Handling PC Death in Simulationist Combat

Started by Adam Riemenschneider, June 12, 2008, 01:15:09 AM

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Adam Riemenschneider

I'd like to talk about an event which occurred several months ago in a playtest game I ran.

System: The basics

The game is one I've independently published, called Factions (sadly, you probably haven't heard of it yet). All you need to know for this post, however, is that the game is Actor stance, very Simulationist, and combat is not particularly forgiving.

The Game setup

The group was a team of Therans, which are supernatural beings with reality-bending animal aspects. This mini-campaign was the first go-through with Therans, which will be written into the game world in a later supplement. The players know that Therans are pretty tough in general (although not the walking slaughterhouses that, say, WOD werewolves are), but don't really know how much punishment they can take. The PCs were Theran gang members in a war-torn city.

The Players

This was with my usual playtest group, so it's people who have played the game before and know what they're about. Their names, or precisely what they played isn't very important. They were a tough group.

The Situation

The group was making their way across the DMZ part of the city. There's a lot of fighting going on, but they're not a part of it. They've ditched their vehicle and are trying to be sneaky. I had them cross the path of an aggressive sniper team. Player 1 is the first target exposed, and the enemy sniper takes a shot at him, and rolls badly. Not bad enough to miss entirely, but accuracy means a lot in this game, and not much damage is done. A graze.

Player gets across the open street and takes cover. The rest of the group takes up positions of cover against the sniper. They know they have to get across the street to reach their destination, and no one wants to take a detour, since they are on a schedule. They resolve to deal with the sniper.

Player cranks on all of his combat power goodies. He knows he's as ready as he's going to get. He sneaks into a position, and he and the sniper spot each other at the same moment. They shoot at each other, with Player 1 just barely firing first, and hits the sniper pretty darn well. It's a mortal wound, as a matter of fact, but the player doesn't know that. All he knows is that he's been hit, too. It wasn't the world's best shot, but it hits him hard enough. Player soaks up some of this damage, but he's wounded.

The sniper falls from view. And this is where things get pretty interesting. A few moments later, the sniper's spotter appears, and starts to draw a bead on Player. The Player makes an assumption; "I can soak up his damage if hits me, these guys aren't that good of a shot." He doesn't say this aloud, but that's what he's thinking.

So the Player stands up and charges the enemy position. As he runs, the first sniper reappears; he's not dead after all, but is very hurt. The Player presumes the sniper isn't as much of a threat as the sniper's uninjured spotter, and so the Player, on the run, shoots it out with the spotter. A round or two later, he's killed the spotter.

The Death

This is when the bloodied and dying sniper takes his final shot. He hits the Player really, really well. Also, he's charged up his nasty gun all the way, and so his base damage is also going to be much higher. Everything is rolled out, and the Player is, by the rules, dead before he hits the ground. He died, primarily, because the player made an assumption about the enemy, and, with the player's knowledge of the combat rules, thought the level of risk was lower than it truly was. He took it well enough.

The rest of the party argued for the chance to save him.

As written, the PC had been killed instantly. It's actually pretty hard to do this; a "mortal wound" occurs when half of a character's health is taken out in a single hit, and most characters expire within a dozen rounds or so. Most of the time, no one dies *right away.* There are ways to instantly heal an injured character. One of the remaining PCs had this ability, and he wanted the chance to use it.

Moment of truth

So I broke the rules (which I had written!) and gave the group 1 round to try. I knew the odds were pretty darn slim that they'd pull it off, but, mechanically, it was possible. The healer tried and got surprisingly close to succeeding, but too much damage had been done. Two other PCs spend a bunch of development points to instantly learn how the power to heal (such instant, dynamic unlocking of power is allowed for in the game), a pretty heavy investment on their part... but these two failed their last ditch, slim-chance attempts. With everyone out of actions, the round was up, and the PC was finally declared dead in the game.

"Golden Rule," blah-blah-blah

Now, all sorts of games, mine included, make noises about ignoring rules that you don't like, or in situations where the game/story will be better off for it. I'm a real stickler, though. I like the framework of rock-solid rules in a Simulationist game. I think that, ultimately, using this kind of treatment makes for *more* heroic games. If a Player knows that there's real risk in a given situation, and does it anyway, I think their success means more, since negative consequences for failure will be applied, instead of swept under the rug.

