Sunday, October 17, 2010

On Death

Hit points are finite.  In a resource management game, hit points are the ultimate resource.  When they run out, you die.

Fighting against this is really fighting against the system itself.

But even playing with the system as written there are underlying assumptions that need to be taken into account for it to work:

Death is Impartial
First, it requires the assumption that the DM is not an adversary of the players.  The DM is a judge.  Death will not occur on a whim. If hit points are a resource for players to manage, management means having choices about when to expend a resource or not.  Death results from an accumulation of player choices.

Of course there are a few complications here.  One is that the DM designs the adventure world.  And a beginning DM especially, may make mistakes about how powerful the monsters a party encounters are or how difficult it is for a party to replenish its resources.  Nothing is learned without errors, so every DM should expect to be responsible for a few "bad" character deaths.  But even if we were to change the system there is no way to avoid DM errors like these. We have to have faith that a DM will learn from these when they happen.

And players make errors.  Not all choices on how to expend resources will be good choices.  In fact, much of the beginning of the rpg experience is really about figuring out what characters can and can't do, what they should and shouldn't do.  But again, this will happen with any system.  And in a way, death is an essential form of feedback: "Never ask a dragon to show you their power!"  Of course, this presumes DMs help newer players understand how their actions led to their demise.

Another complication is that in order for a DM to be a neutral judge and not just an orchestrator of protagonists, the system employs randomness.  And that randomness can result in dire circumstances for a party.  The problem is that if we ignore one dice roll we've injected partiality into the system.  For every following dice roll, the DM will now be required to decide if they should intervene or not.  That seems a tiresome direction to go down. Perhaps we can explore some ways to ameliorate this problem in a moment.

But, first, another assumption that follows from the idea that death results from player choices:

Seeing the Pale Rider
If hit points are a resource for players to manage, then players need to be able to manage them. Players must know a choice is at hand, that they may be about to lose hit points, that they are flirting with death.

So, insta-kill traps, while they might be a part of the game's culture, actually work against the system by making death too easy, by taking away a player's choice (I think you can see the system sort of schizophrenically recognising a problem with losing all of such an important resource at once when it grants saving throws to things we would normally consider instant death, like being poisoned).

Even insta-traps that are not deadly are problematic in that they still leave players with no choice.  Yes, they are wearing down a resource, but the only real choice being given to players is: "Should we continue exploring or go back to the tavern." That's why I think Ben Robbin's suggestion to telegraph a trap is so important.  When players know a trap is present they can decide to try and avoid it, investigate it, even see if they can set it off safely.  In essence, the trap becomes more exploration.

This can be a problem in a funhouse dungeon.  If turning a door knob one way opens a door but turning it the other turns a character into a jello triceratops, a player's only real decision is: "Okay whose turn is it to open the door?"

I've explored the idea of how to give players clues as to what to expect, something I called decision sign posts.  I also struggled with how to present players with odd and wondrous things that still have some underlying reason to them.  The idea being that as exploration continues players might gain more and more useful knowledge to aid in their decisions, each success making ultimate success, survival, more likely.  Maybe you can still have your jell-dino door handles, but they always trigger when turned clockwise.

The Wages of Death
So, we act as neutral judges and do our best to make choices clear to players but death will still happen.  And death isn't fun.  Trollsmyth notes it can be anticlimactic, Zak, that it's really barring a player from playing the game they wanted to play for a certain amount of time.

So what can we do about this? 

You might ignore death completely, but then I think you're playing a game of exploring characters rather than exploring with characters.  A game that, while maybe fun, is probably better suited by a different system of rules.

You might try to replace hit points with another equally important resource, Christian mentions players being motivated by losing, what I'd call, "face" in the comments here. Other ideas might include being scarred (à la the video game Fable), maimed, or losing something of value.

Death is Universal
I like the idea of players being motivated by the fear of losing things other than their life.  But there are several problems here. The threat of death is easy to understand.

From the DM's perspective, i.e. what matters to a player?  I know continuing to play the game does.  What else?  Perhaps one player won't give a whit if they're humiliated by a villain or if their village is threatened. And Alexis points out the problem of assuming taking something from pcs will matter.

I suppose as a DM I could watch for what matters to players and act against those things. The positives to that approach would include working with what players bring to the table and the artistry of impromptu play.  But the downside is that it seems to put the DM into an adversarial role.  Will anything the players make, buy, or care about automatically become a target?  That sounds as frustrating as losing a character to death.

The threat of death is also easy to understand from the player's perspective.  All of the alternative ways to add tension suffer from being hard to predict.  And that interferes with the idea of player choice mentioned above. Are all combats in your world essentially duels that lead to loss of honor? How will a player know? Is this combatant the one that is so angry he's actually trying to kill the player?  What is the chance of getting maimed versus dying?  And is getting maimed just a less courageous way of dealing out consequences in game: "You only lost your leg, you can still play if you want, of course, combat will be very difficult from now on."

Death Matters
I think the best we can do is to try and work against the anti-climax of death.  Make a death matter, even as the player rolls up a new character, but how?  Zak suggests making it a plot hook, by which I think he means something will happen because of this death.  Perhaps a relative of the deceased will arrive.  Perhaps the faction dynamics in a town or dungeon will shift.  Perhaps the rest of the party gets pissed and wants to do something about it.

I liked the way Zak narrated the death experience to players as dreams.  This was mysterious to me and seemed to turn death from a full stop to an ellipsis.

I wonder if having players mortally wounded occasionally would be interesting.  Knowing they were dying in a matter of rounds, what would players have their characters do or say?

I think there might some merit in the idea that characters can inherit from a player's previous dead characters.  Remembering that players make mistakes too, accumulating resources might mitigate the sting of death through bad choices while giving a little bit of a buffer to the new character's survival.

