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Author Topic: Character Death Mechanics?  (Read 10911 times)
Sparky
Member

Posts: 40


« on: November 15, 2002, 05:57:42 PM »

Hi folks! I'm mainly looking for some options here. I tried various search queries in the forge archives and even a couple of google searches...I couldn't find anything much on the topic, which seems odd to me.

Background: I'm using a sort of a nine rung "result ladder," where I (so far) have positive and negative 'permanent results' at the ends and ties/no-effect in the middle. There's a (linear) dice roll+trait spending resoloution mechanic that drives the result up and down this ladder...jumping up or down a rung and more rarely two to three rungs.

I'm picturing results where (say) a PC and NPC might melee-attack each other ferociously for several quick rounds. The battle rages up and down the result ladder until one side or the other gains a very strong advantage. The next round they're moving in for a killing blow.

I'd like to keep character death the result of a gambled action and this would mostly come up only in the climax. Although, I'd also like to leave a little room for the nasty combination of several bad rolls and poor choices putting you in the same sort of predicament. This could occur just as easily in a trap as in combat.

Just enough for the players to know it's possible for their characters to die and that they'll have to face the music every once in a while. Massive damage from things like landslides and explosions will likely kill you off.

Most games that I've seen resort to the dodge-roll method. There are a few that simply advise to play-to-the-plot and even a few that ascribe to the philosophy not to kill off characters at all.  The players this game is for don't retire characters.

I'd rather not use anything complicated like rolemaster's charts, nor do I want a standard do-or-die saving/dodge roll. I'm also trying to avoid using hit points and anything with a death spiral effect. Kind of trying to put a narrative spin on a gamist function. (Is that in the right order?)

Uh, I think I've hit all the major points. Anyone have any ideas? What do you do about this in your games? Any interesting references to existing games you can suggest?

Thanks
Sparky
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Andrew Martin
Member

Posts: 785


« Reply #1 on: November 15, 2002, 11:32:03 PM »

Hi, Sparky.
Welcome to The Forge!
I'd suggest looking for articles/posts on Fortune in the Middle (FitM). This would seem to be the most obvious solution to your problem I think.
I hope that helps!
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Andrew Martin
Sparky
Member

Posts: 40


« Reply #2 on: November 16, 2002, 03:58:23 AM »

Andrew,

Fortune in the middle?  I'll check it out. Thanks!

Sparky
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Mike Holmes
Acts of Evil Playtesters
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Posts: 10459


« Reply #3 on: November 18, 2002, 07:45:39 AM »

For a practical example, that should fit what you want very closely, IMO, see Zenobia.

Also, for what might at first seem like a more radical soution (but is really not), see my Standard Rant #3.

Mike
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Sparky
Member

Posts: 40


« Reply #4 on: November 20, 2002, 02:58:53 PM »

Forgive me for being so silent.

I've been feverishly wolfing down all the FiTM threads I could find, along with Zenobia and MIke's rant. Along the way I ran into Joe LLama, Fang's El Dorado and Illusionism. Perhaps you can understand why it took me so long to reply...

As a result, I have a much clearer understanding of what it is that I wanted when I posted. I wanted some guidelines on how one can  objectively decide when it is appropriate to kill off a player's character. Or more accurately, under what conditions would you consider allowing a character to 'die' by the results of their actions in a setting? Fairly, without and prescripting and without any mean spirit on the GM's part...and not only dying from wounds taken but from traps and maybe from even the psychological damage a person takes from the loss of a loved one or something suitably dramatic.

The general feeling I get from all the reading I've done is that player characters should have script immunity from death. I can understand the social/meta/in-game reasons for this, but I'm just one of those folks who wants to include that element in their game. Players beware and I plan to play as well, so my flesh is on the line too.

I just don't want to use plain old hit points or GM whim to do it. I would be satisfied a mix of Zenobia's flashy Crippling Hits and Hero Wars' extended contest mechanic. Something with good color applied in an objective, yet not totally predictable manner.

Any other thoughts to consider (practical or not) or suggestions for threads and games I might read? I feel like I'm not being imaginative enough to get the sort of solution I'm really after. (I do realize that it is possible that I'm overcomplicating things for myself, but I believe that it can be done despite my inability to express myself.)

</quitiing my rambling>

Sparky
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M. J. Young
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Posts: 2198


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« Reply #5 on: November 20, 2002, 09:04:48 PM »

Well, Multiverser has what I think may be a unique way of handling the problem: Death is Not the End. But it's integral to that campaign system, and probably wouldn't work easily in what you want.

