Last week I ran my pirate D&D game as usual, things went crazy and rules were bent to accomodate minor shenanigans. The boss encounter for that time was surprisingly tough and it been better obtimized they PCs would be so dead (greater invisibility equals death, no matter what) but instead a couple of them got ridiculously close, falling off a tower tends to do that to you. Talking about that with my friends and players, the more experienced one in all seriousness said that it might be good if one of the characters had actually died. One of the most memorable experiences that you can have a s a player is the first time your character bit the dust. Be it a string of natural ones, oppossing natural twenties, that one thing that you weren’t optimized for, and/or not understanding that this was suppossed to be a “run away, too strong encounter”, there is something that makes that moment of loss stick. The D&D setting has ways to revive someone if you really wanted but these are usually not available for plot related things, except for a very tenacious recurring villain. The fantasy genre of has the option of resurrection through magic somewhere in there so death here, especially in serial fiction does not have too much of an effect. Other genres have their own particular manners of reviving characters, to the point that dying is considered more a hiatus for a particular character than a guarantee that he or she will never appear again, especially in comic books. Still there is always a moment when death is permanent and when you realize that in a story that you have been following for a while, it tends to bring a tear to your eye.
I’ve been really mulling over that last part thanks to the most recent installment of my favorite webcomic in the history of ever, Order of the Stick, check here for why http://www.giantitp.com/comics/oots0877.html
I won’t write about OOTS here because honestly I already gushed and analyzed he Hell out of it in my Master’s thesis. Over at the forums a few people were saying that the current events had made it so that resurrection was no longer available as an option so that character was pretty much gone for good, as could be several other protagonists. It was a moment when I as a reader suddenly really started to think about what would now and in what direction would the story be going. The inevitability of death is one of the biggest fears that has been biologically programmed into our sentience and to realize that a beloved character won’t come back is a tough moment to say the least.
One of the big arguments I have about serial fiction is that it is a form where character takes precedence over plot. Stories may come and go but the hero, villain, and all the other archetypical roles continue to exist and plots will still encompass them so long as there are authors willing to write them and readers interested in what happens next. Serialization is all about delaying narrative closure and nothing is as final as death so it becomes an issue of either depowering the dramatic impliations of death or make sure that death is limited to only a few key moments. Backstories are riddled with characters dying and that being the motivational catalyst for the hero to accept responsibilities (think Thomas and Martha Wayne, Jor-El, Ben Parker, Gwen Stacy, Abin Sur, Obi Wan, Lily and James Potter, and so many others). Mentors, parents, and first loves are sacrificial lambs for narrative efficiency so that the protagonist has a purpose. Villains rarely die unless it’s to really prove a point or it’s the very definitive end of the story, especially if the hero has a low mortality/high morality ratio. And then there’s the sidekick that bit more than he could chew and the hero is now scarred.
There is an old adage in the comic book fandom that are three characters that have to stay dead:
1. Bucky (first sidekick and best friend/kid brother role to Captain America, dies in WW2 in most versions)
2. Jason Todd (second Robin after Dick Grayson becomes Nightwing, dies by crowbar and explosions at hands of Joker)
3. Uncle Ben (Peter Parker’s Uncle and surrogate father figure, dies by mook who in some versions becomes Sandman or any other named villain).
And as you can imagine, they have all been revived in one way or another. Bucky became a chaotic neutral mercenary called the Winter Soldier and Jason Todd was fixed Crisis Crossover reshaping history/Lazarus Pit and he became the Red Hood. Uncle Ben stays dead but does show up alive and well in an alternate Universe where Peter Parker pulls an Iron Man and becomes super rich and arrogant. Still, if character is what drives the narrative to continue, what happens when the person behind the mask dies but the story continues? We get a glimpse of it during Death and Return of Superman where not Clark Kent and a bunch of other people tried to take up the Caped Crusader’s title before he ultimately reappears. Batman pulled a similar stunt during the R.I.P. arc (actually stands for “rot in purgatory”, don’t ask). Still there are several characters who do die and someone comes in and takes up their identity. That’s why there have been so many Flashes, it’s why different people have been Dr. Fate, and it’s what happened to the orginal Mr. Terrific and he didn’t even get a replacement until decades later. Marvel recently leaked that Peter Parker was officially meeting his demise in an upcoming issue but there are more Spiderman comics scheduled to appear so there’s a chance that one of the pseudo proteges out there with similar arachnid powers will take the place of your friendly neighborhood Spiderman (or woman). Only time will tell if this new character sticks of if Peter Parker makes his way back into the pages.
FYI: the character from the D&D game did die at the end of the last session when a giant plant monster attacked them. There was no way he was going to make it considering the circumstances so we prepared him for the worst. In the end, I let the gunslinger use all of his powers so that he could try and get one last miracle shot. The blast killed the character in the process but since the other one was a pyromaniac alchemist, I decided to throw smoe big words around. The bullet created an unstable resonance cascade effect that compromised the chemical stability of the reagents. Hence a giant explosion occurred, killing the blast monster and giving the kid a worthwhile end to his first character that he will remember and share in future games with no chance of his corpse being turned into an undead antagonist.