Monday, March 14, 2016

The Threat of Death

I'll be discussing different gaming systems, some in a favorable light and others not so much.  The topic is infusing mortality into a game.  The fact is some systems do this and other systems just suck at it.  This is not a declaration that one system is better than the other, but better at developing a sense of mortality.  Danger!  Some got it.  Some don't. 

A sense of mortality is an element that is ever present in my game.  I GM a semi-realistic world, with a medieval European, and Asian, historical influence.  Literary wise, the books that most reflect my way of thinking are the Thieves World books, The Warhound and the World's Pain and throw in nearly any story of Dostoevsky or Kafka and you'll get a snapshot of where I am coming from.  Dark, gritty and unforgiving with occasional elements of wonder.

Some rule systems are more forgiving than others.  Off the top of my head I can think of the last two editions of D&D with their healing surges.  The party can go head-to-head with a batch of giant flaming skeletal, vampires mages, take a short break (or as I call it, taking a knee) a and jump back into the next fight.  This aspect of the game eliminates consequences of a battle.  I personally disdain this mechanic.  

Even Dragon Age/Fantasy Age, systems I really like have a similar mechanic and even allow characters to first aid during battle.  Are you fricking kidding me?  While I am not a stickler for hardcore realism, I do appreciate a little common sense.  If you have any experience with either fighting and/or first aid, you know that shit ain't happening.  It's hard enough to patch someone up who is holding still let along getting arrows shot at them or dodging axe blows.  Dragon Age claims to be an unforgiving, dark fantasy world, but with ability to first aid during a battle, taking a knee mechanic, along with heal spells, it's not.  The content may be dark, but getting when you get into a battle there are many safety nets in place.

These systems favor a heroic fantasy.  The system encourages epic battles and campaigns.  The mechanics allow a character more chances to get to the point of some epic accomplishment.  Absolutely nothing wrong with this.  I love Dragon Age.  I really enjoyed playing 5th edition D&D, but it wasn't until we started playing Pits & Perils that I felt that rush of "Oh shit, this could be it."

But even Pits & Perils is a more forgiving than old OD&D.  Pits & Perils works on a simple, but elegant system of hits.  A fighter has 10hp + say 3 armor (2 for chain mail and 1 for the shield). Weapon damage is either a 1 or 2.  That means a 1st level fighter can take between 7 to 13 hits before dying.  And they die once they hit 0hp.  None of this death saving throw.  No minus your Con score and then you are really dead.  Nope, 0 is dead, dead.  Amen!  But, look at an OD&D fighter with about 8hp, weapons do an average of 1d6.  So 2 hits can send your character into the afterlife.  And again, 0 hit points means its time to roll up a new guy.  Getting into a a fight can be very deadly.

And if you look at the healing mechanics for both these games, it is not easy to recover from a battle. If the party gets into a big fight they can't just take a knee and then charge into the next battle.  It takes a couple of days to recover, often longer.  Characters have fewer healing resources to burn through and they are not replenished as often.  So when they take on that ogre, a party using these systems has to consider the consequences because it may delay their travels for a week.

Some may complain this sounds boring.  It is definitely a matter of taste.  And there are also arguments about what hit points really represents, which I will not get into, because when you run out of them you're dead, not tired. 

Combat is of course the most obvious.  I also like having poison where it is save vs. death.  I often include disease in my games.  Imagine playing a game where the Black Plague is the backdrop.  Every village, home or encounter could end with infecting the party members.  Again, in newer versions of D&D, a cure disease or a paladin can take care of it fairly quick.  While in Pits & Perils and OD&D these curing disease options are fewer.  While a cleric can cure a person that takes up precious spell slots.

Again, this is my overall preference.  Going into a village infected with a plague become a lot more interesting if the party feels they could be next.  Some may find this kind of game boring, I can see their point.  Sometimes you just want to be the badass and wade into battle, damn the consequences because its not a matter of life or death, but how many you kill and how much you drink to your many victories.  But for me, for the victories to mean anything, there has to have been a chance, a big chance, that I would fail.  And failing can be interesting, it is often more interesting that succeeding. 


  1. I don't have strong feelings either way. Largely, it depends, I think on the type of game you want to run. I feel like 5e does a pretty good job of walking a middle path. It's harder to die than in old school games, true enough, but in actually play it's not so hard to go down (as monsters have more hit points too) and a total party knockout easily turns into a total party kill.

    1. I agree, the combat is a lot of fun, but it's the easy elimination of damage between fights that I irks me.

  2. One of the reasons this may be an issue (and a possible line of blog inquiry) is a look at WHY combat is so important to the game. It IS important, it IS exciting, it IS fun (unlike, say, the "real world" where most of us aren't terribly interested in getting hurt in a fight...let alone multiple, consecutive fights with only hours rest in between battles).

    Why is it important? I mean, the fact that it IS important has led to all the rule additions to make it last longer, to make it more interesting/tactical, to make it possible to do MORE of it. The designers of recent editions (and similar games) are just giving the fans what they want...because combat is deemed as the most interesting, exciting, "fun" part of the game.

    Is there a way to make other portions of the game as fun as combat? To me, THAT's an interesting line of thought.

    1. Agreed. I like to focus on other aspects of game other than combat.

  3. I love that illustration, just BTW.

  4. In a way this is why I so enjoyed Ken's game last week (well, apart from just being back in Montporte again, which is a great place to adventure).

    A lot of people spit on the "15-minute workday," but personally I like it. That "holy crap" moment when both your spell-casters have just used their one and only spell and one or more characters has just gone down from 6 to 1 hp.

    OK, time to call it a day, go back to town, heal up. We'll plunge back into hell another day.

    "I love it... God help me, I do love it so."

  5. I think there is more to the design of games that add extra protection for PCs on the front end than just emulating heroic fantasy. That is certainly a component but most of these systems have more involved character creation processes so PC creation requires more time and thought on the player's part and the player gets more invested in the PC from the start as opposed to OD&D where the investment comes with levels gained & time spent playing the PC. Things like healing surges, first aid in combat and drama/hero points are intended, in these games, to insure a better return on investment before the player has to spend more time creating a new PC. That said, I'm not a fan of healing surges.
    For all the talk about its grittiness, OD&D actually does the same thing. The only difference is OD&D doesn't require a lot of time invested in the character creation process so PCs start out relatively expendable but the more time you invest in playing your PC, the more hit points & better saving throws they accumulate in order to protect your investment from fickle fate. Compared to games like Boot Hill, Runequest & Rolemaster where a PC can be killed or so grievously injured as to have to retire from adventuring from a single blow regardless of how experienced they are or how long you've played them, OD&D is actually pretty forgiving and a sort of middle ground on the grittiness meter. In the end, it all boils down to personal preference as to how much grit you want in your game. I actually shift between the extremes depending on the kind of game that I'm wanting to run or play.

  6. I prefer the deadliness of low-level hit points in earlier editions, but I also like the idea of infection, disease and death spirals. It can be a bit much to throw all of those in together, so I'm OK with boosting hit points a bit to compensate (no healing surges or first aid, though) since the overall level of deadliness is the same. Plus, it can add an interesting wrinkle to the game when an injured character isn't simply dead, but a liability you suddenly have to deal with. How are you going to get them out of the dungeon? Better find a way to treat those wounds before he really does die (great alternative for high level characters)