Saturday, October 16, 2010

Death is Boring

New Fish in an Old School asks, “To Kill or Not toKill?” and comes down on the traditional (and, I think, fairly common) compromise of not to kill much, with an emphasis on letting the dice fall where they will. (Frankly, I think that’s the actual Old School preference. Yes, the dungeon is designed to be deadly, but it’s also beatable. That’s often what Old Schoolers mean when they talk about putting “game” before “role playing.”)

That’s an attitude I have a lot of sympathy with, and it’s been my default mode for decades. Lately, however, I’ve been drifting away from it. You can see that in my Table of Death & Dismemberment; sure, there are broken bones and lopped-off limbs, but the most likely results are knock-outs.

Why is that? It’s not because death is inconvenient. I do not base my campaigns around any one character (PC or NPC), so simply killing or dying won’t derail things. Likewise, with the opportunity to hire henchmen, it’s fairly easy for the PCs to fill out the ranks of the party if there are holes in their team.

No, the real problem with death is that it’s, well, boring. You roll up a new character, the other players weave in a bit of grief and angst into their play, and you move on. And that just feels rather “meh” to me.

(Let me make an important distinction here, however; while death itself may be boring, the threat of death is not. Though this can highlight the problem even more, as the death of a character can feel horribly anticlimactic, after the threat of it has been ramping up.)

So, what other than death? Maiming, broken bones, and unconsciousness. If only one or two PCs are incapacitated this way, now the others need to figure out what to do with them. They certainly don’t want to abandon their comrades to capture or being eaten. Now the tension of the fight rises. The players of downed characters are still riveted to the game. Will the others be able to drag them away to safety? How much will those still standing risk to safeguard the fallen? This is a lot more thrilling than rolling up a new character.

This means, of course, that I have to be a bit more on top of things ahead of time. What does it mean when the bugbears capture the party? Do they have a history of ransoming captives? Do they keep slaves? Or do they have a relationship with some other race, deeper in the dungeon? Will the PCs be kept in cells until they are to be eaten or sacrificed to their dark god? And if that’s the case, what are the cells like? How or when are the PCs fed? How long will they be kept before they are sacrificed? What are the opportunities for escape?

It also means TPKs are far more likely. Defeat to unintelligent monsters probably means some, if not all, of the party gets eaten. (And though they were intelligent, that always makes me think of Bilbo and the dwarves, strung up by the spiders, kept poisoned and weak until it was time to feast.) Who gets eaten first? What happens to those “saved” for later?

Luckily, I love answering those questions, and usually I find examples in real-world animal behavior or the fantastic cultures I’ve created for my game. And heck, if I do get a TPK, the way my campaigns are usually put together, that means an adventure in the realms of the Afterlife.

Art by Charles-Gustave Housez and Edmund Blair Leighton.


Roger the GS said...

A book I highly recommend for any wargamer or roleplayer is Grossman's On Killing. This discussion reminded me of his observation that modern battlefield small arms are often designed to wound rather than kill outright (i.e., smaller caliber bullets), because a screaming wounded soldier eats up the attentions of the others and is a bigger hit to morale.

Your discussion of how to impart serious consequences to the players had me thinking along the same lines - an incapacitated long-term character is more of an impact on the players than a dead one.

faustusnotes said...

I agree with you but I still think that this post - like most on this topic - buys into a weird behaviouralist model of gaming, in which it's genuinely assumed that if players don't have a fear of death they won't "try" or something.

putting aside the fact that "try" is a meaningless concept in gaming, this behaviouralist approach has two huge flaws from my perspective:

a) regardless of whether or not the GM kills or doesn't kill, the model here presented presents the GM as a disciplinary force, whose job is to condition the players to his world. It's a bully's model of a GM. (I don't mean by this that I think you're a bully; but the model that you're drawing on imagines the GM as boss/bully/disciplinarian).

b) It ignores the importance of group dynamics in gaming. If I tell my players "you won't die in this campaign" they may still struggle as if they were at risk of death: in fact I have run a campaign on this basis and it worked. The idea that players won't adopt the framework the GM has set unless he or she punishes them for deviating from it is common and ... ugly. It's derived from a very teenage notion of how people work in social circumstances.

