Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Can We Have Too Much Death?

Consider the many books and movies (or books BASED on movies or whatever) we draw our inspiration from.  Aside from Game of Thrones, the main characters aren't dropping like flies because that would limit the story somewhat (trademark understatement, folks), but also because it limits the IMPACT of death itself...

You really need an ongoing story, and it's hard to have one with turnover rivaling that of your local Taco Bell.  And the characters can't develop enough for anyone to CARE if they end up dead!

No, the media we enjoy depicts our heroes (and heroines) hacking through hordes of the things through many adventures, facing myriad challenges and overcoming them all with aplomb...

Chapter after chapter until...BANG!, a cherished character dies unexpectedly.  Maybe its a deadly arrow from some hidden archer or that lethal blow from someone's axe at the height of victory.  

Now THIS has an emotional IMPACT.  The late character is both established and well-developed and will have doubtless contributed to the story in many ways (and through many thrilling chapters), bonding with their companions, but also the READER. 

In role-playing games, player characters are literally the MAIN CHARACTERS IN THE STORY, and in a story-driven campaign, there needs to be some potential for long-term growth.  But these aren't just fictional characters witnessed in third-person from a distance, they're OUR characters, and they bond with US and with our friends within the context of a weekly fantasy get together... 

This is what happens when you have REAL people behind the mask!

Character death should happen
and should have an IMPACT when it does...

In other words, there needs to be the potential for long-term participation coupled with the possibility of death, and making this work can be challenging.  Mostly, it comes down to tailoring the encounters to the party and being familiar with whatever system is being used.  Luckily, this gets easier with practice!

We designed Pits & Perils specifically for this style of play, because there's a lot to be said for exploration and role-playing in an ongoing campaign.  It's exactly what WE wanted when we put the game together for our own enjoyment.  But death still waits... 

Characters enjoy solid hits against the average damage from most attackers (1-2).  If you're looking to die from the first successful hit from the first successful attack against you, this isn't the game for you unless you enjoy house ruling!

So the hit points tick off incrementally over time and can be treated as a resource to be managed.  But after several skirmishes with orcs and their pet wolf, even the fighter will have taken a beating, only to round the corner and meet the magic-wielding orcish shaman and her bodyguards loyal to the bitter end... 

Or they get shot with a poisonous (2d6) arrow...

Or fall into a 3d6 pit trap filled with deadly spikes...

But characters should have a chance to
survive stuff like THIS, at least for awhile...

Long-term survival is built into the game, but death CAN occur, especially when players are careless.  The key here is that they'll typically survive long enough to experience at least some of the campaign and become an important fixture in it. 

In practice, this has created cautious players who don't take anything for granted, because even those common orcs could have a deadly ringer hiding in their midst!    

And when the character you've (very lovingly) developed through multiple sessions and seven levels dies at the hand of an assassin dressed in red (perhaps as a warning) and their poisonous dagger when victory seemed certain, it has a powerful IMPACT...

I've been told it hits harder than losing the character you just made twenty minutes ago.  Because, I mean, they haven't even begun yet, although time would have made them CHERISHED.

As D&D began to go mainstream, there was some effort to make characters more survivable, including suggestions to re-roll hits when 1 or 2 was rolled, suggesting its creators understood that campaigns were increasingly narrative-driven, and that this requires adventurers who survive long enough for us to CARE about them and reach higher levels, where the coolest possibilities await!

All of this is just a fancy way of saying that while the threat of death is necessary to a challenging game, constant and egregious fatalities can actually DIMINISH its impact.  This is something we tried to address in our own game(s), although we know that you, dear reader, have done the same, and we'd love to hear how you do it... 


  1. It's a nice post about lethal games. I've always agreed that the threat of death and dismemberment sets the tone better than actual death. When everyone dies constantly and you bring in new characters on a weekly basis, there is a sort of disattachment to the game and the setting. I think the super lethal games really work for more casual style games, one-shots, and funnel games.

  2. Good post! I think the threat of death is just as, if not more important, than the actual act. The players need to feel the tension of the possibility if death or combat loses its oooomph!

    Still, in order to keep that tension, eventually someones character needs to die.

  3. Great piece. My experience is often the other way. GMs that are a bit too forgiving. When I play in a game I like knowing that my character could die in any of the rooms or even walking back from a big score in the dungeon. One of most 'pathetic', but memorable character deaths was when an iron golem drowned my character in a horse trough. Maybe I'm weird, but I thought that was kinda cool.

  4. I'm in a play-by-post game currently playing a system I *thought* was pretty forgiving (TBH) until the cleric (the f&@;in cleric!) died climbing down a rope after like 10 minutes of in-game time.

    Now, a few encounters later (but weeks of play by post), I'm freaking out a little because I'm two bad dice rolls from done. Ugh.

    It's a matter of knowing I *can* squeak through without getting hosed but its gonna take careful play. That's where the tension is for me.

  5. My preference is a real threat of death, but actual deaths being uncommon. I dont like too much either end of the spectrum (too hard to die: 5e, or too easy to die: auto dead at zero HP). Ideally I think you combine lingering injuries with a real threat of death.

  6. One mechanism I've encountered (but haven't really had the chance to use yet) is the out of action table from the Black Hack. I like the concept. Basically at 0 hp you have a 1 in 6 chance of dying. Otherwise, you have something bad happen ranging from simple unconsciousness to loss of attribute points, etc. So hitting 0 hp still has consequences even if it is not necessarily fatal. Keeps death as a possibility, reduces its frequency, and could be used as a springboard to further adventure (quest to find the magic spring that will get your attribute points back). In theory, I like it.