Sunday, November 13, 2011

Character Death

I've been branching out and trying some new RPG podcasts. I ran into one that seems wildly popular "Fear the Boot".

The first episode I listened to was entitled Character Death. First off, before I start blog trashing these guys, I thought this podcast was totally awesome. The hosts are completely animated and very fun to listen to. Another reason why they were so interesting to me was that I found myself disagreeing with them quite often throughout the show. I find it very stimulating to listen to points of view that run counter to mine own (he he he, I just said mine own).

Anyway, from the first part of the argument they seem to espouse the idea that:

1. They are ok with character death at the "climax" of the campaign, but don't want to be killed by a poison needle trap on a random chest that doesn't seem to be tied to the "plot" of the game. They later also discuss how they wouldn't want to be killed in a D&D game on a "random" encounter that seems to have nothing to do with the plot.

2. They think that the GM should let the players know his philosophy about killing PC's upfront at the beginning of the campaign.

3. PC's could have failure consequences that are different from death. They bring up Spirit of the Century and other games of the sort which can have negative character altering mechanisms that allow the GM to punish failure without resorting to death.

There were definitely other ideas that were brought up throughout the show, but I'm forgetting them right now (since I listened to the show yesterday) and I remember most of them being related to the above points.

Let me tackle the first point first. I'm ok with character death in just about any dangerous situation of the game. I would be mad if the GM just told me my character was dead without any explanation, but otherwise, in most games that I play - my characters are adventuring in some pretty dangerous and sometimes horrific places. If there was no chance of PC death (or at least the "perceived chance" of PC death) then it would make the game boring to me. I like to at least give my players the "perceived chance" of real death to give them that same feeling. I can do this with a whole host of very simple GM tools.

The other thing that bothered me in this podcast was the idea of the "random encounter" being inconsequential. If it truly has no point in your game, take it out! I believe that every minute of gaming at my table should be there for a good reason. I don't create the entire plot of every game and dictate "here is the big bad boss" and here is the "sub boss #1" and "sub boss #2" etc... Things may fall into a similar rhythm to that due to the inclusion of "move tropes" into my game, but I allow my players to have almost as much narrative control as I have... therefore, every encounter, every trap, and every monster I throw their way is important. I typically do have a loose plot in my head or a mystery story laid out in very general terms (maybe in a flow diagram) but my PC"s could choose to leave it all behind and set sail on a boat to foreign island in search of treasure - at that time I will throw out the original concept that I had and start trying to figure out what they are going to find on the island. Sandbox loving GM's find themselves running their games like improv musicians - it is difficult but highly rewarding!

Point 2 - should the GM let the PC's know his philosophy on PC death up front. I think this is pointless - it completely demystifies your game, makes it completely predictable and boring. Don't do this, keep it vague. If your PC's ask you about your views on PC death answer them Yoda style - "I'm not out to kill you, but there is always a chance your character could die depending on the circumstances"... something like that... don't say, "if you are only fighting sub boss #3 you won't die! I think even if you told players that there is the likely chance of death at any time, you are always going to get players that are angry when their beloved PC dies....

#3 - use other mechanisms for PC failure. This is one point where I completely agreed with the hosts. I think this is used far too little in most games. I remember lots of circumstances in my games as a youth where PC's were imprisoned, lost limbs, eyes were blinded, etc... Also, infamy and fame could be introduced to the game where once your character is famous you are noticed at every Inn in the country, such that you can't use stealth any more in your adventures. I think I use non-death punishments for failure already, but I like the ideas of coming up with more and more creative methods here that improve the roleplaying experience.

Anyway, while I didn't agree much with the folks at Fear the Boot, I really liked their podcast and I'm planning on listening to more episodes soon!


  1. I disagree with much of what they were saying also. To me they seem to want to play a wussified game with a reset button if they screw up. I prefer, you fight a monster you might be lunch.

  2. Yeah, I've noticed especially with 4th edition D&D that they blunted the edge of combat. You have these extremely wussy "healing surges" or whatever that allow you to heal yourself with absolutely no physical reason behind it. I like the idea of playing real people in my D&D games. Real people do not have healing surges. They might have adrenaline surges that allow them to push harder or faster in extreme situations but they can't just shrug off axe and sword strikes to the face.

    Another thing that has made D&D less believable is the power creep that has crept in over 30+ years of gaming. In original D&D characters had far less HP than they do in further editions. This is one of my favorite things about Swords and Wizardry - it brings back that original D&D gaming style without having to spend $300 on EBAY. If your 5th level fighter has like 18-24 HP, several successful attacks are going to put you down. Suddenly being surrounded by axe wielding orcs is dangerous! You won't be able to survive hit after hit after hit, just a few will take you out of the game.

    This is why lately I've been so obsessed with Call of Cthulhu, Stormbringer, and Rolemaster. There is an edge to these games built into the system that puts lethality into almost every attack. I think it adds to the general roleplaying experience. Here's to nonwussy game playing!