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The Object of the Question

In my almost two decades of RPGing, I've usually treated the probability of character death as a result of random chance in a matter-of-fact manner: as a thing that is, without strong feelings in favour or against it. If there's a chance of my character dying on a session, I'll play that game; at worst, if the chance is too high and I'm attached to my PC, I'll take more measures to reduce it. Likewise, if the system makes death non-random or outright impossible, I'll play that game too.

Random death, for the purposes of this question, is used to mean death that occurs, whether directly or indirectly, as a result of random number generators like dice, coin flips, cards etc.

An example of a directly random death would be making a Health roll to resist a heart attack from an assassin's exotic poison, or having an enemy's bullet roll more damage than one has HP (in a system where getting HP below a certain number results in death). An example of an indirectly random death would be failing a roll to sneak past an extremely powerful enemy, which results in getting hit into a combat whose inevitable outcome is death.

A purely plot-driven death, by contrast, can result from something like refusing to evacuate from a ship that's about to blow up: the outcome is quite clear without needing to consult the dice at all (and often without needing to consult the system at all either, at least outside rules-literalist gaming groups).

A risk of a purely plot-driven death can be effectively very similar to a random one if it's based on a non-informed choice - a simplistic (but hopefully not used in real games) example would be choosing between two paths, one of which has an unavoidable and undetectable deadly trap, while another doesn't, without knowing which is which.


Attitudes and Reasons

But of course many (most?) people have stronger opinions on this matter, in one direction or another. So far I've seen three broad categories of non-apathetic players when it comes to this topic:

1) The Pro-Safety Crowd

First, there are people who are unwilling to play games with PC death (randomised or any). Even if I don't share the sentiment, I can understand the appeal of their argument, and understand what desires such game design is meant to cater to: preventing leaving dead end threads; preventing a story from stalling with the loss of a protagonist; allowing 'safer' attachment to a PC; making the price of failure something that isn't as final; focusing on the aftermath of a loss etc.

These seem like clearly stated goals that can be pursued in a design of a game. Even in a system that does feature a chance of death, a campaign can be designed to pursue those goals at least in part.

2) The Pro-Death Crowd

But there's the second group: people who feel that there must be a risk of character death in a roleplaying game. But when I asked them what makes it so, I had a harder time understanding their reasoning.

There's the appeal to realism, but too often I've seen it voiced by people who don't pursue games with realism-oriented design in general, so I'm thinking that's not a dominant reason for this preference. There's the appeal to the thrill of having to start over based on chance, but asking further probing questions (such as how high should the risk be, on average, per session) tends to give answers that make me sceptical of this being the dominant reasoning either.

3) The Pro-Threat Crowd

There's apparently a third group: people who like to think that they're facing insurmountable odds, but don't really want to deal with the statistically likely outcome of truly facing such odds. I'm listing this group here mostly for to avoid conflating the design goals oriented at them with the design goals meant to cater to the second group.


Back to the Heart of the Question

For the people in the second group, what are the actual appeals of having a chance of (usually random) death in a game (whether in the form default system rules, or the way optional rules, houserules and campaign structure interact to produce actual probabilities)?

Since neither pure realism nor the existence of a given range of 'mathematical' tension seem to be the true motivators for group 2's preferences, can perhaps those true motivators be found and used more directly in design of systems (or campaigns)?

Is there perhaps a reasoning or appeal that I'm simply missing for whatever reason?

Ideally, I'm interested less in individual opinion, and more in things that are widespread among players of the mentioned type.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I see two major issues with this question: 1) It does seem inescapably opinion-based as currently worded "What are the actual appeals of having a chance of (usually random) death in a game [...]" is a question that will vary from person to person and I'm not sure I see any way for any answer to give an answer that covers everyone's opinions on how character death is an appealing part of a game. The way to fix this might be to focus on the game design reasons for including player death however... \$\endgroup\$ – Rubiksmoose Feb 5 at 14:20
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    \$\begingroup\$ That leads to problem 2) if the question is actually about design goals and not individual opinions then this question is too broad. Design goals change with every new system and game played and it seems unreasonably broad to me to expect answers to be able to cover how death works mechanically and design-goal-wise in every RPG (of which there are thousands with wide-varying thoughts on the issue of PC death). I think if you decided to focus the question on this area, you would have to pick an RPG or at least an RPG family to focus on. \$\endgroup\$ – Rubiksmoose Feb 5 at 14:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ @vicky_molokh but that seems to be a different question then your are asking (by my reading). You say "What are the actual appeals of having a chance of (usually random) death in a game" you don't appear to be asking about statistics about how common each opinion is. Am I misunderstanding something? \$\endgroup\$ – Rubiksmoose Feb 5 at 14:51
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    \$\begingroup\$ @vicky_molokh It may help for you to explain your intent in asking the question. Are you asking as a game designer trying to work out death mechanics, a GM deciding how to present the threat of death, or something else? \$\endgroup\$ – Mark Wells Feb 5 at 15:18
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    \$\begingroup\$ This looks like a discussion prompt. Unless a question is amenable to having a single recognised most correct answer—which seems unlikely in this case, if I may indulge in some understatement—there isn’t a way to make such a question an SE question. This sort of thing isn’t settle design technology and requires/results in debate, discussion, and disagreement, of the sort this site isn’t suited to contain. You’ll likely get useful feedback on an RPG discussion forum though. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Feb 5 at 15:59
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Tension, uncertainty, and perception of success

If there's no chance of failure then success is meaningless.

The risk that a given PC will die adds tension to each decision the player makes for that PC when that decision's outcome could be lethal. Tension and suspense are longstanding narrative tools that keep audiences interested in a narrative's outcome. It's a lot like playing a video game in hardcore mode: when the avatar dies it's (possibly) gone forever rather than the avatar reviving at a save point so the player can try again.

In a broader cultural sense, flying demonstration teams and YouTube both advertise feats that are perceived as death-defying. In the same vein, climbing Mount Everest is a do-it-even-though-it-could-kill-you pursuit. Evel Knievel made a career out of motorcycle stunts that were potentially deadly. A scaled down version of such pursuits are present in some of X-games extreme sports like those that add challenges to snowboarding, skiing, motocross, etc.

The satisfaction that comes from winning the battle, climbing the mountain, or falling through the mountains of China on human-sized bat wings and not dying (a favorite YouTube video of adrenaline junkies) is greater thanks to the ever-present chance of death.

In other words, the design goal for this kind of challenge in an RPG, for the Case 2 player, is rooted in the common human experience of the feeling of success that comes from trying and succeeding at something dangerous. And it's certainly not unique to RPGs. As to what assumptions can be fairly made about that broad group of Case 2 players, particularly the question's assumption regarding Pro-Death "realism" arguments -

... if there is no chance of death in a game situation that is supposedly deadly, then the game is not actually even about a deadly situation.

A thank you to @Dronz for that point germane to the problem of the postulated Case 2 player

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  • \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast The question is asking about what specific players in this group think and not just for opinion. As stated, this looks like speculation only without any real evidence that actual players think this. Maybe it might be best to remove the answer until the question gets sorted? \$\endgroup\$ – Rubiksmoose Feb 5 at 18:26
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Rubiksmoose Given that some people found it useful, I'll let that sit for 24 hours, then check back. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Feb 5 at 18:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Dronz Sarcasm is not an appropriate way to communicate at RPG.se. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Feb 5 at 19:33

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