Friday, March 13, 2009

Why I Wimped Out

There's been a lot of macho talk about death in D&D lately. Most of it I agree with. The occasional death of a PC, or even an entire party, gives the game a visceral edge that plot immunity simply can't match.

And yet, I've clearly wimped out with my Table of Death and Dismemberment. Well, mostly wimped out. There's a lot of save-or-die in Moldvay/Cook/Labyrinth Lord. Still, this table makes it a lot harder to kill a PC. So, if I agree that the threat of imminent death is good for the game, why have I watered it down?

Because, to be blunt, I find death boring and frequent death blunts its sting. Yeah, I know, rolling up Roger the Fighter II is something of a tradition in Old School D&D, but that doesn't mean I have to like it. When it gets to the point where you just don't name a character until he gets to 3rd level, and death is an annoyance rather than a serious issue in the game, the Trollsmyth is no longer a happy DM.

Besides, why would I want to kill a magic-user when I can chop off his hand? What's he gonna do now? Can't cast spells with just one hand, and nothing short of a wish will restore it. It's crunch time for the player. Take on some grand quest to get the hand back while enduring the handicap? Change classes? Or retire the character? That last might seem the most obvious, but just think of all the possibilities that offers the DM. The next time they're in town, the PCs might pass the poor crippled ex-magic-user begging for coins in the street. But that dude's still got a 17 Intelligence. You think he's going to stay down forever? Imagine how the PCs will react when their “old friend” returns, looking for a little payback a few levels later, backed up by the toughs of the Beggars' Guild...

10 comments:

Brian Murphy said...

Guilty as charged. I'm a player now but back when I was DM years ago I would fudge die rolls in the PCs' favor.

A harder moral dilemma for me than death (and let's face it, in D&D you have raise dead so death is rarely the end) are level-draining undead. Losing two levels to a vampire was extremely costly.

I think in order to DM with a hard edge you just have to be honest with the players up front. Set a policy of rolling in the open.

All that said, I do like your system of maiming PCs. I think it can provide some interesting situations and RP opportunities that death obviously cannot.

Christopher B said...

I don't blame you - I'm in a similar boat. I don't think I've ever been called a "killer DM." (Well, except for that one Call of Cthulhu game I ran for that new group... muhahaha) The fact is, most of the people with whom I've gamed are more story-driven types who like to flesh out characters. And as much as I like the idea of waves of PC's crashing themselves against the deadly rocks of my dungeon, I've just never had a group that would be interested in that sort of game.

My current set of house rules increases PC starting HP (to equal to the PC's CON plus a hit die), but anything over half a character's CON score is a "serious wound" - the kind that puts characters out of action, if only until they heal. (First game in which we used them, the PC's had to bail out of the dungeon after the third encounter because the party's elf had a broken rib from being struck with a goblin's sword.)

I don't have any hard and fast rules for what that "serious wound" means, but now I'm thinking I've found a use for your Death and Dismemberment Table...

Jeff Rients said...

Keep in mind that some of that macho talk is from a guy who always allows a saving throw to avoid death. That's saved many players' bacon in my current game.

Donny said...

Being a meatgrinder DM doesn't make you cool.

There is no such thing as "realism" in an imaginary world full of wizards and dragons.

It's REALLY easy to kill off a character and laugh because they did something stupid, when you are the sole arbitrator and keeper of ALL knowledge in the game.

Your players come to you to have fun, not be constantly reminded that they should second guess every. single. step.

That really doesnt sound like much fun. Now maiming? That works, as long as it isn't overdone. I seem to recall a revised second edition book called PLAYERS OPTION: Combat and tactics.

It had an alternate critical table that rewarded a hale player who took one on the dome with -d6 to CHA, INT, and WIS from the crushed skull.

I'd say that when the player wishes that the character would just die, you've gone too far.

As to the Wizard above...compelling, but I'd rather it happened to a BBEG, who dual classes rogue and subjugates the thieves guild, before unleashing plagued sewer rats upon the city!

Donny said...

and I completely left out the part where I say BRAVO! I agree :)

Instead I just came off as a holier than thou dick.

My apologies...carry on then.

BigFella said...

It's just like in military tactics. Killing a guy deprives the enemy of one man. Wounding a guy deprives them of at least 3.

Not that the party should be considered an enemy, but a wounded, maimed, diseased, petrified, polymorphed, shrunken, paralysed, cursed, confused, feebleminded or otherwise discombobulated PC is a lot more interesting challenge to the party than a boring ol' non-animated corpse.

Spike Page said...

I'm glad to hear somebody else say what I've always thought to be true. While I agree there's no gain in letting PCs bumble all over the place unchecked, there ARE things that can happen that are far worse (or at least more interesting) than death.

Permanent loss of limb or some special character ability not only makes for a fitting resolution to a potentially fatal screw-ups, but as you said it best, puts the PC on the spot to either make the best of the situation or simply be retired.

And for some reason, this all puts me in mind of the Swords & Wizardry Old-School Primer bit about remembering to next time, ask the one-armed man at the bar about the mysterious dungeon to the north.

trollsmyth said...

While I agree there's no gain in letting PCs bumble all over the place unchecked, there ARE things that can happen that are far worse (or at least more interesting) than death.

As I recall, there's a trap in the old Tomb of Horrors that deposits the PC back at the entrance to the dungeon stripped naked and with their sex reversed. At first, it looks like mere juvenile humiliation. But it goes further than that. Not only does the PC now need to traverse the wilderness back to town without any equipment, but they then need to convince whoever is holding their spare gear and money that they are who they claim to be. It shouldn't be a huge challenge since most magical divination should clear up any confusion, but it's another little wrinkle for the players to deal with. Heck, if your cultures are interesting enough, just trying to get around town as the opposite sex might pose all sorts of interesting opportunities for RP.

jamused said...

I don't think I'd ever strip a retired character of their PC status. Now, if the player decided that they wanted to seek revenge on their former party for abandoning them....

trollsmyth said...

I don't think I'd ever strip a retired character of their PC status.

There are three sorts of "retirement" in my campaigns. The first is an IC "I hang up my sword, buy a tavern with my loot, and settle down to start a family." If the campaign is still running, this character stays a PC with the option for coming out of retirement later.

The second is similar, except it happens with or after the official end of the campaign. If we return to that world with new characters, usually starting at 1st level, the retired character becomes an NPC who may make a cameo appearance.

The final sort, and the kind I'm talking about here, is, "I'm not going to play this character anymore." Abandoned characters become NPCs. In some cases, I can see where the player might have been in a funk and just wanted to try something different for a while (though this has never yet happened in one of my games). I'd give the character back to the player if that was the case. But usually, if a character is abandoned, everyone knows the player has no intention of picking them back up again.

Note that this is also very different from: "Lady Rukmini is too busy with affairs of state," or "Magus Archimedes is researching a new spell, so I'll play one of my henchmen for the next in-game month's worth of adventures." Switching between characters isn't retirement, even if one character doesn't get much, if any, play.