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Paul Unwin
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StormKnight wrote:
enduran wrote:
StormKnight wrote:
With some variance by game, the amount of character death I generally prefer is...none, zero, zilch, nada.

Is death then replaced by some other stakes?

I'm not entirely sure what you mean by "stakes" in this context; perhaps you could clarify. Bad things happen. Characters lose fights.

Thanks for asking.

What I mean by "stakes" is whatever the PCs stand to lose from what they have, or whatever they stand to gain. This thread and many of the responses in it seem predicated on assumption that the only thing the PCs stand to lose are their lives.

But stakes could be other things. An item. An NPC. A location. A relationship. I always look to Star Wars for examples. We know that Princess Leia isn't going to die, but she can still fail and, while she clearly sees that freedom for the galaxy is at stake, what she truly loses is her home planet and its population. If she had made better decisions or been luckier, that might not have happened.

On the other side, Darth Vader could have been killed, he definitely deserved it, yet he lives on, unharmed. But the Death Star has been destroyed, and the Empire he serves has suffered a shocking defeat. He could have been smarter and luckier and avoided that, but instead he lost.

In a pure dungeon crawl, there's generally not much at stake. The world typically isn't at risk, just the PCs. In that case, it makes perfect sense for death to be the main wager, and for it to have a relatively high chance of coming about. Otherwise, there's no risk at all.

It's not uncommon for even dungeon crawls to have other things at stake, though. Even in Keep on the Borderlands, some of the denizens have plans to assault the PCs' base of operations - not to kill the PCs, necessarily, but to take the town for their own purposes. The denizens don't need to kill the PCs in order to succeed; they could knock them out or capture them (ugh, no; that's no better than death), or they could stay secret and quiet, or find ways to delay the PCs. The PCs could survive, and still fail, still lose the stakes.

Now, character death does have, I must admit, some things going for it as a stake. For one thing, the players generally know they're staking it. I've found that it's not good practice to threaten things the players don't know are at stake, though other GMs might relish a trick like that. But if a character dies that's (generally) not unexpected.

For another thing, players generally care about their characters. They don't always, and not always to the degree the GM is expecting, but survival is a common stake. A GM can't as easily rely on a player caring about an NPC or a town and I daresay that many players deliberately avoid getting attached to anything outside their character, lest the GM choose to take it away.

But other stakes can and do work. Advancement is one, though perhaps one more for the players than the characters. If there's a quest/payoff or an item or a bit of knowledge that the party craves, and there's a chance that it could be lost if the party makes bad decisions or has bad luck, then it could be suitable as part of the stakes. The party can lose, yet not die.

Yes, I know that in many games one's advancement is tied directly to staying alive, but it's also often related to moving forward. For instance, perhaps a certain bit of information would allow the party to enter another realm of the game, with new places to explore. I don't advocate forcing players to endure a boring game just because they haven't collected a particular knick-knack, but I think that seeing that information slip through their grasp could be as tense (at least for the players) as anything else.

Which raises another side of the issue of stakes. Clearly PCs can survive and still lose, but it's also not impossible for the stakes to be such that they can die and still win. The heroic sacrifice is a common enough trope, even if it's not all that easy to set up in an RPG. But such stakes can exist, and I have found that working with the players can bring them to light, enabling a GM to add such stakes to their game.

Finally, I'll note that stakes other than PC death can easily be made far more revocable. Many games provide ways to bring dead characters back, but even without that, the player is obviously going to be able to come back with a new character. They've lost something, sure, but the world is still largely the same when they bring their new character in it, and they might come to like their new character even more than their previous one, damping out that loss almost entirely.

But if their failure means that Alderaan or Yavin IV has been destroyed, or that Sauron has the Ring, or Khan has used the Genesis Device on Earth, then even if they survive something irrevocable has happened and they (or the new character) have to deal with that.

StormKnight wrote:
But generally we want the story part to be "heroes win in the end".

I suppose, but that allows for a huge range of outcomes. "The end" might come after a much longer time and more collateral damage than if the heroes had been successful more often or sooner. It might come after the heroes have had to do some things that make some (perhaps even themselves) wonder how heroic they really are. It might be a bright, shiny, unsullied win that occurs after the heroes have willingly sacrificed themselves, unbeknownst to those they saved. Or any number of nuanced conclusions.

Or, yes, it might be that they simply didn't die.
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skalchemist wrote:
But in most of the games I believe people are referring to it is not the actual losing of characters that is fun, per se, it is the feeling that I might potentially lose my character that is part of the fun, and that is only possible if there is an actual chance of losing my character. Its a cost/benefit trade-off; the cost of the un-fun of losing my character is worth the benefit of all the fun I have of NEARLY losing my character but triumphing until that happens.

I understand that. I just think it's highly questionable as a reliable, sustainable approach to fun.

First of all, we should be clear that some GMs really have no intention of killing the characters, but still work to achieve those close situations on a regular basis. Some fool their players, and some players are happy to fool themselves, into thinking that there's a real chance of death when there isn't. Maybe it could happen if the players really wanted to test the GM, but as long as they play along, it never will. In other words, it's quite possible, at least for some, to have that feeling without any actual threat of death.

Second of all, while I think I know what you mean, the statement "the un-fun of losing my character is worth" is pretty much what I'm saying. Characters have to die in order for the game to be fun. Your character has to die, or else you'll eventually come to realize, because you're an intelligent person, that there really isn't a chance of you dying, that there's a deliberate effort to keep you alive - which then (unless you're willing to ignore that, which you probably could do since you're an intelligent person) is going to rob you of your fun, perhaps even retroactively.

I'm just trying to call attention to the contradictions at work here. One doesn't want their character to die, but one (at least indirectly, and perhaps in a long time frame) does want their character to die. One wants to have fun in a game but one wants not to have fun in that game at times.

What would happen if a player decided that everything that happened to their character was fun? Their character killed the enemy! Awesome! The enemy kills their character! Oh, man, that was so great! What if they don't have any "un-fun," no matter what happens? Yes, they're interested to see what happens if they achieve whatever the normal "success" criteria are, but they're also interested to see what happens when they fail. Have they ruined the game for themselves, or made it more fun?

skalchemist wrote:
- Very early levels (lvls 1-4) - Characters will tend to die more frequently because they are fragile, sometimes just due to bad luck. This means lower investment in character.