I think what you need to get to, ultimately, is why it is that you want there to be this axe hanging over everyone's head, that at any moment their characters might die. Let me suggest some possible reasons; but I'm going to use a bit of local jargon, so bear with me and ask if you don't understand something.

It may be that you've got a strong gamist streak; that is, you want there to be some aspect of winning and losing. It may be even that it's not so much that you look at death as a win/lose outcome, but that you view it as a deterent to extreme actions. That is, you imagine that if a character has script immunity and he comes to a two hundred meter chasm, he's going to announce that he'll jump across it; since he can't die, what will happen? That's an extreme example; but the idea here is that you want to maintain the concept that there are consequences to failure when characters take risks, because you want those to be real risks, not illusory ones which everyone knows can't possibly lead to negative consequences.

It may be that there's enough simulationist in you that the idea of script immunity rubs you the wrong way. People die, therefore characters die; and if they do something stupid enough, they need to die. You're probably a fan of the Darwin Awards (O.K., I enjoy those, too). You think that if death of the character is impossible, the world is not realistic.

Even if you're yearning for a good narrativist game, you might be balking at script immunity because you don't trust your players. That is, if the rule is no one dies until his player decides he does, you expect that your players will take full advantage of this and run roughshod over reality and story. Script immunity is, in the wrong hands, a superpower; and you think that you're putting your game in the wrong hands for such a thing.

Now, I'm not a big advocate of script immunity; but I think it can be important to narrativist play. There are several solutions to these problems, each of which has merit.

The most obvious is to create negative consequences that fall short of death. Again to go for the obvious, in Toon a character is never killed, but "falls down", and is out of the action for five (real world) minutes--an eternity in that fast-paced game, according to those who enjoy it. Loss of abilities or luck, shifts in chance of success, penalties to experience, trouble points to be spent by the referee in creating future problems--all of these and more can be used as negative outcomes without killing the characters.

Considerably less obvious is to reeducate your players, to build a game in which they have script immunity but there's not much value to survival; or to introduce them to games in which death of the character is a positive concept, and competitive "staying alive" is completely foreign to the rewards. I believe Jared Sorensen has a game in which the point of play is to have a meaningful death (which one is it, someone?); Alyria, Sorcerer, and I'm sure other games you've already seen reduce the importance of "staying alive" drastically.

If you think that letting a player control his own character's death is too much but giving that decision to the referee is also too much, perhaps you want to create some sort of democratic system. You could control this with something like hit points, call them luck points or something, and decree that whenever a character loses so many of such points the group has to decide whether his "luck ran out" and he died, or whether he found a way to survive and escape. This might have the effect of hedging in those absolutely insane superhuman efforts to which some players are tempted by script immunity ("they'll never let me get away with that") without falling back on direct attrition of points or referee fiat.

I hope that helps.

--M. J. Young
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GreatWolf
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designer of Dirty Secrets


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« Reply #6 on: November 21, 2002, 07:05:40 AM »

Quote
I believe Jared Sorensen has a game in which the point of play is to have a meaningful death (which one is it, someone?)


I believe that would be Schism.

Seth Ben-Ezra
Great Wolf
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Seth Ben-Ezra
Dark Omen Games
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Jared A. Sorensen
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Darksided


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« Reply #7 on: November 21, 2002, 07:08:25 AM »

Quote from: GreatWolf
Quote
I believe Jared Sorensen has a game in which the point of play is to have a meaningful death (which one is it, someone?)


I believe that would be Schism.

Seth Ben-Ezra
Great Wolf



Well, kinda. I mean, the point of the game is to die. Whether it's meaningful or not is up to the player (I, for one, wouldn't mind playing a character who dies for the wrong reasons...or for no reason at all).
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jared a. sorensen / www.memento-mori.com
Sparky
Member

Posts: 40


« Reply #8 on: November 21, 2002, 12:30:55 PM »

Lots of food for thought here. You've hit upon many of my concerns, kind of a little bit of everything. I haven't spoken about the setting, but it's a pulpy sort of thing where sometimes even the heroes can die.

I like not only my NPCs but my settings to have some teeth. Kind of like the desert planet of Dune...you can survive just fine (usually) as long as you avoid the overwhelmingly dangerous areas. I'm not really aiming to have an axe hanging over anyone's head all the time. I am satisfied with them just coming close to mortal harm every once in a couple of games. But there's no real 'bite' if the possibility isn't there. I just want them to know that there's an axe hanging out there somewhere (usually) beyond their (current) comfort zone.

