Monday, February 17, 2020

Randomization and Tactical Opacity in Dungeons and Dragons

One of the awesome things about D&D right now is that so many people are playing it. I think back over the years to all of those times that I got blank stares from people if I mentioned that I played D&D. Some people thought it was a weird, fetishy thing (“Dungeon master, that sounds kinky!”), others (like my parents) thought it was devil worship in sheep’s clothing. Others assumed it was some weird cult of unwashed nerds.

One of the interesting things about being in the hobby for decades is watching the same topics and concerns emerge from the current D&D community that I have seen in my game spaces for years. It’s not that there isn’t anything new under the sun, it’s just that playing the same game means you often come up with the same problems and bottlenecks.

One of them, particularly as the game continues in popularity, is familiarity and challenge. The more people who play, the more people who watch play streams, the more you hear about other people’s games, and the harder it gets to surprise and challenge your players. 

There are some tried and true solutions to this, one is to come up with homebrew content, which I HIGHLY recommend. However, some people find this challenging, and prefer to use published content. Another solution is purchasing content from outside of WOC and the major publishers. There are a lot of independent creators making content, not new games, but materials for existing games, or material you can easily convert to existing games. I highly recommend this as well. There is also a lot of old non-WOC content that is just as good as it ever was.

In addition, one tried and true method for shaking things up is “reskinning” monsters. If your players are bored of ogres then use ogre stats for a wildly different monster, or conversely take a regular ogre and give it different abilities. 1e AD&D does this with Ogre Magi, take a group that has only encountered ogres and give them a group of Ogre Magi and watch how shocked they will be.

Another option is to change the fantasy vibe to something different. For example, replace the standard Tolkien PC races with other humanoid races and your campaign will take on a very different flavor. You can play with anything. D&D is flexible enough that you can play sword and sorcery, high magic, ray guns and rapiers, you name it. Nothing gets the players out of their comfort zone in a fantasy game faster than having someone shoot at you with a rifle.

And of course trying other games is a great way to keep things from being too predictable. Right now I am running two AD&D campaigns, and a Stars Without Number game for my sci-fi fix, the mechanical differences and the setting differences are helping to shake my players out of their “I’ve seen that before” rut.

These are all great ways to shake things up, and all are recommended.

Today I want to highlight a different way to keep things fresh and fun at your table: tactical opacity and randomization. 

Tactical Opacity, Randomization and Excitement at the Table
Tactical opacity is the characteristic of a game where the players can’t be sure what they are going to be facing. It’s easier to understand by looking at its opposite, tactical clarity.

Take your bog-standard wizard in a fantasy game, chances are they will have some variation on magic missile, “eldrich blast”, that sort of thing. Invisibility is insanely popular, sleep. Fly is as well. That opponent is tactically clear to some degree. 

Also, many players want to optimize their PCs to some degree, who wants to be the one wizard who doesn’t have fireball? I’ve seen people suggest that not having fireball, magic missile, etc. means that the wizard player is being shortchanged at the table, and thus is being treated unfairly. As a result of all this DM’s, in order to ensure that the players are “challenged” at the table, optimize their opponents to match their player’s optimization. 

The problem with optimization, however, is that it produces similarity and predictability. Some degree of predictability is good, the game world shouldn’t be entirely random. Too much, however, is a problem. Optimization also contributes to the tendency to have a game that is dominated by combat. If both the players and the DM have optimized their PCs/NPCs/Monsters, then there is a natural tendency to want to exercise those optimizations. Why spend hours meticulously planning the magic item/skill/spell sets of your opponents if you don’t have the PCs fight them at all? 

Another issue is the tendency to craft your encounters so every PC has a “chance to shine”, its a nice sentiment, and it’s important to have all the players engaged with the game, but it also tends to contribute to predictability. There will always be a lock or a trap so the party thief gets to use their find remove traps roll, that sort of thing. 

Here are some methods you can use to keep your game from becoming too predictable.

