Handling PC Death in Simulationist Combat

Started by Adam Riemenschneider, June 12, 2008, 12:15:09 AM

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Adam Riemenschneider

I agree that pure simulation is not the goal of Factions. It's a "pervy" Sim, with Narrativist leanings. For example, the reward of Development Points is based on Good Roleplaying, Facing Danger, Sound Judgment, and Overcoming Obstacles... instead of gaining skill points in skills the character uses in a direct way, for example.

So, yes, for the Ref/GM, there's a strong push to obey conventions of fiction, although the game mechanic design has a strong Sim component. The best way I can explain it is that the Ref tries to put the characters into situations where heavy story elements will occur, but lets the mechanics grind out exactly what happens. So, the story might maneuvered so that the PC's get to fight the major antagonist, but the fight itself plays by mechanics, with no inherent nod to the players that they are playing the "heroes" of the story.

There are no random encounter tables. The players know that I won't off them just because some table somewhere says a meteor fell on them. Likewise, the sniper did not appear in the story out of context. The PCs were entering a hostile fire zone, and they were well aware of that.

In light of this story element being present, I *really was* playing the sniper with a "shoot to kill" attitude. When he was hit and fell, he did his best to get back into the fight.. after all, his spotter was taking fire. The fighting in the area had already devolved into a take no prisoners, no quarter, grudge-match. His buddy was in danger, and, hell, it's not like the enemy was going to take him as a live prisoner... Also, I think it helps that, with context, the PC's are supernatural creatures, and they knew that the area they were crossing was a battle zone between two other groups of supernaturals. When the sniper popped back up, the Player wasn't all that surprised. His remark was more, "that bastard!" than one of confusion.

At any rate, I think all of my original questions/concerns were answered.

1): Really, I should have just stuck to the rules and let the pieces fall as they may.

2): The Player whose character died still got to *play*, and that was the important thing. The game is fine. It's me as a Ref that has to be ready to step up, and make sure the social contract is maintained.

Creator and Publisher of Other Court Games.


As an aside, because it seems like the main issues are wrapping up here. There are conventions in fiction for character death, a common one in horror for instance is that there is a three stage warning in place, which can be subtle or overt depending on style.

Lets imagine one of those opening scenes where we establish that Fred the young naive reporter goes missing as an establishment for the mystery to follow:

Warning 1: The villagers in the pub warn Fred against going anywhere near the old house, as strange things happen and people disappear.
Warning 2: The house is dark the night Fred chooses to investigate, the shadows move in unnerving ways and bats flit around its gothic towers.
Warning 3: There is a sense of dread and a chill down Fred's back as he reaches for the door handle.

Later when the main protagonist comes across Fred's mutilated corpse the audience is perfectly fine with this because they know that he had his warnings. Also they will accept that other unnamed characters had also met similarly abrupt deaths. Death is rarely an arbitrary thing in stories, even when the story is about the arbitrary nature of death.

My point here is to highlight that in fiction the main concern is for the audience's sense of fairness, and in RPGs everyone at the table is the audience and I believe this holds true regardless of agenda (with some caveats to gamist play because the warnings are largely systemic). 

I have witnessed the kinds of problems occurring where the player that dies feels fine with death because he was fully aware of the dangers and negative signals. However, the rest of the players are just shocked and disorientated because they were not fully aware of the possibilities and either didn't pick up on the warnings or those warnings were not presented to them.

Modern fiction and drama has a habit of seeking to mess with audience expectations, and an example of this was in the pilot for Lost, the original intention was for Jack to emerge as a leader and then get killed suddenly leaving the audience wondering who would step up and making them feel as disorientated as the other survivors. He would have got his warnings

1) strange unseen monster in jungle ripping up trees and making odd unsettling noises
2) plane wreckage looks precarious
3) climbing through plane is disorientating and contains sudden emergence of corpses

But, even this would not have prepared the audience for a competent and clearly important rapidly developing protagonist being ripped from the cockpit by an unseen monster (he's the first guy we see in the show after-all). They may have got away with it with ample foreshadowing and hints about his mortality but it wasn't what they were aiming for. Instead they were trying to have a 'Fred-like' scenario disguised by conflicting TV conventions. This may have been disastrous for the chances of that series making it past the pilot and more mature heads within the TV executive stepped in. The moral here being mess with expectations if you must, but be aware that it can be disruptive and unsettling and not appealing to the majority of the audience. Of course Lost dances around these expectation issues throughout, and it is a matter of taste as to whether it works as a show.

