15 Jan 2013

Character Death & Fantasy RPGs

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As I mentioned a few weeks (months now?) back, I’ve been running a modified version of 1st Edition AD&D every other Sunday night. Having spent a year or so playtesting the Next rules, I wanted a more stable set of rules for running an ongoing story. The games have been great, players seem to have fun, and the focus on story and character development is better than anything I’ve experienced since before 3rd Edition. There’s a weird wrinkle and one I thought worth talking about. The characters die a lot.

Surprise! Not really. Anyone who has played 1st Edition or even 2nd Edition knows 1st-level characters have short lifespans. Random starting hit points, bonus hit points from high Constitution sequestered in scores of 15 or higher, and death at 0 combine to paint a grim picture for would-be heroes. When a hastily flung dart can send a wizard screaming into the grave, you get few chances to make mistakes and come out with all your fingers and toes intact. I knew this when we started and so I wisely took steps to insulate the characters against death. I didn’t go overboard. Just a few steps, borrowed from other editions–saving throws while dying to become stable, a negative hit point threshold based on Constitution score, you get the idea.

Even with my “generous” modifications, character death remains fairly common in my game. My buddy Chris is starting his fourth character this upcoming Sunday. Although he’s into the game as he is, he didn’t bother to change class or race this time. He just rolled his scores and changed the name. I don’t blame him. His first character, a fighter, was devoured by a giant lizard. His second was ripped to pieces by ghouls. And his third was ripped to pieces by the same ghouls! Yet he’s still having a blast. (He’s a curmudgeon and he never candy-coats feedback, so I don’t think he’s holding back on any resentment or frustration.)

This left me scratching my head. Obviously, some players would become frustrated after losing three characters in a row. Some players might change their play style, becoming more cautious, guarded, or even unwilling to take risks at all. Others might just up and quit. Not Chris. He comes back for more. Chris’s good nature, I’m certain, covers a lot of what’s going on here, yet I also think that the story’s strength and speedy play also contribute. After all, when a person plays a video game, he or she just starts over when the character dies. If you’re playing Angry Birds, you don’t throw your phone across the room if you don’t manage to get 3 stars on the first try. If your character dies in AD&D, throw some dice and you’re back in.

This may be true for my current game, I think it becomes less true when the barrier to entry is higher. A player can create a human fighter using the 1st Edition rules in about 5 or 10 minutes (this assumes you don’t bother trying to make sense of the grappling, pummeling, and overbearing rules, and you don’t have scores high enough to even bother rolling for psionics), even less if the player knows the game. As we progress through the editions, character creation time increases. You add kits and proficiencies in 2nd Edition, more complex ability score distribution and character points in Player’s Option, skill points and feats in 3rd Edition, power selection and theme in 4th Edition, and so on. More choices mean more flexible character creation yet at the expense of a higher barrier to entry. If it takes you 5 minutes to create a character, death is annoying, especially if you’re attached to the character (but really, how attached is anyone to a 1st-level character), but not enough to rage-quit. If it takes you an hour to create a character, death is damned annoying, enough to rage-quit if you find yourself having to invest your fourth hour into character creation just to play. (Ultimately, this is how Rolemaster broke me.)

An interesting side-effect of more complex characters is a growing pressure on system design to insulate characters from death. You can see it in how hit point values have inflated over the years. Take a 1st-level human fighter with a 14 Constitution. In 1st Edition, this fighter has 5 or 6 hit points, and in 2nd Edition, has a 10 hit point safety net for when the fighter drops to 0 hit points or less. In 3rd Edition, this fighter starts with 12. In 4th Edition, the fighter starts with 29 (15 + 14) plus a reserve of 77 more hit points from healing surges, and doesn’t include the safety net. Durability more or less keeps pace with the challenge of creating the character in the first place.

A system that increases character complexity almost certainly becomes more complex to address the raft of character options and interacting mechanical objects. In other words, the system gets bigger and slows down. One hit point for a 1st Edition fighter represents 20% of his or her total durability. One hit point to the 4th Edition fighter represents 0.1% of his or her total durability. This means an attack from a longsword (4.5 damage) is terrifying to a 1st Edition character and means nothing to the 4th Edition character. There’s something interesting here (something about just what exactly hit points are and what place characters occupy in the world), but I’ve gotten off track.

The point I’m chasing is this. The AD&D was cumbersome with all its sub-systems and creaky task resolution methods, but it was fast. Fast like a trip to the bathroom after eating Taco Bell for six weeks straight. A character stood a reasonable chance of dying in almost any combat. Remember, if 1 hit point is 1/5 of your character’s durability, you’re in deep trouble even when you’re fighting Cletus the One-Armed Bandit who’s using a club. If, however, the character dies, you probably haven’t played him long enough to become comfortable, to become complacent. If you’re facing death at every turn, your play style changes. When you square off against 10 goblins, you don’t scoff, you don’t shrug it off, you roll initiative and beseech the gods and goddesses of fortune to bless you with a high result. You don’t fight to the death. You fight until you don’t dare risk taking another hit and then you run like hell. Those ghouls you fought at 1st level stay scary for the rest of your career. Why? Because even after you’ve gather five Hit Dice and have a respectable 22 hit points, you know that ghoul can shred you with a little luck. And then it’s back to the beginning unless your buddies can find a willing cleric to raise you from the dead. If they can dig all your pieces out of the ghouls guts. If they themselves weren’t torn to pieces. And you know what’s also great? You’re delighted when you reach 2nd level, when your hit points increase by an average of 5.5 and you’re 5% more accurate than you were before you rubbed out the 1 and replaced it with the 2. And that moment when you pull the +1 longsword out from the dragon’s treasure horde you reached by tricking the dragon to leave its lair long enough for you to sneak in, grab what you can carry, and run off before it comes back? That moment? That’s one you’ll tell your kids about.

This play style isn’t for everyone. Hell, I’m not even sure my players will stick with me for more than a few levels, but for me, this is the D&D game I love most. It’s the game of wits, of skill, and imagination. It’s the game when you never know if that little character scribbled on your sheet’s going to make it to the end of the dungeon. This is the game I had somehow forgotten and I’ve found again. And I’m loving the hell out of it.

So what do you think? Do you like to gamble with death in your D&D games? Do you prefer your character to grow into heroism or do you prefer to start as a hero and become something more? How do you like to play D&D?



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