I don't accuse you particularly of this but I think the underlying model for death in gaming is based on it, and accepted uncritically too often. The GM doesn't have to use punishment to enforce "good" beahviour, and death is not special if you use a little bit of creativity to define winning and losing.

Anonymous said...

The threat of death doesn't work unless you are willing to let PCs die, though. If they know you won't pull that trigger, and they will always just wind up captured or whatever, that is incredibly boring also.

Personally, I think deaths are fun/funny, and making new characters is exciting, and one of the best parts of the game, but to each his own and all that.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and death is not a DM punishment! Death is a natural result of the PCs getting in over their heads. In fact, it's the DM's job to make sure death is only ever applied fairly as a result of actions the PC chose to do, not as a "teenage" punishment!

VBWyrde said...

Interesting post. I think that there's something missing, though. If I play the "Old School" way of letting the dice decide, then I'm not being a bully if the PCs die. I'm not, as GM, "killing them". They're dying because they took one too many risks and the dice came up bad. Since in my game we calculate what the odds of success are before the rolls, and roll everything above board on the table (I don't use a GM screen), then when the dice go against the players, and their Life Points ebb away, and they die... it's not ME the GM doing it. To paint the GM, at least the way we play, as "the PC killer" is incorrect. We run an old school ship here, and we go with the dice, and if the dice say "You're dead, bub", then you're dead. Roll a new one, and move on. Or, as recently happened, campaign yourself out of the underworld, and then move on. :)

Oddysey said...

One of the things I like about the table of Death & Dismemberment is that it keeps the actual odds of death fairly low, while keeping the possibility in the front of everyone's minds when the dice hit the table. When you start rolling those d6s you know that could be the last shot for that character.

One important note is that the kind of low-death, high-damage scenario Trollsmyth is talking about really only works with a certain kind of play style. It works for me and the solo game because I get weirdly emotionally invested in NPCs. It's much more effective to play off that investment by putting them under threats of various kinds than to buy it all out at once, as it were, with death. Inside that context it works great, but it only works because I don't consider the main difference between capture and death to be that one is easier to recover from. The particular setting that Trollsmyth is using right now helps a lot, too -- generally speaking, if you get captured by critters in one of his games, bad, difficult-to-undo things are about to happen.

And folks, you really don't need to justify your playing style to faustusnotes. Just for the record.

Greg said...

Brian, I think I may have an interesting solution on this. check out my Errant blog

trollsmyth said...

Roger: I haven't read the book, (another to add to the stack!) but I'm familiar with idea, and yeah, I'm riffing off a similar theme.

Oddysey: I think it would be effective with groups who were not quite as invested in the NPCs as you tend to be, so long as they are invested in their own characters and their relationships with the real people around the table. (Though I have had fun with groups who were like, "Dude, I'm so looting your corpse and leaving you to die!" and yeah, not so much with them. ;p )

You've maybe had a bit more experience with this sort of thing, however, having used it with a wider variety of groups. How have you found the table to work generally?

Greg: Neat stuff! A few observations:

1 - I've found it very useful to have the ability to KO PCs and henchmen. But, as Oddysey points out, that's largely because of how my campaign is structured.

2 - Be very careful with effects that seriously handicap a PC and take a long time to heal. It hasn't been much of an issue in my campaign, but Oddysey has had folks roll broken bones in her games frequently and while being effectively sidelined for 2d4+9 weeks is realistic, it can be a real pain unless the players can afford lots of down-time for their PCs, or are willing to play a stable of PCs, giving them lots of back-up options.

That's not an issue if healing magic that can reverse stat loss is fairly common in Errant games, but something to keep in mind.

Oddysey said...