Yes, unless people want higher investment in their characters right off the bat, or don't understand that they're not supposed to invest in them. I don't recall any edition of any game advising me not to get attached to my character.

skalchemist wrote:
- Early to mid levels (lvls 5-10?) - characters are much more resilient, in this segment characters will usually only die due to their own bad decisions making, but are still fragile enough to get killed. This is the period of maximum tension, because the character has now leveled high enough and has been played enough for the player to be truly invested, but there is still a substantial probability of death.

Why should anything change? The characters are more resilient, but the enemies and other challenges can easily be more dangerous.

Why should a character feel any more investment, given that substantial probability of death?

skalchemist wrote:
- Mid to high levels (lvls 10-15) - at this point, death will only happen in the case of truly colossal blunders on the part of the players, and even then may be little more than an inconvenience. The ability of the characters to use magic to gather intelligence on potential foes and manage the risks they present is tremendous.

That sounds rather tedious. My fellow party members and I might much prefer just to rush in and see what happens rather than doing what amounts to deskwork (especially since only some of the characters can actually be productive at that). On the off chance we do die... so what? We can just make new characters. There's some chance the GM will just want to start over, but if they've invested a lot in their game, there's every chance that they'll just find a way to keep it going.

Lack of buy-in can occur with any set of stakes, of course. But if we limit ourselves to one primary stake, I think we lock ourselves in to things like the level progression you describe. If, for instance, the stakes could start high and only get higher, without ever really endangering a player's primary point of interaction with the game (except for when they wanted it endangered) then we could have a very different kind of progression.

All in all, I have never felt strongly as though character death and how players are supposed to feel has been closely considered. Contradictions, uncertainties, illusion and razor edges abound. I think a lot of that could be done away with. But if players and GMs like how things are working for them, then there's no reason for them to question anything, but I think the hobby as a whole could break out of some of its less attractive ruts if there were more questioning about this subject.
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If I'm playing 99.9% of all RPG's, I'd like actual risk of death to be somewhat on the low side....If I'm playing Call of Cthulhu or Paranoia, I expect to die in every session.
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enduran wrote:
I understand that. I just think it's highly questionable as a reliable, sustainable approach to fun.
All I can say is that my personal experience suggests you are incorrect. We have reliably been having fun over two years now. Others here, I think, would testify to similar experiences. But I believe 100% that it is an unreliable and unsustainable way for many others (including yourself?) to have fun. Honestly, before I actually played in this style of game long term (I did not grow up with it, I came to it very late in my gaming) I would probably have agreed with you. But experience has taught me otherwise.

enduran wrote:
Second of all, while I think I know what you mean, the statement "the un-fun of losing my character is worth" is pretty much what I'm saying. Characters have to die in order for the game to be fun. Your character has to die, or else you'll eventually come to realize, because you're an intelligent person, that there really isn't a chance of you dying, that there's a deliberate effort to keep you alive - which then (unless you're willing to ignore that, which you probably could do since you're an intelligent person) is going to rob you of your fun, perhaps even retroactively.
Let me be explicit. For the set of player characters (C1, C2, C3, etc.) there is a set of true, non-zero, and appreciable (meaning they are likely to matter across a typical campaign length) probability (P1, P2, P3), etc., that character will die in most sessions. Those probabilities will vary between sessions, and will be different for different characters.

Given that, there are a few consequences:
* At any point in time, every character has a non-zero probability of still being alive at any future session, regardless of how long the campaign goes on. So it is not strictly true to say that every character will die.
* However, if you push the time horizon out far enough, those probabilities can get very small, making the statement "every character is most likely going to die eventually" a true statement.
* In order for the probability of dying to be appreciable, there must be at least some character deaths. Even two or three deaths in the course of a two year campaign might be enough. Enough to convince the players that its a real risk.

So I disagree with your statement "your character has to die". Somebody's character has to die. Also, my character will likely eventually die if I keep playing long enough. That might not actually be a disagreement between us, that could just be choice of words.

enduran wrote:
What would happen if a player decided that everything that happened to their character was fun? Their character killed the enemy! Awesome! The enemy kills their character! Oh, man, that was so great! What if they don't have any "un-fun," no matter what happens? Yes, they're interested to see what happens if they achieve whatever the normal "success" criteria are, but they're also interested to see what happens when they fail. Have they ruined the game for themselves, or made it more fun?
I suggest (at the risk of sounding like a complete idiot) that it is in the same neighborhood as the fun of a bicycle ride through the country to a fun restaurant, versus a bicycle ride across a continent. The bicycle ride to the restaurant is a pile of fun, and it will be fun tomorrow as well, and there is nothing un-fun about it (except for the occasional mechanical mishap or rainstorm). The bicycle ride across the continent, on the other hand, will involve a lot of pain; blisters, saddle sores, aching muscles, exposure to the elements, sore back from sleeping in all kinds of new places. None of that is fun. But that un-fun is a necessary component of the fun of the trip; seeing the sights by bicycle, meeting all kinds of new people, and perhaps most importantly, the fun you will have for the rest of your life when telling people you rode your bicycle all the way across the continent.

This metaphor trivializes the tremendous effort of such a bicyclist by comparing it to dungeon crawling, so I hesitate to use it, but I think it captures the idea that some kinds of fun require exposure to un-fun things to be possible.

enduran wrote:
Yes, unless people want higher investment in their characters right off the bat, or don't understand that they're not supposed to invest in them. I don't recall any edition of any game advising me not to get attached to my character.
I think this is true. I personally think a lot of game design between the 1980's and today has been driven by exactly this disconnect.

To be clear, Paul, I agree with you that many people have disconnects and contradictions regarding how they deal with death in RPGs, and some thought would probably be useful to them. This is an important observation.

enduran wrote:
Why should anything change? The characters are more resilient, but the enemies and other challenges can easily be more dangerous.

Why should a character feel any more investment, given that substantial probability of death?
They are more resilient because they have more options and more resources to mitigate the danger of increasingly powerful adversaries, particularly in the area of avoiding "first round" death. By this I mean death that happens on first contact with the antagonists before you have even had a chance to take a turn. Bigger pools of hit points+more healing spells means this is just much less likely to happen over time. Across an entire fight and across multiple fights, the chance of character death I think will be lower, but its really that "first round" survivability that makes the difference.

