Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Death by (Game) Design...

OK, so at this point we all know the drill.  Old-school characters are free to try just about anything and stand or fall on their own merits, unlike those entitled new-schoolers who get a trophy just for showing up and can't even think of trying something not on their character sheets.  Now, this is an obvious straw man, but it holds a grain of truth.

Yes, old-school heroes fight the good fight and devise clever solutions and strategies before ultimately, and dare we say, inevitably, succumbing to the obligatory total party kill.  And again, how unlike the spoiled new-school crowd, who show up to play through carefully scripted encounters where victory is assured and treasure (and levels) await those with the courage to be there!  Another stereotype.  But let's turn the thing around a bit....

While we're busy chiding modern players for never dying and having it easy, enjoying a cushy railroad to guaranteed survival while we drop like flies, it's important to remember that the spectre of certain death can easily become its own form of railroading! 

Oh look, another total party kill.  How quaint.  We never saw that one coming...

No, the goal of the game shouldn't be to die.  If that were the case, I'm thinking most of us could wrap things up halfway through the first combat encounter and call it a night while rolling up replacements for next week's' equally fatal session (lather, rinse, repeat).

There's no badwrongfun here, but the goal should be to survive at least long enough to have some fun and validate the designer's efforts to include higher-level monsters and magic items in their rulebooks.  And when death happens, it's because the players were foolish or took daring risks and just happened to die at the hands of a cruel and fickle fate...

Gratuitous death is almost as
boring as having too little in your game... 

Moreover, the goal should be to succeed.  And survival is just one of many rewards for those who play well or even those who just get lucky.  So if high lethality is old-school and low-to-no lethality new-school, then what we're offering here is gaming's middle-school!

Of course, we already know this.  Good referees craft adventures that are survivable if played well and luck holds, and it becomes the player's responsibility to combine their talents to overcome the challenges set before them.  You know, old-school gaming.  

Every game tilts the survivability meter in whatever direction the designer(s) see fit, although this is ultimately up to the referee (who should know their players and what it takes to properly challenge them) and the players, who are always responsible for ensuring they don't become a TPK statistic.  We're no exception, obviously, and our games show it:

BLOOD OF PANGEA is a game where players write their characters into existence and take them on adventures, and this implies at least some degree of survivability.  But 10 MIGHT goes fast when spent improving rolls.  Especially after triggering that 2d6 trap and then falling at the feet of an angry tyrannosaurus dealing +3 damage!  Um, ouch...

PITS & PERILS is the primrose path.  After all, your first-level fighter has 12 HP in armor while the average hit scores but one point of damage.  But once you've triggered that trap and stuck your hand into a chest only to pull out a writhing snake that bites for 2d6 poison damage, death looms when the orcs show up armed with greatswords and their inevitable shaman (and too bad for you, one that happens to know the assorted Bolt spells). 

In fact, death has no sting unless
character life has value and is allowed to unfold...

THE MAZE OF MEMORY is straight-ahead "bang, you're dead" kind of affair, so if you like that sort of thing, this one will make you glad you wore loose-fitting pants...

Most of these systems, including DICELESS DUNGEONS, feature somewhat predictable damage so that hit points (or their equivalent) become another resource for the players to carefully manage while simultaneously punctuating the balance with deadlier things that introduce greater uncertainty.  Often, these are contingent on player actions, especially with respect to traps that can be avoided with skillful effort.  You know, old-school stuff. 

The bottom line here is that a certain level of survivability is built into each game while at the same time introducing risk and uncertainty.  Foolish choices are dangerous at best, and when death finally comes, it's usually to a cherished character and, therefore, felt...

Remember, Conan never died.  But when Belit did, it was a major bummer for sure.

But these are just our solutions.  Most referees want tough, but fair, adventures and must ultimately navigate their own path forward.  And players are better served when they work for victory and reap the rewards of their clever strategies.  Giving them a fair shot while imposing consequences for tomfoolery can be done, and the only system-neutral advice we have is to remember that death isn't the only punishment for failure in an ongoing campaign...

A cherished magic item is destroyed.  Some vital negotiation fails and the characters, once revered, become fugitives.  Established characters in a well-developed setting have goals and plans that undoubtedly matter to them (and their payers).  Go for these, and you'll have their undivided attention and, with any luck, make them wish for a speedy death! 

Because death needs sting.  And it has none when it never happens.  But then again, it has none when it becomes commonplace.  Put another way, the sting of death comes only when life has value.  And such value comes with time and experience at the gaming table...   

1 comment:

  1. Absolutely agree -- moderation in all things!

    ReplyDelete