I had a conversation with one of my players a few weeks ago about “PC glow”. The conversation came about because I am getting ready to run a low pc glow game. I realized in talking to him that not everyone has the same definition of pc glow (shocking).
So, what do I mean when I say “PC glow”? There is this phenomenon, especially in tabletop games that the PCs are invincible. Laws don’t apply to PCs. They can break into government buildings, steal national treasures, or kill people at random, and the consequences will never catch up with them. They can do whatever stupid, dangerous shit they want, and they will somehow pull through. PCs can jump off buildings, or challenge people well beyond their skill to duels, and at the end of the day, they’ll still walk away none the worse for wear. Since the PCs are, well, PCs, the friendly NPCs around them lack the power to stop the PCs from doing stupid shit, and the rest of the NPCs don’t have the ability to cause lasting damage anyway.
There are some good arguments for PC glow. The first is a good story. We see it in movies, TV and books, and of course it is reflected in our role playing. No one wants to play the civilian that runs away screaming through the streets of New York when the aliens invade. Everyone wants to play the Avengers. The people who are unique; the ones with the power to affect real change on the world around them. And if you have such heroes, you must have appropriate villains. And suddenly you have a story of epic proportions on your hands. And how could your heroes not experience daring escapes and immunity from mundane laws that don’t understand what must be done to keep humanity safe?
The second argument I lay before you is player investment. Dead characters are a really quick way to alienate players from a campaign. As my friend pointed out, those players who have to create new characters to continue the story lose however many months of integration with the plot and the rest of the party. They have to start over. This breaks the immersion spell, sometimes forces ret-cons for continuity, can be traumatic for the player who has lost their character, and at least jarring for the other players. Games with high risk of PC death can discourage complex, compelling PCs, because the player risks losing them.
The third really good argument I see is character depth and integration. As I just alluded to, characters who start the campaign are often way better integrated and more interesting than ones made later on and patched in. This is partly because before the campaign starts, the world is more malleable, and able to incorporate new ideas, factions, and NPCs that are required to integrate a character. Players and GM work together to write the backstory of the world. Once the campaign starts, embedding a new character can require substantial ret-con, or accepting that the character will be a disconnected new face. A “fresh off the bus” kind of character. Games with high PC death can find that plots die with the characters, huge sweeps of the world are suddenly irrelevant, and the parts that are suddenly relevant are underdeveloped.
Another argument for PC glow relates to the question “why this group?” One of the most important questions to answer early in a campaign is why do these particular people matter. What makes them special? Why are the bad guys hunting them? Why are they the only ones that can free the village/defeat the dragon/save the world/etc? It is easy to answer these questions as “because plot happens to PCs.” The PCs are just in the right place at the right time. And it’s slightly less forced and cliche than they are “the chosen ones.” Rather than calling this an aspect of PC glow though, I prefer to apply another term to the phenomenon: “plot magnet” and herein lies the difference in how I define PC Glow.
I believe that PCs can be plot magnets without being demigods that laugh at the concept of consequence. Bolder still, I believe that games with dim PC glow can still be low PC death. Properly advertised to players up front, and with sufficient guidance from the GM during character development can yield a party that is cautious and careful, but still deeply rich and rewarding to play. Characters that know better than to go in guns blazing, or understand that they will have to flee the country after the bank heist can be equally compelling to the untouchable black mage who walks through time square throwing fireballs around casually.
Don’t get me wrong, playing patently ridiculous characters who scoff at the rules mortals must obey can be fun. The flaunting of PC glow for the purpose of a good story is one of the great joys of gaming, but this novelty is 1) a subject for another post, and 2) too much of it bores me. Sometimes I want to play a darker, grittier, more dangerous world, where half the game is spent running for your lives -sometimes through no fault of your own.