As to more investment, its a product of experience and labor. The more hours I have played a character, and the more time I have spent dwelling on my choices for that character, the more likely I am to be invested in that character. I feel this is just human nature. Maybe other people aren't like that?

enduran wrote:
That sounds rather tedious. My fellow party members and I might much prefer just to rush in and see what happens rather than doing what amounts to deskwork (especially since only some of the characters can actually be productive at that). On the off chance we do die... so what? We can just make new characters. There's some chance the GM will just want to start over, but if they've invested a lot in their game, there's every chance that they'll just find a way to keep it going.
If you and your friends are the sort that would find that work tedious, more power too you! But if you are not interested in planning and preparation, and really don't care about your character dying one way or the other, than this whole style of play won't be for you anyway.
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People have fun in different ways. For those that want there to be a chance of death and/or failure, then I think the following explain why:

1. Having fun requires a person to overcome some challenge.
2. In order for something to be a challenge, a chance of failure must be possible.
3. Therefore, in order to have fun, there must be a chance of failure.
4. Avoiding death is a challenge in RPGs
5. Therefore, in order to have fun, there must be a chance of death.

1. If there is no chance of death, then there is no chance of failure
2. If there is no chance of failure, then it is not a challenge.
3. People play the game for a challenge.
4. Therefore, if there is no chance of death, then there is no purpose to playing.

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SteamCraft wrote:
People have fun in different ways. For those that want there to be a chance of death and/or failure, then I think the following explain why:

1. Having fun requires a person to overcome some challenge.
2. In order for something to be a challenge, a chance of failure must be possible.
3. Therefore, in order to have fun, there must be a chance of failure.
4. Avoiding death is a challenge in RPGs
5. Therefore, in order to have fun, there must be a chance of death.

1. If there is no chance of death, then there is no chance of failure
2. If there is no chance of failure, then it is not a challenge.
3. People play the game for a challenge.
4. Therefore, if there is no chance of death, then there is no purpose to playing.

If this is the logical progression others here are using to explain why they think death is necessary, then I think I would agree more with Paul than I have so far. This progression really doesn't make any sense to me at all.

It all breaks down in two places. First, step 4 in the first list. That step makes no logical sense unless it is reworded as "Avoiding death is the ONLY challenge in RPGs." If there are other challenges, then there are other types of failure, and if there are other types of failure, than step 5 does not follow from steps 3 and 4.

In the second list, it breaks down right in the first step, because that is simply untrue in any RPG I can think. There obviously, even trivially, failures in every RPG that do not involve death.

Does anyone agree with Jamie's logic? If so, I guess I'm as mystified as Paul has seemed to be in this thread. That certainly isn't the logic behind my own preference for character death in the games where I enjoy it. My personal logic would be expressed as:

1) There is a type of fun, call it ThrillFunPdzochFun, that occurs when your character very nearly dies, but through your own actions and/or good luck survives.
2) ThrillFunPdzochfun is only possible in a context where you really believe that death was possible for your character.
3) To believe that death is possible, one of the following must be true:
a) it is actually possible
b) the system and/or the GM have deceived you into thinking it is possible, but it isn't.
c) the system, GM, and/or the players are mistaken in their belief that death is possible.
4) Deception is not desirable in a game system or in the relationship between GM and player, so point b is not desirable.
5) People being mistaken about what the game is doing in any way is not desirable, therefore point c is not desirable.
6) Therefore, from 3 a), to believe that death is possible in a desirable fashion, death must actually be possible.
7) Therefore, to have ThrillFunPdzochfun in a desirable fashion, death must be possible for your character.

Obviously, not everyone will agree with my personal logic. Particularly, at point 3b) past experience tells me that some players and GMs not only think deception is desirable, but in fact consider it a requirement for an enjoyable game. That's fair, to each their own. This is just my personal logic. Also, not everyone enjoys PdzochFun, obviously.

EDIT: renamed the type of fun in honor of Patrick's excellent summation of it:
pdzoch wrote:
My group always says that a good session is one where they ALMOST die, but don't. So, that much risk.


EDIT2: In practice, I think some games fall into category 3c). That is, the game rulebook tells you that death is possible, something to watch out for, and players and GM believe death is possible, but in actual play it really isn't possible because players and/or GM have so many tools at their disposal to prevent it from happening. It exists only in theory, not in practice. I'm thinking of a game like Feng Shui 2 as an example, although I don't really know enough about that game to be sure. Mutants & Masterminds may be another.
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skalchemist wrote:
SteamCraft wrote:
People have fun in different ways. For those that want there to be a chance of death and/or failure, then I think the following explain why:

1. Having fun requires a person to overcome some challenge.
2. In order for something to be a challenge, a chance of failure must be possible.
3. Therefore, in order to have fun, there must be a chance of failure.
4. Avoiding death is a challenge in RPGs
5. Therefore, in order to have fun, there must be a chance of death.

1. If there is no chance of death, then there is no chance of failure
2. If there is no chance of failure, then it is not a challenge.
3. People play the game for a challenge.
4. Therefore, if there is no chance of death, then there is no purpose to playing.

If this is the logical progression others here are using to explain why they think death is necessary, then I think I would agree more with Paul than I have so far. This progression really doesn't make any sense to me at all.

It all breaks down in two places. First, step 4 in the first list. That step makes no logical sense unless it is reworded as "Avoiding death is the ONLY challenge in RPGs." If there are other challenges, then there are other types of failure, and if there are other types of failure, than step 5 does not follow from steps 3 and 4.


3 Establishes the need for a chance of failure. 4 is simply one (out of many) possibilities of failure. One could substitute something else, but the point here was PC death.

skalchemist wrote:
In the second list, it breaks down right in the first step, because that is simply untrue in any RPG I can think. There obviously, even trivially, failures in every RPG that do not involve death.


I am not making a claim about every RPG. It is simply a version of the previous argument in reverse. Again, one could substitute another challenge of a person's choice for death. However, since the subject is death, then that is what I used.

I will try to give you a more motivational answer. Many people like to overcome challenges. When playing an RPG, PCs are presented with many obstacles. In order for it to be a challenge, then there needs to be a real chance of failure (I will set aside the issue of what percent there needs to be for it to count as a significant enough challenge.) In cases where combat is involved, then death (or its RPG genre specific equivalent) would need to be on the table. If not, then there is no point of having combat. By definition, it would not be a challenge.

This is not to say that everyone wants a challenge in an RPG. Nor am I claiming that without death an RPG falls apart. It does alter how players play a game - unless they are good at self-deception/stupid.

For example, I can think of two RPG experiences where death was not on the table in combat. In the first case, the combat was not really challenging in the least and anything major in terms of combat some high level Forgotten Realms NPC would come in and handle it. Of course, these NPC also handled the plot. This group, for many reasons, was probably the worst group of players I have ever played in. I don't think I made it more than 6 sessions before I quit.

