Of course, death poses all sorts of problems in game design anyway -- what are the penalties, what are the lingering effects, is it a major inconvenience or a small hiccup, et cetera. But it poses a unique problem for roleplaying, because as it stands, you don't stay dead for long no matter what. So how do you deal with the implications of a world where death is less of a great beyond and, at most, a lost potential character title?
We're going to start off by ignoring the fact that logically speaking, most characters should die several dozen times before the tutorial is over. Yes, really, getting hit in the face by a sword should be completely lethal, not to mention being hit by a lightning bolt or set on fire. But even if we leave all that aside, there's the indisputable fact that your character has, in all likelihood, fallen over dead at least once or twice.
In some games, this is fairly easy to explain under a given set of circumstances. Star Trek Online, for instance, gives you the possibility that your ground team has been saved at the last second by an emergency medical transporter beam. Of course, when you get blown to bits in space and then respawn a couple moments later... yeah, it's still pretty hard to justify the whole dying without actually being dead schtick.
This might seem like a little thing, but a moment's thought will raise a lot of questions about what happens when someone dies outside of combat. What if you're dying of old age? Disease? Does the eternal shield of non-death apply to you only if you're fighting someone? If so, why don't the sick just wave a sword ineffectually for a minute and then get a healthy respawn in a moment or so? You can handwave it and say that old age doesn't really count, that you still age normally, but what magically makes violent death different than any other form of death?
Some games do genuinely try to address it. Final Fantasy XIV tries to make the aetheryte the magical MacGuffin for why you aren't shuffled off to join the choir invisible, but aside from the lingering questions of sickness, there's the obvious question of why anyone would ever die if you just have to attune to the aetheryte first. (Considering a death is a big plot point of the Ul'dah story quests, this is an important question.) And none of the explanations address things like leaving your character on the ground dead for a little while.
There are three major options here, and personally I usually go for the first one: ignore it. There are going to be certain elements of the game world that don't make sense from an immersion standpoint, and unfortunately this just happens to be one of them. It's along the same lines as asking why Aeris can come back from every injury in the game except a stab wound to her midsection -- the best route for your sanity is accepting gameplay and story segregation for these particular idiosyncrasies. Of course, this proves problematic when what you really want to say is that you died six times during some stupid quest or another, but you're pretending your character didn't really die. It's not a good solution.
Your second choice is to come up with an explanation that involves a convincing reason for your character to not really be dead when his health hits zero. This usually involves some mixture of unconsciousness and near-death states, coupled with an explanation for why no one shoves a sword through his head at that point and why he doesn't carry lasting injuries. If it wasn't obvious so far, trying to come up with an explanation that fits all of these parameters is always some shade of ridiculous, and it carries the equally-large problem of forcing everyone else to accept your explanation for why no one stays dead. This is also not a good solution.
Last but not least, there's the Casey & Andy approach, which involves treating the whole thing as the most natural arrangement in the world. You die and come back from death over and over. Everyone else does, after all. Of course, this doesn't explain why some people don't die and come back, sometimes including people who have died and come back, but if you're going for this level of grotesque hand-waving you probably aren't too worried about the details. It's still hell on any level of verisimilitude, and it's not a particularly good solution.
You're probably noticing a theme here: none of these solutions are actually good. That's a good thing, in its own way, since it means that any way you choose to deal with the problem will be equally bad. It's also a bad thing, since it means your way of dealing with an inevitable problem in a game boils down to which bad option sounds least obnoxious. With no assurance that anyone else will be on-board with your opinion about that. It's an implausibility that you have to work around, since no real justification exists aside from the fact that permanent death for a character is a really bad idea.
Of course, you can sidestep all of this by never dying. But that's a whole other can of worms.
If you've come up with a particularly clever way of handling the problem, please, share it in the comments, or wing it along to email@example.com. Next week it's time to go into a rant once again, although I have to be honest and say that as I pen this column I'm not feeling particularly ranty about roleplaying. Perhaps someone could fix that with a comment or two.
Every Friday, Eliot Lefebvre fills a column up with excellent advice on investing money, writing award-winning novels, and being elected to public office. Then he removes all of that, and you're left with Storyboard, which focuses on roleplaying in MMOs. It won't help you get elected, but it will help you pretend you did.