Still, I found my own reaction to the session to be surprising. Really, I wanted the group to accept the PC death. He had, after all, done a pretty foolish thing, tactically speaking. Sure, he didn't know that the sniper was still alive, and still in enough of a fighting shape to be a danger... but that's combat for you. I wanted the players to have to face the brutality of the moment - that their friend was dead, had died in front of their eyes, and there was nothing they could do about it. But the players weren't satisfied with that outcome. They wanted the chance, however slim, to reverse the death. And that meant a renegotiation of the rules.

I'm still not sure how I feel about it, and I'm certainly not sure how I'd feel if the character had somehow lived (with a new player expectation that maybe, just maybe, all future PC deaths would now be negotiable?).

What do you all think about all of this?

Creator and Publisher of Other Court Games.


I suppose the question is why you wouldn't negotiate all other deaths according to this precedent. I've found that it puts you in a delicate position. I ran a game of RuneQuest for years that had similar issues; ie why did that chr get a break and not that one? At times it was only me that knew any bias was happening.

In my last efforts in that direction (Pendragon), I went ruthlessly with the rules and dice to stave off the issue. It worked for me.
AKA Jeff Zahari

Arturo G.

My impression is that you should talk with your friends about the kind of game they want to play. Perhaps they are more interested in a less simulationist game, where PC are having some plot protection. Perhaps not, but they need to accept the full consequences of the kind of game they are playing. This is probably the best moment to talk with them, as they have experiment the consequences of the system up and front.


  Usually, on the Forge, Simulationist has a very strict meaning. It means you are doing Genre exploration. A great example of a Simulationist game would be James Bond. This simulates the movies/books almost flawlessly. Is this how you are using the term here? And if so, what genre are you simulating?
  That question aside, there is a lot of meta-feeds that go into the impact of character death. Such as:
1) How hard is it to make a character that will fit with the existing group?
2) How long in real world time does it take to make a character. And this is a varialbe, not a set amount of time. Almost every cut throat GM says it only takes 15 minutes to make a character, but I find it usually takes me 30-60 mins to make one. The reason this feeds into the impact is, the player is effectively not playing this whole time. And if char gen requires medium to heavy input from the GM, that means that chargen time is doubled as the GM will be running the game for the rest of the players while the dead guy has to steal snippets of time in between scenes
3) How hard is it to integrate said compatible character into the new group? I mean this sounds like some sort of sci fi dystopia. And the group is in the middle of a VERY hazardous area. What is the "realistic" chances that a lone character is going to wonder up to the group, survive the encoutner, and then be trusted enough to be invited into the group? And even if he is, what is his share of the loot? I mean, he wasn't there from the beginning and will the guy that hired the group want to pay a total stranger that they didn't hire? That's a trick question, there is no "good" answer. If you give them full pay, its not realistic (which was the so-called justification for killing the other character in the first place) and if you don't you are boning the player even further.
4) How meaningful was the death? I mean the character was killed by someone they didn't know that didn't have a beef with them at all. If they had won,it would have only been an exercise in making the characters spend some resources before the final encounter of the mission and instead they lost a character to a random encoutner. There is not fun there, no heroism. You know, if a player gets to die for a cause, that's meaningful. But to die to a random encounter, that's just poor planning by the GM, no?
5) How much did the players like that character? I mean if you are a decent role player, you will never make that exact character again, right? So, they are gone from this world...
6) How much do the characters need that character? I mean, if he was filling a niche, then that niche is open until the other character joins the party. Also, if he was filling a niche, how much flexibility does the character really ahve in making a new character? I thinhk it is situations like this that create the Bob II-type characters, personally.