In the second instance, I realized the GM was too nice to kill us off. However, in the Star Wars game, there were other challenges and chances of failure. I was also able to move the game in the direction I wanted from my PC actions. In other words, while combat did not present a challenge, it was a challenge to satisfy my PCs goals and there was always a chance of failing something else.

In the second case, while I would have preferred combat to be a challenge, it was not a bust for me to play.

I will try to summarize it like this: many people want to have a sense of accomplishment and being handed something is not an accomplishment. If you can't fail (i.e. die) during combat there is no sense of accomplishment.
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StormKnight wrote:
enduran wrote:
StormKnight wrote:
With some variance by game, the amount of character death I generally prefer is...none, zero, zilch, nada.

Is death then replaced by some other stakes?

Death usually only involves stakes in Vampire games.



I'm not entirely sure what you mean by "stakes" in this context; perhaps you could clarify. Bad things happen. Characters lose fights. But generally we want the story part to be "heroes win in the end".
Stakes, in his above context, is pretty much derived from the gambling use, namely, "What are you risking loss of?"

So, if the stakes don't include death, what can it include the loss of?

Note that the term is common in RPGForge-descended RPG theory discussions. (It's not unique to that tradition, but it's used a lot in that tradition because a lot of games from that tradition allow the player to set the stakes of a given roll)
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Death is kind-of boring. My best gaming experiences have been in games where death is only theoretically possible.

In Amber Diceless Role-Playing, you play someone who is at (or very near) the top of the food-chain of all reality. Not much can actively harm you, so you don't easily die. (Once I played the high-Endurance character, and they survived having their skull smashed in with a week of bed-rest.)
But there are other things that could go wrong, and you can't be everywhere at once. So while you are dealing with one thing, another thing could progress its agenda that would be detrimental to the thing you care about (similar to the Fronts in Dungeon World). That gives the character meaningful choices: what will they deal with first and what are their contingencies? What are the potential consequences? Failure doesn't mean you get to roll up a new character, it means your character's life becomes more complicated.

In Blades in the Dark, you play a scoundrel, and you character can certainly end up dead. But there are ways to easily avoid that -- but those have consequences as well, in the form of accumulating stress. And when your stress track is filled, you flip out and disappear for a bit -- only to emerge some time later with a new trauma. Playing your character's trauma is interesting as well (and can even be used as an XP mine).

In summary: I'd like there to be meaningful choices. I'd like for those choices to have interesting consequences. And character death is not an especially interesting outcome.
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enduran wrote:
I don't recall any edition of any game advising me not to get attached to my character.


Well, Dungeon Crawl Classics does that in a way: If you play the funnel, you start with (usually) 4 randomly generated level-0-PCs, and commonly, half or more of them are dead at the end of the first adventure. And it is this very moment of some (often not your bestest and brightest, alas!) surviving that starts to create attachment to them. It also sets the tone for future levels. The game not only encourages high risk at all times, but the various random elements (especially due to critical failures) often lead to permanent changes in your PCs, mutations and rot and what not, and that still tends to increase attachment. So: In a way, the PC earns your attachment by surviving, which is fun. And when they die, it's normal, because they were really outclassed from the beginning.

There is a correlation between readiness to embracing the random and your stance towards PC death, I find. I think DCC is very educational, and if DCC was everybody's "first" RPG rather than D&D, we would have a very different general attitude among roleplayers today. Not better (well, maybe "better"), but very different.
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enduran wrote:
skalchemist wrote:
But in most of the games I believe people are referring to it is not the actual losing of characters that is fun, per se, it is the feeling that I might potentially lose my character that is part of the fun, and that is only possible if there is an actual chance of losing my character. Its a cost/benefit trade-off; the cost of the un-fun of losing my character is worth the benefit of all the fun I have of NEARLY losing my character but triumphing until that happens.

I understand that. I just think it's highly questionable as a reliable, sustainable approach to fun.

First of all, we should be clear that some GMs really have no intention of killing the characters, but still work to achieve those close situations on a regular basis. Some fool their players, and some players are happy to fool themselves, into thinking that there's a real chance of death when there isn't. Maybe it could happen if the players really wanted to test the GM, but as long as they play along, it never will. In other words, it's quite possible, at least for some, to have that feeling without any actual threat of death.

Second of all, while I think I know what you mean, the statement "the un-fun of losing my character is worth" is pretty much what I'm saying. Characters have to die in order for the game to be fun. Your character has to die, or else you'll eventually come to realize, because you're an intelligent person, that there really isn't a chance of you dying, that there's a deliberate effort to keep you alive - which then (unless you're willing to ignore that, which you probably could do since you're an intelligent person) is going to rob you of your fun, perhaps even retroactively.

I'm just trying to call attention to the contradictions at work here. One doesn't want their character to die, but one (at least indirectly, and perhaps in a long time frame) does want their character to die. One wants to have fun in a game but one wants not to have fun in that game at times.

What would happen if a player decided that everything that happened to their character was fun? Their character killed the enemy! Awesome! The enemy kills their character! Oh, man, that was so great! What if they don't have any "un-fun," no matter what happens? Yes, they're interested to see what happens if they achieve whatever the normal "success" criteria are, but they're also interested to see what happens when they fail. Have they ruined the game for themselves, or made it more fun?

skalchemist wrote:
- Very early levels (lvls 1-4) - Characters will tend to die more frequently because they are fragile, sometimes just due to bad luck. This means lower investment in character.

Yes, unless people want higher investment in their characters right off the bat, or don't understand that they're not supposed to invest in them. I don't recall any edition of any game advising me not to get attached to my character.

skalchemist wrote:
- Early to mid levels (lvls 5-10?) - characters are much more resilient, in this segment characters will usually only die due to their own bad decisions making, but are still fragile enough to get killed. This is the period of maximum tension, because the character has now leveled high enough and has been played enough for the player to be truly invested, but there is still a substantial probability of death.

Why should anything change? The characters are more resilient, but the enemies and other challenges can easily be more dangerous.

Why should a character feel any more investment, given that substantial probability of death?

skalchemist wrote:
- Mid to high levels (lvls 10-15) - at this point, death will only happen in the case of truly colossal blunders on the part of the players, and even then may be little more than an inconvenience. The ability of the characters to use magic to gather intelligence on potential foes and manage the risks they present is tremendous.

