Permadeath is a gaming term that means “once a character dies, that’s it: they’re gone forever.” I still remember the first time I ever heard about it and played a game that featured it. And life sure does look different–and better–when one looks at it from a permadeath perspective.
In gaming, people play characters. The characters (hopefully, usually anyway) take risks–sometimes very great risks! And sometimes they fail and suffer damage of various sorts. The carriage overturns in mid-chase. The dice do not smile favorably upon the duel. However it happens, the character must die.
At that point, games have two options. They can allow the character to spring back to life in some way (this process is often called respawning, though the exact process varies considerably between games), or they can dictate that the character is now gone forever and cannot ever return, and the player needs to make a new character to continue playing in the game. This second approach is often called permadeath.
And what option they choose alters every single aspect of the game and how players interact with it.
When I first began playing the online text games called MUDs, all of them featured the usual form of gaming death, which was respawning. You might lose a few experience points or have to go on a wild chase for your corpse’s gear before it all disintegrated, but you didn’t lose the character itself. If something happened that killed the character, it respawned somewhere else (usually stark naked).
Online games’ tendency to use respawning was a marked contrast to tabletop games, which almost always featured permadeath–we just didn’t have a specific name for it. Some games, like Paranoia and Kobolds Ate My Baby, even relied on constant character deaths as part of the fun of the game (for real, KAMB needs your love today; if you like Exploding Kittens and Cards Against Humanity, you’ll probably also like KAMB).
Once I had a frame of reference, though, it didn’t me take long to notice that having a character who couldn’t really ever die led to a couple of specific developments among the playerbase: first, they tended never to roleplay, but instead hacked and slashed their way through monsters till they reached the game’s top level; second, they tended to identify their characters much more closely with themselves–like it was a Google Play account used to link up to a game. Because I’d never really seen a MUD that did anything besides respawning, I didn’t notice that until I played one that didn’t.
But once I tried a permadeath MUD, I was hooked.
Let Me Tell You About My Character.
I had no idea what it was at first, of course. A friend had recommended the game as a roleplay-required MUD and I thought it’d be fun. So one evening I made a character on the game (a little war-vixen) and sent her out into the world, clothed in her newbie gear and wielding her little newbie knife. At first, it looked just like every other MUD I’d ever played, just with much better descriptions of everything. I read the ingame bulletin board, noted the dangerous areas for newbies that it mentioned (they pretty much all have some way of warning beginners about that treacherous East Gate, like for the love of god don’t go that way if you aren’t in a group), and began exploring the town I’d spawned in.
I found an alley and began killing vermin there, but to my astonishment and dismay nothing I killed seemed to be dropping loot or coins. In every other MUD I’d played, monsters always dropped a few gold coins when you killed them–and sometimes even wearable gear that a newbie needed. But these corpses didn’t contain anything. And I got no messages about gaining experience or anything like that. What the hell, man?
After a short while I gave up and headed into the town’s tavern. I bought a drink, got a table, and began listening to the chatter of other characters around me.
A young man rushed in, totally shocked and wanting to warn everyone. Someone had found a bunch of dead rats in an alley nearby, slain by knifepoint and just left to rot. It was some kind of Halloween/Hell Night in the game, so the people in the tavern quickly concluded that the rat-killer was some kind of demon-worshiper making some kind of weird point. One of them, a priest, advised that everyone sit tight in this nice safe tavern till the dawn. Everyone else agreed with that plan and bunked down, prepared to spend the next RL hour or two telling stories and having fun.
I had my second what the hell, man?!? moment at that point. Telling stories didn’t get anybody exp. Why bother?
Now, they were, of course, talking about my handiwork in the alleys. But I’d never heard people in a MUD talking like this. For the next hour or so, I listened and absorbed everything I could, and then for the next 10-15 years or so I played (and helped run) games like this exclusively. I never did tell anybody there that the rat-killer had been me, an innocent new player who didn’t know that in this game, rats weren’t easy cash and experience for a newbie.
The Soldier Who Needed a Toothbrush.
The game was one of a growing number that required roleplay of its players. Nobody was allowed to hang around in the tavern chatting about the Super Bowl, for example; everything a character did was supposed to fit in with the gameworld and with that character’s backstory. Playing these games was like playing in a movie or novel (and a lot of budding writers used their time there as inspiration for their own creative efforts offline), with characters growing and developing, making friends and enemies, advancing in their chosen careers, and proceeding through admin-run plots of various sorts. The only real brake was, theoretically at least, how much time the person was willing to put into the character’s development.
Once a character died, their body fell to the ground and stayed there; the player was whisked to an out-of-character waiting room to either make up a new character or talk to a staffer if necessary. The next character couldn’t be related to the old one at all. The old character’s secret knowledge couldn’t be used, either, and the new character couldn’t “accidentally” run across the old one’s body and loot it. This was a fresh start and it had to be as blank-slate as possible, just like many religious people in our real world think about reincarnation. The new character started at the bottom again, and had to make new friends, find a new career and advance through it, and develop their skills all over again.