A. Lack of Balance
One of the most pernicious contributors to predictability is “game balance”. One of the reasons I prefer 1e AD&D is that it very clearly and specifically does not do this. The game is NOT balanced, it is possible to encounter things that are beyond your pay scale from level 1 onwards. 

I see this sort of thing on Twitter all the time. Players become accustomed to the idea that they should be able to defeat anything they encounter, and this makes things predictable and dull. Nothing surprises them more than encountering something more powerful than them in the game. Not only does it produce a wonderful feeling of dread, and get them refocused on the game, but it is genuinely unpredictable. Spontaneity of this kind really makes the game world come alive, and it keeps your players guessing. That’s the sweet spot you want to hit.

The converse of this is true as well, occasionally hitting up the party with a challenge that is below their pay scale is a good idea too. These are heroes, adventurers of great renown, sometimes they will be able to walk all over their enemies, and get to be the big dog for a while. This is good, anything that disconnects the challenge from being specifically tied to the party helps to make things less predictable and more fun.

B. Don’t plan encounters for the party
This is a big one, and a view that diverges from much of the advice I’ve seen about the game. It is ENORMOUSLY tempting to set up your game world by looking at the party’s makeup, their powers and abilities, their backstories, and to craft the game world around them. And they are the heroes after all, so why not?

The problem is that this sort of thing can become quite predictable after a while, because it becomes obvious. I make it a point to design all of my game world without the PCs in mind at all, I treat it as an independent entity, filled with NPCs and monsters who have no knowledge of the party and their goals. The game world responds to what they do, but it is not designed for them.

What you lose in “connection” to the PC’s you gain in unpredictability, since the makeup of the party doesn’t drive the encounter design, the players can’t figure out the encounter design by looking at their party structure and abilities. This sort of tactical opacity helps to make the game more challenging and fun.

C. Read more 
There is a good chance that your players have seen many of the same movies as you, and read many of the same fantasy books. So one way to surprise them and challenge them is to read as much as you can find, so you can be inspired by things they haven’t heard before. I’m a voracious reader for this reason, ANYTHING can inspire me in my game. And this means going beyond fantasy fiction to reading other genres and sources. I read sci-fi, westerns, horror, non-genre fiction, comic books, mythology, you name it.

The more you read the greater the chance you will be able to put something in your game that your players won’t see coming. 

D. Vary NPC/Monster motivations 
If I had a dime for every opponent that had the same motivation I would have a lot of money. An example is useful here. I once had a NPC wizard that the party was hunting down. When they found him his apprentice took out the party and brought them, bound and beaten, before the wizard. Rather than having them all killed outright because the wizard was fearful of their threat, or a caricature in cruelty, I decided to do something different. 

This wizard had been dwelling in the jungle, reading old magical texts from the long dead libraries found in a ruined city of sorcerers. I decided that he was lonely, years spent reading these old tomes had cut him off from human contact for so long that he missed conversation, news of the outside world, that sort of thing

So he made a bargain with the PCs, there were evil factions in the city working against the wizard, he had no time to deal with them as his research was so important, so in exchange for their lives he asked that they slay these evil monsters who opposed him. They decided to take the deal and later they would deal with the wizard.

However, I RP’d him as genuninely interested in the PCs. He asked questions, he took time to get advice and discuss issues with the PCs, he offered help to one of the PCs who had lost his ability to spell cast (long story), he slowly began to trust them more as the adventure continued. He became an ally and even a friend to the party. They genuinely liked the guy, and worked to help him.

I cannot overstate how much fun this was, and how fresh it was for the players. They were used to moustache twirling, “bwah ha ha ha” villains who would eat babies and kill innocent puppies. Sure, it’s fun to take out someone eeevvvillll, but it does get predictable after a while.

Eventually they discovered that he was doing some bad stuff behind their backs, so they betrayed him. Thing is, they were genuinely upset by the fact he had hidden things from him, and genuinely conflicted as they kind of liked him. This was so unlike any villain they had encountered before as they were used to caricatures. They still talk about that run to this day, it helped me to understand that changing motivations was a great way to shake things up.

