The Paradox of Heroic Sacrifice

The problem, I explain to my GM, is simple. I like the character. I do not want to see the character dying. My actions are likely to reflect this. The character, on the other hand, while she may not have the death-wish one of her teammates thinks she has, really should be fighting like she knows perfectly well she’s expendable and likes it that way. Lot of risk. Objective first, then worry about how she’s going to get out of there alive. Probably mostly powered by the resulting adrenaline rush.

The situation works just fine for her. It drives me crazy.

Another one for RPG Blog Carnival. I’m amazed at how much about heroes I haven’t gotten around to posting on.

There are a lot of things that are absolute staples in the books and movies we cut our teeth on and grew up under. The heroic sacrifice is one of the big ones. In groups where death is a meh issue, or one of those things where you grab some flesh, dig up some diamonds and there you are, it’s not too big a deal.

But when you’ve got a group that’s about the characterization over the challenge, you’re not playing something like CoC or Paranoia where the object of the game is more see how long you can stay alive, and death is permanent (which is probably more common than you think—even my primary D&D group had death that stuck), you run into a bit of a problem. Heroic sacrifices are still awesome, yes. But they stop being near as awesome to the player who just got the hang of this character finally after ten weeks of playing tug-of-war with the concept and coming out of it irritated. Who has enough of a history with being disabled two rounds into the battle to be sick and tired of sidelining during a fight. Who hates chargen with the fervor of an Oregon college football crowd (go ahead, pick your university).

What’s a GM to do?

A year or two later: “I mean, how many times has she ended up being tortured, poisoned, abducted, possessed or otherwise screwed with since the beginning of the game?”

Some people are fond of saves. It’s to the point where it’s even managed to slip into game mechanics here and there; I’m not sure if its spiritual precursor does, but Legends of the Wulin does include a get-out-of-heroic-sacrifice-alive card hidden in its mechanics, specifically addressing this issue. Heroic sacrifices are awesome, a lot of people create the kinds of characters who will make them, but it really sucks when losing the PC is the reward for good roleplaying.

Some people set up situations in which the only way the character’s going to actually die is if she (or rather, her player) is trying. It’s not that she can’t lose, mind. Nor even that she can’t take the loss in a blaze of self-sacrifice that turns the tide in her teammates’ favor. It’s that the average sacrifice isn’t necessarily going to kill her. There are far more interesting things that can happen. Some might involve the loss of the character, or at least her temporary removal. Some can be absolute fun to roleplay. Most are at least as inconvenient as having the teammates hunt up a diamond or needing to put together a new sheet, but a lot more participatory.

Some people just shrug and go with it, saying it doesn’t mean as much if the player knows perfectly well the character’s going to get out of it—and that’s all right too. Sometimes even players who hate death mechanics will go for the heroic sacrifice anyway; they’ve got a safety net, or a spare character they’d rather play, and sometimes it really is just too perfect a situation. If it’s one of those people who really, really hates chargen, though, at least let it mean something. The last thing anyone wants is to make a sacrifice like that that didn’t actually do anything.

The character in question? Took a nasty, usually instakill effect in order to save both the person it was meant for and the person who was using it, and ate it (complete with obligatory joke about how something else would probably have worked better, due to the tickling of fletching on the way down). Effects were delayed by one of her teammates until the end of the scene. It was the end of the game; it didn’t matter at that point. Then time got screwy, and none of it mattered anyway.

Just because they complicate matters doesn’t make heroic sacrifices any less awesome. Just… difficult.


  1. Runeslinger says:

    The meaningless meaningful death – either by reversal or by neglect is a sad waste of a potentially powerful decision. Excellent call~

  2. Michael says:

    I remember that in the Drahn game, I created a rule that for each character, the *first* time they were in a situation where I judged death would occur, I’d come up with a way to get them out. This wasn’t intended mainly for heroic sacrifices, but as a way to discourage recklessness without me (as a novice GM, taking a bold step by going freeform on my first game) having to make that horrible decision. It worked; no-one even used up their one chance during the game. It’s a rule I’d consider using again, even though I’m a little more confident now. I might just make an exception that if the player was clearly aiming for the heroic sacrifice and letting it happen would be more dramatically appropriate than not… I’m thinking of that one from Darths & Droids as I write this. Not going to spoil it by saying any more, even here.