As you can imagine, permadeath made people play in markedly different ways than they ever had on the old-school respawning games. The precarious nature of “life” in the game went hand-in-hand with its requirement to roleplay. And I could see the wisdom there right away: how was someone supposed to roleplay a respawn? How was a life-or-death battle supposed to really matter when the worst thing that’d happen is you’d die and then zap right back to the start town’s safe location, and maybe have to race after your corpse before all your stuff vanished? Why did it matter if you plotted for weeks to kill a really bad character, if he was just going to respawn anyway?
Indeed, I saw that games that stressed roleplay but didn’t feature permadeath didn’t have nearly the high-quality scenes that I’d enjoyed in the ones that did. In one game right before a massive player-vs-player battle featuring over a hundred characters, I walked, quiet and invisible, among the characters assembling for the fight, listening quietly to them as they wrestled with the issues of mortality that any of us would recognize in real life. Tears were shed, speeches were given, shouts were made, and arrangements arranged. (And of course there was that one guy standing stoically, jaw set, spear in his hand and shield on his arm, alone without loved ones to send him off, all the while thinking stuff to himself like, “Ya know, I really need a new toothbrush.” I was so impressed that I gave him his own very special scene during the fight.)
Like this–except I didn’t get caught.
Indeed, later I heard from plenty of players who had loved that pre-fight roleplay, and who felt that the fear of in-character death had seriously upped the ante for them, giving them more of a stake in the outcome of the battle. Even people who’d lost characters in the fight spoke highly of the roleplay they’d gotten out of it. Their gratitude and enjoyment made the two weeks’ planning beforehand worth it and then some for the half-dozen admins involved.
Permadeath, like PvP, ultimately has its fans and its detractors. You won’t see many single-player games that feature it–nor will you see very many pay-to-play games like MMORPGs that would ever dare institute it. Some gamers who consider themselves hardcore look down on the folks who avoid games featuring it; others, like me, don’t assign moral value to permadeath so much as considering it essential for games that stress roleplay over leveling.
The concept of permadeath was important to me for one other reason besides just giving teeth to my gaming experience.
As Above, So Below.
I’d barely deconverted when I began playing MUDs, and it took years for me to really unpack what had happened to me while I was a Christian. Even then, for years I clung to the idea of an afterlife. Surely the party couldn’t possibly end only just now that I’d arrived to it! Surely all this bright emotion and thought and wonderment and love couldn’t just vanish and go into the cold dark earth one day. Surely there had to be more than just this oh-so-brief life.
Very slowly, though, I began noticing that no studies, measurements, observations, or tests could so much as hint that there was even some other realm of consciousness for humans. The more I learned about neurology, death, and the processes of life, the less I could accept the idea of an afterlife and the more reasons I gained for rejecting such a belief.
It took a very long time for me to put together that I feared nothingness in part because it meant that this life was the only one I’d ever get–and that meant that this life had to count.
There’d be no cosmic do-over. No mulligans. No respawning in some hospital delivery room somewhere after I finally drew my last breath.
The idea that there’d be a do-over had blunted and eased the sharpest jagged edges of my grief, and had given me hope that even if I totally muffed this life, there’d be another by-and-by to repair my errors and misunderstandings. I’d get another chance to see my loved ones. I’d get another chance to matter. Maybe next time things would be different.
And I’d been wrong.
I’d spent my first decades in the game of life thinking it was a respawn system, but the world, it seems, is actually permadeath.
So my grief erupted anew. My anger at having wasted so many years in religion took on a melancholy note that had never been there before.
But in the midst of that grief and anger, I discovered a bright spot of hope and gentle wisdom.
The Beauty of Limits.
This life is what we get. It’s probably all we get, too. That’s what makes it so precious, and that’s what makes what we do while we have it so important. That understanding of mortality gives our lives urgency and momentous import. Limitations are what produce scarcity and make something precious–not unlimited, endless refills.
Ironically, it’s the idea of a do-over that makes this life less precious to people who believe that way. Who cares what you do in this life, ultimately, if you think you’re getting another life to mess up later on? What does a few decades of life mean in light of an eternity spent elsewhere, or endless centuries of respawning?
I suspect now that one of the worst harms religion did to me was to encourage me to accept injustice and unfairness in this life because I was told that I’d see the scales righted in the next.
And that waste of time is a far more egregious one, in my eyes, than even a tenth of the countless hours I’ve spent immersed in games of various kinds.
Find meaning where you are and pursue a life that you won’t look back on with regret, because we’ll never be here again.
In other words, I guess, #YOLO.
“I’ll tell you a secret, something they don’t teach you in your temple. The gods envy us. They envy us because we’re mortal, because any moment might be our last. Everything’s more beautiful because we’re doomed. . . We will never be here again.”