Monday, 7 November 2016
The Personification of Death
I saw Meet Joe Black last night. This is what happens when you stay at home with some beers and a Chinese and cycle back through everything you've Sky-plussed over the last three years. At some point, either the missus or I had apparently recorded Meet Joe Black to watch it at a later date.
It's a curate's egg of a film. There were elements of it that were stunningly well done: the scene in which Death makes his first physical appearance was particularly good - spooky but very understated. It was also very well-written and well-acted in the main; I felt like it was a bit of a throw-back to an era in which screenwriters actually wrote good scripts for grownups and actors weren't just there to emote in front of green screens.
It's also quite refreshing to see a film-maker have a decent stab at a concept (Death comes to visit and falls in love) which seems on its face to be unflilmable.
And yet Brad Pitt, an actor who I despise, delivers a performance which is a deep, black pit of ill-judgement that comes very close to pulling the entire film into disaster, like somebody constantly tugging at a tablecloth on a table covered in very expensive crockery, dragging it all closer and closer to the edge. You can almost see Anthony Hopkins suppressing the urge to slap him in some scenes. (Pitt almost pulled a similar trick in 12 Years A Slave but was thankfully restricted to just one scene in that.) The scenes which involve him speaking in a Jamaican patois, or is it an Irish lilt? are snigger-inducingly terrible. Genuinely some of the worst acting ever committed to celluloid. And his personification of Death, it has to be said, doesn't quite make sense: would Death really have never heard the expression "Death and taxes"? Would Death really not know what a doctor does at a hospital? Would Death really not know how to hold a conversation?
In any event, though, it got me thinking about the personification of Death. It's a common motif in legends around the world and also in fairy tales and fables, but not one that I've ever seen appear in an RPG (unless you want to count Wraith: The Oblivion, or my own [WARNING: PLUG ALERT] "Black Dream of the Dying" in Issue #1 of The Peridot, available from all good online RPG PDF stores).
What would it mean to D&D-ize Death? You couldn't simply have Death appearing at random to take people away. (I suppose you could, but it would be a bit of a 'fuck you' to the players.) Nor could you have him appearing as a monster who can be fought, because that's ridiculous.
Death probably works best as a source of plot threads: a figure who appears from time to time when a PC dies and offers a bargain - to allow the PC to live in return for fulfilling some sort of geas. But I also wonder if there might be some mileage in using Death (sparingly) as an early warning system if the players are going to do something, or go somewhere, where there is a very high risk of death through no fault of their own.
Let me make clear: I am a big fan of consequences, and PC death. I don't believe in fudging or letting people off the hook. But there are always (rare) circumstances in a genuine sandbox or dungeon where PCs face near-certain death by sheer fluke or by blundering into a situation where death is extremely likely because you, the DM, have accidentally constructed it to be so. Could the figure of Death be played as a joker card in those circumstances? A way for the DM to admit to himself that, oops, what I just did, or what I planned, is actually genuinely not fair and the players need a warning? A dark figure in a cloak with a scythe glimpsed in the distance or disappearing round a corner, to signal obliquely to the players (if they are quick on the uptake) that what they are about to do might have dire consequences?