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Author Topic: Fate and Death  (Read 8387 times)
Matt Snyder
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« on: April 12, 2002, 06:55:21 AM »

Death, Fate and Character Endings

Ron and I discussed very briefly in Dust Devils play the issue of character death and / or endings. My thoughts on this were also partly inspired by the Damage=Drama thread on RPG.net.

I'll start of this thread with some thoughts, which may be friggin' obvious to some Forge veterans, but not so much to my oft-blinded mindset.

For years, I've played (and often GM'd) mostly traditional RPGs in which the crucial factor for Player Characters was staying alive. That remains true even now as I run an ongoing D&D campaign. We have a good time (for more about my group's members and styles, see this thread), to be sure. My players enjoy challenging combat scenes. In between those hack-fu fests I manage to sneak in issues that make them care about what their characters do (and whom they fight), and I hope make the game play a bit more rewarding.

But two things have set me on the path of re-evaluating character death. First was a discussion I had with one of my players, who has, I think, the most gamist leanings of our group. We talked about how one knows a character is "finished" or how he knows when it's time to move on to something else or another character. Naturally, he said he most prefers to "retire" characters, and I think he's decidedly against his character's dying. But he did bring up the valid point that characters cease to be playable when they answer their issues (something close to his words).

Which leads me the other recent influence for me on this issue. After reading Sorceror and getting feedback from Ron on Dust Devils, his notion that character death isn't really the issue hit home. In Sorceror the issue is Humanity -- how far will a character go (or how far will he sink) to get what he's after? Death is nearly irrelevant, because it doesn't address this key issue of the game. Ron rightly pointed out that in Dust Devils, there's a similar vibe: Can a man come to terms with his past before the Devil get his due? Something like that.

So, the concept I'm trying to figure out: When do characters cease to be playable? And, what can I do as a game designer to facilitate that exploration and resolution? Sorceror does this well with Humanity.

Which leads me to my latest game-design itch. I've been mulling over a game of Norse myth. Yeah, I know. Been there, done that. Wyrd probably does it better narrative-wise speaking; Rune does it better, game-wise (and, Odin help me, the Rune computer game is a big influence for me on this). Ehh. I can't help myself. I just dig it!

Anyway, the one thing that strikes me as I've been reading some Norse myth (Edda, Elder Edda and some generic books on myth). That is, that death is pretty "irrelevant" in Norse myth, too. Characters die (especially the gods) and it's just part of the myth, the story. They end up in Hel or Niflheim, or even Valhalla, and that becomes in some cases the kicker to the myth, which goes on from there.

So, I've been trying to come up with a system that mimics that, which would center around Fate, Weird/Wyrd or Skein as the currency for the game. That is, so long as a character's Fate remains "untold," his death really doesn't matter. It just becomes part of the story.

I'll leave this first post at that, with more to come after some good discussion, I hope. Anyone have thoughts on this issue, or ideas on how I might go about crafting such a Fate system?

(Ooh, FYI -- I've been tinkering some with mechanics for the game, which would be pretty straightforward. Something like five attributes which represent how many d6s one rolls for conflict resolution. Skills or "talents" then might dictate either a bonus, or how many d6s are kept or some such. Early stages here, but at least it gives you a basis for suggestions.)
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Matt Snyder
www.chimera.info

"The future ain't what it used to be."
--Yogi Berra
Mike Holmes
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« Reply #1 on: April 12, 2002, 08:08:25 AM »

Um, you're right. What can one do but stand silently and point to Wyrd, implying that it's been done. Would you be trying to improve on Wyrd? Or do you have some different perspective that I'm not seeing?

Mike
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Bankuei
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« Reply #2 on: April 12, 2002, 08:36:09 AM »

I don't know about the Norse bit, but I started looking at character death very differently after L5R made it part of your character creation to ask,"How do you see your character dying?"  It was a big jump into protagonism and authorial power for me.  I think the major issue is that character death has been a carryover from wargaming, as opposed to using negative reinforcement as in other games(like cards or boardgames), in the example of losing points, go back to start, or losing a turn.  Unless survival is what the game is about, death really shouldn't be the focus(unless you're going sim, or its part of your gamist goal).  

I think players find that characters become unplayable after they feel they have explored them to the point that they are happy, or feel that its dying out and ready to move on to something new(god, sounds like relationships).

