Thursday, March 14, 2013

Character Death vs. (Emotional) Reasons to be Cautious

This is, loosely, connected to noisms' discussion on Monsters and Manuals about how the length of character creation is related to the players being cautious or not (here) and Billy's answer to that over at Billy Goes to Mordor (here). Both talk about arguments a player might have to fight a characters death after the fact. Both make valid points, I think. Players will have immersive and external reasons, as Billy puts it, to be cautious. And how extensive character creation is, might be a factor, too.

But, this being about a game, both disregard one perspective: playing the game proper and under optimal circumstances, the death of a character is never a coincidence (with flexible systems taking a less optimal treatment of the game into account by giving safety nets to compensate failure to a certain degree). So this is not about the reasons a player might have, but how the game is related to those reasons. First of all:

Being cautious does not mean one will survive

I have two long-time players, let's call them Mr. K and Mr. L, both of them are similar in one aspect: they are survivors. They are just not to kill the way I DM the game. I have a high body count in my games and it is lethal, but they manage getting out of harms way on a regular basis. Their threat assessment is impeccable (and the dice like them, but that is another story...).

The difference is, where Mr. K is a little hot headed and reckless most of the time, Mr. L is level headed and cautious. Whatever character any of them might play, both of them know what they are able to get away with. Being reckless or being cautious have nothing to do with it. They know the game (not necessarily the rules), they know what to do. And they do it the way they see fit. It works either way.

Being cautious or not is not inevitably connected to survival. The reasons why they don't wanna die aren't either. But the way a player handles the system is relevant.

So PCs die anyway, it happens, but...

If you have those players, that seem to survive every challenge you throw at them (without cheating), while others perish, it tells you (at least) three things: 1) there is a way to play this game and survive, 2) those that died, did make a mistake and the game punished it.

Not the DM, the game punished it.


Digression: how to know, it was not the DMs fault

This is about the safety net D&D provides (and it applies to most other rpgs). Early D&D didn't care that much for that, but with time it became obvious that not every DM is able to wing the game like Gygax & Co. and I think it was a natural development. It's also about what a DM can do to keep his hands clean. Let's see:

  • A full hit die at first level.
  • Negative hit points are allowed (a wide variation of rules about dying...).
  • Hit point kicker (more of an odd bird, but Hackmaster allows +20 hp for (nearly) every character at first level; weapons do make more damage, though).
  • Allowing saves vs. dying.
  • Various damage resolution systems, like every weapon does 1d6 damage, etc..
  • Fate points or something down that road (again Hackmaster, there you could sacrifice 90% of your honor to survive, I do something similar with Luck).
  • Creative off-hand rulings to allow avoiding death occasionally (let's call this the "What-if..." rule).
  • The sandbox approach is a good way to free a DM from how a setting reacts to player interaction.
  • Rolling the dice, open or not, was always one of the easiest ways to keep a DM safe from accusations (this includes giving the dice the chance to answer most questions in the game).
  • Rules for critical hits, the wild card most variations offer (even if the odds are against them, luck might be on their side and I saw this happening far to often...).
  • Rules for resurrecting characters.
  • Knowing helps avoiding, threat assessment is a viable player option and really helps surviving the game (this is a player's duty, not a DM's, but some DMs warn players and "help" with the threat assessment).

This should cover most of it. A DM should (and will) use some or all of this rules depending on how sure he is of his own judgement, how aware he is off the complex machinery that is the system and how experienced his players are (or how flexible when it comes to dying...). Nonetheless, even only playing it with the sandbox approach, leaves the DM (most of the time, really) out of the equation if a character is facing death. It's all the systems responce and the system is never "unfair", it's impartial.


Back to he initial insights, concluding with point 3) sure, they don't wanna die, but caving in to their objections leaves only one impression: the DM is taking responsibility. And he shouldn't. Dying in D&D is one of the few things that help a player learn about the game. It has an impact. It is hard on them, because they invested in a character. But it is also a chance to get better at it.

In conclusion (or: Beware The Purple Worms)

During the time I DMed 3e, one of the guys, let's call him Mr. G, played a paladin. They were down in Rappan Athukk, level 3. Lethality was very high (yet Mr. K and Mr. L still prevailed...), but Mr. G stood his ground with (I believe) his second character in the game. They encountered a purple worm and one of the other characters was swallowed. The rest soon realised, fleeing was the best option (the worm being busy with chewing and all). Mr. G, on the other hand, decided to leave no one behind and stayed back to fight the monster. He was a paladin, after all. Well, he didn't make it. Mr. G reacted very emotional to that. He felt punished for playing his character "right", decided the game was not for him and left for good. I could only agree with his decision.

Emotional reasons for player decisions (immersive or external) are not connected to surviving or dying. At least, they shouldn't be. Because as soon, as a player believes this to be relevant in the game, he will argue his characters death as unjust. And as soon as a DM takes responsibility for the life or death of characters, he might tend to cave in to that argument. But it's the wrong cause to the effect.

