinely do, it is not normal in that play culture to expect your character to survive the adventure. (Whether that’s actually true is a complex question because CoC is confusing. But that’s the story we tell when bragging about how deadly the game is.)

It may be illustrative to study stoic and zen philosophy about real-life death to get a handle on what constructive attitudes towards deadliness in these kinds of games look like, by the way. A GM may also benefit from reading up on trauma management, how people are prepared for death and how death-traumatized people are treated afterwards. I won’t go into the details here, but I think that the emotions that roleplayers undergo in trad games around character death often run vaguely along similar lines as those associated with death in the real world. The game is, after all, pretty immersive. A character dying is the little death for geeks, if you will.

Practical implications of the Sacrament of Death

The big, fat implication of the Sacrament is that if it really exists as a realistic creative reward path, then this entirely distinct way of playing these trad adventure games also exists! Check this out:

Traditional Praedor is predicated on Cheating the Triad in your preferred way. It’s an adventure game with content generally similar to e.g. the Witcher franchise (a favoured comparison for me; Praedor is a bit like a Finnish Witcher), so you’re going to have swordfights and the occasional monster regularly, and the PCs are going to survive and have more adventures, and you achieve this mainly by soft fudges and whatnot. The most recent edition of the game has a luck points mechanism that should cut unlucky crit deaths down sharply.

Sacrament Praedor is predicated on accepting that you’re not creating this player character to indefinitely adventure with; you’re creating the character to scream their individuality to the skies in a single characterization scene, to go into one fight or two, with the highest of stakes, and when they die that’s their story. You want to like character creation, because like 30% of your gameplay is going to be that. It’s like one of those Japanese samurai mangas where characters get introduced and killed off in the same chapter regularly. You will only ever enter a combat encounter for a good reason, because the combats are so dangerous; no random encounters with highwaymen, thank you.

We tried playing Sacrament Praedor in… I want to say ’17 or so. That campaign had a lot of other things going on in it as well (great stuff, it was set in the pre-cataclysmic world hinted at in Praedor), but the main thing was that it wasn’t even an adventure game, but rather a raw princess play drama: the player characters were created as expert swordsmen in service to wizard houses, with the expectation that their social responsibilities led them into lethal duels. The recipe of play was to create your character, introduce your character and then have them risk it all in a serious duel or urban assassination attempt or similar. The combat rules were played as they stood and death was not shied away from. Extremely character-centric, yet extremely lethal.

That particular attempt at turning a trad adventure game into a Sacrament vehicle similar to a horror game, where death is embraced, was a partial success; everything worked in general, but the players tended to have difficulty establishing character, which tended to either slow down the game (with the GM unwilling to pull the trigger on character death before the character was established) or end up in premature (and therefore unsatisfying) character death. It’s difficult to be bold and meaninful in that way, it’s asking a lot from players who aren’t necessarily used to self-expression. I’m intending to return to the “wuxia Praedor” at some point and fix things up to make it easier for the players; basically, the players just need more chargen aids and the scenes need to be less freeform; the less you ask of the players, the smoother this kind of thing goes. Also, make the background less exotic; the setting was very exciting, but that in itself made establishing character slower than it needed to be.

A central design observation, or perhaps a play technique one, is that it would be good if the character creation process for the game was an exciting creative workup. Think of a Champions superhero creation session as your goal, a creative group interaction where the player ends up with an exciting character who has a specific fun identity of their own. Written up character background story optional. When you make the character precious and distinctive, it’s all the more fun to kill them off in an energetic occurrence later. Many of the kinds of games that might be improved by the Sacrament (Praedor included) have kinda dull and slogging character creation systems. Streamline and smartify that stuff up, make room for the players to be entertaining chargen maestros.

Generally, though, the theory seems solid. Horror games (not just CoC) are often Sacrament-heavy out in the wild, and I’ve had the occasional one-shot success with other games as well. Mainly it’s a matter of scheduling for me to do more experiments on this. The range of traditional adventure games that have issues with the question of death is pretty wide, which then means that there are many games that could actually fare better if you reversed them like this, Sacramenting instead of Cheating. I’ve considered C2020 quite a bit myself, for instance; my CRedux project is “Sacrament C2020” in the sense that it envisions C2020 as a game where the players should embrace radical freedom and hurry to establish their characters before they die in a dumb firefight. (Traditional C2020 would be the one where the merry crew of murderhoboes “somehow” keep surviving their misadventures to continue the campaign.)

Other games where I recognize fruitful creative room for considering the Sacrament of Death:
Runequest — in Glorantha, about one adventure per year, fill the rest with slice of life, enjoy until death strikes
Rolemaster — for some reason I’d want to do some kind of Street Fighter tournament fight scenario here
Exalted — WW games in general, really
WFRPG — actually remove the Fate points and invite death back into the game, eh?
GURPS — and other similar point-buy games, of course
… in general, any trad games that are obviously trying to princess it up while simultaneously actually being horribly lethal. There’s a lot of these, hundreds of them. And that’s without intentionally creating an entirely new Sacrament game.