  As you may have guessed, I am a bit of a Care Bear. And that's alright, I am usually upfront and honest about it with the groups I play with and we work it out.
  The point is, there is no right or wrong answer here. You need to work that out with your group and figure out if you are playing gritty, cinematic or what? And establish instant death, "resurrection", pvp and other expectations ahead of time, right? Because trying to negotiate it after you rolled a crit is bad juju.
  Also, is there a reason you were so deceptive with the player. Having them fall down, but not be out of the fight seems like an intentional move to take the character out. And I wonder if you were playing this Random Encounter too heavily handed. I mean, would there have been a real reward if the group had overcome these guys?
  I don't know your game well enough to know if it is supposed to be played this aggressively or not. So maybe my comments are out of context. I apologize if they are. But if its standard RPG fare and not a specilized game that is more tactical and less roleplay, you definitely played this encounter over the top in my opinion.
  Good luck with your new design man!
Dave M
Author of Legends of Lanasia RPG (Still in beta)
My blog
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Ron Edwards


Dave: whoa, that "genre emulation" comment is off-base. I outline a bunch of different historical applications of Simulationist play in the Right to Dream essay, and that's just one of them. In the later discussions of the "constructive denial" issue, using specific genres is only one way to arrive at the 'sacred cow' material of play. Adam is perfectly on target with his use of the term.

Adam, here's my thinking - what you're talking about exists, in Big Model terms, at the interface of the Social Contract and the Exploration/SIS levels. The specific components of the interface are (Social Contract: "let's play this game") and (SIS: "this is a character of some importance") - which, to articulate the precise point of interface, gets articulated as "as long as this character is alive, I can play."

So the issue becomes, "if my character dies, I have to stop playing." That's the issue over-and-above how a character may die.

If that actually had not been the case (and there are actually many ways for it not to be the case, for which the "make a new guy real real quick" is a fairly crude example), then the character's death could have been a wonderful and powerful and above-all confirmatory way to enjoy your game system and the scenario in general.

It seems to me that as long as that issue persists, then no tweak of the system itself will be satisfying - the only solution, as you discovered, is to diddle with the localized version of the Big Model at such a profound level that the entire fabric of play "feels ripped."

I've discussed the possible solutions at length in a variety of threads over the years, most recently in an Adept Press thread (I'll hunt the link in a minute), but I'm not sure if that's what you want to do with this thread. Thinking about Factions, based on my understanding and on your current description of it, it seems clear to me that character death through such events as you describe should be part of play, and understood as part of play. For what it's worth, your description of the character's death based on three different characters' actions and rolls was quite gripping. In which case, "how do I keep playing" when such things happen becomes a key question.

If the answer to that question is itself fun, then character death might become as much a celebration of your rules (and the events of a given situation) as character survival.

Do you want to pursue this line of thought?

Best, Ron


Adam, you say you had hard-core players who are regular with you and have played the game before?
you seem to imply that they should just accept this kind-of-thing to happen?
Its a simulationist game, that means you've created it with decent realistic rules? its been play-tested enough that you know that sniper is not overpowered?
The player knows the rules well? he understood the risk?
Did you ask them if they die do they want you to be lenient or strict? Did you put guidelines for it in the rules?

If player death does not occur often because the players are good then when it does happen, because of a bad decision on the players part, a learning experience, and probably memorable.

There are 3 things you can do with this

1)You shouldn't alter the rules and give him a chance to be revived, the rules are the rules, it makes the game more tense & realistic & fun. I think there is nothing wrong with this, I think if you hold to this 100% consistently, as long as you warn them, players will enjoy/immerse in your game more.

2)Change the rules, make it so that dead anything, players & enemies, can be revived however many seconds, minutes, hours,  after death. If in this setting players can do unreal things we can't do in the reality then reviving after death doesn't go against design. If this is what your players want, and you think it is a good idea then why not?

3)Giving leeway this once... I think this is the worst option, in the future what do you do? you'll be in a obvious predicament and accused of all kinds of things if you are not 100% consistent.

You could take Dindenvers approach and be a care-bear, nothing wrong with that as long as you don't change mind in the future, each to their own. I cant stand that approach personally though, but he raised a good point on how much will this effect the enjoyment of the player?

Will the player miss-out on significant game-time?
Does the game have rules for what players should do after death?
Players after death shouldn't have to start a totally fresh/underpowered character, have you got a system where the player can level up a new character to just a bit behind the old one? with the mechanisms that lower power characters can catch up with higher level ones because you get more experience if you defeat something higher than your level?

With rules that soften the blow of a character death this much, it become less about mourning the loss of the old character and more about getting to play a brand spanking new one!