Not that an emotional connection between player and character is a bad thing (in the contrary, I believe it to be crucial), but as far as the game is concerned, it is just another tool to produce tension. And sure, a DM should care. But if happens what tends to happen and a character dies, he should also point out that that's the way it is. Helping players to accept that, helps the gaming experience in the long run.

Or to put it another way, investing in a character while being fully aware of the fact that he is "mortal", makes the struggle so much more intensive and gives a character life. That's what you play the game for. Death is only the end of this particular story. But an end it is.


  1. Just to spitball an idea here - but sometimes a "worthy death" rule, which provides benefits (xp, items, something else) to the NEXT character that a player rolls up, can make things like the purple worm incident less traumatic for players, while still retaining their "no pain, no gain" learning potential.

    If the party agrees that the character went down in an appropriate fashion (based on the character in question), then the next character gets bonuses. That mitigates the hard feelings and builds some excitement about the new character.

  2. You're right, it's a good idea and it really might soften the blow.

    Hackmaster does that with xp and they allow a character to share xp with potential successors (and items and whatever the character would like to give to "that other guy"). At the time it might not have helped. "Mr. G" came from a storyteller games background (V:tM). But that's a can of worms I wouldn't dare opening. Suffice it to say that he thought D&D was way to lethal... We talked about it and there were no hard feelings in the end.

    Nowadays I let them keep the xp they earned the session they died for the next character. But some sort of heritage rule to honor an appropriate death would really be nice.

  3. Blaming the DM is a factor I didn't think to include. It definitely is a significant factor. That said, I don't agree that all of those mechanics work to exonerate the DM from Partiality Blame.

    Ultimately, if the DM is being biased and trying to punish a character, extra hitpoints, saving throws, fate points, etc. won't help. Rather, I think these mechanics help to reduce the chance of death due to bad rolls of the dice.

    I do agree that sandbox-style random tables help the DM to avoid Partiality Blame(and also help him to really be more impartial). That said, even when I run a sandbox, I fall more on the Rulings rather than the Rules side of the debate, and that's where the DM really has to be careful that he's really being an impartial referee.

    I guess that's the advantage that the Rules side of the debate--less room for DM partiality. I just can't stand spending half the session looking for a mechanic for 'grappling a cockatrice'!

    Also, I'm not sure that I entirely agree with your assumption that "playing the game well" = "surviving". 90% of the time I agree. But then you get a story like Amaruq's: Sometimes playing well means challenging Death to a game of chess and seeing who wins.

  4. I hope this is able to explain my thoughts a little bit clearer:

    They do exonerate the DM, if he's not biased. As soon as DM has an agenda on his own, like trying to punish a character, he failed, as far as I'm concerned, as a DM. Of course nothing can protect you from a DM that wants your hide. I try to avoid DMs like that (and I had my share of them in the past...).

    Your first and second argument are both about trust. You have to be able to trust a DM. Rulings or rules are only problematic if the players don't trust the DMs judgement. If there is trust, you don't need the books at all.

    So I'm not sure I'd like to play with the DM you're describing. Biased, out for the characters, untrustworthy and not able to find a compromise everybody is happy with if a rule can't be summoned. But that's not what the post is about (or rather something I consider not a problem, when I talk about a DM). That's what I tried to express when I wrote "playing the game proper and under optimal circumstances". and that's why my conclusion was, that those safety nets are tools and the DM decides which of them to implement as buffers for mistakes he might make. Of course, it helps to protect from bad rolls (if only by giving you another roll, most of the time). But it's mainly how a DM is able to adjust the difficulty settings of his game.

    I'd agree and say Amaruq in the example decided to die and it was meaningful (thanks for the links, by the way!), but than again, that's exactly what I'm talking about. Handling the game right, a player just might be able to decide where a character is to leave his final mark. Like with Amaruq.

    I mean, I get that DMs are just humans, too. They make mistakes, sure. But for me part of achieving system mastery is to find out what those mistakes could be, how to buffer them and how to get to a point, where they aren't problems anymore. That's DM skill. The better you get at it, the less you depend on the cushions.

    For the players goes the same. Threat assessment, finding the loopholes in the system, getting a feeling for the limits, anticipating possible outcomes of situations, all valuable player skills. Getting good at those, gives a player freedom to move as he sees fit, more or less. But here compliments the DM the player (and vice versa). Depending on the mistake a player is making, the system might be able to buffer him, too. If immersive play is part of this, all the better!

    Playing a game like this will result in an understanding how a character death could come to pass and what it means for the game. Cause and effect are in order.

    1. I agree we have a lot of common ground. I still get the impression that we have different goals, as players. Which is fine.

      Anyway, I wrote a post trying to get at the difference between what I want out of the game, as opposed what some of the other players I've played with seem to want from it.

    2. Very nice, I really hoped we could find some common ground. And you're right, we might have different goals as players. I'm a DM most of the time and when I get a chance to be a player, I tend to see that as a challenge, not as a role to explore. But yeah, people are different that way and it's totally fine.

      Thanks for the link, I'll check it out! I like the fact that our discussion produced so much content :)