That sounds rather tedious. My fellow party members and I might much prefer just to rush in and see what happens rather than doing what amounts to deskwork (especially since only some of the characters can actually be productive at that). On the off chance we do die... so what? We can just make new characters. There's some chance the GM will just want to start over, but if they've invested a lot in their game, there's every chance that they'll just find a way to keep it going.

Lack of buy-in can occur with any set of stakes, of course. But if we limit ourselves to one primary stake, I think we lock ourselves in to things like the level progression you describe. If, for instance, the stakes could start high and only get higher, without ever really endangering a player's primary point of interaction with the game (except for when they wanted it endangered) then we could have a very different kind of progression.

All in all, I have never felt strongly as though character death and how players are supposed to feel has been closely considered. Contradictions, uncertainties, illusion and razor edges abound. I think a lot of that could be done away with. But if players and GMs like how things are working for them, then there's no reason for them to question anything, but I think the hobby as a whole could break out of some of its less attractive ruts if there were more questioning about this subject.


The main point here I see is that most of us play with a least some players that refuse to get close to anything but their characters so that leaves character death as our primary tension.
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SteamCraft wrote:
I will try to give you a more motivational answer. Many people like to overcome challenges. When playing an RPG, PCs are presented with many obstacles. In order for it to be a challenge, then there needs to be a real chance of failure (I will set aside the issue of what percent there needs to be for it to count as a significant enough challenge.) In cases where combat is involved, then death (or its RPG genre specific equivalent) would need to be on the table. If not, then there is no point of having combat. By definition, it would not be a challenge.

I agree completely with you that a chance of failure is necessary to feel challenged. No arguments.

I only disagree with this specific point. It is simply not true that there is no point in having combat if death is not on the table. Or rather (I'm not clear if there is an assumed "for me personally" or "for some people" in the quoted paragraph or whether you are making universal claims) I will say it is not true for me.

* If you fail in your fight, your character will have to live with your city being invaded
* If you fail in your fight, your character's family will be killed.
* If you fail in your fight, you as the player will know that you lost the game, you are a loser.
* If you fail in your fight, the gods will curse your character.
* If you fail in your fight, your character will be sent to the outer planes of hell.
* If you fail in your fight, all that stuff you as the player have bought with game resources will be stolen from you.

As Paul has been saying, there are lots of other things that can be at stake in a fight that players could care about as much or more than character death. Fun games (for me, at least) have been designed to reflect it (ΑΓΩΝ being an example focused on the 3rd bullet point). In my own experience I have been in situations where I would gladly have seen my character die to avoid some fictional outcome in the game, would have paid that price in a heartbeat and considered it success not failure.

I do think there is an important point here, which is that what characters care about is really unimportant in all of this. What matters is what players care about. Many (I'm tempted to say most) players care about continuing to play their character, so losing their character is a real cost to failure. Its a low hanging fruit, its reliable. Anything else requires some kind of commitment of the player to the stakes (fictional or otherwise), as Paul phrased it. For example, the fact that my character has sworn loyalty to the King will only drive my behavior in the game if I commit to it and care about it as a player. Otherwise its just a bit of narrative business, like the color of my character's hair or the name of my character's mother.
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skalchemist wrote:
* In order for the probability of dying to be appreciable, there must be at least some character deaths. Even two or three deaths in the course of a two year campaign might be enough. Enough to convince the players that its a real risk.

I emphasized the above because I think it's very important, because I've noticed a tendency in some players to work hard convincing themselves that there's a real risk of death, even when nothing has happened to indicate that there is one. I often find that I have to repeatedly remind the players that they don't have to stress out. If they were simply excited, I wouldn't mind, but the fear of death makes them more rules-focused and more willing to block each other.

But the takeaway (in case the point needs to be made again) is that players have a lot of control over their own sense of threat and challenge. To a large degree, if they want to be tense they will be and if they don't want to be tense they won't be. They have the power (whether they choose to use it or not, or whether they realize they're using it or not) to either over or underestimate how "close" a fight was, or to either suspect or ignore fudging by the GM, or otherwise give less or more weight to aspects of the game that pertain to risk.

skalchemist wrote:
But that un-fun is a necessary component of the fun of the trip; seeing the sights by bicycle, meeting all kinds of new people, and perhaps most importantly, the fun you will have for the rest of your life when telling people you rode your bicycle all the way across the continent.

This metaphor trivializes the tremendous effort of such a bicyclist by comparing it to dungeon crawling, so I hesitate to use it, but I think it captures the idea that some kinds of fun require exposure to un-fun things to be possible.

I understand your metaphor and it's reasonable. Where it falls down is that there's no objective physical exertion required for dealing with any aspect of the game. Nothing requires anyone to feel a particular way about the death of a character, or do a particular thing.

skalchemist wrote:
To be clear, Paul, I agree with you that many people have disconnects and contradictions regarding how they deal with death in RPGs, and some thought would probably be useful to them. This is an important observation.

Thanks for saying so.

skalchemist wrote:
They are more resilient because they have more options and more resources to mitigate the danger of increasingly powerful adversaries, particularly in the area of avoiding "first round" death. By this I mean death that happens on first contact with the antagonists before you have even had a chance to take a turn.

I see. By and large, the edition I play avoids this issue. It's still possible for a critical hit from a brute-type monster to lay out a character in the first round, but it's also very easy for that character to get up from that and at least be ready for one more round of punishment.

skalchemist wrote:
As to more investment, its a product of experience and labor. The more hours I have played a character, and the more time I have spent dwelling on my choices for that character, the more likely I am to be invested in that character. I feel this is just human nature. Maybe other people aren't like that?

No, I get what you're saying. If I have a GM who threatens or brings about character death, though, I simply won't get that attached. I find that attachment is not just a problem for the actual death, but for any situation where there's any need for caution. Highly invested players get much more cautious and are much more likely to contest rules and rulings, even when death is still a ways off. I want to be able to accept any GM decision or ruling, or any plan or action the other players suggest. I want to be okay with random, meaningless death, so I don't have to try to avoid it.
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skalchemist wrote:
SteamCraft wrote:
I will try to give you a more motivational answer. Many people like to overcome challenges. When playing an RPG, PCs are presented with many obstacles. In order for it to be a challenge, then there needs to be a real chance of failure (I will set aside the issue of what percent there needs to be for it to count as a significant enough challenge.) In cases where combat is involved, then death (or its RPG genre specific equivalent) would need to be on the table. If not, then there is no point of having combat. By definition, it would not be a challenge.

I agree completely with you that a chance of failure is necessary to feel challenged. No arguments.

