Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Great RPG Divide - Character Mortality

Alright, maybe one of many divides, but it is certainly near the top of the list.

Character Mortality - boon or bane?

When I played (and DM'ed) AD&D back in the 80's and 90's, it was never assumed your character was going to make name level. Your PC lived in the now, acquisitions of magic and power was done with the thought of increasing one's chance of survival.

I wasn't a "Killer DM". I didn't keep a count of the PCs that I killed because I weren't looking to kill them. I figured the dice and the players' own decisions would take care of that for me, and they often did.

3x was the first time I saw players planning out their advancement 5, 10, even 15 levels in advance. It wasn't something I could comprehend, as just surviving to the next level was carrot enough for me. Was it the more complicated characters that 3x embodies that led to people assuming their characters were nigh immortal? Was the risk of character death significantly lowered starting with 3x? Was it the advent of computers assisting player record keeping that led to programs that allowed such planning to tae place?

4e just compounded the issue in my mind. 4e PCs don't seem to risk death. They certainly don't fear it, and it seems everybody knows exactly what their character is going to look like at any possible level int their future.

Maybe this is why I found the DCC RPG "Funnel" so refreshing- PCs died at a 50% casualty rate and the only complaint was that more didn't die ;) The 1st level party had 2 PCs that stared death in the face and managed to survive. It was refreshing.

I run my ACKS campaign in a "let the dice fall as they may" fashion. Haven't killed anyone yet but it's not for lack of trying ;)

I'm I wrong for looking at character mortality as one of the great dividing lines between "Old School" and "New School", especially among D&D in it's various editions and it's OGL offspring?


  1. I do think that a certain sense of "entitlement" may pervade newer editions. In my experience, the 3.X "looking ahead" had more to do with planning feats to take, etc. than believing 15th level was inevitable. In many older editions, your "leveling up" dictated your new abilities with very little (if any) customization.

    I've not played 4e, so I can't speak to that. The idea of "healing surges" certainly does seem to blunt the edge of death's knife, though.

  2. I'd say video games had more to do with this than the way 3.x was structured... I spent a lot of time with the Dark Age of Camelot Character Builders (back in that game's heyday), deciding on my 'ideal' level 50 build, and deciding what the touch points along the way would be. I knew at level 12 that I'd want a certain build at levels 25, 30, 35, etc. to maximize my character's abilities. It would be easy to port these same concepts over the tabletop, and I'm sure many people did.

  3. I was actually disappointed in one game when my character didn't die. It would have been appropriate, maybe a rallying point for the group, an Agent Coulson moment, a great way to go out.

    But the DM was from the newer age., where a character dying is apparently so traumatic it shouldn't happen. So the DM informed the group how close I was to dying, and they did ridiculous things to get healing to me, in the middle of a big melee. It kind of diminished the game. And frankly is sort of insulting. Like I couldn't handle losing a character?

    So, while I do believe in zero-level hit points (1d6), I also think after that point, players (characters) are on there own. They need to live and die by their choices. After all, they chose to become adventurers. They could have stayed home and rebuilt the village after that goblin raid-but they didn't.

  4. If you're engaged in mortal combat with an equal, there's a 50/50 chance that you'll die (or be defeated, at least). And if you're playing an RPG where there is lots of combat, there should, by definition, be a lot of player character death. Unless the PCs make sure that they have every advantage, and run (or play very clever) when they do not.

    I think the problem lies with CRPGs (which are NOT RPGs) and computer games in general. Up until the late 1980s, you completed a game with your quota of lives. If you only got halfway through, you shrugged (or beat the floor in frustration) and started again. From level 1. Now, you're expected to save the game every 5 minutes, making 'death' meaningless.

  5. I'm enjoying the risk of death in my ACKSgame, and although no one has yet died (but have suffered injuries) the risk adds an element of danger that makes it more enjoyable and makes the players successes that more rewarding.

  6. Mortality is a consequence of the more basic divides of

    player control vs DM control

    the "fun" part being building your character vs playing your character

    Builders spend all their creativity and derive fun from composing the most "efficient", "unbeatable", powerful character. Playing them is almost after thought and is mostly validating or "test" running their design. They require lots of crunch (so there are many possible combos/character builds), rules for everything (so they know what to build for), and limited DM control and no fait. Death means "loss" of all that time investment.

  7. I think part of it was the structure of 3.x, actually. On the off chance that you did make it to high level, if you hadn't planned appropriately to meet feat and prestige class reqs, you would suck pretty hard compared to a planned character. Because sucking sucks, people started planning, and then were displeased when their plans were thwarted by so minor an inconvenience as death.

    I, uh... feel that perhaps I've overreacted in running ACKS, though. I've killed about 6 PCs in as many sessions. On the other hand, they did a lot of dumb things early on, and they're getting much better; didn't kill any PCs in the last two sessions (only a couple henchmen).


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