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Sunday, September 18, 2016

Death, Dying , and Characters in RPGs

This post was inspired by  two  sources. 
Primarily my friend Neal putting my brain to work about a game I wrote which he has played with  other people that I will likely never meet. So naturally he asks a lot of good interesting and useful questions about the game.
Secondly This Post from the Pits Perilous blog served to further my thinking.

I'm going to write a bit about  character death and just some of my thoughts on the subject. I will directly relate some of those thoughts back to a game I wrote. Other points will be more general. I'm afraid this  post will likely be a meandering mess, please forgive me.

I have a game, It's called Amazing Adventures and Incredible Exploits. Check out the labels on this post to read more about it. The facts are the game started as a joke among the people I game with and myself, and it has grown a bit like an unpredictable weed.

The  premise being  that for every successful character in D&D,  Swords and Wizardry, dungeon world, or whatever your game of choice is  there are many more wanna-be adventurers out there. Some of these folks shouldn't be pushing their luck in cavernous ruins and  ruinous caves. Some folks are better off staying on the  farm. Those second class adventurers are who you get to pay in AAIE.
With that premise in mind, every character is rolled up completely randomly so some  characters end up truly ill equipped for their adventures, the game is deadly.

How deadly?

  • Darwin the dwarf got offed in one shot. I would argue that charging at the big bad monster was not the best tactic, but he was a warrior and a dwarf. Now he's dead. 
  • Unchecked doors with traps have  killed at least one NPC and one character that I can think of.
  • Recently two died while hiding under a rock outcropping. Roasted via lightning bolt.
  • Vud the Minotaur met his end after a round of combat, only to be upcycled as beef rations.
Some of the characters mentioned above were simply the victims of the random character generation. If you end up with 5 health, wicker armor, and wielding a dead chicken things are going to be difficult. I have seen players run such characters then wisely retire them after the first game. Those characters having gotten one taste of adventure realized, "This shit is dangerous!"

On the  other side of the  coin there have been the occasional, "Fletch the Minotaur warrior" type. Fletch is the  poster child for the random character generation dropping a gem.

To understand Fletch, please read the  following italicized bits in the voice of "Happy" Draymond Green.
"Minotaur? yup."
"Strong as can be, Yeah"
"warrior? Yup"
"Tons of health and armor? All-right"
"Weapons? Yop"
"combat? We run dis."

So anyway ... Fletch was a randomly  generated beast. Just the right mix of  attributes, abilities and equipment. I  mean  the  player was describing Fletch throwing axes into the backs of enemies then punching through them to retrieve the weapon. In context it made perfect sense. I don't think I could have killed Fletch with the monsters I rolled up for that adventure if I tried too. Fletch was an adventurer. He could make it to the big time. ***

When the game got into the wild (as in Neal ran it for strangers) the initial report was, "The  game is too deadly. Armor classes are too low and the monsters potentially* do too much damage." I am safe to assume no one  rolled up a "Fletch."

Which leads me to  the post from "Pits Perilous" and a quote from Neal.
"Nobody likes it when their character gets killed during the first combat."

While I can go back to the second paragraph of this post and outline again how such a sudden, violent death fits the game's initial design concept. That same sudden death breaks all the rules of "fun." It especially breaks the rules of fun when the  group playing the game were not there for the ideas genesis, and are not steeped in the inside humor that the game came from**.

Feedback being the golden liquor that we all run on, I feel I should honor it and address any issues brought up. I have adjusted a few things, such as scaling the monster damage, and more clearly illustrating the amount of freedom the GM has to modify the random enemies. 


All this is to say popular opinion is correct. It's NO fun to die early and often in an RPG.

The  base concept of  AAIE is that the failures of past characters will make it that much sweeter when a great character falls into your lap. A bit like the DCC funnel. The survivors of the attrition will endear themselves to the players.  If  it's a lucky character build like Fletch, or just some plucky human shlub who manages to survive a few games. The survivors should in theory grow on the players. Unfortunately it has not always worked out that way.  My game doesn't have the advantage of DCC's funnel in that players don't run a group of  under equipped victims. Each player runs one character and so it's almost impossible to see that character as just fodder. The length of character generation **** makes it sting a bit when the character dies. The random characters mean that every character is not a player's own special snowflake. After a few fast deaths it could become a game of, "I'll play characters until I get a good one." Which is not how the game was intended.The intention was players creating their random characters and trying to make the best of what they get. Again, bad design means it doesn't always work out that way.

