Monday, January 08, 2018

Murphy Bal is Dead. Again.

So last week on the G+, I said: Maximum drama happens when there's more at stake than hit points and life-or-death. Especially in a game where bog-standard 5th level clerics have the ability to return the dead to life.

Zak replied: First sentence: asserted but not proved.

Second: If that cleric is always available and able to resurrect someone, you're playing a very different game than me,


Fair enough. I’m not going to get into too much detail on that second part here. Suffice it to say, my experiences with 5e have been either the party suffers a few momentary casualties quickly resurrected by the cleric, or the cleric goes down and then everybody else follows, leading to a TPK.

Granted, this might say more about the way I run D&D than anything else. A similar pattern emerged in my 2nd edition college game. Basically, a few characters would die, but the rest would do what was necessary to resurrect them (amass the treasure and necessary body-parts depending on what level of bring-back-the-dead spell they could cast), or we’d get a TPK (happened thrice that I can recall, and one of those was due to the party splitting up and wandering off into the dungeon in twos or ones).

Where a 5e cleric of 5th level can bring you back from the dead if they get to you within a minute, 2e clerics need to be 9th level (though the body can be one-day dead for every level of the cleric, so over a week at least). But the campaign was purposefully high-magic, with lots of high-level clerics and wizards running about. If you could scrape up enough cash, you could purchase resurrections from a temple in any reasonably sized town. You had to be on good terms with the priests and the deities involved, but that generally wasn’t a problem for our heroes.

Which was good, because death happened a lot. Most often to the elven trouble-shooter thief, Murphy Bal, who couldn’t resist big, shiny buttons. The poor dear got mauled when she tried to listen at a door that was a mimic, ambushed by a purple dragon, and disintegrated when mucking about in a lich’s lab.

And yet, this remains one of the best campaigns I’ve ever run because the players cared about the world their heroes lived in.

Ok, first, off, yes, the threat of death can be thrilling (though in this case, I think the threat of being mauled in various ways was as great as the threat of death). And we all know that a countdown raises tensions even if we’ve got no idea what’s being counted down, or what happens when we reach zero.

But there’s more to drama than just tension. Conflict, hope, empathy, emotional investment, and giving a damn about the consequences are what really matter here. These are the things that make that countdown of hit points really matter. Sure, it bites losing a character, but it’s even worse when you realize that character never got the chance to tell the elf sorceress he was crushing on how he felt about her, or when the character’s death means the destruction of an in-game institution, a location the players and PCs built their imaginary lives around.

Now I’m going to take this a step further: the best drama happens when you’re not rolling dice, when there’s nothing between the player and their character, when the numbers and the bonuses fade away and there’s just immersion. When the story grips you like your favorite tug-at-the-heart-strings anime, when getting the medicine to your beloved’s sick granny, or two PCs are vying for the same love interest, or the fate of kingdoms hangs on the paladin’s devotion to honesty, or the only way the wizard is going to get her hands on that spell she’s wanted for so long is at the cost of a friend’s soul.

That’s where the best drama comes from. But don’t take my word for it; here’s Jeff Rients in Broodmother Skyfortress:
…for our purposes here you will really need five or six good campaign features ripe for demolition. Do yourself a favor and pick the places that make you ache when you contemplate their destruction. That genuine pain will carry through at the table and help you communicate the pathos of the loss of the Last Faerie Circle or the Blue Boar Inn or whatever. Ideally, your players will grok that this place wasn’t built specifically to be knocked down; rather, Grim Fate has come to rest upon something even you, the Referee, thought might stand for the rest of time.

That’s the best drama, and no dice-rolling or character-sheet tallying required. Granted, you probably can’t pull this off on day one. You need to lull your players into caring, seduce them into an emotional investment, the same way your favorite novels lure you in with empathetic characters who are then tortured for 200+ pages for your sadomasochistic amusement.

Luckily for you DM’s, the players have already done the heavy lifting by creating characters they like and care about. All you have to do is tug on those hooks they’ve given you and raise the s

6 comments:

Ripper X said...

A lot of people think that they play this way, but when it comes down to it they don't. I often wonder how many of us are actually letting our players win without letting them know that we are letting them win?

Of course, the beauty of role-playing games is that you can totally lose the session but it doesn't stop the game.

trollsmyth said...

Ripper X: I imagine the players can tell if the DM is letting them win, even if they're trying to be sneaky about it. The first time I let PCs die, way back in my junior high days, it utterly transformed my games for the better.

JB said...

It has been a looooong time since I played a game with real drama (as opposed to the manufactured type found in many post-90s WoD games). But I remember it, and I don't think you're being inaccurate here.

trollsmyth said...

JB: Thank you. To riff off a completely different conversation I was having with Ripper X, it's terribly hard to do if you're not playing weekly. The differences between my weekly games and my mostly-every-other-week games is night-and-day.

Which sucks, because I think our skills as players and DMs are so much better as we get older and experience more media and find new techniques and perspectives to bring to our games, even as our more complicated and demanding lives reduce the amount of time we have to play.

Though, if I'm right, our old-folks-homes campaigns are gonna be truly epic! ;D

Ripper X said...

That is funny! But also rings true. I remember that there used to be a lot of folks who felt that their best games were behind them, which I couldn't agree with. It gets easier and easier to have those great games. We know what we want out of a session and we usually know the best way to accomplish that. There are some DM's who've been playing since the beginning, and their games are particularly interesting. No prep, they don't care who you are or if they'll never see you again, it all just seems so effortless. These folks are, in my opinion, the yardsticks.

DevDigs said...

It's a holdover habit from older editions and maybe this tool will help me let go of it.


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