Let me explain where Deep Space Nine lost me.
Okay, some groundwork first:
At some point as writers we will be tempted to take the easy way out. Sometimes it can be attributed to “Writer’s Block,” that nebulous, dastardly affliction that can neither be described nor cured. Other times we have figuratively written ourselves into a corner; there is no clear path to resolution. Sadly, sometimes we simply aren’t as skilled at our craft as we hoped.
Writing anything is hard. Writing something that moves the reader, engages them in the story, and provides a unique and memorable narrative is HARD. Very hard.
So, on occasion, we find ourselves stuck in a story that we don’t know how to finish. This happens frequently in the writer’s room for an ongoing series, because generally the goal for that story is to not end. And how can you create tension, drama, and gripping character discovery week after week after week? Well, death comes to mind.
Death, especially with major characters, is a tricky subject. Killing off a beloved character will create that gripping emotional response from the audience, but committing to it is tough. Will the audience forgive you? Will their attention remain in a story without their favorite character? Writers have to deal with this fallout, and there are a couple of tricks they use to “have it all.”
1. The Twin. Surprise! Jeffrey had an identical twin this whole time, and he was the one that fell down that elevator shaft.
2. Alternate Dimension Double. Yes, that was Jeffrey being blown out of the air lock, but it wasn’t our Jeffrey. It was a Jeffrey from an alternate universe! Everything is fine! (except for alternate-Jeffrey’s friends and family, but we don’t even know them so who cares.)
3. ROBITS! It looked like Jeffrey, but actually it was a highly sophisticated robot / android / magical construct. Whew! Our Jeffrey doesn’t have all those wires and circuits jutting out of his spleen.
4. The Shapeshifter. (And this is where DS9 comes into play.) It wasn’t Jeffrey who stole the artifact, killed the guards, and then was gunned down by his companions. It was a creature capable of changing its appearance, or wearing a disguise, or had a magical glamer cast over it.
Now, it’s easy to sit here and just blurt out “That’s bad writing.” Even if I agree most of the time, sometimes these strategies can be used effectively. Presentation is important, after all, and finding an interesting new angle for a tired mechanic sometimes results in brilliance. I’m not condemning them completely.
The thing about all these writing crutches is that they only work once.
Once you’ve pulled a bait-and-switch on your audience, you have immediately scarred them. They may even appreciate being deceived the first time, but their emotional investment into the same set of circumstances will be greatly decreased in the future. It’s a trap that the writers have set for themselves. All of a sudden, any character showing atypical behavior is a clone. That’s not the real Jeffrey, he wouldn’t do that.
Now anyone can be an imposter, and the audience can’t trust what they read or see. DS9 fell victim to this. There were too many Changelings, they had too much power. How do you write yourself out of that scenario in a believable, gripping way? Well, the writers of DS9 didn’t, in my opinion. But that’s not really the point of this essay.
There’s a bigger trap here. When you explain away the life-or-death decisions of characters with clones, imposters, and doppelgangers you aren’t allowing your characters to grow, change, or evolve. Sometimes you have to let them fuck up, and if the audience isn’t buying into it because “they’ll just end up being a Changeling,” then you have overused that gimmick. You have exhausted your audience. You’ve broken your story.
Death is the ultimate emotional catapult. You want it to mean something, and you want your audience to experience it. If death is never permanent–if consequences are never paid and mortality is never risked–you have rendered it sterile. Death has to be real or your audience won’t buy into it.
So how does this relate to gaming? Simple: You, as the GM, are writing a series. You have the same obstacles and pitfalls for keeping your players interested in your campaign as a writer does for their audience. It’s easy to write ourselves into a corner, and it’s even easier to bail ourselves out with these weak escape routes. But like an audience, your players will notice, and if they aren’t gripped by the plot points because EVERYONE keeps coming back from the dead, you’re gonna lose them. It’s as simple as that.
Whether it’s a role playing game, a television series, or a collection of novels, the basic truth of castrating death’s finality is the same: don’t do it. Sometimes you just have to let your characters die.