What did that player do for the rest of that game?
Having a back-up characters ready to play for that dead guys (you know meet up with the solo guy who has the same objectives as you), doesn't really bother players in that it makes the story unrealistic if it only happens once, they all understand, you just have to be prepared with at least a few of these ready made characters. (which a player can change after the session). 
But when I saw "Handling PC Death in Simulationist Combat" that means death happens and it shouldn't be argued with, if death is always at least a bit dramatic then its a merit to your system.

First Oni

I've known my share of "Killer DMs" that don't bat an eye at killing a player's character. They're the kind of DM that has their players make one or two extra characters as back up. Needless to say, i don't play in these types of games.

Roleplaying is about the player's characters. It is not about the DM's inflated ego, the NPCs and how cool they are, or anything else. The story, plot, and world shoudl center around the players and what they do. That said, I personally put a LOT of work into each and every character i make. If one of my characters dies during a game, it shouldn't be because of something small. It should be cataclysmic, earth-shattering, and add something to the game. Not to say player characters should be bulletproof and never suffer, mind you. But suffering and dead are two different things.

In my games, if i see that a player is making a mistake that could get them killed i will usualy give some sort of friendly reminder. "Hey.... you sure you wanna do that?" is usually good enough to at least have the player rethink their action and make slight modifications. If they constantly ignore warnings, then they'll die due to their own stupidity, regardless of my efforts to keep them in the game.

But that's just the way i do it. Not everyone is the same.

I honestly think that the way you handled this situation in-game was the right thing to do. You need to bend the rules if its in the best interest of the game itself. If your players felt that strongly about it, then its probably because they feel the same way i do... the death of a character should mean something.

Eloy Lasanta, CEO of Third Eye Games
Buy "Apocalypse Prevention, Inc." NOW!!!
API Worldwide: Canada - Available Now!

Adam Riemenschneider

Hello all.

First, I just want to apologize for taking a little long to get back to the thread (last few days have been busy, work wise).

Second, thank you for the responses. I'm not sure what kind of response I am looking for on this; I'm not sure if I want a question answered. I guess I just wanted to gauge responses. Thank you for giving me the chance to do that.

I know line-by-line responses are discouraged, so I'm not going to try to do that.

In general, though, here was the fallout of the session:

The event took place at the end of the night. I essentially try to schedule cliffhangers and "big scenes" that way, if only to give myself a week to deal with the heavier outcomes. The player  was given a new character to play for the following week, who was one of the big contacts at the place they were going to. This was more of a plot convenience than a player chosen character, but we as a group have used this sort of a solution before. The player didn't miss too much of play time.

One point raised that I want to address is the idea that I was being sneaky with having the 1st sniper fall down. Within the game mechanics (and the players know all about this), there is a mechanic check for Stun/KO whenever a character is wounded. It's perfectly normal for people to fall down when they get shot, even if they're still alive. Also, there are courage checks one has to make in combat. The result of these two things is that enemy NPCs do all sorts of things in Factions that they tend *not* to do in other games - things like running away, hiding behind cover when it is tactically in their best interest to move or fire, falling down for a few rounds as they try to figure out if they're ok, and the like. Combats are "messy" in this way, and it is expected by the players.

The group wasn't turned on its collective head because of the way the enemy acted. The group reacted because they couldn't do anything about the fact that the character was *instantly killed*, and they didn't have a chance to help him.

Oh, I'm going to re-read the Right to Dream tonight, and will get back to you, Ron, in a day or two on the point you raised.

I'm pretty certain that, overall, the players are aware that they're in a gritty game. I realize now that I have to make an effort to reestablish this from time to time, if only in gentle reminders.

Here's a thing: the *reason* I have combat written in a realistic way is to essentially make combat fit *horror*, instead of action. Consider Saving Private Ryan, vs. something like Spider Man. When the fighting starts in Spider Man, I expect to see some awesome special effects and/or stunts. In Saving Private Ryan, I'm filled with dread and revulsion, and anger, too, at the "bad guys" who are shredding the characters I sympathize with. And when someone does something brave in Factions (making their Courage saves all the way), it means more in the story... if only because the *player* knows how fragile the character is.

Still, I don't want to derail my own thread.