8 thoughts on “The Sacrament of Death”

  1. Another excellent essay and well worth the wait!

    I’ve managed to get my group to more or less accept the high lethality of my ‘DCC in the Wilderlands’ campaign (which is challenge-based rather than traditional). The credo regarding death is prepare / habituate / grieve / celebrate, but does not even come close to the boldness of the Sacrament of Death: I’ve mostly peddled death as a necessary evil, sort of like losing in team sports (some homilies like “Death is more memorable than retirement” notwithstanding). The Sacrament of Death goes further and I love it (“sacramenting” FTW!). Gruesome deaths, full-fledged characters cut down in the flower of their lives, deaths worth dying (more on that later) — bring it on!

    I’ve always had to suppress chuckles when playing or running Rolemaster — I just love the critical hit charts so much, but always fear I might come across as sadistic. Now I’m finally spiritually ready to revisit my first RPG love…

    Anyway, some obervations and questions:

    – “Consider your Praedor dead even as you generate him” — Well put, but unfortunately, traditional RPGs (or traditional GMs, really) do so much posturing in that vein that I suspect that point may be genuinely hard to get across.

    – CoC manages due to the literary context as you explain. I can’t believe The Sacrament of Death has been staring us in the face all this time via CoC. It really is a genre thing — fantasy in particular being cloyingly heroic. Dunno about other genres one might have an easier time with. In Hong Kong action death is often a given, but usually occurs at climatic points… Further thoughts and pointers welcome.

    – The Indie RPG Ten Candles does a good job of sacramenting, making it explicit from the outset, mechanically inevitable that everyone will die (and ritualizes the whole thing, too!). Changes the whole atmosphere from “How do I survive?” to “How will I die?” or “How do I want my character to die?”. Old habits die hard, though, and not all of my players grokked the unusual approach.

    – This is solid gold: “you’re creating the character to scream their individuality to the skies in a single characterization scene, to go into one fight or two, with the highest of stakes, and when they die that’s their story. You want to like character creation, because like 30% of your gameplay is going to be that.”

    – What kind of deaths are we talking about, though? The stakes are high (i.e. life or death) but do we want meaning (i.e. no random encounters) or do we revel in the senselessness of it all (i.e. random encounters)? Off the cuff, I’d say fewer fights than normal for traditional RPGs might be key. Dying to random wolves or an unlucky arrow through the eye from some goblin sounds fine to me, but if my guy lives, I want to add something to his story before the next fight.

    – Those Japanese samurai mangas you keep mentioning sound awesome. Could you (or somebody else) recommend some titles?

    Best wishes,


    1. Thanks — glad you liked it! The basic idea is simple, as rpg theory ideas often are, so most of the article is just me stalking around the concept in an effort to impart enough context to understand where I’m coming from on this.

      For samurai manga, consider “Samurai Executioner”, I think that was the specific one I was thinking about when referring to the genre. It’s basically a short story anthology about criminals in historical Edo — why they fell into crime, how they got caught, how they react to being executed. Falls into the popular genre of “crime story”. There happens to be a viewpoint character, the titular executioner, but he’s more like a hard boiled detective story witness viewpoint character than the protagonist of the actual story; the stories are all about these fleeting criminal personalities who pop up at the beginning of a chapter and die at the end, under the executioner’s blade. Imagine that as a roleplaying game, and it’s something that cannot possibly work unless the players can learn to enjoy the Sacrament of Death. You have to be able to enjoy the fleeting moment of a character’s story, because by the end of the chapter it’s going to be over.

      Regarding the type of lethality, I agree about the content strategy; a GM who forgoes meaningless combats will find it easier to get to the juicy center of Sacrament play. My “Praedor wuxia” campaign basically went with a relationship map and the premise that all combats would be between fully realized characters with clear motivations, whether PC or NPC.

      There’s no theoretical reason why harshly anti-dramatic random violence couldn’t work, though. I could see much appeal in that myself, provided the game chassis and what exactly we mean by that kind of violence match with the literary subject matter and so on. I feel that a lot depends on how heavy the character creation is, exactly. If it’s just CoC weight (middle weight, I’d characterize, for all that the skills point-buy is an useless boondoggle), I feel like I would be willing to feed characters to some degree of meaningless violence, too. If it’s more like say Ars Magica, I’d rather have the violence be entirely staged and consensually developed. The details of the overall game matter here if one’s to achieve a pleasant outcome.

  2. You mention OD&D (by which I mean the 1970’s boxes without the Greyhawk rules, but using the optional combat resolution system) and then sort of exclude it from this analysis or elide it. As someone who plays mostly houseruled, as one has to, versions of OD&D it seems like a game where sacramental death is almost enshrined in play.

