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Author Topic: [D&D 4e] Character Death and TPKs  (Read 3352 times)
Natespank
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« on: February 05, 2011, 11:09:16 PM »

Hey guys!

I suspect that PC deaths in many RPGs sometimes hurts the game.

In many cases it strongly rewards me to play the same character from the campaign's start to finish. One of my favorite characters ever was from a [Rifts] campaign, a bounty hunter named Moses who made it to level 8 (pretty high in Rifts). I aggressively played and often endangered my character in gambits which usually spectacularly succeeded, killing huge robots with bundles of fusion blocks modified with his weapons engineering to be remote-operated.

To achieve character longevity the GM decided to decrease the game's difficulty, and fudged a few rolls here or there if she liked what a character did. Nobody died that campaign, though there were a few serious injuries. It made our victories feel a little insignificant. I've played other campaigns where the low difficulty bored me, or where the high difficulty ran me through up to a dozen characters (old d&d, absurd haha).

In RPGs "epic wins" greatly reward the players, but if there's no or little chance of failure the reward shrinks. If there's a huge chance the players will fail it increases the victory's worth. However, to achieve that characters will inevitably die, or a TPK can result. In D&D, typically the player will then make a new character. In that Rifts campaign, had I had 5 characters instead of Moses I'd have been less happy with the campaign. Also, leveling a character from 1-X is way more rewarding than beginning at level Y and growing to X, that's why most RPGs default characters to begin at "level 1."

I think a DM could remedy this by allowing for character death and TPKs using mechanics that preserve characters after death. The normal method is to buy and use scrolls of Raise Dead for a ton of gold- early level characters can't really afford them though, and if a character dies in D&D 4e it's not an option to make a level 1 character and work your way back to your old level. The mechanics defeat the attempt so you have to create a new similar level character, which sucks because your new character has no history.

I think a better method is to hand out some scrolls of raise dead starting at level 3 or so, and give the character's tattoos which teleport the party and some gear to a resurrection stone and pay a cost for a full revive. This gives the PCs the chance to get licked and wake up groggy a few miles away jonesing for revenge, or plotting to grow stronger to overcome the challenge that killed them.

What do you guys think of this? Do you think characters should stay dead, do you think TPKs should cause campaign reboots, or that characters just shouldn't die? I'd like some feedback :D What's your experiences?
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Natespank
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I usually use the male pronoun to mean either sex.


« Reply #1 on: February 05, 2011, 11:14:21 PM »

I can't find an edit button- I wanted to add something:

In almost every single computer/console game ever built the player can "die" or "fail" and usually restarts at an earlier point to try again. The chance of failure is essential to make rewards vivid. For example, the Legend of Zelda for NES is a HARD GAME. There's a huge chance that most players will never beat it- and you die a LOT. Those deaths made me dig in and grow determined to overcome the game, to "beat the game." Removing failure, or punishing it too greatly, would have ruined it or similar games.

Imagine DooM without death, or where death --> restarting.
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Callan S.
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« Reply #2 on: February 06, 2011, 03:19:33 AM »

Hi Nate,

The thing is, if your coming back, then your not dead. It's not death. It'd be the same as your statement 'Nobody died that campaign'.

Now if you just want a kick in the nuts for losing a battle, fair enough. But that's not really an issue of character death, but how failure stings. Or in the context of a larger game/campaign, how much closer it gets you to failing the whole campaign (which at the very least means you don't get the happiest ending possible).

That's actually an issue - a gold cost for 'dying'/losing by itself kind of makes suceeding at a whole campaign insignificant, in a way. I mean, you fail, pay gold, earn gold through jobs and try again. You will never fail, unless you lack the stamina to keep trying again and/or can't be bothered anymore. It's like getting to top level in world of warcraft - it's not a matter of 'if', it's a matter of 'when'/'how long'.

So these questions of in the moment losing a battle kind of spill into the much larger context of a campaign.
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Natespank
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Posts: 97

I usually use the male pronoun to mean either sex.


« Reply #3 on: February 06, 2011, 03:32:44 AM »

What I mean is that character death is a tricky issue and it might work better to replace it in many ways with a "sting of failure" mechanic- at least in 4e where it's not feasible to create a level 1 character to tag along with your level 5 friends. I shouldn't have said death per se, but in my Rifts campaign we succeeded at everything we ever did because failure generally implied a TPK which nobody wanted- so the DM helped us along. There needs to be a failure mechanic is what I mean is most crucial- a way for the PCs to get whooped in combat here and there and it not be game over.

