Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Challenging the assumption that permanent death of character must be at stake in D&D

In my Arcana Evolved campaign, I've been working at removing death of character from the table.

Characters in my game are built with 32 points, come in at the same level all the other characters are at, everyone gets standard wealth (when they level up, they get to buy/improve items up to the standard wealth), hit points for each level are non-random (die size/2 + 1 + Con bonus - even at 1st). So there is nothing mechanical that stops a player from erasing the character name and damage from his dead charater's sheet and writing a new name down and introducing Fred II to the party.

And I won't even raise a social barrier to them doing that. I've even suggested it once or twice.

So why even make the player do that? I suggested to my players that at the end of an encounter, if a character died, they can simply state, no, I didn't die if they want. If they're ready to move on to a new character, cool.

My players resisted. That would be taking away the threat of death and cheapening the game. But they aren't losing anything by introducing Fred II that they haven't already lost (the character did still go down in battle).

Last night, a PC died. They were going to have him raised which would take 7 days and 7 castings of raise dead, and then the PC would lose a level. Likely no one would play a character who was a level behind when they could bring in a new character, even Fred II. So let's not make raise actually cost a level. But there's still this 7 days thing.

I again pointed out that the player could just bring in Fred II. And I re-offered the possibility of just sidestepping the BS and let the player reject the death. And I think it finally sunk in.

Does this idea really cheapen the game? Not if one accepts that basically all characters are the same level and have the same wealth.



Bankuei said...

There's an interesting divide with D&D- on one hand- you have gamism, which doesn't give a damn about the characters as individuals, and Fred 2 would be a completely viable option.

Then you have on the other side- a personal connection the players have with the character- the character has taken on personal meaning throughout playing- it's not just a pawn- it's who your protagonist, and at that point- Fred 2 isn't Fred 1 (in their heads).

Then of course, is also the built in assumption that without death, that play wouldn't be fun- yet and still, the actual mechanical point of death is either a real threat to the characters' existance (such as things which make it impossible to raise), or else just a threat to certain penalities (xp, stuff, etc.).

But- most people stay focused on the imaginative stuff and can't see mechanically- yep- that's what's going on.

I'll be interested in hearing how play goes as more players take advantage of that or choose not to.

Frank said...

Good point about the imaginative difference between Fred 1 and Fred 2.

This idea is a huge stumbling block of course because D&D players traditionally reject metagame play (except they do it all the time - the traditional, of course your new character joins the group is metagame play).

One of the most important things I've got from the Forge is that metagame play is not wrong.

So now I've taken this idea, and gone back to one of the things that's always intefered with my fun in D&D, losing through character death.

It's also interesting how people separate the imaginative stuff from the mechanical stuff to the point that they often miss what the actual mechanics are.


Bankuei said...


An interesting idea I would juggle with for HP 0 loss options is losing all the XP you would have earned for the encounter. It's a hit, but not too bad of a hit. You can stack that with losing some material resources (treasure, particularly), and then folks will have ENOUGH reason not to lose.

The problem, of course, is that if someone falls behind too far, it becomes progressively harder for them to participate and gain XP.

It does point to the general issue of D&D play where the classes are integrated to work as a group, yet rewards and punishments aren't....

Frank said...

I like to keep everyone pretty much at the same XP and treasure, so loss of XP for dying doesn't really float my boat.

I guess one idea would be to come up with a group penalty, and really it was the group's fault - they didn't consider what would happen if the bad guys used a bit of brains. Leaving one of your casters basically hanging in the front lines wasn't very smart - especially when he's just 10' away from a troll...

But actually, I think having to sit out the rest of the encounter is plenty of an individual penalty.


Bankuei said...

Whatever works for you.

I think the group penalty isn't that bad of a deal. Just subtract the one player's share, then divide as normal. That is- if there's 4 PCs, and one dies, subtract 1/4th xp, THEN still divide by 4.

Everyone stays at the same xp, and everyone also has incentive to keep each other standing.

Frank said...

Good thoughts on the group penalty.

I'll have to run that by the players.


Cayzle said...

Yup, I know exactly what you mean. My character in a game died, and I basically brought in a v2.0 of the same PC as a replacement.

But in the end, it was unsatisfying. It felt like a cheat.

When v2.0 died, I took the opportunity to raise v1.0 and play the original -- even though a few levels below everyone else at this point.

I suggest that it comes down to player preference. If a character does not want to bring in Fred 2, then taking the level hit for roleplay satisfaction should be an option, IMNSHO.

Frank said...

Cayzle - see, your reaction is what I am challenging. Why should it feel like cheating to deny the death of the PC? Why should it feel like cheating to not lose a level?

Sure, there needs to be consequences of bad decisions (or even bad luck), but do those consequences have to be things that diminish the ability of the player to be a contributor.

There was a time when every PC started at 1st level. And new players had to have a stock of replacement PCs because when the dragon breathed, their 1st level PC was toast. How is that any fun?

I've played in, and eventually quit, games where for whatever reason, I had PCs that had negligible ability to contribute meaningfully.

Does losing a level rise to this degree of unfunness? Maybe not. Being out of the game for several hours (or even several sessions) seems like it would suck.