Chris
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Balbinus
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« Reply #3 on: April 12, 2002, 08:45:36 AM »

Bankuei,

I strongly agree.   I have had GMs ask me to continue playing a character who's story I felt was played out.  It lacks all interest.  Their part is done.  Time to move on.

Character death is of course bad if that means you sit out of the game.  It is boring.  It can also be  bad if it happens so often that you never get to meaningfully explore anything about your character or never get to say anything interesting using your character.

But otherwise, it's not necessarily the worst thing.  Much worse, from personal experience here, is to carry on playing a character who has achieved their goals and has no more reason to act.  Who has resolved their kicker as it were.

If I play an aging gunfighter seeking peace, and in the course of the game my character finds God and becomes reconciled with his past so that he can leave it behind him, why still play him just because he hasn't died?  The story is done.  

Even in sim death is not necessarily important.  Real life is as sim as it gets but few of us worry about imminent death from day to day.  A sim game about politics or trade could be so sim as to make your eyes bleed, and still have death essentially irrelevant.  In those settings disgrace, loss of influence or bankruptcy would be the real fears, not death.
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Matt Snyder
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« Reply #4 on: April 12, 2002, 08:51:57 AM »

Quote from: Mike Holmes
Um, you're right. What can one do but stand silently and point to Wyrd, implying that it's been done. Would you be trying to improve on Wyrd? Or do you have some different perspective that I'm not seeing?


What I'd offer different than Wyrd ... I guess I see it as doing something Sim-y, rather than the others I mentioned (Wyrd & Rune) which are Narrativist and Gamist, respectively.

But regardless, Mike, surely we can forget the notion that it's Germanic myth (or Greek, or whatever) and discuss the real issue -- character "expiration and mechanics for that. Fate & death, right? How 'bout another "far-horizon' project of mine -- epic Greece, a la the Iliad. Similar concepts apply, as Ate (Greek fate) becomes the name of the currency. For either projects, my "point of difference" would be a closer acknowledgment of the myths by reading primary sources, like the Eddas, for inspiration, for e.g. Also, hopefully some fun sim-y mechanics I've been tinkering with.

(I've always wanted to do -- Arthurian schtuff -- rounding out my trilogy of a game line for "Western  myth." Yes, I know Pendragon, Wyrd, and, say, Primeval .... christ, why try, right? ;) )

Oh, and one last dirty bit. The reason I'd do all this is because 1) I can't not[/] do it and 2) it's the only way, besides D20, my group might play. I don't see them taking to Wyrd very well. They're my weather vane. If I really like something -- Norse myth, in this case -- and I know they won't play what's available (and cool, like Wyrd), then I'm inspired to do something they will. In a real fucked up way, they're a great motivator for me to design things. They keep me practical and playable. If others benefit from that, great. If others think the work sucks, I'll still do it, 'cause I've got "fans" closer to home.
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Matt Snyder
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"The future ain't what it used to be."
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #5 on: April 12, 2002, 08:58:12 AM »

Hey,

A related matter: how about games in which metagame features of Character X can be transferred to the creation of Character Y when X dies?

The latest example is in The Riddle of Steel; one can pop points into the Insight box on the character sheet, and they have no function except to improve the character creation options for the next character you make, if this one dies. (I have one or two small issues with this particular mechanic, but let's not focus on those, I'm talking about the general idea.)

In Pendragon, one is encouraged to play the heir of one's dead character, thus retaining a great deal of the first character's earthly achievements (Glory, property, etc). If I remember correctly, the mechanics for this are explicit.

I think this general technique (notice I have provided one totally metagame example and one totally in-game example) is not common, but it is present and noticeable enough to be identified. There are at least four or five other games that have it, though I'd have to flip-flip in my game library to find them. If I'm correct, it represents one type of solid attempt to deal with the issue's Matt's raised in this thread, in terms of design. Cetainly other types of attempts, both historical and potential, deserve our attention and discussion.

Best,
Ron
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Balbinus
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« Reply #6 on: April 12, 2002, 09:08:48 AM »

The technique Ron refers to I've encountered in two games, Pendragon and Bushido.

