Friday, January 18, 2013

Killing a PC....Death in Old School D&D Games

So last night was the first time I've killed a PC in  Google + game while acting as a GM, it's a strange thing but it got me thinking about character death, lethality and GMing.  Contrary to popular opinion I don't think there should be a great deal of character death in an old school game of D&D.  I think endless character deaths are boring, and each one should ideally have an effect of future play both in how the player's approach adventuring and the overall story of the party.

So the death went down like this:  Huxley Chuff was a 2nd level ASE cleric devoted to the "God of Lost Things", he was a great character and his player is quite game for whatever sort of in world shenanigans I throw at his PC's.  He's one of those players that actually thinks about the game world and schemes up faction interactions and uses the lore.  This is great to see as a GM, so needless to say I felt a little bad about Huxley's death.  I don't feel terrible though because the player had several opportunities to avoid it by not taking a risk for an obvious reward.

Huxley, while exploring a trapped chamber knowingly activated some guardian statutes and lost initiative while alone in the room.  One of the statutes rolled really good and pulped him despite his magic shield.  The other stepped into the hall and crushed the party illusionist, and smashed a henchman. 

I allow a saving throw vs. death for getting killed in battle (unless it's a spectacular sort of getting killed) and for most traps.  These not quite dead deaths result in penalties to the characters - usually one point permanent stat loss with a gruesome story attached.

For example - Huxley had previously taken a goblin boss's saber to the gut, but made his saving throw vs. death.  I gave him a permanently weakened lung and a loss of one point of CON as a result.  The previously mentioned illusionist survived her statute smashing but eneded up with a badly broken arm and a permanent loss of one STR point.  Another character has suffered turning purple from poison and developing a speach impediment (-1 CHR).

This gets me to what I've learned about handling high lethality games.




1) Death should not be arbitrary - None of those classic Gygax traps where the floor suddenly drops and a magic force pulls everyone within 30' into the pit. I want my dangerous monsters to telegraph their deadly from far away (with rumors, with noises, with the obvious appearance of deadly).  I want traps that are so obviously traps that the player can't say "didn't see that coming" unless they were asleep.  Of course the key to such traps is that even with a warning the players want to mess with them, and that the mechanism is not completely obvious.  Basically death feels acceptable as a GM (and as a player) when there is a player choice to take a risk.

2) Death should have a random element - This is where the saves vs. Death come in.  I don't want to tell a player "Your PC is dead" I want to say "The gnoll strikes for nine points of damage, because I rolled an 18".  This isn't because I'm afraid of being the one who decides something bad happens, but because tabletop RPG are a game of random elements. Combat is dangerous because it's random, and even when you mess up and the party is caught in a trap there should be a chance it won't work.  This is why I don't like spells without saving throws.  I give the victims of sleep a saving throw, monsters and character's both, because otherwise it's a very dumb way to lose a party.

The Save vs. Death mechanic also allows an escape for player's who feel PC death is too serious and too upsetting for them.  If they want to fudge the roll, I'll never know because I don't use die rollers, and I'll never doubt it.  I don't think anyone does fudge this roll, but given that fun is the prime purpose of playing, if it will absolutely ruin someone's evening to have their character die I'm okay with them saying they rolled a nineteen and survived.  I think the permanent injury is a serious enough penalty for dying.  On the other hand if a player wants to play high lethality style dungeon delving, that's fine to - they can say they failed their save vs. death when they didn't.

3) Death Should Not be Hugely Punitive - If death is a regular part of the game, it shouldn't be hugely punitive, the player who died because of bad luck or a bad plan shouldn't be way behind the rest of the party in experience or the adventure will be handi-capped a bit. This is why I tell my players to roll up a new PC and give him or her 1/2 the dead character's experience points.  This means they're about a level lower than most party members, but it's not crippling and they'll catch up in few sessions.  Likewise in my ASE game I am allowing deaths to open up "prestige" classes.  As the players explore more of the world new classes become available and the only way to play them is by losing the current character.  This might even make death desirable to some players, who really want to play a gun-slinging paladin of the Orbital Inquisition or a Robot.

16 comments:

  1. Wait, I can play a gun-slinging paladin?

    Sign me up.

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    1. Yes, they exist - should you roll Paladin stats somehow, ask me about those masked inquisitors from the South...

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  2. I agree, mostly. I don't think traps need to be announced, but I do think there should be clues. Or rather, you shouldn't need the death of a PC to be the canary in the coal mine. Regarding death not being arbitrary, I would rephrase that as there being a second chance. For example, the damage roll is a form of second chance. Sure, the monster hit you, but there's still a chance it will do a small amount of damage. Sure, you were poisoned, but you still get a saving throw. Etc. The death saving throw has been working really well for this.