    Curiously, just over the last couple of days I’ve been talking with my friend about what might be considered the writing equivalent — killing off a favourite character and letting it stick. Not necessarily by heroic sacrifice, but of course that’s not an uncommon way for them to go. In one way it’s easier — the character is only one of many in the story, so there’s less personal attachment. Even so, my friend was surprised that I’ve done this a couple of times, and said she wasn’t sure she could bring herself to do it. At a guess, I’d say it might be easier for me because I tend to work out my endings quite early on, and that brings a sense of finality, a sense that whether character X is alive after the story doesn’t matter so much. And then again sometimes it just happens — as with Mizuho, a character in my second Nano, who managed the impressive feat of dying just a few days after she came into existence, as though she were trying to set some kind of record. She really was one of my favourites in that brief span of time, but — well, it just happened too fast for me to stop. I’ll never know now if it would have happened differently if I’d had more time to think. Her death (and yes, this one was a heroic sacrifice) is just far too awesome for me to want to prevent it when I revise the story.

  3. Philo Pharynx says:

    On the other hand, think about what happens if you don’t do it. On the metagame level, are you saving the character of a player that likes chargen? Or that isn’t particularly attached to their character? Or do they feel the same way you do? On a game level, what does your sacrifice accomplish? If world is ending, you have to make a new character anyway. Is it another PC? Or an innocent child? Your PC’s child? Or is it just stopping the bad guy from escaping? If you don’t make the sacrifice, how is your character going to deal with the loss? Is it going to make them rethink their beliefs and goals? Perhaps they’ll lose faith in themselves or feel they don’t live up to their ideals. On the metagame level, are you going to annoy other players by becoming a total angst-monkey? Are you going to annoy yourself dealing with the changes that happen to the character?

    And of course, do you have time to think about all this during a combat round?

  4. Ravyn says:

    Runeslinger: Thanks!

    Michael: Ah, yes. One of the other games I played in while I was in university had the same thing, though since it was a very hard game to die in to begin with, it would require someone being downright stupid. (My character almost had to use her save because someone else was being downright stupid during the Obligatory Martial Arts Tournament, despite both the GM and me trying to explain that this PC target did NOT in fact have damage reduction out the ears.) By Drahn I was pretty cagey, and Hoyt had all the self-preservation instinct that many of my other PCs tended to disregard when the situation seemed important enough.

    Though I’m with your friend on the difficulty of killing off characters who didn’t step up and say “it’s my time, let’s go.” I did so with a pair of NPCs a couple sessions ago, and even offstage I had to spend a few weeks nerving myself up to it. Even if one had nearly died a year or two before for similar reasons. And there was that one PC, Jillian… but she was an odd case.

    Philo: In answer to your last question, my experiences point to yes. I once wrote an entire speech while waiting for my turn to come round in one game’s combat, and we were trying to streamline things. And that presupposes one is in full-on combat, which isn’t always the case either.

    I’ve found with most of my groups, it’s not that hard to remember who enjoys chargen and who doesn’t, and if not, it’s a good thing to ask early on. You can also somewhat guess from how much of an IC/OOC balance people run to when justifying their attempts at combat evasion; not all combat evaders are highly attached to the characters and/or very much annoyed by having to spend an evening lining up circles or numbers on a page, but it’s a pretty safe bet. And besides, asking “How much of this is you?” or looking at the player to see if they’re showing signs of “did I really just do that I really just did that my that was epic but oh crud NOW what?” shock generally doesn’t take that long compared to getting somebody’s dropped dice out from under the table. You’ve got the rest of the combat to come up with an appropriate save, after all.

  5. UZ says:

    Go back to the comics! If there is a way that a heroic sacrifice can be reversed they have probably already done it.

    Apparently-die-and-come-back-in-a-mask – very valuable, allows the character to sport with moral ambiguity. Plus, might be super cathartic for the player if they get to play themselves again after the reveal.

    The Einherjar Gambit – the god of whatever cannot abide to see the character die, and secretly remakes them.

    Abdicate rather than die – the character apparently dies, but this is a ruse, and the villain keeps them in some kind of arrangement whose horribleness can be adjusted to suit the tone of the narrative.

    Something other than death – self-explanatory. Loss of limb, loss of sanity, loss of motivation. Loss of the ability to say the letter S. I remember in “Villains By Neccesity”, one of the old heroes had to sacrifice their immortality to close the evil portal.

    There are always… possibilities.

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