Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Thoughts Regarding Character Mortality and Old School Dungeons and Dragons

You're playing this group
One of the more frequent complaints about older versions of D&D is that it's high lethality -- that characters die too often.  More irksome for these detractors is that characters die randomly.  They die from a single hit, a giant rat bite, falling down a pit with no saving throw, failing a saving throw that had a 4 in 20 chance of success.  Sometimes there's nothing the player, or worse the whole party, can do to survive: ambushed by a rain of arrows from 30 bandits in the wilderness for example.  It's understandable that this seems like arbitrary cruelty written into the system -- pointless, meaningless death without reason.  I've come around to accepting this though, and even relishing it -- because I think that there's a fundamental misunderstanding built into these critiques.

It's not to say that they aren't valid reasons to dislike classic play, but they're a critique of the kind of game that OD&D is not of broken rules.  Classic D&D isn't heroic fantasy, it's low fantasy, and it's not a game that indulges the power fantasies for each player, but a game of collective world-building between players and GM.  By "power fantasy" I'm not trying to be dismissive to other games or genres that are about the individual advancement or story of an avatar, I'm attempting to draw a distinction between a fantasy narrative of individual success (empowerment) and the broader narrative of a fantasy world (historical).

Old style D&D is not a story about any one PC, it's a story about the adventuring party as a whole, or ultimately about a fictional world as a whole.  That's why replacing characters is so easy.  That's why power levels are relatively compressed and monsters randomly encountered rather then balanced by encounter. At an even more abstract level classic play is about the game world and players slowly revealing it in cooperation with the GM.

Not this group
The players will only survive if they cooperate, and the better they plan and cooperate the better they will survive. Yet, there's also cooperation between the GM and the players. Play builds interactive story set by the GM, interpreted and told by the players and then changed by the GM to suit those player's interests. This is why classic play theory tends to fetishize player choice and complain about "railroads" (pre-plotted adventure) and "quantum ogres" (unavoidable encounters) -- both detract from the players' ability to help weave the world.

The rules subtly encourage player world building via the experience point system.  Characters all seek to grow in survivability, and may only do so by plundering and then spending cash.  They move wealth from ruins/lost places into a game economy.  Since the characters can only advance by spending large amounts of gold they do large things with it, transforming the game world.

In the OD&D game I play on G+ PCs have: tried to invent spells, built hidden shrines to dubious gods, bought property, erected memorial statutes, and now at 6th level are attempting to rebuild a road with a fortified toll post to skim off new trade.  None of this was planned by the GM, but the game world was open to it, and even if our party is wiped out by the forces of barbarism that object to new trade routes we'll leave something behind (in addition to a treasure trove of equipment).  If the plan succeeds it'll be a trade route and tower, and if it fails a 1/2 built road, an army of dead mercenaries and at least one impoverished town. I am sure the GM will add these changes to the map when we roll up a new party.  Changing the game world is empowering to players, but also why a "Total Party Kill" is a good thing -- the destruction of the characters becomes part of the world. 

Example of a world building TPK: When the random encounter dice show that the emboldened 2nd level party is ambushed by thirty longbow wielding bandits, and the party is surprised, loses initiative and falls to a swarm of arrows without a chance to respond, the game world gains something.  Any GM that fails to mark a bandit hideout with an especially effective and cruel gang of marauders in that hex is making a big mistake.  Future parties will avoid that road, unless they are seeking out the bandit band.  If the bandits are ever killed they should obviously have some of the dead party's stuff.

A first level PC is a line of stats and has a fair chance of dying on their first adventure. This is because OD&D is not about great heroes with destinies. The adventurer may even be a bit of a bumbler: a down on his luck ex-soldier, a disgraced wizard's apprentice, an exceptionally greedy thief or an overreaching religious fanatic.  Seeing the party for the first time the right response is to think "Some of those mooks are not coming back."  Your character can certainly become a hero, a mysterious individual with a back-story and power -- over time and only through play -- you start out as another veteran in a battered suit of chain mail with a sword.  One line or even a few words of description is good enough to build on.

