Monday, April 13, 2009

On Avoiding Death

Death sucks. I think we've all seen players get bummed out when they lose a PC. Among other things, they have to sit out the game from that point (unless NPCs are available to run, or a new PC is rolled, etc.)

Most modern games include some kind of add-on mechanic to cushion the PCs from death that would naturally happen by the core mechanical rules. Maybe it's "action points" (see below) that make a killing shot simply not happen. Or maybe it's some kind of "death track" system where instead of being killed outright, you accrue disability points, or wounds that degrade your performance, or you're unconscious and bleeding, or you're incapacitated and making death saves, etc.

From the last several games that I've played in, I don't like these mechanics, and here's why: In short, they extend the pain and suffering instead of just getting it over with. As an associated example, let's take the hold person spell from D&D. In classic D&D, you'd get one saving throw to avoid the spell, otherwise you were paralyzed for several rounds (and subject to being automatically dispatched). With 3.5 D&D, this was changed to an every-round saving throw. The theory is that it's "no fun" to be paralyzed, and the save gives the player something to do each round.

Is it fun to just be forced to make a saving throw each round to avoid death? I'd say "hell no". Look, if I was just dead outright, then at least I could politely get up from the table and go do something else -- get some pizza, make coffee, watch another game in progress, make a new character, prep a different game, etc. The death/incapacitation would sting a bit, but I could immediately start getting over it. With all these games that have a "death track" or "action point" mechanic, I find myself getting on the short end of a fight (overpowered or crippled), and being kept chained to the unpleasant situation, having to roll my "death save" (or whatever) round after round after round, without having anything useful to add to the game. The dragged-out death cycle is a lot more painful than just being dead, period, and out of the game.

Let me again quote how Sid Meier phrased the essential nature of our hobby: "A good game is a series of interesting choices." (See here.) Now, is paying an action point to avoid a killing blow an "interesting choice"? Is a forced saving throw against death (while unconscious, paralyzed, bleeding, unable to act) any kind of choice at all? I'd definitely say "no". As soon as you get into a situation where the player has no practical choice to make about the character, they are as good as "dead" in the gameplay sense, and it would be most efficient to recognize that fact, get them out of the game, and on to something else with their time. (At least that's how I felt the last several times it happened to me. I almost wanted to say "no, I don't spend the action point, I just take the death", but felt that would be inconsiderate and come off as passive-aggressive).

Let me contrast this with the OD&D game I ran a week ago (more on that later). Party goes into a dungeon, deals with one trap, fights a bunch of monsters, then runs into a witch with a sleep spell. Everyone fails their saving throws, Bam, total party kill (TPK). Okay, so we all laugh at that and roll up new characters to send in after the first ones. Now, (a) we have a dramatic, pointed story to tell about the first band of adventurers who lost their lives in the deadly caves, and (b) no one spent time being incapacitated for an hour or two without being able to affect the action (under a misguided attempt to cushion the PCs from hideous death), and (c) we had enough time to make new characters, get a bite for lunch, and game out a second, entirely distinct story about the more successful adventurers that came later on.

Not surprisingly, the first place I ever saw a comment about how PCs might avoid death like this was in Gygax's AD&D DMG (p. 110): "You can rule that the player, instead of dying, is knocked unconscious, loses a limb, is blinded in one eye or invoke any reasonably severe penalty that still takes into account what the monster has done. It is very demoralizing to the players to lose a cared-for-player character when they have played well..." But how much fun is it really to play an unconscious or blinded PC? I would say not much at all (particularly in short games of the convention or tournament variety); perhaps even less fun (i.e., more frustrating) than a PC who is just plain... dead.

19 comments:

  1. I've always felt the AD&D system - at 0hp you're incapacitated, and at -10 you're dead - made for a good compromise between the lethality of B/X and OD&D and the coddling of 3/4e.

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  2. glaurung: A problem with neg hp is that often the player is expected to track them (as players usually track their hit points in general). Then they get the joy of powerlessly watching their hit points trickle down, and having to announce their own character's death. Sometimes they artfully neglect this duty.

    I think it's best that when a character is knocked down or disabled, all control be taken away from the player. The player doesn't track neg HP, he doesn't roll recovery dice, he doesn't spend action points; he's just completely hors-de-combat. Maybe the character's not dead, but the player is as helpless about it as the character is.

    So you can still have these recovery methods, but keep it in the DM's hands and don't let the player know anything. There's no metagaming of "well he can survive a couple more rounds so we'll keep fighting". It gives more use to a heal skill. It adds some pretty nice tension and drama as well. It avoids, "maybe THIS round I'll recover (*roll*) ARGH!"

    I've played in a campaign with 100% hidden rolls and it has a lot of advantages.

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  3. I think the biggest problem with avoiding death is in instant save or die scenarios.

    The witch casting sleep & bam, TPK -- how is there an interesting choice for the players there?

    The hidden orcs using their surprise round to launch a volley of poison arrows -- bam, save or die. How is that interesting?