Using the tattoo idea can include real death too if the tattoo is chopped off the PC before death by a savvy NPC- if you can't recover the body, can't revive him, so still allows for death occasionally- just at important times and not in stupid encoutners with a swarm of drakes that nobody expected to be so strong :)
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Kevin Vito
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« Reply #4 on: February 06, 2011, 06:37:51 AM »

One of my favorite resurrection stories comes from a 3.5 game I played in.
Caelath, the half-elf ranger/beguiler of the group was killed by drow. Our only means of bringing him back was with the druid's reincarnation spell. Caelath came back, but he was reincarnated as a halfling. This had all sorts of ramifications.
The character had a wife, you see. She didn't recognize him after he was reincarnated. Ouch.
To add insult to injury, the other characters, including the druid who performed the reincarnation spell, made fun of Caelath all the time, calling him 'shorty', 'stumpy', 'kid', etc.

I really liked that.
I feel that resurrection should have major consequences for characters.
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #5 on: February 06, 2011, 07:04:28 AM »

Hi,

At this late date, it may be surprising to learn that particularly savage character death mechanics and quickie resurrections entered the design scene of early D&D through the tournaments. In these tournaments, there would be as many as a hundred tables, each with a prepared DM, each with exactly the same scenario and even the same verbal descriptions provided so the players' comparative experience would be identical.

In these circumstances, the only thing that mattered was amassing XPs, not to level up, but to win the tournament. That's why GPs = XPs, by the way. Character death was only a feature of play; no one really expected every PC to survive a table.

Another feature of play which could be seen at the tournaments but was also very common in ordinary ("home?") play was to have several player-characters at once, per player. I'm not talking about having characters on call, to step in, but rather, you really played them all at once during an adventure.When one died, you started a first-level character to replace him, adding the new one to your "stable," and over time, you'd end up with a bunch of characters of varying levels, continuing to lose one every once in a while. (To buffer your own characters, you'd also surround the party with hirelings, too.)

All of this became less common by the early 1980s, but the legacy of savage character death remained, including the low mechanical attention paid to beginning-character effectiveness. I know very well from experience that 1st level character survival in D&D of that time was purely a matter of DM mercy. It was flatly dysfunctional for early play, because the player's ability to participate and the character's being dead were incompatible.

What I'm saying for purposes of this thread is, there's no point in trying to make that degree of character make sense, as if it had ever made sense outside of the context of tourney/multi-character play anyway. It didn't make sense out of that context then, and it doesn't now. Nate, I'm agreeing with you, but I also think you're re-inventing the wheel. Referencing the various computer games is really going back to the D&D tourneys that they're based on in the first place.

And finally, a moderator point: Nate, you have not started an actual play topic. You've brought up an interesting issue, but unless you can ground that issue in an account of actual play which you yourself experienced, and describe that to us, I'll have to declare the thread closed.

Best, Ron

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Natespank
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I usually use the male pronoun to mean either sex.


« Reply #6 on: February 06, 2011, 04:50:23 PM »

Quote
And finally, a moderator point: Nate, you have not started an actual play topic. You've brought up an interesting issue, but unless you can ground that issue in an account of actual play which you yourself experienced, and describe that to us, I'll have to declare the thread closed.

Yeah, sorry about that, I prepared the campaign last night and played it today. I had planned to update these threads with play examples this afternoon, I've been extremely rushed lately.

I'm aiming for a sandboxy style game so I let the players freely navigate my world map; they encountered the dragon isle (level 13 solo), and the Hydra isle (level 12 solo), then fled to the slaver isle where they fought some drakes. They're getting beaten up a lot but they're liking it since it's tough and they have to think things out :)

The example of play came earlier than I expected: the former naval captain charged into a group of drakes and they tore him to shreds. First character death on the first session: since he was only level 1 and likes making characters I let him takeover the hireling they'd picked up in town instead of reviving him. The usefulness of the quick replacement and revival system is that the players got licked bad at the start of an island- but they've already sworn to return at higher level to clear them out, it's high on their to-do list, which is exactly what I wanted. As they level up and hit level 3 I can start reviving them since they'll be attached to their characters, and getting whupped all the time- getting killed all the time- will fuel their desire to "beat the game."
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Callan S.
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« Reply #7 on: February 06, 2011, 10:24:24 PM »

Nate,
Quote
I shouldn't have said death per se, but in my Rifts campaign we succeeded at everything we ever did because failure generally implied a TPK which nobody wanted- so the DM helped us along. There needs to be a failure mechanic is what I mean is most crucial- a way for the PCs to get whooped in combat here and there and it not be game over.
Yeah, I've mulled over that exact same point a few times. I actually had a conversation with my friend about it once, and really he just wanted to fudge it each time, citing how wouldn't it suck if so and so died. And I said hey, why not just openly and explicitly say that we will always get our ass knocked to the curb on failure, perhaps knocked under rubble and forgotten, perhaps knocked down a storm drain and washed away, perhaps fall onto the back of a passing truck - some exit routine each time (your teleport is cool as well, just saying my way here). Make it cost us in armour repairs and medical bills and shit, but were out of there. I was saying this to him, as one of his main players when he GM's, yet he was still clinging to this fudging routine, as if he was really preserving the idea we could all genuinely die, when I was sitting next to him pointing at the fudge! I dunno what was up with that? Maybe he thought he had the other players still under the illusion of real death, even if I wasn't?

