Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Lethality and the RPG as a Relativistic Game

The Game Masters’ Roundtable of Doom is a meeting of the minds of tabletop RPG bloggers and GMs. We endeavor to transcend a particular system or game and discuss topics that are relevant to GMs and players of all roleplaying games.

If you’d like to submit a topic for our future discussions, or if you’re a blogger who’d like to participate in the Game Master’s Roundtable of Doom, send an email to Lex Starwalker.

 This month's topic comes to us courtesy of Lex Starwalker, who poses the following question:

There is a wide spectrum of lethality in RPGs, and there are GMs who fall on every possible point within it. These range from GMs who run campaigns where PCs can never die to the other extreme—GMs who delight in killing PCs. Where do you fall on this spectrum? How lethal are your games and why? How do you handle PC death if and when it happens?

[The above text is directly from Lex Starwalker's blog - linked at the end of this post]

My feelings on lethality in RPGs have evolved along much the same lines as my general approach to being a GM (reviewed in last month's post).  Through high school, my gaming (mostly DnD -- some other systems like Marvel Super Heroes, TMNT, Rifts, etc.) took the game as a challenge.  The experience was largely one that pitted the players against the DM and the game itself.  I guess we all wanted to brag about surviving the Lost Tower on Inverness or escaping the shackles of the slavers from the classic A series.  We could brag about surviving the Tomb of Horrors but no one would believe us.

One amusing story comes to mind.  In high school, I started going to some local conventions.  This was really my first contact with what we would now call public play and the first time that I ever played with people other than friends and family.  I was transfixed by a local DM who talked about his midnight game (don't worry - no need for trigger warnings for this story, though there is a vague mention of in-game suicide - I don't think it will be traumatic for anyone).  The adventure was based on Ravenloft -- before there was a Ravenloft setting.  He adapted the original Ravenloft module to create an adventure location he called "The Roadhouse."  He bragged that the adventure was so hard that the last surviving player in one game was a paladin who ended up killing himself with his own holy avenger.  For the high school gamer in me, this was about as cool a DnD story as I ever heard.  This sounded like the ultimate challenge and the pinnacle of DnD.  I never did get to play the game -- though I watched it played for a couple of hours that night -- but I wished that I could so that I could try to earn the bragging rights of surviving "the Roadhouse."

Dungeons & Dragons by Ville Miettinen (flikr)

Bragging about surviving a game requires the presumption that there is enough similarity in the experiences of people playing the game that the outcomes are comparable.  If every play-through of the Tomb of Horrors is not comparable, there is no meaning in bragging about surviving it in part or in whole.  Embedded in this notion is also the assumption that the rules are an external "fact" that define the correct way to play.  We must play the correct way so that we can compare our experiences and meaningfully brag about our successes.

This approach to gaming places a premium on lethality.  It is essential that the game be as lethal as the rules demand.  If death is not a real possibility - there is no reason to brag about survival.  The DM of "the Roadhouse" knew this well.  He created a menacing scenario to attract people who wanted to overcome that challenge.  Of course games can vary in their rule-defined lethality (Call of Cthulhu -- I am looking at you).  However, the level of challenge is a key part of the bragging rights and that requires a fixed degree of lethality.

Today, I have largely abandoned the notion that play experiences are comparable (or should be) and that we can measure the success of any player based on their survival of this or that module.  I have adopted a more relativistic approach to gaming.  Success is enjoying the game and generating fun stories (to the players involved).  If you want to brag about the cool stories you told -- including the obstacles you overcame -- that is great.  I want to hear cool stories.  I don't think, though, that there is any hierarchy of skill defined by survival of a character.  I would find the pitch of "the Roadhouse" tedious at this point (as well may be the case with that DM these decades removed).  I would still love to know what happened to that poor paladin.

In my current games, I pretty much would never kill a character without the player's permission.  If the encounter resulted in a character death - I would offer a trapdoor (metaphorically -- maybe literally) to save the character.  The player and I could talk about whether they would like this to be the death of the character or to exercise the trapdoor (possibly including the entire group in the conversation).  I want to serve the groups (and each players') fun -- not some sense of gamer hierarchy and status of survival.

In my early DnD 4E days (I think it was Keep on the Shadowfell before there was a PHB), I had a character hit hard with a series of crits.  By the rules, he died.  The players liked his character and really did want to keep playing.  I had him instantly resurrected by his deity (Moradin).  I explained that Moradin felt that his work was not yet done.  Suddenly his character became obsessed with his destiny and his devotion to Moradin -- to the benefit of the game's narrative. He became "twice born of Moradin" and we still talk about that character to this day.  Does this render that play-through of KotS invalid because we broke the rules?  Was the victory over the later boss encounter less meaningful?  We don't care.  We had fun -- and more so because we ignored the death rules.

What does this mean about how I recommend handling lethality in RPG?

  1. The relativistic approach to the game means that all aspects of the experience should be negotiated and defined by the group.  If the players want to play a lethal game, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.  Maybe they want the constant fear to be part of the visceral experience of the game or they look forward to cycling through characters.  However, the lethality level should not be a surprise to anyone.  
  2. Character death is a very personal experience for many players.  Unless the players are fully prepared for a lethal campaign, one should be very careful dealing with character death.  Players, especially those surprised by lethality, will look for excuses to re-roll attacks, look for more bonuses, etc.  They will rage against the dying of the toon.  Be prepared for this or avoid it entirely.  One can lose an entire session if this process of looking for an excuse continues or there is any dispute in the nature of the encounter, question of rules, or miscommunication that the player can use to argue that the death was not actually necessary.
  3. There are often alternatives to incorporate death into the narrative of the campaign.  You can respect death and menace within the narrative by making death meaningful -- even if not permanent.  You can make the near-death something that affects the character.  Give the character something to remind them of the event (e.g. a scar that is now an important part of their character).  It will make their character riches while reminding everyone that death -- or the threat of death -- is present and can matter.
Check out these other blogs on the same subject this month:

John Clayton -- Files and Records
Evan Franke -- A Sage among His Books
John Marvin -- Dread Unicorn Games
Marc Plourde -- Inspiration Strike
Lex Starwalker -- Starwalker Studios
James Walls -- Living for Crits
(more to be added as they come in this week)

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