in the Shadow of Greatness


February 5, 2003

What Happens Next

Death and 'What Happens Next' Probably it shouldn't surprise me that my feelings about the Columbia shuttle disaster have put me in mind to think about death and courage and 'what happens next.' The last because whether in life or in RPGs the story must go on. Always. Just one of the themes that Zelazny "hooks me" with is permutations of immortality. Not the concept of immortality, but the execution. Zelazny twists the manifestations until immortality is a curse, a blessing, a responsibility, a lark, but always accessible to the reader. The characters believe and I, the reader, believe it. That's a good trick— an essential trick— and Zelazny's skill renders this very accessible. Yet, as we've noted just recently, RPG games aren't about death, they are more properly about challenge, danger, and heroism. And, of course, 'what happens next.' (I'm not going to even try to explain the "Paranoia" RPG or if it fits this idea.)

In a strange way then, most RPGs are about not dying. If you die, the game is over. Yet, in all of my games (YMMV), death is just a few ticks away, whether the characters are immortal princes of Amber, or short-lived humans. That makes it real to me. That makes everything the Characters do important. The drama of death drives me to care about 'what happens next'. That element of death makes me "worry" and "tense" as Characters risk the threats or challenges. Like watching a movie thriller for the first time, this particular GM doesn't know what is going to happen next, and it generates tension, drama, interest, and occasionally the contrast of the "human condition", such as humor, irony, and sadness. If death isn't in the game, it isn't like life. If the game isn't like life, then I'm not sure what it is or should be.

Player Characters die in my games: not often, not easily, and usually not idly. In at least one case, a PC's unexpected death led directly to other Character actions and eventually spiralled the entire campaign to a conclusion. How does Zelazny use death in the Amber series?

  • despite your heritage, a misstep on the Pattern will kill you; has done so before
  • elder sibs of Corwin et al who are long dead; nearly nameless myths
  • queens die, Oberon remarries
  • family in conflict; blood might have to kill blood
  • death curses; literal disaster lingering from death
  • characters avoid deadly confrontations if they can
  • death is change and transformation; the thirteenth Tarot
As I look at the above, it seems that Zelazny is doing the same thing I'm doing in the game: the drama of death drives me to care about 'what happens next.'

Two other viewpoints from online sources: Death in the Amber Universe or Death in Amber

Filed under : Aha!, Amber, IMC, Real Life at 05.02.2003