Tuesday, October 3, 2023

A Character’s Bequest

A son can bear with equanimity the loss of his father, but the loss of his inheritance may drive him to despair.”

Niccolo Machiavelli

I’m currently dealing with ongoing in-law drama filling our life with overwhelming anxiety. Games often provide us refuge from real life’s miseries...so I’m channeling my frustration at the onslaught of trust law, inheritance legalities, an uncommunicative and sanctimonious trustee/brother-in-law, and dubious lawyers flooding my consciousness into something productive: writing about heirs and inheritance in roleplaying games. Rules for such things have been little more than a footnote in the earliest games, strange given their emphasis on killing monsters, taking their loot, and amassing incredible fortunes of coin, material, and magic. As games evolved from that model into ones with greater emphasis on characters such concerns seem to have evaporated or become naturally absorbed into more narrative or cinematic game elements. Rather than adhere to rigid rules (or even more liberal “rulings”) about the state of a character’s possessions at their death, such bequests offer rich opportunities to add depth to surviving characters and expand the scope of future adventures with related story elements.

Various early editions of the Dungeons & Dragons game discuss heirs and inheritance, generally in the context of character death. Years ago James Malizewski at Grognardia penned a brief but insightful missive on the subject in relation to the inevitability of character death well worth reading. Perhaps the longest “official” ruling on inheritance comes in Moldvay’s Basic Dungeons & Dragons rulebook, my starting point years ago on my journey into fantasy roleplaying games (and hence I give it more authority than others might). It naturally appears at the end of the chapter on “characters” (page B13) opposite the page filled with “Cost of Weapons and Equipment” tables:


If the DM wishes, a player may name an heir to inherit his or her worldly possessions upon the death of the character. The local authorities will, of course, take 10% in taxes, before giving the inheritance to the heir. This heir must always be a newly rolled-up first level character. This “inheritance” should only occur once per player.

This approach seems clinical and quite suitable for a style of play where character death was often expected, especially at low levels. Many old-school fantasy roleplaying games, with their emphasis on killing monsters and taking their stuff, normalized the survival-based practicality of fellow party members looting a dead character’s body of useful or valuable goods before leaving it to rot on the cold dungeon floor, with the unfortunate player left to simply roll up a new character to cram into the grinder. Some OSR games still revel in this kind of brutal character origin, a survival-of-the-fittest (or rather luckiest) that speaks to D&D’s origins reflecting American capitalist ideology. I’m not saying there isn’t a place in the hobby for that style of play, or that it’s inherently wrong. But players can use a dead character’s bequests to add depth to surviving characters, the game setting, and the overall roleplaying experience.

This requires some work developing character background for the immediate person as well as their extensions into the game setting. Many gamers enjoy creating such elaborate backstories for their characters. Why not incorporate some story elements tied to a character’s future death? Engaging in such dangerous pursuits as they have, characters may naturally have thoughts on what happens to their goods and mortal remains when they perish. They might leave formal or informal requests about the disposition of their possessions and bodies upon their demise: a “last will and testament” written and left with a trusted friend, official, or religious institution, or even a simple heart-to-heart with a fellow adventurer about their wishes. Final words uttered before death might also oblige comrades to carry out their intentions for their immediate possessions, larger estate, and even their remains and unfinished business.

Do the surviving members of the party honor these requests? Their answer has repercussions on the course of their future adventures.

If they ignore a bequest – as many hack-and-slash dungeon-crawlers do as they loot the body – they might face recriminations from the deceased’s family, friends, affiliated institutions, and anyone who feels entitled to the estate for a variety of reasons. Even enemies who lost their own treasures to the character in the past. Do local authorities suspect the survivors of causing the death for their own profit? All these might lead to further adventures, adversaries, and character development centered on a dishonored bequest. And don’t forget about the player whose character died who might roll up that new, first-level character; are they related, do they receive a share of the wealth, are they denied it, and how do they go about seeking justice among comrades who are supposed to be adventuring companions?

Honoring a bequest comes with its own ramifications based on specific circumstances. A character’s background might inspire – with the player’s permission – connections related to a bequest: a relative who feels they’re due a share based on some past promise; an institution claiming an oath was made for a generous donation; previously unknown parties with concealed motives coming forward to claim (rightfully or otherwise) a share of the wealth; even the inevitable “local authorities” who claim the infamous “10%” (or more) of a dead character’s wealth as their own. Perhaps the party must honor requests to deliver cherished items or a portion of wealth to relatives, friends, or institutions in distant locations with their own challenges. Are they saddled with a curse associated with the deceased or one of their possessions? Maybe they must discharge a final service as promised to the deceased: fulfilling a quest or oath; defending a relative or friend; or even exacting revenge on a lifelong enemy, those who killed them, or someone who cheated them out of inheriting some other family heirloom. Even the disposition of the body might provide adventuring opportunities if the characters were charged with interring it in a specific location, preparing it according to particular rituals, or otherwise treating the body as one last item requiring special care.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy demonstrates the creative implications of a bequest. Although Bilbo Baggins does not outright die at the beginning, he bequeaths several items to his relation, Frodo, among them Sauron’s Ring of Power (though only Gandalf suspects its true nature at the time). This simple inheritance propels Frodo and his friends on an epic, dangerous quest. In Rivendell Bilbo later bequeaths to Frodo two other items he acquired in The Hobbit: the mithril mail shirt and Sting, which later play important roles in aiding Frodo in his quest.

In some games rules override character-driven story elements; in this case such preferences might trivialize character death especially when the actions of one’s peers – those looting the deceased’s body for gear and coin – are influenced by gameplay emphasizing surviving combat encounters and gaining experience through gold acquisition. The materialistic repercussions of character death can drive future adventures. The moral implications of character death can also motivate characters and provide direction and depth to their development. Rather than a mere rules formality upon the death of a character – taking their stuff, paying a 10% fee to the local authorities, and having the unfortunate player rolling up another character – the results of such a death could evolve into more meaningful story elements, if not a story arc unto itself.

Let parents bequeath to their children not riches, but the spirit of reverence.”


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