E. Randomize everything Well, maybe not EVERYTHING, but randomization is the heart of my approach to keeping things interesting. It’s also a core design feature of 1e.

For example, with monsters I use random encounter tables, that’s an obvious one, but I also make sure to use other sources of randomization for monsters. For example, when I roll an entry on a wandering monster table I will use the “number appearing” in the monster listing, not just pick the number of monsters that appear. This is a surprisingly important one, as many DMs just have one monster show up, but the monster listings were built with the assumption that most encounters with those monsters will be with the listed “number appearing”. Just to make the point, if you have an encounter with a dragon all of the non-unique chromatic dragons have a number appearing of 1-4, so on average 2.5 appearing. So *most* encounters with dragons should be with more than one. Keep this in mind when people make comments about how powerful given monsters are. The game design assumes the number appearing should be as listed.

Also, with monsters I roll HP. This is another thing that is regularly ignored if I am to believe what people post and claim online. Rolling for HP means that some monsters will be tougher than expected, some weaker, but more importantly that the *PC’s can’t tell*. This is what tactical opacity brings to the table, you lose the ability to easily predict outcomes. This brings a host of advantages, it makes things less predictable, it keeps it exciting for the players, and reduces “power creep”. I see no end of DM’s saying that they end battles early or fudge the dice when things become tedious in battle, but many of these same DM’s always take the average or max HP for monsters. 

I also roll randomly for ALL magic items in treasure hoards, which can produce interesting results. Sometimes this produces results that the players don’t want, other times it produces something a lot more powerful than the players expect to find. Oddly it helps to make the treasure seem more authentic, if you find what you expect to find, or find magic items “keyed” to the level of your party, the world loses some immersion and seems more contrived. I also roll for treasure on the spot, in front of the players, so it produces a lot of excitement at the table. Randomization of magic items means that the PC’s opponents can also have powerful items, or unexpected ones. Tactical opacity is gained there as well.

A third and important area of randomization for me is spells. Nothing reduces the variety and unpredictability of your game than PCs choosing spells, or for that matter NPCs having their spells chosen. Picking spells means you can pretty much guess which spells most wizards will have. Randomization of spells (for PC’s, NPC’s and in treasure hoards) means that you can’t easily predict what you will be facing in combat when you meet a NPC wizard. Particularly if the DM uses the “to know” percentages for spells (something in 1e). 

I cannot overstate the importance of this sort of thing for making the game interesting and fresh. Not only does it mean that it is harder to predict what your opponent will do (tactical opacity), but it inspires your players and you (through NPCs) to be creative with the spells you have. I have seen hundreds of complaints over the years that magic in D&D is “stale” or “boring”, but I virtually guarantee that the vast majority of those complaints come from games where spells are not randomized. Of course it’s boring when you have the same spells used all the time. 

Sleep is a classic example of this. I’ve watched as players LOSE THEIR MINDS if they don’t get sleep as a first level spell. 1e is NOT balanced, so certain spells are significantly more powerful than others. However, these are often the same players who complain that the system is boring or lacks flavor. As a side note, I’ve seen many complaints about early edition D&D magic lacking flavor, but many people also claim they don’t use material components in their spells. If you shear the game of it’s details it becomes more homogeneous and boring. 

And it’s important to realize that tables are not COMPLETELY randomized in AD&D, they are constructed to favor certain results, they provide bounded randomness. So for example, the treasure tables are weighted to produce more temporary magic, magic weapons and magic armor. So potions, scrolls, rods/staves/wands, armor and weapons come up the most often. If you look at the treasure type tables in the back of the Monster Manual they also produce magic items on average less than 50% of the time. So if you pick rather than roll for treasure and magic items you can start to get predictable and there is a real possibility of overpowering the game. 

This brings up an important game design point. Many, if not most, of the complaints I see about early edition D&D occur in the context of people who DON’T use the randomization baked into the game. For example, they hack chargen character ability score methods, they assign spells, they don’t use “to know” rolls, they assign magic items and give out average HPs (or max HP for low level PCs), etc, etc. 