Those are weaknesses in  my own game design.

Now for a blind defense of death.
Old school D&D has a great deal of death. I remember rolling up a level one magic user "Simlin" in Advanced dungeons and dragons. Simlin having a 9 AC and 4 hit points.  I knew before the ink was dry that I would have a hard time playing that sort of character simply because I'm not careful enough. I played the character and he eventually did die at the hands (or rather the  pole ax) of a gnoll. I was not careful (I got too close), the party did not scout well enough, and the initiative went the other way. He died. The character however lived on, because we joked about that sorry bastard for quite a while afterwards. Our next magic user was told in serious tones, "be careful.. or you'll get Simlin'd." The character became part of  the game in death when he honestly had zero impact while alive.
At low levels in old D&D (pre 3rd ed) there is no chance of rolling up a fletch, and not enough options as a player to  use your knowledge of the game system to make your character more viable. IN old D&D all first level characters are squishy. Simlin was not a bad character, he was just a low level character, played badly. This is where the  idea of player skill starts to seep into our discussion of death in RPG's. I think Player skill is a subject better left at the least to another post. More wisely it is a subject that should be left to writers smarter than I am. It serves my purpose to say that I believe player skill  is a real thing in RPG's and a bit of skill can help even weak characters avoid death. That's unless we're playing blood bowl, in which case it's the Ef'n dice... every damn time.....

Dramatic death is important to  RPG's but also limiting. If a player has played a character for a few years and meticulously leveled them up to a heroic level. That character's death if it happens at all should be a story changing plot defining moment. It should be important to the  overall narrative. It shouldn't be, "Well Frank's dead, take his stuff.. dibs on the mace. Anyone know where can we find another 15th level  priest to fill his  sandals?"

In just our last game I had a player trip a trap with an eighth level character who has been a big part of the  campaign's current story arc. The trap which may not have been initially deadly, hurt that character enough that encounters latter in on the game were much more dangerous. Imagine for a second if I had rolled max damage on that trap and  killed him out-right?
The story arc he was in would have been over in a non climatic fashion, that game sessions direction blunted.  In fact the last blog post I wrote about the majestic end of Wilhelm would have never happened. His burnt corpse would have been laying in some god-forsaken underground tunnel below the city of Torin. Yet in many classic RPGs and their clones the possibility of an ignominious death is always there, even at higher levels.
What does a GM do? Protect the character make sure he at least makes it to the  final battle, then let the dice fall where they may? Nerf the opposition to the point where they are no longer opposition but only window dressing?  None of that feels right.

Most GM's, myself included skin crawl at the idea of  fudging rolls to save characters. One of the defining aspects of paper and pencil RPGs is the need for players and GM's alike to roll with the punches when it comes to random results. The possibility of emergent situations and emergent play are what set live RPG's apart form just about everything else. Character death is part of that emergent game-play. And while I agree with  both  the players from Neal's AAIE game and the Pits Perilous blog, that it's no fun to get wiped out in the first combat of a game. I also think that sudden death and high mortality at low levels has been part of RPGs from the very beginning and likely will always be an issue with games designed with an old school aesthetic.

Thanks for reading that meandering pile of shit I passed off as a post.
-Mark

* The monsters are rolled up randomly as well, once the stats and name are generated how it all comes together is left wholly to the  GM.
** AAIE was never initially meant to be played beyond our group, but it caught on and we played it quite a bit. Neal decided to play it with some other folks and  It's a great example of "designing with blinders on." The game hits the right notes for our group as it was intended to.  Outside of that group rough edges will start to show and  bad design decisions will fall apart. There is a long story about AAIE and ho it effected the  other thing I was  trying to put together, but I will save that for a rainy day.
*** the big time being defined as being an adventurer in a real RPG. Like  D&D or any of the other thousands of published fantasy RPG's out there. Someday I will write AAIE to 5th ed conversion rules, but that will be a lot of fiddly  work not yet worth doing.
**** Neal solved much of this problem by creating a "character generating program" which is an ongoing project. I still think generating the characters at the beginning of the game round robin style is a fun and important part of the game. But if  Shmoe the human fighter dies mid game... Neal's generator is 100% the best way to get back in the game.