My feeling is that if the system is set up so everyone stays at the same potential (there is still room for poor character design), then there is more room for fun for all (and from a gamist perspective, everyone has the same potential for step on up).

Computer game players use save game all the time to avoid having to start all over. Sure, a few die hards try and play without it. Another set will try to win the game a 2nd time without any saved games after winning the first time.


Martin Ralya said...

Your "save game" analogy is interesting, Frank -- one of the (terrible) Diablo products for D&D did just that.

If memory serves, it was the more boardgame-y one (like a pseudo-RPG), but it said right in the rules that any player could save the whole party's "state" at any time -- and go back to that state at any time.

The whole group's first reaction, myself included, was pretty negative -- it goes against years of having character death come with consequences. Unfortunately, the game sucked and we didn't play it long enough to see the impact of the rule.

Seeing it here, with some of the philosophy behind it explained (and with a few more years of gaming under my belt), it sounds like a neat experiment.

Frank said...

A year ago, I would have thought the idea of denying your PC's death as "cheating" though I would have allowed someone to create a clone character. Player chosen re-wind to any previous game state still feels like cheating to me though (even though I'm perfectly fine with it for a computer game - and I think I'd be happy with a computer game that had an infinite undo queue instead of saved games - though there is a skill in saved games of balancing risk against effort, how much risk is the thing you are about to do vs. the effort to save the game).

The Forge (and other discussions) has been really helpful to me in really getting into what is going on in play and what is really at stake.

I think it's also important to honor people who do think that denying death, or saved games, or whatever, is cheating (I suppose I'd even honor a group of players who would kick you out of the campaign if your character died and only let you back in when they started a new campaign, though I might not play in a game with those folks a second time depending on how it actually felt when my character died).


Adam Dray said...

I've added a LiveJournal feed for your blog. You're frankfilz_rss there.

Adam Dray said...

You make a good point. If you totally buy into the Gamism of D&D and treat it as pure Step on Up, then the player knows they lost when their character dies, even if they just "load game" and start from where they left (character-wise) before the adventure.

You can play pretty pure Gamism this way. Run into the dungeon, fall into the pit trap. Damn. Reload. Run into the dungeon, jump over the pit trap, right into the gelatinous cube. Damn. Reload. Run into the dungeon, toss flaming oil across the pit trap to boil the gelatinous cube, jump over the pit, and run down the corridor...

As long as everyone is having fun, it's all good. The trouble starts when you have one player who wants something different than pure Gamism and who winces at how "unrealistic" it is to have free reloads, or who wants real death consequences to feel the danger of their "immersive" experiences.

Frank said...

Over in This thread on the Forge, Andrew Cooper (Gaerik) points out the title should be refined. I have made the suggested change because he's right.


Town Gate Guard said...

Does permanent death "have to be" on stake? No.
Should it be? Perhaps.

I won't say that what's good for my games is good for yours. However if the Frank II rules were introduced into our game, no one in our group would ever use them.

We've built up a history and group dynamic to our characters. I'm not playing Caleb the 5th level sorceror/1st level cleric. I'm playing Caleb as the total of his experiences.

If Caleb dies and I introduce Caleb II, how would I play him? For example Caleb hates the kingdom of Bastion because last session they forced his friend Jet into conscription. Would Caleb II still hate Bastion? Did he conveniently happen to know someone who was conscripted in exactly the same way (for the record it's unlikely as they only conscript psionicists who are rare)?

Besides, it's part of the fun for a character to die. It's a really memorable event and you get to try something new with your next character.

If I've earned my character's death, then I don't want it taken away from me any more than I want the XP I've earned taken away.

Yes I suppose I could create another sorceror/cleric with exactly the same stats, with the GMs permission I could even give him exactly the same magic items. Why would I want to do that though? Would you want to play the exact same adventure every session?

Frank said...

The point of this is not that any individual player must not allow their character to die, but that if a player is NOT done with that character, they do not NEED to give it up because they COULD just re-create the character.

In other words, I put the power into the player's own hands as to whether he lets his old character die and creates a new character. This doesn't have to be a decision only in the hands of the GM.


Frank said...

Ah, Town Gate Guard, I just read your blog. Re-read Ron's essay on gamism and come back here. Until you can acknowledge that gamism is real roleplaying, and is worthy of enjoyment and discussion, you're not going to begin to understand this post.


Chuck said...

Happy 2007 to you!

Tea said...

As a girl playing DnD, I fear PC death quite a bit, mostly because I treat my characters as if they were my own children. I draw them, I spend time on backgrounds... if a character died in game, I'd be horrified. Never work with the character, draw it, build it, or send it into trap laden haystacks ever again? I may be being too sentimental, but then again, I'm a girl.

I support the idea of reusing dead characters in a new campaign. When starting DnD, I figured there was some unwritten law stating you could never do that. I'm still afraid of dying, even I WAS able to reroll a character immediately, the social awkwardness of it scares me.

I like the xp loss idea, and doesn't seem too harsh of an exchange for the life of a beloved character. Another idea may be to have temporary stat changes, like lowered strength or intelligence for a certain amount of hours or sessions. It's less 'cheating' than rejecting the death, but less awkwardly permanent than death itself. :)