    Combat is the disfavored resolution for many situations, it’s highly “swingy” and very lethal to PCs with a reasonably flat power curve. This creates a situation where combat functions more or less as an inevitable and exciting penalty (hitting that gamblers joy common to a lot of forms of play) to sub-optimal decision making based on partial information. It seems like precisely the situation that very early changes to the core D&D system started to chip away at, I suspect largely because the players wanted more combat, but also wanted to keep playing the same PCs.

    Interestingly in my own recent OD&D games (with several 5E players), and in others I have played, players tend to avoid “tilting” the system after a few deaths – whiel the first few death lead to player fudging (as a GM fudging die rolls is dangerous as players spot it and it calls the GMs status as aneutral arbitrator into question) or disposable characters, but not for long. Soon the adventuring party rather then the individual avatar of the PC starts to become the core unit of play, and this takes away the sting of PC death. PC death starts to become part of the surviving characters’ stories and it’s inevitability or possiblity become an interesting part of play as you mention in the Sacrament idea. Players also get more cautious and either adapt to the OD&D dungeoneering style or decide to play a game they like better which reduces PC deaths, but is less the point.

    I think my point here is that this sort of sacramental approach starts earlier (or is available to even the earliest systems), doesn’t require complex char-gen to avoid being meaningful, and has often had ‘fixes’ built into rules or ethics of play that deflect/subvert death’s sting and continue play rather then avert it (henchmen, party focus, more recently funnels) while also rejecting dispossability (or at least it’s glib side).

    Thanks for an interesting and thoughtful theory post.

    1. Yeah, I agree about the big picture — old D&D is indeed very death-oriented in this sense. I just didn’t focus on that corner of the rpg history here, thinking about the topic more from the perspective of later trad-style games.

      Part of the reason for that is that old D&D relies a lot on lightweight character generation. That kinda makes it easy for a game to be death-oriented, because you’re not investing a lot of player time and effort into creating the character in the first place. Essentially, we know how to make that kind of game work with a high mortality rate, so a natural next question to ask is whether you could conceivably sacrifice those highly detailed PCs that you play in the average traditional rpg. And to gain what? My experiments indicate that a dramatic rush, the experience of an intensive short arc immersive story may be the thing. Spend one session creating your characters for Vampire: the Masquerade or whatever, another in seeing them go, and a third in killing them off. Do that consciously enough, enjoying their brief flutter, and perhaps the high mortality rate doesn’t have to be such a drastic problem?

      But yeah, I agree with your remarks about how the high lethality environment works in old school D&D, my experiences have been along the same lines.

  3. What you’re describing here about embracing the “Sacrament of Death” in trad games reminds me quite a bit of the old term “Blood Opera” (in Forge-y terminology). That’s a particular style/genre of play that has been explored in the past through a number of games (I like Blood Red Sands, but The Riddle of Steel was probably top o the genre), but I feel like it wears out its welcome (becomes exhausting) after a while. All that time spent creating characters just to have them explode in gore and viscera! Sheesh!

    Because I like my violent combat, character death, and macho posturing, I still prefer old school D&D (pre-1983 varieties). The option to bring back characters from the dead (via raising, wishing, reincarnation, etc.) takes a lot of the frustration out of the death of a favorite character, without any “cheat” requirements.

  4. RabidHobbit

    I’ve enjoyed reading many of your posts on Storygames, and I was glad to find this article linked from elsewhere. One idea I have for a game I’m working on is that players chronicle one piece of information for either their character or their character’s place of origin each time they advance. Characters who live longer will thus have more work put into their history. This becomes a standing ritual which implies that regardless of the time you may spend outside the game thinking about a character’s backstory it’s only going to come to life at the table slowly. With a dedicated spot on the character sheet (or maybe elsewhere) where it is to be written.

    Or, by inventing and describing a PC’s place of origin, the player is using the time they have with this character in their hands to be spent leaving a more indellible mark on the game after they die. New PCs will be created who may continue contributing to this legacy. Players would have the opportunity to riff off each others’ ideas and contribute new ideas to shared places, which then future characters can make use of.

    1. That’s actually fairly similar to the way I set up our 4e D&D Chronicles of Prydain campaign. 4e is basically about a string of combat encounters, so I put in some mechanics for the rest periods between fights, with specific maneuvers and rewards for character identity building. The way this worked in practice was that the PCs got more background and personality as the game went on, piece by piece, with these camping scenes as the opportunities for exposition.

      Another game that explores this conceit heavily is of course 3:16, Carnage Among the Stars.

      Either way, I like the idea of combining that sort of showcasing with the Sacrament of Death: when we come to the game with the awareness that these characters are indeed going to die, and you have a limited amount of time to make an impact on the world, things like you suggest seem well possible. It would be quite cool to have a player’s character pick up the torch from where it was left by another player’s dead character. (That would actually work non-metaphorically, too.)

      1. RabidHobbit

        Thanks for pointing at 3:16. I’ve seen it mentioned, but never in a context that made me curious to look it up and see what it’s about. I’ll give it a look.

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