I only disagree with this specific point. It is simply not true that there is no point in having combat if death is not on the table. Or rather (I'm not clear if there is an assumed "for me personally" or "for some people" in the quoted paragraph or whether you are making universal claims) I will say it is not true for me.

* If you fail in your fight, your character will have to live with your city being invaded
* If you fail in your fight, your character's family will be killed.
* If you fail in your fight, you as the player will know that you lost the game, you are a loser.
* If you fail in your fight, the gods will curse your character.
* If you fail in your fight, your character will be sent to the outer planes of hell.
* If you fail in your fight, all that stuff you as the player have bought with game resources will be stolen from you.


Notice that I say its RPG genre equivalent. Some, not many, RPGs are built around something else being lost beside the PC. In these cases, you substitute that.

Now, you might say that it is possible for someone to run your D&D murder-hobo game with other possibilities. While theoretically true, combat is about HP. So, how do you lose a fight and not die? That becomes trickier, but not impossible.

If combat involve lethal weapons, spells, powers, etc. then it is just logically possible that this is going to result in the chance of death. The only way for that not to be the case, is if you are playing a niche system that avoids that, or if the GM takes steps to avoid this (makes it so that the enemies are always easy to kill, fudges dice rolls, makes 0 HP being unconscious, etc).

Now, even if failure is not intended to result in death, but some other significant cost, if lethal weapons are being used, then there should be some chance of lethality.

I have a strong distaste of the superhero genre in any form. To me, it is nothing but a daytime soap opera where people have special powers. Part of it that bothers me is the lack of death and the recycling of enemies. The heroes (or villains) will lose, but not die. There is some cost for the good guys losing. Villains will be locked up. Then, they will escape. (Seriously, the best argument for the death penalty in fiction really is the superhero genre). In many cases, if a main cast does die, they are not really dead, come back, or play an alternative version. This is the exact same thing that happens on a daytime soap between the good and bad guys.

But, there are many people who enjoy that and I would expect a superhero RPG to mimic that infuriating aspect in its rules. But for me, if bullets are flying, then there has to be a chance that some PC will die from a gun shot on top of any other possible negative outcome of losing.

Quote:
As Paul has been saying, there are lots of other things that can be at stake in a fight that players could care about as much or more than character death


Two quick things. First, Paul actually brings up that I mentioned this first

Second, the reason I made my post is that I could not understand what you two were disagreeing about. I read it and while it looked like a disagreement, I could not see what the disagreement was about. So, to try and clarify things, I made a post in the hopes that it would lead to you two going in a direction where it would resolve my confusion.


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SteamCraft wrote:
Now, you might say that it is possible for someone to run your D&D murder-hobo game with other possibilities. While theoretically true, combat is about HP.

Combat is not "about HP." HP is a measure of how much longer a character can stay up, but it's not really about them. Combat is about accomplishing a goal.

Now, if one's only goal in a fight is about killing the other side, then HP will become a primary number in the situation, yes. But the HP themselves aren't what it's about.

SteamCraft wrote:
So, how do you lose a fight and not die? That becomes trickier, but not impossible.

By giving the combat a goal.

Look at the battle in The Lord of the Ring when the Fellowship separates. I'll grant that one of the members of the Fellowship did die in that scene, but not all of them do. Yet the survivors still lose. This is because one of their goals was to protect not just the Ringbearer but the other hobbits. The orcs had the goal not of wiping out the Fellowship, but capturing alive all the halflings they could find and bringing them to Saruman. Many orcs died, but on the whole they still succeeded.

Killing all of the non-halflings might have been a way to accomplish their goal, but it might also have endangered it. It would have given the halflings time to escape, risked their death from a stray blow or (as far as the orcs could have known) allowed time for the their own allies to kill them to keep them from capture.

They apparently did have to drop Boromir in order to succeed, but note that he doesn't die until after they've left. In a D&D game, he could have been healed up quickly and easily, or just brough back to life. But the "party" still would have lost.

If you're stuck for ways characters can survive and still lose (or die and still win), I recommend looking at stories, in which obliteration of the other side is rarely if ever the point of the scene.

SteamCraft wrote:
If combat involve lethal weapons, spells, powers, etc. then it is just logically possible that this is going to result in the chance of death. The only way for that not to be the case, is if you are playing a niche system that avoids that, or if the GM takes steps to avoid this (makes it so that the enemies are always easy to kill, fudges dice rolls, makes 0 HP being unconscious, etc).

I believe more than one edition of D&D calls 0 HP unconscious, so I'm not sure what you're getting at with the term "niche."

But your point still stands. There's still the "chance" of death, if you like. But it can be made arbitrarily unlikely, taking it off the table for all intents and purposes. That's awkward and unrealistic unless the goal of the monsters is something other than the destruction of a PC or PCs. If all the monsters have to do is keep the players away from the high priest for five rounds, then they probably won't have a hope of killing any of the characters, and will probably be better off focusing on grabbing and tripping and bullrushing.

In at least the later editions of D&D (and in many houseruled early editions) even if a character is dropped, they're not all that likely to die. There's generally time to get to them with healing to at least stabilize them. But for monsters with a goal, just dropping the character might very well be enough. In a 4th Edition game I'm running, a duergar priest was trying to increase the radius of a poison cloud he had generated as part of a curse. This required him to stand in one spot. The cleric and the wizard made this harder by dropping sustained effects near him. This made the wizard and the cleric prime targets. The guard risked an opportunity attack to charge the wizard and nearly dropped him, which would have put at risk his ability to sustain his effect. The wizard probably had no real chance (as anyone here would gauge it) of dying, but his goal would have been endangered and the enemy's goal en...safened?

SteamCraft wrote:
Now, even if failure is not intended to result in death, but some other significant cost, if lethal weapons are being used, then there should be some chance of lethality.

Fine, but since lethality is not the goal or the point, that chance becomes smaller than I think anyone here would consider "real."

I'm with you on you annoyance at the superhero genre. But things are lost to character failure, at least within a given continuity, and sometimes far beyond those. Batgirl, for instance, lost the use of her legs to the Joker, and that loss was perpetuated (as I understand it), despite the fact that it probably wouldn't be hard for someone to find a way to heal her.

That's why I prefer Star Wars for my example. I know that the main characters aren't really going to die (for the most part), but they are almost certainly going to lose, and lose repeatedly before they win, if they ever do. It's simply not necessary to kill the (main) characters in order to convey their struggle.
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Againsto wrote:


There is a correlation between readiness to embracing the random and your stance towards PC death, I find. I think DCC is very educational, and if DCC was everybody's "first" RPG rather than D&D, we would have a very different general attitude among roleplayers today. Not better (well, maybe "better"), but very different.


