Saturday, December 4, 2010

Saintly Saturday: St. Barbara

Today is the Feast of St. Barbara the Great Martyr of Heliopolis. She was the daughter of a wealthy pagan named Dioscorus. While building a bath house, he was called away. Taking advantage of this absence, she instructed the workers to add a third window to the project (in order to honor the Trinity). She also traced a cross on one of the walls. Miraculously, the cross was deeply etched into the stone as if by an iron chisel. Later, the waters of the bathhouse were said to have healing properties. When her father found out what she had done and why, he beat her brutally, tried to starve her and finally turned her over to the prefect. When further beating failed to turn her away from Christ, Dioscorus beheaded his own daughter.

What interests me about this story is today's entry in the Synaxarion (meaning the gathering of the Saints):

On the fourth of this month we commemorate the contest of the holy Great Martyr Barbara and her fellow Martyr Juliana.

Juliana was a Christian so moved by St. Barbara's endurance in the face of torture that she started to berate those doing the beatings. She joined Barbara in her struggles and martyrdom.

As I go back over all the various games and campaigns I have played throughout the last several decades, I remember deaths of characters just as much, if not more, than successes. Just as in life, in RPGs there are such things as good deaths and memorable deaths. I've meditated on this before, but it is worth saying again: Character death is a vital part of the game. If we take it away (via any number of methods) we cheapen the whole experience. Let me give you an example:

When I was in high school, the group I usually gamed with started a summer D&D campaign that I look back on with great fondness. It was one of the few times I got to play a magic-user and their were 11 players consistently at the table — yes, eleven players. We slowly discovered that all the strange and deadly occurrences happening around our home base were actually the lead elements of a massive demonic army that was breaking down the planar barriers between our world and one of the levels of the Abyss. Along the way, we had a recurring nemesis that kept harassing us on our various quests — an anti-paladin. It was highly entertaining, because we knew we couldn't go toe-to-toe with him, but there were enough of us that if we used unorthodox strategies we could live to fight another day. These strategies inevitably would result in the anti-paladin losing his newly acquired magic sword — most of which ended up being destroyed one way or another.

When it came to the climactic battle as the party tried to close the portal that would allow the main force of the demonic army to step into our world, we met up with the anti-paladin for that last time. We didn't have time to fight the anti-paladin and close the portal. So, one of my friends decided to go toe-to-toe in order to allow the rest of the party enough time to close the portal. He did so expecting to die a glorious death and was thrilled when the blow that felled his character was a natural '20' with a vorpal blade. His death bought us enough time to deal with the portal and the anti-paladin. A good death indeed.

However, when the dust settled, the DM granted everyone a boon for succeeding in saving the world. My friend's character was raised and this actually upset him. It rendered his sacrifice meaningless. Shortly thereafter, the campaign died.

Personally, I think the most memorable character death I ever had (outside the hilarity of one-shot Paranoia games) was a guy who got enough powers-that-be angry with him (he was a revolutionary) that he got himself assassinated.

I'd like to hear some other stories of good character deaths. What's your favorite?


  1. The few characters I've seen die on my watch tend to die more-or-less unexpectedly due to a series of fluke die rolls. (Failed save vs. poison, a string of 20's and 6 's from orc #3, that sort of noise.) Nothing so great there, but a reasonable reminder of knowing not the time or the hour... good blog, sir, and a nice weekly feature!

  2. plungingforward,

    Thanks for the kind words.