In my lengthy career running table top RPG’s, I have encountered a wide array of systems with their own rules, some simple and elegant – others, well, not so much. I’ve also seen a large number of supplemental books of rules that tweak things in game play. Maybe it was new official content or books from other publishers that added something to the game. For instance, those of you that played 3.5 Dungeons & Dragons may recall a host of books published by Alderac (‘Legend of the Five Rings’) that offered all manner of additions to the 3.5 rules. Everything from feats, to artifacts and magic items, spells, even a very handy book for creating kingdoms and countries. I was quite generous regarding what outside material I would permit in my game. Mostly because no matter how much my players would attempt to metagame me, I was the DM so their efforts were futile. As Qui-Gon Jin once said “There’s always a bigger fish.”
One of my favorite supplement books was so strange and so out there that it quickly became something of an institution at my table (assuming of course we were playing a fantasy game). It was from the line of ‘Central Casting: Heroes of Legend‘ books. The intention was to help players make a character. Sounds simple enough, right? No. This book didn’t just make your character. It built your entire character from what you look like to your entire life story up until the start of the campaign. It was the game before the game.
During the course of session zero, where my players and I met to discuss the game those who were brave enough, would allow their character to be subjected to the whimsy of Central Casting’s ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ style tome of random charts. Now this came with as many threats as it did boons. Central Casting could end up giving you all manner of significant bonuses. Things that any rational DM would not even entertain. Now of course, these boons did sometime require some tweaking on my part in order to make the gain provided in the generated background work in the context of the system’s rules. The downside to leaving your character to fate was that as much as Central Casting could make your character a munchkin, it could also make them a monster… or worse.
You could die during character creation.
Now to many of you younger gamers, I’m sure this concept sounds strange to say the least. In current RPG systems, I don’t know of any sort of a standardized method for creating a background that results in a numeric implication for your character during the course of the game and certainly not one where your character can die before the game even began.
The exception that comes to mind is ‘Traveler’ which has just a complex method of determining the course of your characters life before the campaign began and one in which, yes, you could and often did perish before you actually filled out your character sheet. ‘Traveler’ is an exception because the character creation system was meant (I think) to emphasize the harsh realities of life in that world and that the person you end up playing isn’t the sum of a linear sequence of events that you as the player just came up with before you started playing. I regard it as a bit more of a philosophical game if that’s even a thing. There’s a lesson here. You made it through all this stuff and then you start your campaign story. And ‘Vampire’ doesn’t count because you were dead going into the game… or undead… or… whatever!
Is it very fun? That depends. I don’t see much point in having this be an actual part of a RPG system that then requires players to pickup whatever is left of their character and play that, which isn’t fun and can be a bit of a sucker punch to any enthusiasm players may have sat down with. However, if you’re using a system or source book like I did, and you all understand that it’s just for fun and totally optional, then – yes. Go for it. The path that leads to the character’s death may be the spark of some interesting way to play that character or someone related to or otherwise impacted by that now dead character.
That was the fun of ‘Central Casting’. It was meant to generate ideas and get you in the right headspace. I never required a player to use the final version they rolled out. If they did, and the charts and dice Gods created something cool or fun I would run with it. If not, the player was free to make whatever they want and use or ignore elements that the charts generated as they saw fit. Whatever system or 3rd party reference material you’re using isn’t making the game better, why did you bother with it in the first place?
Now regardless of at what point in the campaign your character finds themselves perished, that doesn’t have to be the end of their story. There are and in some respects, always have been, rules across the RPG spectrum that address this matter specifically. It depends on your DM and exactly how your character died. If they were done in by natural causes such as old age, there’s not a whole lot that can be done about that. Did they meet their end at the business end of a vampire? Odds are you could come back as some form of undead. Now, whether or not the character is playable at that point is up to your DM and to some extent, the rest of your party. Paladins may not be sympathetic to your condition regardless of how chummy you were earlier.
My personal favorite method for handling dead characters was the 2003 D&D sourcebook ‘Ghostwalk‘. While it was meant to be a kind of campaign setting unto itself, it was built it such a way that the rules governing ghost characters (which was a catch-all race & class your character became while dead) could easily be inserted into any campaign setting, official or homebrew.
And being dead, specifically a ghost, actually came with some handy perks. Plane shifting, being made of ectoplasm rather than fleshy bits and not being affected by ‘Turn Undead’ as the book points out the distinction that you aren’t undead like the ghosts you’ll find in the Monster Manual you’re just dead. I won’t go into all of the elements of ‘Ghostwalk’ here but I will say that it was among the more intriguing, playable and fun optional rule systems Wizards produced for the 3.0 & 3.5 system for both the players and the DM. Anything that opens up more avenues for a good story is welcome at my table.
I always encourage DMs, players and storytellers of all RPG genres to pause before you toss the sheet of a recently deceased character. Look at mechanics of the game that seem to be cut and dry and look for an opportunity to apply some creativity. It is after all your game. The rules aren’t rules, they’re more like guidelines – so the Captain said.
In games where the fantastic is a part of everyday life, there’s no reason that death has to be the end of the story. Too often It is an overlooked opportunity to start a strange new journey. Where magic and imagination collide, death may not be the end. Maybe its an inconvenience, a transformation into something else or perhaps death is when things get… weird.