The game was designed with the expectation that you would use randomization for these things. Spells are an easy example, spells are NOT balanced, e.g. at every level some spells are far more useful/powerful than others. So if you don’t randomize them in some way then the game has the tendency to become overpowered very fast. Same thing with magic items, if you don’t randomize them and instead treat the treasure tables as a personal shopping experience, is it any surprise that D&D becomes “high magic”?

The intention of the game as designed is that the DM can choose magic items, monsters and spells or they can use the tables. Either is “BtB” in 1e AD&D. However, I think that randomization works best, for two reasons. One, if you don’t randomize these things you can end up with overpowered or underpowered games, something that seems to be a problem for many people. Two, if you don’t randomize things your game can become very predictable, and thus less interesting to your players and to you.

Randomization of the game produces tactical opacity, facing unpredictable monsters in unpredictable numbers with unpredictable HP, facing NPC casters with unpredictable spells and magic items, these things mean that your PC’s are forced to think on their feet, and just as importantly consider whether or not they should be messing with everyone they meet. Is it any wonder that in games where players can be assured of balance and spells and that items are predictable, that groups turn into hack and slash cyphers and complain of the “grind” of combat?

Combat in my game is ALWAYS exciting, as they are always to some degree unpredictable, sometimes opponents are less than what you expected, sometimes more. Opponent spell casters are formidable and feared as you can’t know what you will be facing. Players pay more attention to what spells they take and what tactics they use in combat. 

The longer I play the more I become convinced that many of the issues that I see floating around about D&D in any edition are based on the tendency to assign rather than randomize, HP, magic items, spells, monsters, etc. This impacts both power creep, the tendency of D&D to become Monty Haul / very high magic, and to it becoming routine and stale. It also leads to the worse of excesses, the tendency to want to give all PCs access to everything. It isn’t a coincidence I think, that older edition games were stricter in their delineation of powers and abilities between classes, newer editions allow cross pollination of skills and abilities amongst classes more easily. If all characters of a given class become similar, it is more likely you will want to expand a class's ability pool.  

The last and perhaps for me the most important aspect of randomization and tactical opacity is that it is a catalyst for creativity at the table. This is really just the principle of RRTEI, Roll Randomly Then Explain It. Take a quick example, a while back I was planning an encounter where the party would meet a shaman along the river. I used the tables in the DMG and I rolled his magic items, one was a scroll of three spells, one of which was reincarnation. I was going to change it to a combat spell as the party had been ambushed recently, so I figured they would start a fight. It was also a 6th level spell in possession of a 4th level magic-user, it was pretty powerful. I could have picked something lower level and more “realistic”.

I ultimately decided to stick to my own rules and keep the spell. The party met and befriended the shaman, and at one point they got into a conversation about why he was there on his own. He was a shaman, shamen are normally part of communities. So I had to figure that out, why was this shaman living alone by the river? I immediately thought of the scroll, this shaman was a 4th level MU, so he had a 40% chance of failure and 25% chance of reverse/harmful effect.

I decided he had left his community as he knew the risks of the scroll, and he was being pressured to use it by members of his community, when people died. So he left, protecting them from afar.

That’s role playing gold, instant flavor and campaign depth, all by explaining a random dice roll.

So first of all, rolling gives you these kernels that can be grown into game flava.

The shaman and the party adventured together for a short time before he left to return to his home. Jump to two months later (8 sessions) and one of the PCs died. They spent a week returning to the shaman’s riverside home. They asked for him to use the spell on their dead colleague. 

It was like I won the lottery. 

“I have always wondered why Rudra put this scroll in my path so long ago, it has caused such trouble, but now I see it was for this, we didn’t meet by coincidence, he guided you to me so I would do this for you.”

Boom. Players love it when it connects this way.  

The PC magic user who died (had his head bit off by another PC who was transformed into a hydra by a curse), came back as a black bear.

That’s what randomization gets you, role playing flava and tactical opacity, all in one.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020


Ooh death
Whooooah death
Won't you spare me over 'til a another year?

