|The good old days.|
I recently read a blurb from an early CRPG developer, maybe it was Garriot or someone else from EA (can't remember exactly), state that one day we'd have technology with real stories, "just like the movies", to make games with. When Blizzard came along with Warcraft and then Diablo, I think the idea of immortal characters and scripted stories seemed to explode. It seemed as if everyone back then was clamoring to turn video games into linear stories with highly developed cut-scenes as quickly as possible. In other words,
"character" story was replacing "world" story very quickly.
Go back and read the AD&D DMG and some of the modules for First Edition and take note of the amount of detail that went into, not just world building, but the simulationist, runs-on-its own concepts, that permeated the early game. There's really no better way to sum this up than to understand how the term "campaign" has changed from 1980 to today (see this and this). A campaign today means that we are running a Final Fantasy style A->B->X procedural story where the characters progress from a novel-style ascending tension situation, to a climax, and finally to a conclusion. If your characters die during that period of time, what happens to the story? Poof, it's done. Not only are the characters' screwed, but so is the DM and all of his hard work. Therefore, it becomes a requirement that everyone stay alive to enjoy the story.
Plain and simple, this type of game-play is not an RPG. I don't care if there is level progression, loot, dwarves, elves, and girls with giant ... swords. This is an adventure game disguised as an RPG. Here's the number one problem when it comes to understanding the purpose of character death: people are far too focused on the world revolving around their character, instead of their character revolving around the world. Understanding this is akin to the Pope finally accepting that the Earth revolves around the Sun and not the other way around.
Think back to all of the great fantasy epics. What made them epic? Not *just* the loss and failure, but what happened as a result to loss and failure. Thorin's family and friends are killed which provides the catalyst for him to set out on a journey to reclaim what was lost, Gandalf is beaten by the Balrog only to give his friends a chance to rise to the occasion, and Theoden dies on the battlefield as a sacrifice to give his descendants a better future.
Another complaint I often hear in CRPGS is that you'll eventually lose the character to bugs, or players will simply hit the reset button before the loss can be saved. The first criticism can also be applied to table-top games. "The dice fell of the table unintentionally so that wasn't fair!", or "That monster really had an AC of 7 not 6, so I would have killed him!". It boils down to: "you did something unfair and I shouldn't have died", but what they really mean is, "My character is more important than proper role-play". Both criticisms share something in common in that these players simply don't understand the concept of heliocentrism, or the world is the main character.
To understand this a little better, recall my earlier post where I spoke about the Lovecraftian method of Role-playing. The idea is that we attempt to view the game world as a place that could really possibly exist. This is a perfect application of the concept because when "bugs" happen, we use them as unexplained events from another place that need to be accepted as an inadequate translation by the DM or computer. I once played in an indie text MMORPG a while ago where a bug caused all of the sea creatures to begin spawning on land. Suddenly, sharks and jellyfish were being found in forests and deserts. A lot of people went nuts at how this was ruining the game, but a few wise players decided that they were going to "role-play" it out as a sign from the gods and something not fully explainable.
The same principle can be applied to death situations that happen through bugs or other unintentional factors. Rule #1: Stay in character no matter what. Your character is STILL playing in this world, even if there are bugs. That may change the perception of the player (and piss him off), but it certainly doesn't change the perception of the character that things are happening, literally the way they are, within his own universe.
Think of it another way. There are some theories about there being a decent chance that human beings are in a simulation themselves. We could be in our own sort of video game and not even realize it. So those stories of people dying suddenly, people seeing aliens, bigfoot and ghosts may be "bugs" in our own game. But how do we take these events? We accept them because we have to - they are part of our reality, just as your character should accept it as part of his.
As for people resetting the game when things go bad, I'm reminded of Baldur's Gate, one of the greatest CRPGs ever made. Do you know how simple it is to reload when a character dies in that game? It's really easy - too easy. But understanding why you shouldn't separates the men from the boys. I highly recommend taking a look at this YouTube series to witness someone who takes the idea of no-reloading very serious. Get an idea of the depth and richness that can be found in a game when played the right way.
It takes a lot of mind training to fully accept this concept. We have been dealt a buffet of harmless, care-bear worlds to explore in today's gaming. But it's easiest to remember that life goes on, even when a character's life doesn't. Try to imagine that, when that person died when he slipped and fell on those poisoned spikes, the world just gained a level and found some loot. That dungeon now has a story to tell. It has the skeleton of a lost adventurer lying in its depths ready to be explored by others. It contains powerful weapons, perhaps now distributed and used by its inhabitants. That dead character probably has a family, friends and others who have been served by him. Each of them will be impacted by his death in a far greater way than could have happened in life.
A world full of dead player characters means far more than a world full of DM-generated props. Your world has now taken a life of its own, built organically from the hands of its players. That old ruined tower beyond the woods with the undead wandering its grounds? That was built by John's character a few years ago when he played in the campaign. Want to know what happened there? You'll have to find out yourself. Why do the townsfolk hate elves? Well that's because my cousin's character really pissed them off once...but he also may have had a hidden secret to share if you ask the bar keeper.
None of this can happen without characters who have lived, died and made a permanent impact on the world. Now for those players who detest rolling up new characters all the time, change your system. Old school RPGs can have new characters created in less then 10 minutes. Don't play games that combine heavy grinding with permanent death either (That's another can of worms that I'd like to open some other time). Don't worry about backstories, homelands, etc, unless he has some relationship with past events or characters. Let your character's story be told during play, not outside of it. Let the world shape your character as you shape it.
Remember the words of Obi-Wan: "You can't win, Darth. If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you could possibly imagine." Don't hide from character death, embrace the most important character of all: the game world.