    In my opinion, 3 is handled by both using retainers and the pseudo-exponential nature of the experience tables. Also, I've noticed in Pahvelorn that the gear from previous PCs tends to benefit future PCs, even when not directly inherited (for example, consider the grimoires that have been accumulated; assuming none of them are lost, future PCs are getting access to more and more spells). In other words, I don't feel like giving 1/2 XP is necessarily required here, at least not in OD&D, where the power curve by level is not so steep.

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    1. On traps/big monsters. Not announced exactly, but obvious that there's something dangerous there. Like last night's trap. "Chest on dias, scary statutes, cryptic clues" - that's what I mean about obvious. I mean a pit trap now and then is fine, but something tricky and lethal shouldn't just spring at the party, it should invite them in. This is one of the best things about ASE - really good traps/tricks.

      On XP spillover - sure, at low levels it doesn't really matter, past 4th or so though it's important. A first level fighter just lacks the survivability for a 5th level dungeon whereas a 3rd level or 4th level doesn't.

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  3. Oh, I think that was your second PC death, actually. There was that guy that was running a pre-gen and got slimed.

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  4. I use this rule for in my campaign:

    If just one or a few players die, roll up a new PC whose level is one less than the deepest level the players have entered

    If it's a TPK, everyone rolls new PC's with the same level as the deepest level entered so far

    It gets the players back into the game w/o gimping them, and prompts them to go deeper instead of looting safer levels

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    1. Pat, that sounds very reasonable. The point about encouraging deeper delving is a good one.

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  5. I partially agree.

    1) I don't like most of the classic DnD traps I've seen because they aren't fair. That is to say, you don't have much chance of avoiding them. But as long as the DM gives some indication of danger, and the trap is "realistic" i.e. consistent with the technology level of the setting, then I like them. TOH's poison needle in the mosaic is an example of what I would call a 'fair trap'.

    2) Totally disagree. If the players decide to engage the house-sized monster, and you made it clear in your description that this thing looks dangerous as hell, I don't need a random element besides it's 'to hit' roll for it to squash them!

    3) Fair enough. I think this depends on who your gaming group is, whether they will throw their dice at the DM and never game again, or take it in good stride.

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  6. I want traps that are so obviously traps that the player can't say "didn't see that coming" unless they were asleep. Of course the key to such traps is that even with a warning the players want to mess with them, and that the mechanism is not completely obvious. Basically death feels acceptable as a GM (and as a player) when there is a player choice to take a risk.

    This may not be what you mean, but as a player I want to choose between low risk and high risk - I don't want a non-risk option. If it's possible to swan through the game gaining treasure and XP without any risk of character death, I'll lose interest pretty quickly. Similarly, I like being made to think before I act and be occasionally quick on my feet, so if every danger is clearly signposted I'll get bored.

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  7. On traps - absolutely, I am talking clear signposts I just don't want the players so afraid of every bit of dungeon dressing that the game becomes ten foot poles & trepidation. Its a balancing act.

    On monsters- I think the commentators and I are on the same page. I just give a save for permanent mutilation if the party doesn't get tpk'd. As to warnings I am logical, and just cause its dangerous doesn't mean its not guarding treasure or the exit.

    On PC death - I like the save and permanent injury because it create memorable events/characters. "Why is the thief purple" "Why does the cleric have a hook hand?"

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    1. "I just don't want the players so afraid of every bit of dungeon dressing that the game becomes ten foot poles & trepidation."

      Absolutely agreed on that! I know it's a sort of classic trope -- the adventuring party advancing at a snail's pace, poking everything that doesn't move with a 10' pole, checking every door and stairway for traps, etc -- but I find that kind of play super boring as a DM. I also try to make it at least semi-obvious when there's a trap around.

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  8. I'm pretty happy with relatively high rates of PC death - 1st level characters are fragile and the game involves mortal dangers - but like the risks the PCs take to be determined, at least in part, by player choice. However, I largely agree with this post.

    I've always given PCs and Monsters Saving Throws against Sleep spells, otherwise it can work as a 'to-all-practical-effect-Death-spell'. I've a feeling that if we we're playing the game with twenty-odd PCs and henchmen the total HD, even at low levels, would keep Sleep as a 'temporary incapacitation' spell.

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    1. I suppose having played about 8 sessions under the above system and lost 2 PCs, 4 henchmen (including a 2hd robot) and 3 pitbulls - from a total 6 potential pc deaths and 5 potential dead henchmen I think the lethality is about right considering the skill of the players.

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  9. Said character who turned purple and suffered a speech impediment has ALSO got weak kidneys and a permanent -2 to their save v. poison.

    It's almost like they have a death wish.

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    1. Well I hope he will return for more punishment - though I must warn that while the Mute tower and gatehouse had their share of nasty, the ASE in truth will straight up murder ya'll without saying thank you or hello.

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    2. I'm hoping to clear up a little more space in my schedule for gaming. My ladyfriend is in a year long internship program, and not living with me at the moment. Which gives me some free time.

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