Friday, April 22, 2011

S is for Sacrifice III: Gaming

Part III: Sacrifice in Role-Playing

In this installment of "S is for sacrifice," I explore two ways in which sacrifice can contribute to your gaming: sacrifice proper and the sacrifice of characters by your players. 

Religious Sacrifice
Before the loss of the Jewish temple and the substitution of the bloodless sacrifice tied to the blood of Christ, religion everywhere was dominated by the immolation of victims as an offering to the numen or numina.  I'm sure this happens in your games, but I bet when it does, it is usually something like this:

Frank Frazetta, Sacrifice, 1980 - Cover for a Conan book
Now, there's nothing wrong with this as far as it goes.  Villains that are unholy are especially villainous, and saving beautiful innocents from their clutches is hitting about eleven fantasy buttons at once instead of just one.  But beyond its cliche, and potentially chauvinistic, use, it ignores the fact that sacrifice is and has been a dominant practice in religions that are not summoning devils or waking Cthulhu.  To give the religions in your game setting some substance, look into adding sacrifice, whether as background world-building, plot elements, or even mechanics.  But the characters sending their sweet-smelling sacrifice of some quality barbeque heavenwards is nothing compared to them offering themselves.

Heroic Self-Sacrifice
Above all, I am thinking of the players sacrificing their characters, and the characters sacrificing themselves in-game.  Note I'm not talking about taking a risk that the player-characters recognize could result in character death: they do that all the time in the game, and they generally do it for character gain.  I mean making a decision for the good of others, which the player-characters enact in the knowledge that death is likely or even certain in the attempt to bring about the altruistic outcome.  Being saviors, rather than simply the greatest achievers, is the height of heroism.

Why would anyone want to do this in a game?  To achieve the pinnacle of heroism is obviously a motive on the player side of he equation, more than the character side.  It could be the denouement of the player's character development.  It could be the attainment of some great goal that they have long been gaming towards.  Experienced gamers know nothing is as dramatic as death, so this will make your game dramatic like nothing else will.  I should say, death that is not stupid--experienced gamers have also seen some pretty lame deaths in their days, as well.  But just imagine the possibilities when the players have been empowered to achieve meaningful deaths for their characters.  In all the creative and exciting things I have done in my (cough, 30) years of  gaming, I've never done this intentionally, and I owe the idea to my college DM, who discussed the idea with me on the phone recently.  (Commendations to you, K.A.)

I hope I don't need to argue that suicide for escape, dramatic effect, or for religious reward is not heroic self-sacrifice, but selfish acts that at best on masquerade as heroic self-sacrifice.  If done well, I'll wager players will never forget their heroes' deaths, and it can then be folded into the world-building so that it is an ongoing part of their new characters' experience.  Just don't make the mistake of role-playing Valhalla.

ST2: The Wrath of Khan.  "The needs of the many..."

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