    Hold Person is little better. Sure, you might anticipate that the foes have such magic, and if you are high enough level, you will allocate some counters (Dispel Magic, for example). But, for the typical party of level 2 through 7, getting whacked with Hold Person and having your throat slit like a pig really isn't preventable. The only real counter is to bring a whole lot of bodyguards and have them drag you out of the fray before you get coup de graced.

    I think there is much less of a problem with death resulting from the trickling of HP. Unless you're playing with very painful critical hit or surprise rules, very rarely will a player find themselves going from full-up on HP to death in less than a round or two (except at level 1-2).

    So, I think rather than adding a mechanism to mitigate random, pointless, and unpreventable death, its better to just tone down the save-or-die silliness.

    I know an old school player might say, "Well, you get a save if you've done something stupid already," and sometimes its true, but too many times that is not the case. How is entering combat with the BBEG (the witch) stupid? In that case, you're basically punishing the players for sticking to your railroad, which means in the future they will just be contrary and paranoid.

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  4. Also, while D&D is really more Swords & Sorcery than Heroic High Fantasy, here's some thoughts on heroes that fail:

    http://vedronspotionshop.blogspot.com/2009/04/heroes-that-fail.html

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  5. I think the biggest problem with avoiding death is in instant save or die scenarios.You are coming at this from a completely foreign, incompatible perspective. There is no "BBEG" in my games. There is no default expectation of survival. There is no "stupidity" requirement for death to occur.

    I'll just say this: I would much, much rather have quick save-or-die spells than protracted death spirals. I would prefer to have more save-or-die mechanics, as a fix to death spirals, if the choice were forced upon me.

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  6. Is a forced saving throw against death (while unconscious, paralyzed, bleeding, unable to act) any kind of choice at all? I'd definitely say "no".Is it any kind of choice if you aren't KOd, paralyzed or otherwise also unable to act? I mean, how much choice is there in, "You lost initiative. Save vs. Polymorph Other into a House Plant" or "Save vs. Hold Person so the orc can slit your throat."

    That may work fine in a war game like Chain Mail, but as I undersand it, Arneson added HP to the system exactly because players were sick of being one-shotted with the Chainmail matrices. So why is ok to one-shot them with spells or poison?

    I feel like a character should have a defined start-middle-end to their death spiral/beatdown/etc. It creates a nice sense of drama, as your posts on the Rule of 3 suggest. Then again, I am approaching things from a more heroic high fantasy bent these days, as opposed to the grim S&S default, so I know I'm seeing rainbows and unicorns ;).

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  7. Is it any kind of choice if you aren't KOd, paralyzed or otherwise also unable to act? I mean, how much choice is there in, "You lost initiative. Save vs. Polymorph Other into a House Plant" or "Save vs. Hold Person so the orc can slit your throat."None, which is why they must be removed from the game as soon as that happens.

    Now, it appears that the objection you really want to make is "I don't like one-hit kills", which is an entirely separate issue, and one that I have scant interest in discussing.

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  8. I'm working on a game. My D&D group is good-natured enough to playtest with me. One concept I'm fiddling with is having all effects attack either physical HP or mental HP (I have better terminology but this works for now).

    Physical HP is affected by Constitution, mental HP affected by Willpower (replaces wisdom).

    If you're attacked by a medusa's gaze you're struck for a ranged attack that causes Xd6 petrification damage. The petrify damage type always affects physical HP. You might die, you might not. You get a save for half damage.

    If a witch casts Sleep on you, it causes Xd6 sleep damage. The sleep damage type is always mental. You might get knocked out, you might not. You get a save for half damage.

    So you see, unless the attack would knock you out anyway there are no save or die situations. If the dragon breathes on you and causes a bunch of damage even if you save you might die. After all you only have so many HP. But it's also possible for a really tough (and fresh to the fight) adventurer to fail his save against one medusa's gaze and survive. Against successive gazes he might not be so lucky!

    As for healing, instead of a binary "Remove Paralysis" now we can have Cure Wounds variants. Cure Light Paralysis removes 1d6 points of paralysis damage. Cure Serious Petrification removes 2d6+1 petrification damage. This allows healers of all level ranges a chance to do something worthwhile against whatever damage type you've taken.

    Some damage types cannot be healed naturally by resting. Petrification is one of them. But paralyzation is healed by resting. Thus we don't need to worry about a duration for the Hold Person spell. It "runs out" gradually as your mental HP recover or someone heals your paralysis damage.

    I'm using the same system for poison, disease, weapon damage, falling, fatigue, starvation, thirst, forced marching, etc. Each refers back to a few paragraphs in the combat chapter without adding new rules.

    ...

    Grappling is still rough. But it's coming along.

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  9. Oops. I didn't precisely comment on the original topic. We actually don't tell anyone the status of a character when it falls. The player gets his damage, figures out where he's at HP-wise, and lays his figure down (maybe injecting some dramatic description). He doesn't say whether he's alive or dead or when he dies. We often waste healing on a dead party member because we don't want to wait the round testing to see if he's alive or not. One time someone burned a resurrection scroll on a dude who was down at -9 HP and he died the next round. It was a different kind of miracle.