In Pendragon, the character is part of a family, a lineage.  This is an essential theme of the game.  Your lineage is more important than you are, your family name more important than your own survival.  The ability to inherit glory and lands from your previous character enforces this theme as does the fact that each family has a family trait (like good at singing, say) which your character's son will have just as your character did.  The mechanic enforces very well IMO the key concepts of the game.

In Bushido, the higher your honour when you die the more points you have to create your next character with.  This is much cruder.  In pendragon your new character is the son of your old one, you are playing the lineage not just one man.  In Bushido your new character is just some guy.  As beginning characters get relatively few points this can lead to everyone rushing out to die honourably so as to get more points for a character they actually want to play.  It doesn't, again IMO, work.

So, the concept works in Pendragon because it is intimately tied to the larger theme of the game.  It doesn't work in Bushido because it is a crude reinforcement mechanic and nothing more.

If something in the game is more important than life, that is what needs to be spelt out and the post mortem carry-over mechanic (if one is used) must be somehow intimately tied to it.
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #7 on: April 12, 2002, 09:15:10 AM »

Hi there,

The absolutely central issue to this thread is the role of character death relative to the player's (a) satisfaction and (b) ability to continue playing.

I want to emphasize that (b) is not crucial; in Violence Future's current form, for instance, character death is almost inevitable and the game is "willing" to cease being played when it happens. The presence of (a) is certainly there in that game, though. So (a) is the main thing.

The (b) also deserves some attention, as the games mentioned so far assume that to continue playing, the player must generate a new character (or have him in the wings, e.g. Dark Sun). However, Mario and I have been discussing systems in which the player continues, using metagame mechanics from the character sheet, even when the character is dead (and really dead, his ghost isn't hanging around or some shit like that). Soap has this quality, and it should be added to the list. Trollbabe does too, although that's not public yet.

The real question for Dust Devils is generating (a), which frankly I don't think will be very hard even without any, or much, changes to the existing mechanics. The next question is whether (b) comes into it at all ... I can see very nicely that one might generate a new character (or adopt a minor character as a PC) in which the Devil of the old character "lives on" ...

Best,
Ron
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Mike Holmes
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« Reply #8 on: April 12, 2002, 09:44:48 AM »

My point Matt is that Wyrd does cover that ground well. It is about Fate and death. The mechanic determines what happens to your character, and then when he dies. The simple afterlife add-on is to just put the stones all back in and play another round of the character's existence in the afterlife.

But your point about wanting it to be Sim is well taken. I'm just trying to get a grasp of what that means. Essentially, the players would be making Sim characters in a world where the objective reality is that your Fate is somehow predetermined including the character's death. Hmm..

That might be interesting. But what's the premise? If it's not about addressing that Fate and Death, then what do the characters do? Just the standard viking saga stuff? Why? In the end we know the character dies, right? Lets see.

How about honor? Perhaps you play through the character's life trying to generate honor. Perhaps this is done by addressing your Fate well, or somthing. So youearn honor points in life. Then you go to the afterlife, where the points are useful in describing the rest of the character's tale. Highly honored warriors get a longer and more colorful tale, or something.

This could be cool. You'd have a distinctly Simmy "realistic" life for the character, and then a surreal afterlife existence. If you wanted to get really radical, change from all Sim mechanics to Nar mechanics when the character dies. That would be interesting. But actually it would promote Gamism in the "life" portion. But that might work too. Essentially, you play a Gamist game to accumulate points to play the Narrativist game that follows.

OK, just going stream of conciousnes, now, obviously, but I'm trying to see in what directions you could go.

Hmm.. perhaps two counterbalancing Sim stats in life with two parallels in death, which prevent Gamism, but promote exploration of the elements of Nordic life (and afterlife). That could keep it all Sim if that's what you wanted.

One big problem in with this is that some players might hae dead characters, and others might be alive. Perhaps during this portion of the game there are rules for the live relying on the memories of the dead for support. Or perhaps they live are creating the stories of the dead, somehow, or in part. Perhaps the game ends when the last character dies and there is one final climactic afterlife scene/episode/adventure with the characters all together.

I'm seeing lots of possibilities now.

