Wednesday 4 July 2012

Player Character Mortality

Is a good thing. 

Seriously.  I can’t imagine the point of playing a game that involved nominally lethal conflict in which there was an expectation that the player characters would not run a serious risk of death. Sure, certain campaign concepts might reduce the risk somewhat – the players might play the champions of the gods, for example, able to wade through normal men as if they were mere distractions. But if a player character goes up against a non-player character or monster of roughly equal power, the PC need be better equipped, or have chosen the ground, or engage in clever play, else his odds of winning that fight will be roughly fifty-fifty.

And some of the blame has to go to computer games, including, but not limited to, CRPGs (and CRPGs are NOT roleplaying games). A key piece of strategy advice for any CRPG is ‘save early, save often’. This is the style of play that the designers assume will be employed. Sure, you could play ‘ironman’, and start from the beginning each time your character died, but even in a ‘sandbox’ such as Skyrim you’ll be seeing the same thing over and over again. In a real RPG, the experience of playing a new character can be genuinely novel, not simply a sullen retread through the levels until you got back to where you were before.  I quickly got bored of Skyrim – as I get bored of most CRPGs, after an initial surge of enthusiasm. There is simply no risk, or even an illusion of risk. When my Skyrim character enters the dungeon, my worry is not that he’ll die, it’s that he’ll ‘die’ and I’ll have to play through a section of the dungeon again. 

I wrote this post last week, but it is particularly appropriate now as tonight’s game ended in a TPK. I'm not a killer DM, I promise. More on that later.


  1. My experience with 3rd edition was decidedly different...mortality seemed to spike with that edition and there on out. I had much more involved and lengthy character-focused games back in my 1 and 2E days (and when I was younger I disliked killing PCs a lot more than I do now). However, I think the real problem with 3rd (and 4th) is that the char-op minigame component of the rules encourages a sort of player ADD; I know of too many players who will cycle through multiple characters over time and never settle down on playing "just one" character to grow and develop, resulting in a persistent disconnect between the player and the scenario. On the other hand, I run games where the plots make no assumptions about the players, and its their job to make themselves relevant, so my GM style might not be typical.

    Offhand, I'd say that the problem with heavily story-focused games that can be wrecked by a player death is really more of a spinoff of the "storygaming" subset of RPGs ala White Wolf's games (to reference the rpgpundit, something I never thought I'd do!) in which the entire focus of the game is on the character, and the world is there for that character to stomp through.

  2. All that story gaming passed me by - I got a bunch of RPGs in the mid 1980s and didn't buy anything else until a few years ago. From what I have read *about* those games, they don't appeal to me. I prefer games in which the mechanics are the physics of the game world, over games in which the mechanics are there to maintain the structure of the narrative.