I suppose the thing that got me was trying to add that sting. With your group you describe it as a benefit over real time thing, don't you? I might try thinking in those terms - I normally thought in some sort of win/lose model.

Quote
Using the tattoo idea can include real death too if the tattoo is chopped off the PC before death by a savvy NPC- if you can't recover the body, can't revive him, so still allows for death occasionally- just at important times and not in stupid encoutners with a swarm of drakes that nobody expected to be so strong :)
Good point and an interesting angle - though I think a medalion would fit that better. Indeed I like the idea of a rule that even if a badguy knows to try and tear it away, even if the suceed, the medalion isn't gripped by anyone and skitters across the room to a random square (a bit like the movies where the gun skitters way, way across the floor (to quoate futurama!)). Then you fight your way over to it, terrorfied of death, hehe...


Ron,

I'm not sure I understand your point about reinventing the wheel? When were not provided wheels, aren't we kind of stuck inventing them?
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RichD
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« Reply #8 on: February 07, 2011, 10:33:52 AM »

I tended to go with the price of being revived being another adventure myself.  After all, the services of a group of adventurers is far more valuable than mere gold.  There was always a holy shrine being threatened, or a relic to retrieve, or a rival sect to harass.  So the price of a revived life is to risk it for the one that returned it to you.  This works really well with a total party kill because there is nothing more disturbing than waking up in an unfamiliar temple and realizing that some someone went to trouble of collecting your bodies and bringing you back from the dead for reasons unknown.  Thinking in terms of fates worse than death can take you to some fun places.

On the tattoo/medallion front, I had a very high level group in a 2nd ed campaign and their cleric could handle bringing the odd party member back from death but there was still the risk of the cleric being the one that died first.  So they went on a special quest to craft a Ring of Spell Storing that could hold a Resurrection spell.  Now only one member of the party has to survive.  That party member brings the cleric back and the cleric revives the rest.  So its a TPK or nothing.  It made for some very interesting situations where one or two PCs are desperately trying to hang on knowing that the fate of the whole group rested on them.

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Natespank
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« Reply #9 on: February 07, 2011, 02:58:56 PM »

Quote
Good point and an interesting angle - though I think a medalion would fit that better. Indeed I like the idea of a rule that even if a badguy knows to try and tear it away, even if the suceed, the medalion isn't gripped by anyone and skitters across the room to a random square (a bit like the movies where the gun skitters way, way across the floor (to quoate futurama!)). Then you fight your way over to it, terrorfied of death, hehe...

My first attempt at this sort of mechanic used a medallion like that but I worried they'd lose it in various ways. However, scrambling for a medallion like you described would make some awesome scenes. I'll consider an aspect like that.

Quote
On the tattoo/medallion front, I had a very high level group in a 2nd ed campaign and their cleric could handle bringing the odd party member back from death but there was still the risk of the cleric being the one that died first.  So they went on a special quest to craft a Ring of Spell Storing that could hold a Resurrection spell.  Now only one member of the party has to survive.  That party member brings the cleric back and the cleric revives the rest.  So its a TPK or nothing.  It made for some very interesting situations where one or two PCs are desperately trying to hang on knowing that the fate of the whole group rested on them.

In 4e you can buy scrolls of raise dead for whatever cost (1000?) that anyone can use to perform a raise dead ritual. The odd character death won't bother the game if they can use these- the medallion/tattoo idea is best for when a TPK occurs. When the whole group hits the ground dead, THEN they teleport. I just have to provide some scrolls before they can afford to buy them themselves.
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Callan S.
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« Reply #10 on: February 07, 2011, 04:43:25 PM »

The idea of paying off a failure with another adventure doesn't really click with me. I mean, at the moment of failure, it hasn't resolved that failure - we'd have a whole other game night of getting through an adventure before you could say 'And that's what you get for failing!'. And if it's another adventure, it's practically indistinguishable from what they'd be doing next if they won. Indeed it probably suits a simulationist agenda precisely for that reason (ie, it excludes any outside the game sense of winning or losing).