Mike
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Lance D. Allen
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« Reply #9 on: April 12, 2002, 10:20:44 AM »

Aside: (if you don't want to read a tangent, pass over this portion of my post. It does not deal with the game discussed in this thread, but a point mentioned in this thread)
...
...
I'd like to add that the metagame mechanic that remnants of the prior character go on to the secondary character is something that Mage Blade will have as well. Someone suggested it in the original thread (or was it the Rewards thread? Gah, now I'm confusing myself..) as well as the idea which inspired Life Goals. Due to Goals and Life Goals, the Simulationist game-time requirements to advance traits, and a few other factors, a character may have a number of character points unspent when the character retires. These points will go on to the next character played by the character, somewhat in the style associated with Bushido (reference: Balbinus) though as Character Points will have a few other applications than simply character improvement (like the ability to buy additional Heroism Points, although at an extreme price) and the game will encourage some relationship between prior and successive characters, it won't be quite so "crude" as Balbinus puts it.
End Aside.
...
...

The idea of continuing a game into the afterlife (and occasionally back into Life, as happens in some Greek myth) is interesting. I think I've heard of games (besides Wraith, which *only* explores the afterlife, and as an entirely different entity than when you died) which do this, but I can't think of any, with the possible exception of a few video games. My question on this, I suppose, is if it is possible to return, as in the mentioned mythology. Can a living character go on a quest into Hades(or wherever, for Norse mythos) to retrieve a loved one who died? Can a dead character who feels they reached "the bad place" unfairly (like in a certain Piers Anthony series I've read) stage some sort of heroic action to get himself released to "the good place" (Valhalla, the Elysian Fields, wherever) or even back into life for another chance? If either option were allowed, it would put a *whole* new slant on resurrection.

...hmm...
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Matt Snyder
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« Reply #10 on: April 12, 2002, 11:04:50 AM »

Ron: I very much like the idea that the actions of one player's character have consequences for the player's next character. I had actually written something to that effect in my little "gamer's journal." Trying to figure out how to leverage something I was calling Fate or Valor. I'm probably going to keep on that tack, but I'm not sure just yet what the result will be.

Mike: Lots of great ideas going there! I think the concept of a two-tiered game in which play shifts from one mode (Sim. ) to another (Nar.) is great, though I'm not sure that's what I'll do. Great notion, though, because I often see myself, and many other Forgers for that matter, stradling two styles in this way.

As for the practical ... or rather impractical ... observation that having a group in which some are "dead," some alive is tough, you're right. I thought of that immediately, and admit I have no answer as yet. Perhaps some metagame mechanics for the "dead" to affect scenes in which the live PCs are in? Thinking outloud.

Regardless, I think you're on to something when you ask what the game's about and offer up the concept of Honor. I'm thinking now that Honor, or Valor, or Fate becomes the central mechanic AND theme of the game, and this would apply well to the troika of "skins" I mentioned -- Greek, Norse and Arthurian myth.
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Matt Snyder
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Sidhain
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« Reply #11 on: April 12, 2002, 12:41:47 PM »

In the superhero RPG Marvel Superheroes Adventure Game by the default rules, death is difficult to inflict on a hero-PC, one must knock out the person (0) Health, then continue attacking them--the next attack merely puts them in a coma, and then, another attack will kill them--this is after they've already likely taken several exchanges of damage to KO them in the first place. Now it's not /impossible/ just unlikely that accidental death will occur in this case.

In my own superhero game there are a variety of Stress Events that occur when a hero has taken too much stress--one of them is Death, but it is presented as being entirely meant for story purposes, and only should it be agreed upon as /possible/ by the player and Story-Editor. Now that agreement  may come during the pitch, when the Story-editor and players are tossing around the ideas of the game they want to play, or it may come at the instant of stress that could be lethal if both thin it would be appropriate, but character death isn't put solely in the hands of the SE--this works quite well, because flat out superheroe don't tend to die and stay dead (and death can even be a way of powering up, or down your hero when he or she returns from the dead.) I hadn't intended to include death at all but one of my players/game friends who I bounce ideas around with said he felt it needed to be included since heroes do die, and it allows a far more tense game when the risk /is possible/ so I compromised and made it /possible/ but only with conditionals.