The point spending mechanic of this game provides the players with lots of wiggle room. Using these points, they have a great amount of leeway to interpret their abilities and to mitigate the consequences of their actions. Using a feature like hit points simply adds more wiggle room between actions and consequences, so I've been looking for other options that still have teeth.

And I do want strong consequences matched to strong risks. A related sticky point with me is that if the PCs can kill NPCs then it should be possible for the PCs to die as well. I'd like to have that hard line based on a principle and solidly drawn, even if it is rarely used.

Everyone, thanks for the help. I was worried that I was overlooking something, but I'm satisfied that I haven't missed anything obvious.

Sparky
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #9 on: November 21, 2002, 12:47:51 PM »

Hi Sparky,

Here's the most recent Forge thread that addressed this issue:
Do you care if your character dies? It contains an internal link as well to at least one older relevant thread.

I'd like to know a bit more information about your game, especially how you see people enjoying it, which I mean literally. Moving from theory into actual game design requires a pretty strong understanding of that vision.

Best,
Ron
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Sparky
Member

Posts: 40


« Reply #10 on: November 21, 2002, 03:15:27 PM »

Hi there!

I'll check out the thread(s.) I knew that this subject must have been discussed before and tried to search it out. I don't recall what keyword combos I searched for, but apparently they weren't the right ones.

The fun I expect will be the typical sort of gameplay for our group. Lots of action, some twists of character and plot..nothing too exotic from anyone else's games. It is intentionally a very broadly defined space opera setting, much in the same way that the setting for Traveller has been set up with areas for other GMs to define. There are several rival non-human powers with key holds on important things like Space Travel technology.

(Possibly more than you care to know) I'm choosing to focus on the espionage aspect of the rivalry, drawing elements from several fictional sources including Farscape, the Alien Legion comics, a manga called Grey, the Herbert books, Bond films and even Star Wars II bar scenes. Play mainly centers around being the pawns/puppets of the 'invisible hands' that direct events in that universe. There's a bit more color unmentioned, but it's a decent vision of what I want.

One thing that I appreciate about espionage is that sometimes it goes sour and people die. There are double crosses and unseen traps and serious consequences. Hence my desire to include the possibility of character death. To avoid this having too strong of a presence, the option that I will probably pursue will use a cloning technology to avoid permanent character death. (It also raises other issues for the players/PCs to deal with.) It's a high-tech version of Rune's character 'saves' mechanic. In the end, I get the tension I want and the players get to avoid permanently losing their characters growth.

I'm still working on the details of the conflict (not task) resoloution mechanic, but the intent is to have a small number of result categories that aid in producing a descriptive resoloution. I have a good idea of what I want out of it, but lately I have been doing a lot of reading here at the Forge, so work on that has kind of been put on hold.  ;)

Does that begin to answer your questions?

Sparky
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #11 on: November 21, 2002, 07:30:48 PM »

Hi Sparky,

Boink! Does it answer my question? My God, man, it's beautiful.

OK, OK, um (now I'm all excited), character death in this kind of game. It strikes me that there are two kinds: death meaning failure of character goals, and death meaning success of character goals. I'd sure like to see some kind of distinction between them, especially in a game which (forgive the jargon) has such a nice, down-to-earth feel about it, based on your description so far.

And then it strikes me too, that in such stories, the fates of characters other than the hero are actually more important than that of the hero. This might be a key concept for that itself might help overcome the "if my guy dies I gotta get a new guy" problem, which your clone solution is kind of a clunky solution for (I mean, not awful, but a bit forced, maybe).

Let me know if I'm getting too way-out on you, though. I'm also interested in what you think of the thread I linked to, above.

Best,
Ron
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Sparky
Member

Posts: 40


« Reply #12 on: November 22, 2002, 06:16:10 AM »

Ron,

Wow. Thanks for the kudos.


I'm a little confused by the comment about the difference in death due to failure to meet or success in character goals.

IMO, If a character dies while pursuing their goals or satisfying their personality, then that's a success to me. The character is doing exactly what they were made to do. They aren't cowering in fear of loss. (Can you see the influence of Chris Kubasik's Oracle articles here?) Of course, it would probably tend to be more player satisfying if it happens during the climax. A character's death should have some important meaning, so maybe I should always reward that with an important in-game development. Maybe something along the lines of permanently stopping that Mastermind Villain from ever pursuing the same goal in future games. Have to think about it more after I hear other responses.

