Thursday, January 24, 2013

Getting dead

Having a character die in most games is a pretty trivial thing.  You reload and go again, respawn and go again, or begin the level anew.  No biggie.  Some games though really go big on character death and make it a huge deal like Diablo when playing on Hardcore or oldschool RPGs.  Of course there is a huge cultural component to this where the Hardcore people scoff at the Softcore people calling them 'WOW kiddies' and the Softcore people laugh at the Hardcore folks calling them nolifers.  As usual both sides that spend time flaming each other on various forums are fools because there is clearly no 'better' way.

I have been reading some RPGs that deal with this very explicitly lately like the Dresdin Files RPG, the Leverage RPG, and Nobilis which pretty much make the assumption that the characters are immortal.  Not that the characters can do anything, of course, but the baseline is that characters can get beat up, defeated, or stymied but that losing a fight means they run away while badly injured.  They make no attempt to frame this as a fair simulation and describe everything in terms of the narrative.  A character sacrificing themselves deliberately to accomplish a goal that is worthy of their sacrifice is all good, randomly getting offed by a mook who rolled well is not.

I don't know exactly how I feel about this sort of thing.  I know for sure that I hate the idea of Hardcore in Diablo 3 because my character will die when I get a lag spike or disconnect and my skill will not be the point of failure.  I see little fun in that.  Being able to die from a monster attacking me when I play a heroic fantasy RPG though feels entirely okay.  Obviously I want the GM to make fights that won't kill characters all the time because story and character development is key for me but the thrill of knowing I could die makes victory so much sweeter.  I think the key is that I enjoy tactical decisions in an RPG and I am completely okay with my decisions making the difference between life and death.

I suspect that threat of death for failure to play well is why I find DnD so frustrating.  At low levels anything can kill you and no amount of strategy is relevant.  The monster is going to roll an attack and if it rolls a 20 you die.  You have no defensive action you can take that will alter that scenario.  Of course high level play is similar in that the beholder is going to blast you with an eye ray and you will roll a save to see if you die or not.  I feel a lot better about HBT in that department because characters have quite a few alternatives for increasing their survival from the simple Defend action to using a Power that keeps you out of harm's way.  You might still die but at least you can feel like you have control over the situation and when things get ugly there are always options to give you an out.


  1. I read a fair number of MMO designer blogs so the subject of death penalties comes up frequently. I think my favourite analysis was:

    I guess where I see the challenge for designing an RPG is if your party has a 90% chance of winning your average fight then I don't really like the odds of the party making it through 10 campaigns of 10 fights each. If the party has a 99% chance of winning an average fight, why am I playing it out?

    Obviously you can relax the constraints. Maybe you plan for only 1-2 combats per campaign and expect your average hero/part to go through 2-3 campaigns in their lives. Then you could reasonably ratchet up the odds of losing a given fight (10% would be quite reasonable).

    But if you want challenging, frequent combat, I think you want to ratchet down the consequences for failure. Maybe the party gets imprisoned, or runs away in disgrace and the campaign fails. Or maybe they just try again? Maybe you have a 1% chance to TPK but you have a 50% chance to avoid something bad happening? HBT has a reasonable start on this with the concept of characters being wounded and needing time to recover.

    I think the challenge in general for GM/RPG designers is players want to reenact epic fantasy stories, and in something like the Hobbit, or LotR or a random Wheel of Time book, what do you think the odds are of the heros winning? Fantasy stories are about people go got lucky. I want to be a lucky person, so what I really want is you to design a system where I'm expected to be lucky.

  2. The idea that what you want is to be lucky rather than powerful is a really interesting one. Lots of games give the characters special rules and most of the time I don't find that especially appealing but having some kind of Luck, Fate, Destiny or other similar type of points that a character can spend would be interesting. It would certainly allow characters to be numerically inferior but still come out on top.

    I really like the fact that people can be wounded in HBT. It lets the GM scare the players and / or hand them some real consequences without rolling a new character.

    You are certainly right that a 1% chance of a TPK is going to end a lot of campaigns early if you fight a lot. In my long term campaings there are generally only a couple of fights per level so the characters would need to survive maybe 30 fights to get through a campaign. Even with a 1% TPK rate and a low number of fights there are still really serious chances of the game ending very early. Good to think about, anyway.