I was surprised at the player reaction (desire to bend the rules), and that I went with them in the bending, even against the backdrop of "this is a heavy game world, folks."

One post, I think by Roadkill, brought up something I'd like to respond to, because it made me realize something that I've been doing since this happened. He mentions one solution being to change the rules to make reversal of death possible.

And it makes me realize that, although resurrection in this game world *is* meant to be possible, I hadn't addressed it in a direct way in any rule book or supplement. The world, even though it is gritty and modern, is still a fantasy. There are near-gods in this world that could raise the dead character, and there are (theoretically) rituals that could pull it off. Think Sandman level of near-gods, or rituals that take a month to pull off, even with half a dozen or more experts in the field (and failure means they could all die). These kinds of things are pretty damn inaccessible for your run-of-the-mill PC, but are dangled out there.

Of course, the player characters would want to try to do what they could to save their friend. That's in character. Who wouldn't? My mistake was/is not having a path to resurrection figured out. So I can say to the group, "Okay, you rush to his side. No vitals. You try to Heal Other? Okay, roll. Nope, it doesn't work. He was too far gone, probably had his soul flee before he hit the ground. Yeah, that's rough. I guess you're going to have to go on a big quest to meet an Element of Destruction when this is all done, to try to get him brought back from the dead, eh?

I mean, I forgot to raise the bar, and give them a goal... even if it was going to be a goal the characters would have, outside of the context of the playtest (and something we'd never get around to playing). I said "no" to an adventure hook that anyone, player or character, would take up.
Creator and Publisher of Other Court Games.

Christoph Boeckle

Hi Adam, thanks for the actual play account!

Your solution of giving the other player an NPC was quite neat I'd say. From my abstract point of view, this gives a sense that the fictitious world continuous to exist for the players even if their character dies. This could be quite empowering for Sim play. If the GM has at all times a series of NPCs (perhaps minimally fleshed out and not too deeply tied to the content you prepared for the upcoming sessions) that can serve as "replacements" from which a player can choose when his PC dies, you might get a powerful incentive to accept, or even seek, player character death, because it gives the player the option to explore the world from a new angle. This would probably put a strain on the "PC group" concept, but give rise to those funky "multiple-perspectives" scene-framings we get to see in works like A Game of Thrones or Crash (the movie). And nicely tie in to the gritty atmosphere you seem to have given a lot of attention to.

Adam Riemenschneider


I'm grappling with terms, here, but I believe the answer is "yes."

Where things got cloudy for me, is that the player knew that he was going to be able to play, even through his character had died. His death was "fair" mechanics-wise, and he acknowledged that, meta-game wise, he wasn't being too smart; however, the character in question had qualities that the player viewed as justifying his charging the enemy. This player was fine with the outcome. He knew he was still going to get to play, but that current character was gone.

It was the other players that wanted the shift.

And I'm *still* not entirely sure what each player's motivation was. The strongest proponent of having a chance to save him was the player of the group's healer. I honestly believe that the player wasn't motivated by wanting time in the spotlight - he was perfectly fine with other PCs having the same chance as he was to make the heal work. I think that, for him, the world/setting ought to rule out the possibility of instant death, as far as he understood the setting that we were playing in. He wanted to interpret death as something that took more than a second to occur.

Still, I'm glad the screwing around with the rules ended up as it did - no one made the rolls, and the character died. It hardened the party, and the characters had to deal with the trauma as they continued to plow on with their mission. And it was traumatic. They decided that, enemy or not, they were *not* leaving the body behind. So they built a stretcher and carried him. When they got to a place to rest/hole up, one PC, the (now dead) character's live-in girlfriend (making her Stress checks all the way), bathed his wounds and ceremoniously prepared him for burial. And then, using her abilities, buried him.

And I don't plan on messing with those kinds of core rules, during play, again.

Now, the player still got to play next session. Everyone was able to keep having fun. But what do you do in a SIM when a PC dies in the first hour of a session? So this goes back to Ron's question: If the death is essentially supposed to happen by the way of normal play, how does a player "keep playing?" Especially in a game like this, where normal character creation can be pretty time consuming (much crunch).

His tool for interacting with the story has been removed.


Besides making up a new character?