I really like Jeff Rient's ideas of Heroic Sendoffs and Vengeance Oaths.  In fact, I'd forgotten about them until today (and thinking some version of them should have been in the house rules compilation).  Both of these allow players to turn character deaths into opportunities.  Death grants players new choices.

How else might we keep the benefits of death in-game while ameliorating its anti-climax?


  1. This is a great essay. I'm going to print it out so that I can give it a more careful read. (I'm not so great at reading on a screen.)

    Today the issue of losing face came up. The party was losing a fight to a group of goblins and that was really making them mad. I mean steamed! They were taking damage, falling back and getting humiliated. No one had to die because they were miserable enough as it was. :)

  2. I agree, a most gratifying read.

    The one thing that I feel needs to be pointed out is that so often the players themselves are the Bringers of Death, executing enemies or very often entities which which they have barely a passing acquaintance. They think nothing of making children orphans, or destituting innocents and condemning them to famine by casually seizing goods and wealth.

    It's a good thing to keep players conscious of their own potential - even inevitable - deaths, should they continue the pattern of plunder and destruction that has made them the 'heroic' bastards they are today. This consciousness preys upon them over time, either encouraging either a higher perspective (which would reduce their chances of death) or an acceptance that the dice are one day going to turn against them.

    And in the latter case, they will bear no more ill will against the DM than they would towards the craps dealer.

    The anti-climax you speak of is sometimes subconsciously asked for by the players, who can't think of anything else to do with their characters than kill, kill, kill. But I find, once they have spent enough time building a character to a sufficient level - and that building process being difficult - they will learn to love their characters and cease to act flagrantly in the face of death.

    Perhaps I am being too poetic. But I emphasize where you point out that the DM must be impartial - for this eliminates the responsibility for killing the character. Ultimately, it isn't the DM's responsibility to see if they live or don't live ... but rather, to present a world with implacable rules.

    You rightly argue that the randomness of the die roll must be held as sacrosanct. After years of fudging them to keep players alive, I've forced myself to stop playing with a screen - so that I can't cheat, so that when the die kills a character, every player at the table knows ... and accepts it as part of life.

    Death is Inevitable.

  3. To your last question, I've thought a little about how it might be interesting to incorporate the concepts of karma and reincarnation into the game. As you say,“Death results from an accumulation of player choices.” Maybe there's a way to do this mechanically during character generation.

    In a sense though, it’s already happening non-mechanically since the player (the character’s soul if you will) is learning from one character to the next. Having explicit rules in place governing the consequences of their previous character’s actions might be interesting (especially for beginning players), but doing so would also remove some of the mystery of death and so its power in the game. Plus, who doesn't like a fresh start, even if it only seems to be one?

    Great, thought provoking post!

  4. Thanks, all. I love this about blogging, sitting down to try and synthesize something from a lot of interesting posts I've read. I hope the voice doesn't come off as too authoritative, I was trying to solidify my own thoughts on the subject and making strong clear statements is part of that.

    @Alexis, that's a great point. Some choices players make may not be as simple or obvious as "Should I pull this lever?" How they treat hirelings, how they deal with the locals could all bear bitter fruit later. I think to do this well the DM would need to be consistent in keeping track of actions and making repercussions occur, even if it is a many of sessions later.

    @ze Bulette: That's a wonderful conceit: we roleplayers are the souls inhabiting our many characters and learning from them (hopefully!).

    Implementing Karma is interesting, but that seems it would be aimed more at behaviours, right? Whether players followed certain moral strictures?

  5. I think I was theorizing how one could incorporate karma into the game by tracking it in some manner and then using that data to somehow adjust positively or negatively the players next character that they roll up once their current one dies. In this way, though death is a serious event in the game, there's a continuity there as well that the players would clearly see.

    Whether or not it would make sense for the player to be aware of this tracking while their character is alive might be the question. Assuming we don't have the ability to know our positive vs. negative karmic "score" in real life* maybe the PCs shouldn't either. I don't think it would necessarily have to be so strictly watched, but certain important actions might be noted by a DM. If you subscribe to the law vs. chaos instead of good vs. evil outlook, it needn't be tied to morality per se either.

    The idea does remind me of Galloway's piety points again though. In his game, upon a character's death, you'd tally up the points and see whether the PC's soul went to Heaven, Hell, or Purgatory if I remember correctly. There wasn't much real game impact implied at that point though, it mostly just seemed like a novelty and a kind of last rites. With the understanding that a character's soul was being reincarnated somehow in the player’s next PC though, there would be more impact.

    Having said all that, I think I'm opposed to the idea because it reduces the impact or mystique of death, and again, in a sense new characters are already being modified or at least played differently by their owners due to their last PC’s death.

    * Unless you're enlightened. ;)
    ** Holy crap, word verification was Agnal, which is the name of the chaotic priest in the S&W game I DM.

  6. Just a quick thought about saving throws based on what you mentioned... what if they were replaced with some kind of token or point, a resource that could be managed, and noticed when it was dwindling?

    For example, the PC springs a lethal trap... rather than say it isn't really lethal, or have the player make a saving throw (which is still instant death based only on dice, not resource management), the player just cashes in some kind of fate or luck token, and manages to narrowly escape the trap.

    I suppose it's not realistic (too gamey?) and doesn't really represent an "in-world" resource the characters would have. Ah well, just a thought.

  7. Hi, thanks for the comment. I don't have anything constitutional against that. If a game is to have "instant" death type instances and we want a kind of exciting, movie-like feel to our games, fate points like that could work.

    But how would they be replenished, that's probably the rub. That combined with how many a character gets. We want excitement and knowing you have 5 get-out-of-jail-free cards each session probably won't be exciting.