Play around with the excellent character generator at the blog Save vs. Total Party Kill. Everyone should be using something like this for classic play because it creates interesting, vaguely defined and ultimately disposable PCs (though it has a tendency to create creepy children).  Sure, you may not have wanted to play a mature, obese elf in a threadbare robe with the spell hold portal, but seeing how this character will interact with the world is part of the story the game is creating.  Over time 'Rain Eyes the Rotund' will develop. If she somehow survives at 10th level the threadbare robe will be replaced by something strange, the game world will undoubtedly provide a personality through play, and you're pretty likely to have an interesting character.  If not a hero, then at least someone with a compelling back-story and a few unique traits (flame trap scars, a golden animated hand and an imp companion are all likely).  What the character also has in a whole mess of dead companions.  This is a good thing, from Groog the fighter - eaten by the first uber-rat ever encountered, to the elf's much missed magic-user buddy "The Shrouded Necromancer (Formerly Chumly)", whose spell books she now possesses.  These losses and adventures form a compelling character arc, because they aren't just a background element about a narrated past or the death of unnamed friends.  Prolonged play creates a background of fictional deeds the player (and other players) will remember and act based upon with real knowledge and engagement.  Plots like avenging or commemorating a PCs death easily become central to the campaign, enthusiastically supported by the whole table.

This becomes extra important when the GM lets evolving player eccentricity create world fiction.  The character that decides to follow a minor god and makes up a fiction about that deity gives the GM's world a new cult (and how much the character's beliefs correspond with the GM's version of the god/religion is up to the GM - and provides quest hooks or makes the PC a lone fanatic), every band of goblins spared and taken into service creates a new playable class for potential replacement PCs and every new spell researched can be stolen by or sold to another wizard.

The flip side of this is that simple starting characters discourage drama.  Players that want to play a disruptive type still can, but if the PC survives it will only be by working with the party, and they have no elaborate back-story to justify anti-social play.  If they develop back-story in game (insanity or evil say) that might derail play it's as part of the adventure and the other players will likely have figured out how to adapt or at least have sympathy.

You can play as Oddball, because his eccentricities
will have been earned through play.

As a companion to the above thought, it's not really the individual character at all that's a classic game's narrative agent, or focus.  The adventuring party is the focus.  Even if the member characters change or are replaced, it's the same party and it's the collective efforts of the players that writes the world fiction, only rarely the ideas of one player or the GM.  Characters in OD&D don't often split up and run all about the world solo (the rules aren't set up for it), they make collective decisions to travel, delve certain dungeons or battle certain factions. 

If one looks at the game from this prospective, the problem of arbitrary death is not a problem, it's integral to the game. Deaths insure that the party will evolve and change over time and tell a story of its own.  Without these character deaths the danger of the world is never realized, and narrative will never have the same tension of defeat. It's key to understand that as a cooperative exercise in fantastical world building, individual residents of that world are most often not necessary to that larger shared story.  In a sense OD&D's punitive character death rules help make sure the game is not a set of often conflicting individual fantasies of the players about their individual avatars.  The ability to sit down with a few other people and spin a fantasy world is what makes table top games uniquely fun, and I think that OD&D's system for doing so emphasizes this aspect rather well.


  1. I think this is a good summary all except for this part: "it's not a game of power fantasies for each player?, which is true, but seems to apply other styles of gaming are. You repeat the charge again later. I don't believe that low player lethality necessarily equates with power fantasy, in fact, the emphasis on leveling and acquiring the means to do so gives the game more of a "power" focus than games with more robust starting characters but a very flat improvement curve.

    In general , though, I find when "power fantasy" comes up either in a gaming context or in discussing media, I find it just to be an insult that doesn't carry a lot of meaning. You could have made your point without it.

    1. That's a fair critique - what I was trying to get at in a non-derogatory way is that OD&D is more cooperative then generally argued as character development is in game.

      I use the term "power-fantasy" to describe a game where the joy of play is the result of one's individual avatar becoming able to do more or "beat" the game system. I think this is the case in most computer RPGs - the avatar becomes able to dominate the game universe. This can be terribly fun in a game like Torchlight II - but I find this to be the core of grifeing in MMORPGs - both where my enjoyment is disrupted by someone else who breaks my fantasy of being a powerful special actor in the world, and where grifers gain joy by showing off their avatar's superiority.

      I guess another phrase is needed I am sort trying to describe a split between fantasy of empowerment and fantasy of discovery/creation.