Well what is this that I can't see
With ice cold hands taking hold of me

Well I am death none can excel
I'll open the door to heaven or hell
Whoa death someone would pray
Could you wait to call me another day

The children prayed the preacher preached
Time and mercy is out of your reach
I'll fix your feet so you can't walk
I'll lock your jaw so you can't talk

I'll close your eyes so you can’t see
This very hour come and go with me
Death I come to take the soul
Leave the body and leave it cold

To drop the flesh up off the frame
Dirt and worm both have a claim

Twitter is a fascinating beast. Someone floats an idea and you watch it roll through the accounts you follow, and those you don’t through retweets. My Twitter round up yesterday yielded one of my favorite D&D topics, death.

I gave this issue a lot of thought when I sat down 6 years ago and started gaming with my son and his friends. They were 10 years old, and it was a group of boisterous, competitive, loud mouthed lads. Good friends. I didn’t want to traumatize anyone by killing off their PC, but I wanted to give them a challenging game too.

I’ve been running games for 35 years and there is one truism I can get behind, almost everyone likes to play a role, to act like someone else for a while, mainly because TTRPGs, when immersive, can connect to your emotions. You feel excited when making a decisive dice roll, your character’s victories are your victories, when your PC takes a big hit you scream, “NO!” It’s glorious to see this in action. 

So where does death fit into this? If you can identify with your character, and become emotionally attached to playing the character, then death is the end of that adventure. You could, in principle, experience emotions of loss and grief, etc. Losing a long running PC can be traumatizing, emotionally deflating stuff, so I considered taking it out of my game, eg replacing death with severe consequences. 

I didn’t though, and here’s what I do and why.

A. Deal with it Explicitly / Set Expectations 
Session 0 - I’ve given a version of this so many times I can do it from memory:

“This game is deadly, a first level fighter in chain mail has 6 HP on average, a 0-level city guard hits chain mail around 30% of the time weapon dependent, and does an average of around 4HP damage with standard troop weapons like spears, longswords, pole arms, maces and flails. You hit that guard in chain around 35% of the time at first level, you do the math. You have a very, very slight edge, easily devoured by the randomness of the dice rolls. If it’s a city guard patrol with multiple guards, you are in real trouble.

AD&D is not balanced, you can run into something way above your pay grade.

Animals and monsters with claw, claw, bite attacks get all three attacks at once, to represent their ferocity and speed, PCs and NPCs have their multiple attacks spread out over the combat round. Most PCs will only ever have 1 attack per round. Monsters and animals are extremely dangerous.” 

So the game world is dangerous, there will be fatalities, everyone knows this BEFORE they create their character, and BEFORE they become invested. This doesn’t, oddly enough, mean they become less invested, indeed in some ways they become more invested. But they know the drill from the get go.

This also means that for us, backstory is kept to a minimum, if you invest that much time in the PC before playing and they die off early, that’s not fun. 

B. Minimize Lost Table Time
If PCs die you have to make new PCs, in 1e that takes about 15-20 min, if the player is indecisive or unsure it can take much longer. In our campaign we run either multiple PCs for each player, and/or we have a pool of NPCs (henchmen, etc.) to draw on, so if a PC dies the player can run a second PC or one of the henchmen instead, so no one has to lose game time. That also means you know a bit about the new PC before you play it.

C. Decide on the Process for Introducing New PCs to the Table 
If the party is on average 5th level and a PC dies, if the player rolls up a new PC, is it the same level as the party? Does it get the previous PC’s loot and items? In our game, new PCs come in at 1st level, but due to the XP system they level up to the party’s level in about 4-5 sessions. We do it that when a PC dies their magic items and loot are split amongst the adventuring company. When the new PC arrives it is traditional to give them an item to help them out.

We have had 3 PCs go through this process in my after school game, it has become something of a cause celebre to have caught up to the party in level that fast, and they enjoy the risk of running with a higher level party as a low level PC and surviving. Kind of a flex.

D. Clarify the Methods In-Game for Reversing Death
In my preferred edition there are a few ways to come back to life. If you are going to run a deadly campaign you have to understand that, BtB in many fantasy games, there are mechanisms for reversing it. However, in 1e a lot is left to the DM. 