Did anyone ever play Wraith? In the way I had gotten to play it, each player had their character, and then *also* played another PC's "Shadow," which was basically their dark side that talked in their head and actually tried to "take over." It split your priorities as a player... your main Character wanted to accomplish the group goals (or your own goals, or whatever), but half of the time, you were actively plotting against another PC. So if you were really cunning as someone's Shadow, you could end up trying to do things that would ultimately screw over your own PC.

I suppose PC death could be handled by simply having the player play his character's own ghost. There *are* ghosts in this setting. I just wouldn't want to rely too much on this method of giving a player something to do.

Or, perhaps, when the character's consciousness stops being tied to the body (and heads for reincarnation or an Afterlife, depending on what the character believed in), I could write in some kind of "reality impression" that happens upon death, where a character can bend and tweak reality for a short while, even after death. The player in question is then in control of these effects upon the story, and it would be understood within the context of the setting that these things can happen (so it's not metagaming per see, but an in-game understood cause-and-effect sort of deal).

I'm going to have to play around with this a bit, because sometimes a friendly NPC that can fill the gap just isn't available within the context of the story.

I think it's kind of funny that players lose their method of contact with the story almost always because of their death (instead of their character just moving away), and so figuring out what the player can do begs me to answer what happens to characters after they die.

Creator and Publisher of Other Court Games.

colin roald

Quote from: Adam Riemenschneider on June 16, 2008, 06:45:49 AMYeah, that's rough. I guess you're going to have to go on a big quest to meet an Element of Destruction when this is all done, to try to get him brought back from the dead, eh?

So this sounds cool, but it doesn't solve the question of "what does the player of the dead character do while that is going on?"

What would, is to switch the order around.  "Yeah, the Powers sometimes answer a call to return someone from the dead.  They demand a Price, though.  You wanna ask?"  "Well, what's the Price?"  "What, you think you get to negotiate?"

It could work for player of the dead character, too.  You get a scene in the Waiting Room, and if you want to go back badly enough, maybe you can.  You sure about that?
colin roald

i cannot, yet i must.  how do you calculate that?  at what point on the graph do `must' and `cannot' meet?  yet i must, but i cannot.
-- Ro-Man, the introspective gorilla-suited destroyer of worlds

Frank Tarcikowski

How do you keep playing when making up a new character on the fly is not an option?

In some games I've been in, "just stick around" would have been a perfectly valid answer. If you are allowed to make comments and suggestions, if you care about the other characters and remain involved, just sticking around might be okay. Also depends on how long your sessions usually last.

Some GMs have been known to hand NPCs to players who are out of character (pun intended). But I wouldn't rush this, I'd give the player some time to reflect on his character's death. After all, this can be a pretty strong and carthatic experience.

I'll also say that if you play hard and you really try to succeed and then fail, well, of course there will be a bitter taste of disappointment. That's the price to pay for the sweetness of victory you would have otherwise experienced. Refusing to accept the death and seeking mechanical means to overcome it may well be a just a sign that the players really cared. It's like when you're in a sports tournament of some sorts and you're losing, and you're blaming it all on the ref, and only after the heat of battle wears off can you accept he was only doing his job. (Please note that this phenomenon is in no way limited to Gamist play.)

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

First Oni

In the rare instances when my character has died in game, the GM said, "Ok... so you're playing this bad guy" and handed me a sheet. And then, i was still part of the action, trying to take out my friends as well. That's an interesting way to handle unexpected deaths i think.
Eloy Lasanta, CEO of Third Eye Games
Buy "Apocalypse Prevention, Inc." NOW!!!
API Worldwide: Canada - Available Now!


Reading dindever's account, im thinking:

- why did the mortally wounded sniper decide to keep shooting?
- and if the snipers fanaticism is reasonable, did the party have a chance to know they were fighting a fanatic?


Even in simulationist games, we tend to obey some fiction-based rules, not pure real world simulation.

Adam, in your game, would your players have accepted if the sniper made a one shot kill on the first exposed character?

Would your players have accepted some totally random but reasonable death cause? E.g. car crash, death from disease or infection? I.e. pointless death, where there is no sort of acknowlegdement by the players that they are putting their character at risk?
Frederik J. Jensen