    2. That's because 3.5/PF/4E are in fact Power Fantasies. The encounters are tailored to be interesting, yet always winnable. By design. The PCs are vertically motivated and by 10th level, they are uber powerful. Postcards from the dungeon covered this topic extensively, especially see the munchkin episodes.

    3. Now I want to make sure it's understood that I don't object to games about character empowerment - I just don't think LBB D&D works as such.

      3.5/PF/4E all seem to be enjoyed by a lot of folks and are likely great systems for doing what they want to do - the OP isn't in reference to them so much as to MMORPG play and even B/X play anyhow - which has slightly greater survivability.

  2. An interesting note is that solo adventuring was actually rather common in the original Greyhawk campaign, or so I gather. I wonder how that changed the character of what those players were doing compared to what we are doing with Pahvelorn. PVP was present too, which I am personally not very interested in.

    I strongly agree about the importance of the collaborative aspect, and the role of player choice in selecting what to engage with (and what to leave festering... a choice to let something develop outside of your direct influence is a choice too).

    1. When I was younger (like 13) we'd play D&D like that - but it was most certainly a "power fantasy" in the way I describe above. GM says "Ogres are menacing a village" and a PC or two under one player's control fight said ogres, loot the ogre's easy to find lair and gain XP/GP and magic items. Repeat endlessly.

      There was nothing bad in this, but I find it boring now, and frankly Guildwars 2, Torchlight 2 or WOW do a better job - with really pretty pictures.

      It's the collaborative world that's restrained by agreed rules that make it interesting to play table-top games and can't be replicated by a computer game. Early D&D wasn't "competing" with video games - and I think part of my post is an attempt to unbundle why I like tabletop games more than MMORPGs or other computer games. Also why I like a static campaign like Pahvelorn over wild Flailsnails action.

  3. Fantastic article. You hit all the nails on the head as to why I still play old school games.

  4. Very persuasive... Jeff Rients observed that flailsnails is all about Your Character - who passes in and out of different worlds and parties and is really the only enduring feature. What I think that account misses is that those characters are palimpsests of the worlds they pass through: they are written by the stuff they encounter. And they remain collective fiction participants (especially when they die) although I THINK less campaign-reconfiguring happens in general in flailsnails than in single-playgroup campaigns.

    1. Part of the reason I was thinking about this stuff is I've become somewhat dissatisfied with flailsnails and really enjoy games with continuity.

    2. and at the other end Gustie I am waiting for Driver to run a Dwarfland game again only so Darf F-M can come back after 2 years of play to that world where he started as a 4 INT dancing joke and return the level 6 Dwarf (the highest level in the game for that race) w/ 3 powerful henchmen and an unbelievably successful and prosperous bar owner. The local Dwarf that did good in the outer world.

      After that whatever else happens is gravy. He has return a conquering hero.

    3. It's the American dream (like the English colonial dream): go out into the world and come back successful.

      For myself, I seem to have settled into this flailsnailing life. I can't imagine returning to Cornwall to live.

      ...I think the rewards of flailsnailing are different from those of the long-term campaign. There simply isn't going to be the same sort of story development in a campaign-hopping multiverse, and Ian's recent "give me your brags" post is about the level of story you get in that setup. But on the other hand you get a social circle of gamers, a coterie of DMs, some friendly informal competition (which certainly encourages me to step up my game) and a smorgasbord of campaigns to explore and maybe settle on (which is something I'm seeing more and more - pretty much everyone has regulars and guest spots now).

      And actually that turnover in PCs is necessary in this fluid + settling player pool: your fspc(s) try stuff out and mix stuff up but if you want to stay long term in a campaign either they naturalize (which tends to mean their magic items from elsewhere get superceded/used up) or they get replaced eventually by a local - someone who reflects the opportunities of the place where you've landed.

    4. It's the lack of continuity that makes me prefer campaign vs. Flailsnail - not that both aren't fun. For my own games I am running a world specific game and flailsnails one shots for higher level PCs. Now I haven't killed any characters yet, but I that's just been dice so far.

  5. I'm reading this three-and-a-half years after you wrote it. But it's freaking excellent. I'm direct anyone interested in old-school play to read this.