In the Computer game Freedom Force (called a tactical Superhero RPG) which has a great story, but isnt' much RPG by the way we consider them it is impossible to /kill/ anyone, now you can be KOed which the game treats as death (for some heroes, or the whole team)--you fail the mission, fail the game--but it doesn't call it death, just Knock-out, so presumably this could be scaled to a real RPG--you take a wound and black out, you are KOed, gassed or entangled/frozen, or somehow removed fromplay other than death, in full RPG"s that means they can recover, escape and continue on. I have noticed however that some players like being captured less than dying, this I cannot understand why...


But there are options that create a tenseness without being absolute and permanant as death (of course that is saying that death in the particular game /is permanant) in some games with Ressurection magics left and right, it's makes the impact far less noticeable, which can be good, but also can be very bad, it makes heroism cheaper. So it's not an easy balance to achieve.
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Matt Snyder
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« Reply #12 on: April 12, 2002, 01:00:33 PM »

Sidhain's post made me think of one crucial point. That is the interesting tug of war between Chance and Fate.

I think what I and others espoused above advocates Fate, by which I mean death or character ending as a consequence of a player's (or players') choices. This can mean anything from a character's death due to his player's foolish choice (a la Gamist strategy, for example, but not limited to gamism) to the predestination of character death. That is, players actually knowing when a character dies (or expires, retires, etc.) and working through play to that point. In these situations, death is a power of the players.

Conversely, by Chance, I mean the end of a character due to bad luck. This would most often mean literally the luck of the die -- I can't think right now of how else a character's role ends prematurely by chance.

Of course, character expiration by chance is distasteful to me as a player. I find no value in it, and I think many, if not most, players would agree. So, it begs the question of why games would allow this -- D&D probably does, and I play it often. However, I rarely let death creep in so clumsily, and my players know it. So, I know they take this into account, and it has some effect on their behavior: "Aw, Matt won't kill us; let's do it!" Ok, so that's a bit of an exaggeration, but you get the idea.

This is kind of an obvious point for most folks, but I thought it was worth saying "out loud" in this thread.
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Matt Snyder
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Mike Holmes
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« Reply #13 on: April 12, 2002, 01:35:46 PM »

On the predestination thing, I had a vague idea.

I was thinking that the player and/or GM could decide on some freeze frames from the character's life during chargen. Like word portraits. Frex,"Tharg stands tall with a snow capped mountain in the background with his sword plunged deep into the belly of a giant ice lizard". Anyhow, as play progresses, the player would get points for getting to such scenes. They don't  have to occur, except for the death frame at the end which the GM works towards. The point of play would be to discover how the character got from point A to point B, etc, and what these premonitions mean for the character. Or something like that.

Mike
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Matt Snyder
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« Reply #14 on: April 12, 2002, 01:46:22 PM »

Quote from: Mike Holmes
On the predestination thing, I had a vague idea.

I was thinking that the player and/or GM could decide on some freeze frames from the character's life during chargen. Like word portraits. Frex,"Tharg stands tall with a snow capped mountain in the background with his sword plunged deep into the belly of a giant ice lizard". Anyhow, as play progresses, the player would get points for getting to such scenes. They don't  have to occur, except for the death frame at the end which the GM works towards. The point of play would be to discover how the character got from point A to point B, etc, and what these premonitions mean for the character. Or something like that.


I like it! I was thinking of something similar, though only for the death scene. Something like the character gets a visit from teh norns or some such.

Mike, I also had another thought about how to differentiate this from Wyrd and Rune. The premise might be: What is it like to become a hero. Or, more specifically, What is it like to become an epic hero? (or maybe that's "mythic hero?"). How's that for a sim. premise? Too generic?

I'll try to back it up with this mechanic idea. Characters would have some attribute, some kind of currency that represents what I'll call Valor for now. As play progresses, player characters are rewarded a point of valor for magnaminous or heroic behaviors, and lose same for dastardly deeds (all in line w/ the Norse tradition, naturally). They may use current Valor as a number of dice to improve their rolls for select conflicts, etc.

However, once the character meets his fate (i.e. dies), then based on his current Valor, the character experiences a change, which might be that he's truly ended (low valor) and locked in Hel or Niflheim for eternity (character unplayabl). High valor might mean he goes on to become an Einheriar with Freya or Odin, and fight on in the afterlife / take part in Ragnarok / etc. (character truly becomes hero in an epic scope).
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Matt Snyder
www.chimera.info

"The future ain't what it used to be."
--Yogi Berra
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