An example in play that I have seen suggested is to conspire with a player to set up a sudden death in order to let the others know that death is a real possibility, this is so risky for all of the reasons above even with the best intentions.

Frank Tarcikowski

BARBAREN! - The Ultimate Macho Role Playing Game - finally available in English


When someone's character dies, you don't just lose a tool, you loose a role in the story. "Who am I in this game?" "I am the person controlling this character." Also if the PCs are not the heroes that has certain implications! To put it another way, they may not be 4e style "universe loves you" heroes, but they are nonetheless protagonists in the players story, if not in the global one you are devising. To put it another way, even if they do not match up to the cosmic themes and conflicts of the setting, they can have their own existential purposes and desires, created by the player.

So what can I produce from this?
Well if the player has their own sub-themes, they could create the character's unresolved legacy, which allows them to continue to explore those themes from another perspective, perhaps even the person who shot them!
I read a review of the game hot-war where they talked about consequences that radiate out through relationships, which I thought a mature way to handle this: While the character may not literally live on through those affected by them (I find that too sentimental) their motivations and purposes could, i.e. the purposes of their player. This includes but is not limited to translating that characters kickers into the reactions that those kickers caused in other characters, depending on how personal they were.
It also works if you use the player as a kind of shock, to introduce a character to a field they had not experienced before, either the idea of or the actual witnessing of their death acting as a seed for state change bringing out similar or related conflicts that had been latent (like in superheated water). I say it works; I've seen it work in fiction, and I imagine it passes across!

Now some players just love the specificity of their character, acting out their mannerisms etc. I can see no solution for this unless you go all strange and have them act as unseen narrator! That way they can be responsible for introducing new information to the setting, within their chosen legacy and Ref limitations. (i.e. not stepping on your own pet themes, although that is a usual power issue really, and occurs any time you try to add a new roll for players) However, the ghostly narrator also has a very "But what they didn't know was ....." style, which may be less immersive than you are after.

If you do give a player an NPC, it might be good to gauge how much of a change you are willing to accept in their personality, and how much of the original personality they player will be willing to accept. I get the feeling that a working psychology system would help with this, if only because it would settle the matter, although settling the matter incorrectly is no great achievement!

Perhaps the player of the healer character objected because the rules were putting him out of the job! It may be true that you can't save everyone, but it seems like it might be good to check if the mechanics of combat in your world render a conventional combat medic superfluous. I don't know the specifics, but I would imagine it depends how common death from massive damage is.

Aaron Blain

Of course, a real person wouldn't have stuck his head out if there were even a remote chance of it getting blown off. When I first started playing NetHack, I played it like it was Diablo, like I could run around like a chicken with my head cut off and load my game when I rolled poorly. A dozen characters later I started to get a healthy terror of spoiled food.

My point is that, throughout all our gaming experiences, our sense of "Stakes" becomes very muddied. We often tell ourselves, "Man, you can die at any time in this game!" when that's not true at all. If you are consistent with the hackmasteresque pitilessness, the players will learn that, at least in THIS game, Death Is For Realsies.


My personal favorite solution to this problem is to take character death off the table by default, but have it be introduced when the chips are down. I had a great time playing 1e L5R with my "Great Destiny" trait that would rescue me from death one time. I was pretty brave until it got used up. You know that cold chill you get from that "MARIO = 0" screen? I reconcile the "Extra Life" mechanic with "realism" by saying that it simulates the inconclusive chest-beating and frightened hunkering that, while not present in most games, makes up the majority of most real life altercations. The reason we're so impressed by "300" is that real people actually acted like brainless, suicidal RTS units.

So, I'm fond of a resource that represents morale/circumstance/situational awareness and luck. He could have simply spent a "Circumstance Point", or whatever, to negate the fatal blow, becoming pinned down for a turn instead. If he runs out of these points, this represents the character not feeling mentally in control of the situation, and he is much more likely to keep his head down, feeling mortality pretty close.

And if you're thinking it, yep, I do like giving those points to the bad guys too! And when they run out, guess what? They run away! This makes for a much more realistic body count. We don't all have to charge around like rabid zerglings.

Then again, I'm sure lots of people have gotten killed in stupid ways because they weren't paying attention. Perhaps I am suggesting a mechanic for a game in which the protagonists are assumed to be largely immune to suicidal carelessness and dumb luck; this jives with MY understanding of "realism", at any rate.