Archive for May, 2012

What Damage Means

What Damage Means: An Idea From Kamui That Can Be Applied To Any Game

We’re all familiar with unexpected PC death. You would have had enough HP to survive the monster’s tail swipe, but then it criticaled, knocking you into a spike pit trap and breaking all but one of the seventeen acid flasks you were carrying. So there you sit, watching your carefully crafted alchemist drown-burning in a pool of failure and stab wounds. You knew the job was dangerous when you took it, but c’mon, that prophecy was just saying that you were the one to save the kingdom from inevitable doom! Where’s the heroics here? How will I avenge my family/hometown/pet turtle now?

Some will say that it’s the DM’s job to prevent this sort of thing from happening, but that only serves to diminish the excitement by removing the danger of death. However, is it really the danger of death that gives the adventure that edge?

Let’s use the video game Prey for a brief example. In Prey, whenever you would be killed, you are transported to a spirit realm where you hunt spirits and regain your strength to return to the land of the living. You are literally unable to be killed. This differs from the arcade game style “lives” system where when you die, you lose a life and begin at the start of the level. The reason it’s different is that “lives” present a sense of failure by reducing the amount of remaining chances you have to succeed, unlike Prey, which presents no penalty for failure at all.

So that’s mainly what HP and its ilk do for your character: present a way for you to determine if you fail or succeed during combat, at least in a personal level. Death is the penalty for failure. However, why don’t we try keeping a failure state without it implying death?

Heroic Perseverance and Flaws

Characters are meant to grow over time, hence leveling systems and storyline development. However, in most stories, heroes fail at some point, or at least suffer huge setbacks. It’s how most traditional stories work: the Three-Act structure. Act 1 sets the stage, Act 2 puts the hero in a seemingly unwinnable situation, Act 3 sees the hero win (usually).

So here’s a basic proposition. Instead of death, why not have your character fall unconscious temporarily and also suffer some sort of permanent mental or physical disadvantage when their HP becomes zero? This allows your character to keep living, but forces them to live with the consequences of their failure. This also prompts some character growth, not in terms of levels and powers, but in roleplaying terms.

My poor alchemist above could have potentially escaped this situation, but not without problems. Perhaps he now has a significant fear of acid, and needs to change class. Perhaps the acid took his eyesight. Maybe he also gains a vengeful hatred of those tail-swiping monsters, and vows to destroy each one he comes across. Maybe he is saved by some sort of deity, and now must obey the deity’s commands or lose the new gift of life he was granted.

It also lends curiosity to NPCs and PCs with these disadvantages, since now most people will wonder how those flaws were acquired, giving a touch of flavor to your characters. Also, recurring villains are now much more plausible, since you can give them the same power of tenacity that the PCs have. After all, ever since the PCs melted his face with holy light, his vengeance may be the only thing keeping him alive. Just make sure he stays dead when the time is right, and make sure the wounds the PCs inflict on your villain are significant and memorable.

Death Isn’t All Bad

Sometimes, though, PCs need to die. Whether by heroic sacrifice, plot convenience, or sheer stupidity, death needs to happen to continue making the story work. Either give the player the option of choosing death or flaws, thereby putting his PC’s life in his hands instead of yours, or simply let the players know that when you say that someone dies for good, they die for good. Being transparent with your players on their character’s death is the best option, as they now can choose what they want that to mean, and often times their idea for a death that makes sense to their story can be more dramatic and insightful when done on their own terms.

Finally, death is like an arcade game’s “game over” screen. It provides closure. It’s an end state. At the very least, it is a cue to make a new adventure with fresh characters. After all, who knows what will happen next time? Just make sure to avoid those acid flasks.

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