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  10. I dunno, I quite like Gygax's narrative solution to character death. It seems to me that the idea is that the character is out of the combat, but survives if the outcome is a victory. Not much of a death spiral involved, and disabilities can be regenerated in AD&D.

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  11. Maybe there's a compromise choice in some of the death spiral situations, where the player can chose to make a save as normal, or automatically make the save...for one round. After which he keels over or falls unconscious from shock, removing the character from the game for the remainder of the encounter. That restores an element of choice, lets you do something interesting, and still go on a munchie raid.

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  12. Hi Delta! It's interesting how we had somewhat parallel posts - I just went through a near TPK where I played a troll magi against some 1st level PCs who decided to test their mettle. It didn't end well, as you can imagine.

    The point is that some players will accept that death is a real possibility and actually enjoy the change of pace. I think I was more distraught about the experience than my players (well most of them.)

    AlexS pointed me to your blog and I like what I see! Howdy!

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  13. Hey, thanks for the posts everybody.

    I think I might have been a bit too cranky with Vedron above -- Probably I should have just said "save-or-die is a separate issue than what I'm talking about here" and left it at that.

    Personally, I really don't like turning every effect into hit point damage (a la 4E). I feel like, within reason, separate effects/flavor should have different mechanics to back them up. So I really prefer spells that outright paralyze people, or poison that outright kills people, etc., etc. Example: It really got my player's attention last week when I announced that orcs were firing poisoned crossbow bolts at them (even though none connected), and I like that.

    I do agree with Glaurung at the top that the AD&D system is pretty comfortable for me. Unconscious at 0 to -3, ticking down to -10 for death. The other key advantage (in this context) is that as soon as that happens, the PC needs a full week of recupration (magic cures don't help), so the player can immediately get up and go as soon as that happens.

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  14. I see nothing wrong with just dying at zero HP, nor do I see that big a difference between that and the AD&D solution of falling unconscious and needing a week of recuperation; death is not as permanent in D&D as it seems to be in reality, and even a low level party without the funds to pay for a raise dead could, if the player REALLY wants to keep playing that special character, barter with a high level priest at a temple (something along the lines of, sure we will go and retrieve the holy hand grenade of antioch from the killer rabbit, just raise our friend already!). By the way, this piqued my curiosity:
    "It really got my player's attention last week when I announced that orcs were firing poisoned crossbow bolts at them..."
    How would your players know that the bolts were poisoned if none of them hit? Did they see green slime dripping from the tips as they flew past?

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  15. ...death is not as permanent in D&D as it seems to be in reality, and even a low level party without the funds to pay for a raise dead could, if the player REALLY wants to keep playing that special character, barter with a high level priest at a temple...Generally true, but remember that in my games I have expunged all clerics. With this post, I'm also thinking about other more modern games as well.

    How would your players know that the bolts were poisoned if none of them hit? Did they see green slime dripping from the tips as they flew past?Exactly correct. If think that's unrealistic, I think it's important to take some poetic license to (a) heighten the tension, and (b) give them information to make some strategic decisions with.

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  16. Sorry, I just stumbled across your blog and did not realize that there were no clerics in your game. I should have dug around a bit before I commented. I have no problem with seeing poison dripping from the bolts mid flight, I just used a similar device in a session recently (you see the ratman on the rooftop across from you dip a bolt in a flask before loading into his crossbow and aiming at you...). By the way, I may steal your technique of using a countdown to force players to make a decision. My current group is getting into the habit of giving each other advice and turning every decision in melee into a group discussion, and it is really bogging down the gameplay. Keep up the good work.

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  17. I have to say I’m of a completely opposite view on the “save every round” effects. I think they absolutely create drama, and certainly support interesting choices. While it can indeed suck to spend your whole turn sitting there for one die roll, at least it keeps you invested in the action, and creates a sense of suspense re: when your character will be able to shake it off and get back in the fight. Much better than having the player leave the room, or start flipping through books, or turning on the TV to check the football scores.

    Further, it forces interesting choices on EVERYONE ELSE. If you’re dead, they can leave your body where it lies and ignore it. If you’re temporarily helpless, everyone has to decide how high they prioritize protecting you or trying to help you recover. If Bold Bevin the fighting man has to choose between following the evil wizard Alcazar through the door he just ran into, or protecting his ally Nimble Ned the rogue, who is paralyzed on the floor and about to have his throat slit by Alcazar’s goblin minions, that’s a choice!

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  18. "While it can indeed suck to spend your whole turn sitting there for one die roll, at least it keeps you invested in the action... Much better than having the player leave the room..."

    Speaking as a player, my experience is that it does _not_ keep me invested in the action. It aggravates me and is much _worse_ than being allowed to leave the room.

    The choices for "everyone else" are still available (classically) without chaining the player in question to the table for a series of misery-inducing die rolls. The PC can be paralyzed or comatose for the rest of the fight, allow other PCs to fight on their behalf, and let the player in question be free to go do something else. Please.

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  19. This must be a preference thing. I hate having to sit completely out of the fight with no chance to rejoin. And I've found it damages the immersion when one player has no incentive at all to pay attention anymore. Those three alternative activities are all ones I've actually seen.

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