I don't think I've ever had someone get knocked out/captured from using the table. Just those dang broken bones, and the occasional "stunned for one round" result. One issue with that table is that it's hard to really evaluate outside of long-term play. Plus, most of the people I've run dungeons for lately have been more of the "dude, I'm so looting your corpse" variety -- though they were upset and annoyed when the NPC tagging along with them got injured, so that was something.

faustusnotes said...

anonymous and vbwyrde, when you let people die in your campaign do you stop the players from participating? Because there's no risk if they roll up another character, and there's also no realism at all, especially if it's happening often, because you have constant new adventurers appearing just when they're needed in a dungeon, which is just weird.

I think Trollsmyth is trying to make this point, that death is boring after a few deaths, and loses its threat (or conditioning properties) after a few new PCs come along.

anonymous, your comment is a classic example of behaviouralism. Don't you have a bit more faith in your players than "if I don't kill them occasionally, they won't pretend the game is dangerous"?

Robert Fisher said...

I think it always struck me as odd that in D&D—and many other RPGs—that the only way to lose a fight was to run out of hp—which resulted in death or unconsciousness, depending on the group/rules—or run away.

Oh, you had the subdual rules too, but I had a completely separate uneasiness about those.

So, I started paying a lot of attention to how fights ended in both fiction and life. Most often it seemed that if there wasn’t a surrender or retreat, the loser was neither unconscious or dead. Just disabled.

That was the motivation for my own death & dismemberment table. A certain nod towards “realism”, I suppose, though not a particularly strong one. It had nothing to do with being harder or easier on the players.

(I don’t find any need to remove or reduce death from a game that came with it. I don’t, however, care for the kind of “critical hit” rules that raise the importance of the dice vs. the players’ choices as far as the chance of death goes.)

Oddly enough, it has seldom come into play so far. And I seriously question rather the one broken arm that resulted was really better for that particular campaign than a simple “dead” would have been. It felt more inconvenient rather than more interesting.

JB said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
JB said...

Mmm...I find death in RPGs (the dealing of it) to be entertaining. But maybe I'm just a sadistic bastard.

However, I CAN think of situations when letting folks live can be just as boring as killing 'em off. I'm really not trying to be contrarian, or anything but the way I look at it is this: part of heroism is suffering. Killing off NPCs or PCs is a method of inflicting suffering...especially in large groups...which does not result in the same de-protagonism as, say, maiming a character or capturing them and stripping them of their goodies.

For a large party, PCs themselves are just another "resource" (from the macro-perspective). And if the PC is someone the players CARE about, if it's someone IMPORTANT, the players will struggle and strive to bring the character back to life. And that's a part of the game as well.

trollsmyth said...

JB: True, and I've not removed death from the game, just added other options.

I'm not sure I'd call being stripped of your goodies as "de-protagonism." After all, such things happen to protagonists all the time. But it can be worse than death for some players, so you have to know your group.

Finally, most of my gaming is in small groups of 5 or less, so I will have to admit to a certain bias towards more intimate gaming.

Robert Fisher said...

I think this “killing them” thing is something of a strawman. Yeah, sometimes we talk about character death as if the DM had intentionally set out to kill the PCs, but it is (generally) just talk. Most of us don’t do that except maybe for the odd “tournament style” one-off. Rather, as has been said, we don’t prevent death when that’s the natural outcome of the character’s actions.

To me, this issue is important because I’ve had DMs that extend my characters script-immunity, and I don’t like it. It feels like cheating when the DM bends the rules to save my character. No matter how much I enjoyed that character, it ruins it for me once I feel like that has happened. Whether it was a boring death or not doesn’t matter. It means less fun for me afterwards. But...that really only pertains ad hoc rules, I suppose. Things like the death & dismemberment table—obviously—don’t bother me.

(When a DM leaves PC death up to the player, I can live with that.)

Anyway, I know just about every gamer I’ve met has at least one story about one of their characters dying that they love to tell. So, while I agree that their are fates worse than death, I can’t agree that death is always boring.