We played D&D very much like DCC back in the early days (late 70s) - we'd each create multiple first-level characters, most of them would die, and we'd become attached to the ones who make it to 3rd level. So it's not surprising my group had very different attitudes about PC death from roleplayers today.

The investment in the PC wasn't because of backstory or customization. The investment happened gradually through what the PC did in the game. First-level characters were some stats and a name, and took maybe 15 to create. Fourth level characters had a history and personality.
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SteamCraft wrote:
As Paul has been saying, there are lots of other things that can be at stake in a fight that players could care about as much or more than character death


Mea culpa! Sorry about that, my only excuse is its a long thread.

I think mostly I was interpreting what you were saying as more universal but from reading your reply its clear it is more about what you personally enjoy, and all is clear to me.

The super-hero example was very well chosen to make that point, as I am one of those that enjoy those "infuriating aspects" to the rules. I find the idea of playing a four color style super-hero game where the PCs could be killed by bullets and other mundane damage (even when they are not bullet-proof) absurd. It is no longer four-color super-heroes at that point, its something else. That something else might be fun! But its not what I signed up for most likely.

So four-color super-heroes vs. old-school style dungeon crawl is a very illustrative comparison of two types of games where the presence or absence of character death is essentially a requirement of the game.
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fubfubfub wrote:
Death is kind-of boring. My best gaming experiences have been in games where death is only theoretically possible.

Yes, death is generally very boring. One nice thing about other ways to fail is that they can be more inherently interesting.

fubfubfub wrote:
In Amber Diceless Role-Playing, you play someone who is at (or very near) the top of the food-chain of all reality....

Failure doesn't mean you get to roll up a new character, it means your character's life becomes more complicated.

Fantastic example, thank you. I never got into that game, despite seeing ads for it in every issue of Dragon. At the time I too thought that adventuring was about life and death (and the ads showed a duel in progress) and I didn't see how that could be fun without dice. But apparently the game could have shown me a thing or two.

fubfubfub wrote:
In Blades in the Dark, you play a scoundrel, and you character can certainly end up dead. But there are ways to easily avoid that -- but those have consequences as well, in the form of accumulating stress. And when your stress track is filled, you flip out and disappear for a bit -- only to emerge some time later with a new trauma. Playing your character's trauma is interesting as well (and can even be used as an XP mine).

Also interesting, and a good example of risk without death.

fubfubfub wrote:
In summary: I'd like there to be meaningful choices. I'd like for those choices to have interesting consequences. And character death is not an especially interesting outcome.

Yes, exactly.

Againsto wrote:
enduran wrote:
I don't recall any edition of any game advising me not to get attached to my character.


Well, Dungeon Crawl Classics does that in a way: If you play the funnel, you start with (usually) 4 randomly generated level-0-PCs, and commonly, half or more of them are dead at the end of the first adventure.

Thanks for that. Obviously there's Paranoia, as has been pointed out, but I see that as less of an RPG and more of a send up of RPGs. And one thing it tries to send up is how easy death can be to come by in RPG.

Againsto wrote:
There is a correlation between readiness to embracing the random and your stance towards PC death, I find. I think DCC is very educational, and if DCC was everybody's "first" RPG rather than D&D, we would have a very different general attitude among roleplayers today. Not better (well, maybe "better"), but very different.

Definitely. And I think that a lot of people simply saw D&D differently, which is probably part of why DCC was created: a desire to bring that experience back or make it more popular and widely known.

It's not it's own edition, but I forgot that Dark Sun did take some steps to prepare players for frequent character loss. I don't know if there was anything said about attachment, but I gather that players were instructed to create a "tree" of characters, so that when one died another could be brought in. So, clearly some games not only talk lethality but indicate that they will help groups follow through on it.
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skalchemist wrote:
SteamCraft wrote:
As Paul has been saying, there are lots of other things that can be at stake in a fight that players could care about as much or more than character death


Mea culpa! Sorry about that, my only excuse is its a long thread.

I think mostly I was interpreting what you were saying as more universal but from reading your reply its clear it is more about what you personally enjoy, and all is clear to me.

The super-hero example was very well chosen to make that point, as I am one of those that enjoy those "infuriating aspects" to the rules.


Understandable. It is probably why I still don't understand what the disagreement is or was between you and Paul.
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enduran wrote:
StormKnight wrote:
enduran wrote:
StormKnight wrote:
With some variance by game, the amount of character death I generally prefer is...none, zero, zilch, nada.

Is death then replaced by some other stakes?

I'm not entirely sure what you mean by "stakes" in this context; perhaps you could clarify. Bad things happen. Characters lose fights.

Thanks for asking.

What I mean by "stakes" is whatever the PCs stand to lose from what they have, or whatever they stand to gain. This thread and many of the responses in it seem predicated on assumption that the only thing the PCs stand to lose are their lives.


Well, from the character's point of view, death is certainly a risk.

I...just...I don't know. It is such a vague question that is going to be radically dependent on situation.

If we're having an adventure/action game, obviously there's something going on that's serving as the catalyst for whatever the adventure action is. And things may happen that the characters don't want to happen.

But, the way you are using that term still makes me think you are looking for something else - like a more mechanically defined win/lose condition or something? Something built into the "system" as opposed to just "stuff that happens as a result of things in the game"?
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SteamCraft wrote:
People have fun in different ways. For those that want there to be a chance of death and/or failure, then I think the following explain why:

1. Having fun requires a person to overcome some challenge.
2. In order for something to be a challenge, a chance of failure must be possible.
3. Therefore, in order to have fun, there must be a chance of failure.
4. Avoiding death is a challenge in RPGs
5. Therefore, in order to have fun, there must be a chance of death.

1. If there is no chance of death, then there is no chance of failure
2. If there is no chance of failure, then it is not a challenge.
3. People play the game for a challenge.
4. Therefore, if there is no chance of death, then there is no purpose to playing.

Not for me... that's not why. I do love death in RPGs, but those are not the reasons.

I agree with the first set of 1, 2, and 3 to some extent - I do love a good challenge. Though my enjoyment of RPGs doesn't come from challenges alone. I mean, Cheat Your Own Adventure is not a challenging RPG. It's as simple as you can get, yet death plays a huge roll in it. But I love it because of the story it creates (and writing awesome death scenes) not because of any challenge or how that challenge relates to death.