Be clear about how this works, is it possible to get brought back from the dead, what are the costs and benefits, that sort of thing. Whatever you do, don’t make it too easy, otherwise “death” is meaningless.

E. Be Clear About Death Mechanics
If you are presenting a consequence that can take out a character, often for good, then you need to be transparent about the mechanics that can make that happen. 

In 1e you don’t just die at 0hp, there are some fiddly bits, so it’s important the players know these. Ditto for healing mechanics, saving throws, they need to know how all that works to make decisions that support their agency at the table.

F. Establish Protocols for Dice Rolling 
This sounds ominous, but here’s the thing. If a dice roll can kill you, it has to be fair. All dice rolls should be fair, but the point is still important. If your game is to have the possibility of permanent character death, and that death can be the result of dice rolls (damage, saving throws…), consistency and transparency will be crucial.Of course, you and your table may not care if someone changes their dice roll, every table plays their own way, but for us everyone rolls in the dice box where everyone else can see the results as well. If someone’s PC dies when dice are rolled, we all see it happen.

Why Bother?
It’s always important to ask “why” when thinking about TTRPG mechanics, the games are complicated, why take the extra steps? Why not just get rid of death in the game? I’ve played in games where it was clear none of us were dying unless we were cruelly stupid or wildly unlucky. They can work and be fun, and there is nothing wrong with them. 

But I like what death does to the game:

Knowing that the threat of death is always around keeps them focused, as losing focus can be dangerous. 

It sweetens the rewards when they win, as they feel they have earned it, facing the real risk of death. This is one of the reasons I don’t build my environments to ensure that “everyone has a chance to shine”, as this, to my experience, can take you out of the immersion, it becomes obvious something was placed there to meet the character’s ability, it reminds you that you are playing a game, instead I run it such that the players have to exploit the environment to “shine”.

It builds bonds, the aaracockra priest in our game that died being consumed alive by Cifals was fighting a rearguard action to let the party flee to safety. He died a hero, and the others treat that player as if he had done a meaningful favor for them in real life. If he had “just barely escaped” would it have had the same impact? 

It is often talked about as the most memorable or enjoyable moments of the game. My players are all friends, so they talk about the game a lot outside of the game. All of the parents mention it, and one recurring topic is spectacular deaths from the game! D&D doesn’t just emulate heroic acts of success, it emulates heroic deaths. 

And of course the times you narrowly miss death are exciting too, but only if death was a real threat, there to be missed. That is ultimately one of the big reasons I keep death as a possibility in my games. When you know you can’t really die, the “near miss” of almost dying isn’t exciting anymore. 

It also acts as sort of a natural counter to the tendency to kill everything in sight. I see on a fairly regular basis complaints on Twitter about the tendency to see a lot of combat in the game. I think both of these are linked to death. When the PCs know that death is unlikely for them, they end up seeing violence as a simple, direct solution for their problems.

My players know pretty much any encounter can go south, and you can die fairly quickly, so they don’t start things unless they have to. They learned this early on, in 1e you can meet opponents well beyond your power level. To be clear, this doesn’t mean you are out to kill the PCs. It means that the mechanics of the game allow for death.

You might wonder what a game where you allow death would look like for a game like D&D where people can become attached to their characters. 

I’ll give a few examples from my current game, we have had five fatalities over two years of play.

When the party magic user was killed (another party member picked up a cursed book and was polymorphed into a hydra, that hydra bit the head off the party magic-user), the party took the magic-user's body to a druid they had befriended. They had found a scroll with the druid spell “reincarnate” many sessions ago, but knew they were too low level and might fail casting it, and the failure consequences for this were obviously death. So they had sat on it. 

The druid was higher level, still had a fail percentage, but he cast it successfully and the party member was returned to life... as a bear. 