I suppose I really should come fuilly clean here with regards to character goals. I really liked(!) the concept of Spiritual Attributes in the Riddle of Steel and so I borrowed it for my game. (Thanks Jake! Wish I'd thought of it.) The theft does includes the advancement aspect, so the PCs can only improve by pursuing their goals.

The clone solution is a bit clunky. I'm going to explain a bit more about that, but don't read it as spoken defensively. I do want more teeth than what I'm about to post, but I haven't taken the time to rethink it and edit yet.

To add to the setting mix, I established that the human race is dying from genetic stagnation and so they began to Genetically engineer at a a furious rate. This of course, is only accelerating the process and gives me some opportunites for 'genegineered' horrors, mad scientistry and evoloution gone amuck. Living brains floating in liquid tanks, etc.

So brainpeeling (mind scanning) and cloning new bodies for Agents is a viable solution, in a way. It also would allow me to have many different recurring foes without going to any extreme lengths of believability. With the espionage focus, the players get to be paranoid about whether or not the 'home office' has been reading their memories. I can also (at some point) have the PCs run into other copies of themselves on other missions or (gasp) as opponents. Whee!

To size this all these effects down a bit, this cloning thing isn't immediate in results or avaliable everywhere. It will cost them some of their Core Points (Spiritual Attributes) to 'Save' their character in the Agency database. The end result should be that the players will see their death as a trade-off that might need to be made sometimes. They'll lose some gear (in the explosion, whatever) and as many Core Points as they earned since their last Save.

Cloning makes for a more Bondish/Video Gamish sort of game instead of a more gritty game. I'm still not sold on the idea...I'm definitelyy open to tweaks and options of the idea. One of the players is still helping me with playtesting, so there's till time for implementing options.

As for the threads you pointed out, I'm the usual GM. I no longer get attached to any character whereas the usual players get attached. They basically don't like having to start over, much like some of the other commenters mentioned. They like the thrill of accomplishment most, but appreciate a good storyline in a consistent gameworld. These guys happen to be the kind who play play for fun with a little catharsis. Although one of them always has 'things' about the color green, dwarves and people from Vermont. Don't ask me.

There was also talk about playing to the characters or to the players. I think that both are necessary over time to really sate the player's appetite. Not sure if that one player will ever get enough green, though.

One other thing mentioned was character monotony. To avoid this effect, I reduced character creation down to just a few choices. This should make it easy to create a new character and to highlight their choices, encouraging them not to make exactly the same sort of character again.

After all that, I think I may be too way-out for you now.

Thanks!
Sparky
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Mike Holmes
Acts of Evil Playtesters
Member

Posts: 10459


« Reply #13 on: November 22, 2002, 06:23:32 AM »

Espionage is about things going kerflooie, and the agent dying? I think not.

Bond

will

never

die


OTOH, in only the second Bond theatrical installment he gets married, and his wife dies. When things go wrong in espionage, "people important to the protagonist" die. But he has to go on to deal with that, however he can.

At least that's how I see it. If you can't get tension out of the possibility that the character's wife might die, then threatening the character is unlikely to have any more tension. Make the player define NPCs important to the PC, and then watch as the tension rises as they are threatened. But don't ever worry that the PC will die. He should be immortal in such fiction.

BTW, this is a great way to link PCs in such a game. They have "important people" in common. Make sure each has at least two in common with each other PC, so that if one blows up that the other remains to hold them together until the missing NPC can be replaced.

Mike
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damion
Member

Posts: 198


« Reply #14 on: November 22, 2002, 09:05:04 AM »

Interesting ideas. I like the cloning, although I'm reminded of Paranoia(last clone standing!).

I think the core conflict with these things is that for the game to fun there has to be tension, but for there to be tension there has to be consequences, but consequences are non-fun. The only real solution to this to do something like mike said, where there is a way you can inflict consequences on a charachter, but it doesn't actually impede the players fun.  Unfortunatly players have to feel some connection to these charachters because otherwise they won't care that something bad happened to their connections.
Unfortunatly, all the solutions require some 'buy-in' from the players, i.e. they have to understand that sometimes, one of them may their fun reduced a bit, so that there can be tension and the rest of the time the can enjoy it more. Hope my weird ramblings made some sense.
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James
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