But those second four points are completely false for me. No death equals no failure is not true when I play or run games. Which makes the second point if there is no death there is no challenge false. It seems like one of those logical fallacy arguments - if A equals B, and B equals C, then A must equal C!

I think these points completely discount enjoyment of the narrative or story as a reason to play, of playing to find out what happens, or of the enjoyment of dealing with random monkey-wrenches in the works. A large part of why I love dice in games is because I love to see what that randomness injects into the game. I love reacting to the randomness - honestly, that presents more of a challenge than death.
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StormKnight wrote:
Well, from the character's point of view, death is certainly a risk.

Certainly, though in the stories some RPGs are intended to emulate, death is either not the primary concern or is viewed differently than it would normally be. The result is that we get scenes and situations that are riskier and more adventurous than in real life.

StormKnight wrote:
If we're having an adventure/action game, obviously there's something going on that's serving as the catalyst for whatever the adventure action is. And things may happen that the characters don't want to happen.

Characters, yes. Even the players too, maybe, but there it gets complicated. As we're talking about a pastime, we wouldn't long tolerate things happening that we really didn't want to happen. But at some level we are accepting of outcomes that the characters themselves would find unacceptable. Some adventurers might be doing it specifically for the risk of death, but plenty would just as soon make easy money and would prefer that death never be seriously risked. But, as we can read in this thread, many of us want death to be a serious risk.

StormKnight wrote:
But, the way you are using that term still makes me think you are looking for something else - like a more mechanically defined win/lose condition or something? Something built into the "system" as opposed to just "stuff that happens as a result of things in the game"?

I'm not quite sure what you mean, so correct me if I'm wrong, but I think you mean something like the players surviving a fight, but having used so many resources doing so that they will have a much harder time in their next fight. They survived the fight, but "lost" the larger overall conflict. They had the immediate goal of surviving (which they succeeded) and a longer-term goal (perhaps stated, perhaps not) of making a particular amount of progress (which they may now have failed).

That sort of thing is fine and good, but it's not enough for me. I don't like the pressures it exerts on player strategies, and I don't like that it's implicit rather than explicit. That is, I don't like that the consequence might matter and might add and interesting complication, or the players might decide, for instance, that they didn't want to take on that next fight anyway. I also don't like that such things can often be reset by simply taking more time in the game.

Death is a popular way to fail because, while it still exerts annoying pressures, it's pretty explicit. I wouldn't expect the overall goals or situations in a game to be affected in the slightest by the death of a character or even a whole party; once everyone's back, the same adventure simply continues. But it's a clear and often irrevocable way to fail.

I would simply prefer risks that involve other explicit, irrevocable ways to lose, i.e. "stakes." I'd also like ways to fail that don't drive players in one particular optimization direction, or that at least don't drive them as hard. So, I want failing to matter now (maybe down the road too, but definitely now) and I want it to stick. I mentioned the destruction of Alderaan. That mattered in that moment, for its own sake (and arguable didn't really matter after that), and was irreparable. Failure needn't always be on that scale, of course, but that's the kind of thing I'd much rather see than death. If I had a game that consisted only of those kinds of failures, I wouldn't care if any of the characters were are any risk of death.

Edit: Fixed an out of control tag.
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adularia25 wrote:
SteamCraft wrote:
People have fun in different ways. For those that want there to be a chance of death and/or failure, then I think the following explain why:

1. Having fun requires a person to overcome some challenge.
2. In order for something to be a challenge, a chance of failure must be possible.
3. Therefore, in order to have fun, there must be a chance of failure.
4. Avoiding death is a challenge in RPGs
5. Therefore, in order to have fun, there must be a chance of death.

1. If there is no chance of death, then there is no chance of failure
2. If there is no chance of failure, then it is not a challenge.
3. People play the game for a challenge.
4. Therefore, if there is no chance of death, then there is no purpose to playing.


I think these points completely discount enjoyment of the narrative or story as a reason to play, of playing to find out what happens, or of the enjoyment of dealing with random monkey-wrenches in the works. A large part of why I love dice in games is because I love to see what that randomness injects into the game. I love reacting to the randomness - honestly, that presents more of a challenge than death.


They intentionally do primarily because the no death camp often pushes the story aspect of it. For example, the hero can't die, can't die in random combat, can only die to move the story along through a noble sacrifice, etc.

Obviously, there are times where a good narrative has death in it and not under restricted situations. However, then you have a debate about what makes a better narrative - death or no death.

The strongest place to make a stand seems to be on the challenge/threat aspect. One can make the case that death ruins the narrative. One cannot make the case that staying alive when there is a possibility of death is not a challenge.
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OK, then I think if I understand you correctly, that no, we don't have any stakes.

Stuff happens.

Hopefully that stuff isn't boring. If we know that stuff is boring, it does not happen. If we know it takes things to a point that we'll regret having played the game, it does not happen.

Things that require making a new character really, really don't happen. Unless the player wants to make a new character.
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SteamCraft wrote:
They intentionally do primarily because the no death camp often pushes the story aspect of it.

"The no death camp." Lordy.

I can say I'm not pushing the "story" aspect of anything. I use stories for my examples, but what I'm after is interesting situations along with challenges. I think it's possible to have an outcome that's challenging to achieve and that I want to achieve and also have a failure mode that I am willing to embrace (that is, accept willingly, without any impulse to argue an out-of game case in order to avert it) and, even more, is interesting. Character death can be both those things for some people, including me, but I no longer rely on it.

SteamCraft wrote:
Obviously, there are times where a good narrative has death in it and not under restricted situations. However, then you have a debate about what makes a better narrative - death or no death.

Maybe. Or, one can simply defer to the person whose character is at stake. That's another reason why I prefer not to make the characters themselves the stakes: a character is generally seen as belonging to a single player, but everything else in the world is "shared." An NPC might be core to a player's character, but while it's "their" character, it's not "their" NPC. That said, if someone has a really strong aversion to any stake, I'd rather find another one.

SteamCraft wrote:
The strongest place to make a stand seems to be on the challenge/threat aspect. One can make the case that death ruins the narrative. One cannot make the case that staying alive when there is a possibility of death is not a challenge.

One can make the case that it's not a "significant" or "real" challenge. A GM can trick their players into thinking something is more challenging to accomplish than it is, or players can trick themselves, and that's no doubt good enough for a lot of people. I'd prefer to make every situation a real challenge, with a 30-60% chance of failure, and simply make that failure more palatable to the players. I could do that with death, as some groups do, but there are other options.
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