There’s no way around it: Death is hard; Death is loss; Death, ultimately, can’t be avoided.
In December of 1893, fans were pissed. They had just finished reading The Adventure of the Final Problem in The Strand magazine, and Sherlock Holmes was dead. Little did they know or care, that the final problem was the supposed solution of a writer sick to death of his creation.
In 1887, Beeton’s Christmas Annual published the first Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet, and over the next three years, Holme- mania hit a fevered pitch. While the detective’s success increased the circulation of The Strand and made Sir Arthur Conan Doyle a household name, though often deeply in the shadow of his creation, Conan Doyle saw his Holmes stories as “an elementary form of fiction,” and as early as 1891 told his mother he wanted to kill off the detective. His mother warned him not to do it.
Well, even the best of us ignore our mother’s warnings, just as Conan Doyle did, and The Strand lost 20,000 subscribers in short order. Worse still, Conan Doyle couldn’t drum up the same interest in other writing projects. By 1901 he was writing prequels about the detective. He finally said, “fuck it,” and fully resurrect the Holmes in 1903 with the release of The Adventure of the Empty House. Conan Doyle continued to churn out Holmes tales over the next 24 years.
Much closer to us culturally, a very similar story unfolded in June of 1982 where the young geeks of my generation went to see Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Amid this navel drama masquerading as state-of-the-art special effects (for the time) science fiction, Mr. Spock fucking died. There was some nerd rage amid scout troops and baseball dugouts over cola products that summer, let me tell you.
Of course, like Holmes, Spock came back…and in much shorter order. And, like Conan Doyle, Leonard Nimoy wanted Spock dead. He was tired of playing the role, he was sick of wearing those damn ears, and he wanted to direct. Of course, Nimoy, like Conan Doyle ultimately saw the power of his signature character and reprised the role many times. In the same way that nearly all of your favorite (and thus the most lucrative) heroes are going to come back when The Avengers next grace the screen. And even though sometimes the death and resurrections are as hokey as those from an Iron Age mystery cult, we eat them up. We’re going to cheer when Spider-Man, Black Panther, and Dr. Strange are somehow resurrected from the dustbin of Thanos’s twisted reality, and we’re going to weep when Steve Rogers sacrifices himself for this miracle to happen (these are not a spoiler, just educated guesses).
There is a stark difference between real death and fictional death. Actual death is an inevitable and rather fickle thing. Fictional deaths serve another master: our hopes and desires, especially for the story to go on. Or to look at it the other way, since real death is a constant result of our finite existence—a threat we can stave off, but never truly defeat—fictional death has to be…well…cheatable. There’s a little Kirk that lives in all of us.
And it often is. Our movies, TV shows, comic books, novels, and religions are rife with characters that “just can’t die,” and even if they do, fans wait with bated breath for them to find some form of resurrection. Dr. Who is the ultimate example of this. This is an old and dominant trope that taps into our gene-deep desire to live on past even the greatest adversity. We created countless gods in the image of this trope, and it’s at the heart of most popular fictions throughout the ages. But there is another side to Thanatos’s coin.
The more commonplace such resurrections become, or unsophisticated in their explanation, or brains scream, “what is this bullshit?” In fiction, immortality must be possible, but it can’t be easy. Nore can it be cheap.
A Song of Ice and Fire is a response to some of the hanky-panky garbage that went on in fantasy fiction for decades. George R.R. Martin gleefully kills off characters at a rate that would impress the Grim Reaper himself. But as the story winds on, and the audience has expanded via HBO Game of Thrones TV series, our need for some form of fictional immortality becomes more pronounced. Jon Snow came back, and if Martin kills off Tyrion there’ll be such weeping and gnashing of teeth it’ll give Hell a run for its money. Well, at least on YouTube, at least. And, that is, unless the imp has a truly heroic death in the last chapters of the story.
It seems that every season ender of Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead, some folks swear they’ll quit the show forever. It’s just too hard and too brutal to watch. While those watchers of Game of Thrones are either lying or replacing faster than the rate of attrition, it has been a factor in the decrease of The Walking Dead viewership since around Season 5. I admit that’s around where it lost me. There are, of course, other differences between the two shows and how they handle death, and any rough comparison of those two shows is akin to comparing apples to crabapples, but let’s just let that simmer.
While working on Delve, I’ve thought a great deal about the nature of fictional death. A roleplaying game must deliver a death and dying system allowing for the immortality trope while giving a plausible (and reasonably avoidable) path towards toward oblivion. Why? Because of the rules and expectations of the tropes of fictional death are also the expectations of roleplaying games. The deaths of Sherlock Holmes and Mr. Spock were so hard on folks because of the connection many people had with those characters. The loss and pain of death are most pronounced with those closest to you, be it real or fictional. We can’t avoid it in life, but in fiction, there is the understanding that someone, goddamn it, can do something about it. Nimoy can put on those fucking ears, and Conan Doyle can start fucking scribbling again. Make the fucking magic last, you motherfuckers! Those same expectations may be even more pronounced in RPGs, where the connection to a character can be even stronger. You are not only empathizing with someone else’s creature; it’s often of a thing of your own creation.
When creating the death and dying rules for Delve, I’ve endeavored to follow these strange little rules of fictional death. My solutions, as of now, are more narrative than many other systems, with ways to cheat, be challenged by, and—if the story warrants it and the player so chooses—embrace death.
But more on that next time.