In terms of a winning vector based on benefit accumulation, I wonder if you had some sort of system which has a treasure rating for dungeons/adventures. Each time you win/complete an adventure properly, you go up to the next rating, which means that dungeon/adventure has even more treasure. But if you fail/TPK, whatever, you drop down a few ratings - your guys are so beat up they can only find leads on the less rewarding dungeons/adventures.

I just think in terms of benefit over time, the only way that works is if when everyone loses, that's the end of the session for the night. Which you can do, granted. But if you did continue playing, it'd totally undermine the benefit over time sting of failure. Because even if the pirate leaves with his treasure, if you start another adventure straight away then you've just brought back the pirate/treasure, because that adventure will have a new treasure/boss. Unless you stop playing for the night, there is no sting. And if you die in the first five minutes of the session...when everyones only has this time to play and have traveled for X time to get here...C'mon, your gunna keep playing. Of course you are. But it'd bone the gamist sting that a benefit over real time involves.

But with an overall spine added to play of your current treasure rating hinging on your moment to moment performance or gutsy luck, it works out if you keep playing (well, unless you keep screwing up and dropping your treasure rating right down to the lousy default, but that still works as gamism - it just doesn't work out for the guy who keeps stuffing up, hehe!)
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Natespank
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« Reply #11 on: February 07, 2011, 09:15:29 PM »

Okay I get what you're saying. It's late, I'm gonna review this tomorrow after school. You might be right.
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #12 on: February 08, 2011, 07:37:56 AM »

Hey,

Nate, I suggest that a couple of your current threads should be left alone, perhaps to be picked up at a later time. You've brought up a lot of topics, with a lot of nuances, especially in the charged emotional context of Dungeons & Dragons.

It would be good for all of us to concentrate on one thread especially, to bring the full bore of Forge-style discourse into action and actually to conclude something there.

If I had to pick, I'd like to focus on your player-choice, sandbox thread, but the choice should be yours. I think you'll be surprised at how productive conversation here can be, but at the moment, it's too diffused across your topics.

Best, Ron
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Devon Oratz
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« Reply #13 on: February 08, 2011, 11:36:04 AM »

I don't know if Ron wants us to cool off on this topic for now but I just wanted to say that this is a topic that I personally am very, very interested in. This is something I have really, really struggled with as a GM.
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Chris_Chinn
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« Reply #14 on: February 08, 2011, 12:36:29 PM »

Hi Nate,

Let's consider what the role of a character (and character death) and the point of play is, from a few angles:

1) Player play time

Most games only let players play 1 character - meaning, a dead character means a player is left not playing.   This is a direct impact on moment-to-moment fun. 

Ron points out very early D&D gave players multiple characters, so odds are good losing a character doesn't mean being left out of play.  There's also a lot of design aimed at making characters harder to permanently kill, but more likely knocked out or injured to be out of a fight - shorter downtime.

2) Fictional Positioning and Story Capital

The bigger impact is how invested you, and the other players are, in the character and the story built up.   This is usually the reason most games end up making death less likely and GM's end up fudging damage rolls, etc.  (There's also usually a conflict between the goal of making a dramatically appropriate story vs. mechanics that focus on producing strategic choices or simulating a situation).

3) Mechanical Power

Many games have characters get more powerful as you continue play.  In later play, it means a new character is often at a massive gap in capability to the surviving characters.  A player has lost a lot of time and effort put in, it's not just a setback like losing one's bishop in Chess - it's some thing that might leave you months behind everyone else. 

If nothing else, this was probably the biggest impetus behind the classic "raise dead" mechanics- you end up playing as a secondary character for awhile until the party can get enough money to raise the character (usually only a delve or two).

Notice, though, that these issues become "non-issues" under certain play styles or games. 

Old school D&D with multiple characters means you're unlikely to get a TPK or knocked out of play before having the ability to escape, story capital exists, but you can shift around your personal investment because you have more than one character, and mechanically, you'll lose some characters but you'll also have some that will survive attrition and have a spread of levels available to you.

Other games, like say, Primetime Adventures don't even have death rules- death can't happen unless the table agrees to make it a conflict, so all of the issues are nicely avoided.

Anyway- that's all orientation.  It sounds like you're looking at how to make D&D4E death work for what you need, right?   Are you worried in particular about any of those three problems above? 

4E makes death pretty hard - there's 3 rounds of saving throws if a character is left unconscious.  Each roll has a 55% chance of stabilizing as well - all said an done, you're looking at 90% chance of survival, even without any healing or first aid.  So, death shouldn't be too common anyway.
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