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The agency theory says that you should never fudge a meaningful die roll. The desire to fund is founded on the faulty premise that you need to make sure people have fun. But it's a mistake to believe that letting a character die destroys fun. In fact, the opposite is true - it's fudging the dice that destroys fun, by destroying the ability for the players to make meaningful choices. Letting the player live when her choices would have led to her death is essential to keeping the game fun, for all the reasons I explained earlier.
So what do you do about Carrie above? It depends. If Carrie died because she rushed in to a fight that she shouldn't have, or volunteered to take point, then you let her die. But if she died because she got killed by an invisible sniper before she even knew what was happening, the answer is "change the rules in advance to prevent that sort of situation from happening." In real life, many things can happen to us that really are the result of "Acts of God," and have nothing to do with our agency. There is, after all, a slim probability that sitting at my desk typing this article, I will be killed by a falling meteorite. And that sucks! In fact, the very abundance of these types of events is exactly what strips us of our sense of agency in day-to-day life. Since RPG rules are fun to the extent that they give the player a sense of agency, mechanics that strip away agency should be changed. The evolution of the classic D&D game shows us how this works.
For instance, in the original edition of D&D, characters died instantly when they hit 0 hit points, and since starting characters could begin with as little as 1 hit point, that meant that death could come at almost any time, arbitrarily. There are several ways to resolve this dilemma. The classic approach was to maintain what I Hit It With My Axe's Zak Smith calls "ironic distance" during the early levels - the knowledge that you're not really your character. Early D&D supported this with quick and dirty character generation that let you replace your dead fighter with another fighter in about 30 seconds.
As D&D developed, though, the desire for increased player agency lead to ever-increasing levels of character customization, making choices that impacted what the character was like. This investment made it harder for players to maintain sufficient distance from their characters to tolerate arbitrary death. D&D's designers quickly introduced mechanics to address this, most famously by allowing characters to be "dying but not dead" until they actually hit -10 hit points. Suddenly, Carrie's not dead - she's just dying, and her party has a chance to save her by defeating the sniper and healing her wounds.
My Secret Sauce May Not Be Your Secret Sauce
If you're an experienced gamemaster and you fundamentally disagree with everything I've written above, you're probably going to fundamentally disagree with my guidance on how to be a gamemaster, too. That's ok - gamemastering is like cooking; everybody has their own recipes. I don't claim to have the only secret sauce, I just have my secret sauce. It works really well for my campaigns, and I've had a lot of success with my methods. If you disagree with my sentiments, all I ask is that you respectfully explain why, and share your own methods in comparison. Ultimately everything we can do to pass on different schools of gamemastering to new players will be a good thing.
Until next time, happy gaming!
Alexander Macris has been playing tabletop games since 1981. In addition to co-authoring the tabletop games Modern Spearhead and Blaze Across the Sands, his work has appeared in Interface, the Cyberpunk 2020 fanzine, and in RPGA AD&D 2nd Edition tournament modules. In addition to running two weekly campaigns, he is publisher of The Escapist and president and CEO of Themis Media. He sleeps on Sundays.