For me, one of the most emotional moments in any game, television show, movie, or novel is self-sacrifice—when a character voluntarily commits an act to save many at the expense of one’s self. I don’t know what it is about that one narrative technique; it always makes my eyes swell and my nose run. And sometimes it isn’t the act of self sacrifice but the moment of choice in the character that makes it. Occasionally, it’s after the choice has been made, and a character reflects on his or her life leading to that moment before finally passing. Obviously, Boromir’s death in Fellowship is a good example of that last one. A character looking for a reason to die doesn’t generate that level of emotion with a sacrifice— vis-à-vis, Ripley in Alien 3. I can’t watch the climactic moment in The Iron Giant without leaking like the Titanic, the latter not generating that scale of reaction. Maybe it was the surge of Kamen’s score, the smile on the Giant’s face, or the simple utterance of the word “Superman”—even thinking about it now draws a bit of pain from the back of my eyes. Even more gut wrenching were the final five minutes of United 93, a film I’ve been unable to watch all the way through since, despite it taking up space on my DVD shelf.
As a storyteller, I’ve always wondered how I could successfully replicate that in my game. As it turns out, it’s easier than you might think. Players I’ve campaigned with have often committed such selfless acts—not hard considering that a new character is a die roll away. Dungeons & Dragons unfortunately has sucked out any emotional connection to sacrifice, given that death is only an annoying speed-bump on the road to legend, explaining why many of my games prohibit resurrection. I either remove the spell outright or design a setting where it involves something nearing a demonic ritual (watch Full Metal Alchemist as a good example of what I mean). In my first Amethyst game, players died and returned, an element I removed from further games. At the end of my second campaign, several characters committed an act of sacrifice. I felt it was important that they be made aware of their fate before it happened. Accidentally sacrificing yourself does carry some weight, though not as much as willingly leaping yourself into harm’s way knowing you probably won’t leap out. Remember the look on Dennis Hopper’s face when he insulted Christopher Walken in True Romance—that moment when Hopper knows he’s killing himself to save his son. That almost placid Hindu-cow look, which brings a quote back from Farscape.
“Fear accompanies the possibility of death. Calm shepherds its certainty.”
You might think that removing resurrection injects fear in a player, especially in a pen-and-paper RPG. Unlike video games, there’s no save point. You don’t often get a do-over. Sure, a total-player-kill (TPK) might usher a reset of the encounter, but that’s a relatively infrequent affair. Knowing your character, the personality you have grown like a potted plant from the germ of imagination to a fully realized character sheet requite with coffee stains and eraser marks that weathered the sheet to a cloth-like consistency, will die…forever. It means more to some players than you might think.
This brings me to when sacrifice is handled poorly, when the act is forced onto a character or when the choice is blatant, presented as badly as a game show. The common example is the famous “diving in front of the bullet” fiasco still replicated in many TV shows. The act is so sudden, we’re hardly given a chance to absorb the impact of choice, not accounting for the cliché of the act itself. The moment becomes as satirical as Slim Pickens riding the H-bomb.
Some video games have danced with sacrifice, Fallout 3 being a recent example. Of course, Bethesda retconned that sacrifice, preferred given players weren’t offered a choice to opt out of it. And of course, there’s…you know, I shouldn’t even have to bring up THAT game because we all know I will. So let’s just say that it represents one of the worst examples of optional sacrifice…because there’s no option. It presents three choices, all which kill you, rendering the emotion of sacrifice meaningless. If given the choice for the selfish or selfless ending, I might have probably still chosen the selfless ending, but not being offered that choice robs me of that emotional climax.
Now, I said exactly 690 words ago that the option of sacrifice is the most important aspect of the moment, often more so than even the ultimate act. That being said, a last second turn-around like Tom Cruise’s son popping up like a Caddyshack gopher at the end of War of the Worlds can deflate the sacrifice like soundless whoopee cushion. It must be handled carefully, and not handed out like PEZ to wanting masses. The Dragonlance adventures concluded with several possible endings, one of which stipulated that a player character sacrifice themselves by jumping into a portal in order to seal it from the other side. Although the sacrifice was forced, the choice was not, allowing one player to take the noble route. Another option is the sacrificial charge, where characters run into a fight they may not make it out of. This can work, especially if there’s the slimmest chance for survival. The effect is compounded if several characters commit to this, with only one actually falling. If this does come to pass, I would suggest having an emotional piece of music on cue to set the scene. When my players sacrificed their characters in my second campaign, I actually used the final track from United 93. In my latest campaign, the sacrifice fell only to one character. Because it felt forced, I did allow him to believe he had no other option, until I gave him one, allowing his character to survive. But that didn’t devalue the choice. It didn’t matter that the Iron Giant came back at the end; the scene still carried emotional weight. So in order to milk that choice of sacrifice with my player, I played it out over five minutes against Rossini’s Stabat Mater.
Dying to opera…even I can be permitted a cliché once in a while.