Gygax essentially says that you shouldn’t play monsters as PCs, but in the case of reincarnation suggests giving the PC say around 6hd (swapping out their HP) and basic attack capabilities (per the animal), and make them humanoid, but it wasn’t clear if he said they get to keep their class abilities from a previous class. So we decided in our game that a returning PC would keep their past skills, unless the physical form forbade it. I also decided he could still cast spells, which was something else that wasn’t made clear in the rules. 

What’s important is that there was real risk involved, the player could have ended up in a form he didn’t want, or the spell casting could have failed, or worse still had a reverse harmful effect and killed the druid casting it, or something else horrific, ie. the dead magic user comes back as a zombie or something. 

So the point is that you can still have the real threat of death in your campaign even if you have possible ways to cheat it, but those ways have to carry meaningful risk.

In another example, when the party druid died (the average level of the party at the time was 5th), they took the body to the temple of Horus, and asked to have him brought back. The DMG lists prices to cast spells, but this spell isn’t listed, so it’s all your call.

The spell works in such a way that the temple’s high priest, a 16th level NPC, would be out of commission for 5 days afterwards, unable to spell cast or fight. So it would make the temple vulnerable, and it’s a big ask. So what do I charge for this? The druid did worship Osiris, so that helps a bit, but still, this is supposed to be a VERY expensive thing, but what do you charge?

I decided they would have to perform a quest for the Temple, to retrieve a lost artefact of theirs, the Mask of Horus, which was half a world away in the Lost City, hidden in the Sea of Dust. One of the other priests cast a Quest spell on one of the party members, to ensure they didn’t swan off, and they have been heading to the Lost City for the last 15 sessions on this quest.

So this time it was risk and challenge, and time. It has become the overarching campaign theme for the group, this quest to pay back the temple that brought back their fellow party member. So in this case the spectre of death is still meaningful as the cost of reversing it is immense. 

Two further things about this. The player whose character it was didn’t want his PC to die, and when I told them what they would have to do to get him back they had a lot of conversation, but they all agreed to essentially redirect the campaign for the indeterminate future to help him out. It was genuinely cool to see them putting it all on the line to help their friend.

It’s also rare to see that group so focused, they wander all over the place and abandon tasks, this is the first goal they have consistently worked on for more than a few sessions. It has brought us some wild adventures, the boys learned how the alignment system worked, LOL, they had a visit from the avatars of Horus, it’s been a wild ride.

And all because someone died. 

Here’s another favorite example, my regular home game crew was doing Forbidden City a few years ago, and they encountered the apprentice of the wizard they were hunting down. She was accompanied by 4 yuan-ti. Thanks to a good initiative roll she cast stinking cloud on the group, and while they were stuck for the one round minimum she cast web. 

That was the end of it.

The party was taken to her patron, and I had them RP a conversation with him for a bit. Then I rolled an encounter reaction roll. It was positive (somewhere around 95% or something with modifiers) as the party warlock was a smooth talker (16 charisma). So I RP’d it that the wizard was missing company from people in the outside world, and there were bastions of evil monsters in the Forbidden City that opposed him. The party were generally good aligned, he asked them, in exchange for their lives, if they would attack and destroy these evil monster enclaves, as they would have done anyway, to help him out.

A deal was struck, things went well, the players liked the wizard as he helped them out and was eliminating evil monsters, then the PCs found out some stuff, they turned on the wizard, enlisted the aid of a pan lung dragon who used scaly command to summon a swarm of giant alligators, and the wizard brought a Marilith to the party. It was bonkers.

The point being that running a deadly game doesn’t mean you always have to kill PCs when the opportunity arises. A D&D adventuring party are still valuable resources in the game world. The wizard wasn’t going to slay creatures he could enlist or persuade to help him. And my players knew that I used encounter reaction rolls to help out when I wasn’t sure how he would react to the party, so at some point he could turn on them. The threat of death was real.

They know I didn’t “save” them, they were defeated in battle and I had the game world react as if they weren’t “special”, how would a warlock, isolated in the jungle for years investigating the ruins of a dead civilization for magical artefacts, and magically creating yuan-ti hybrids out of unwilling slaves and reptiles, react to a batch of new people showing up on his doorstep? He would keep them for company, enlist their aid if he can get it, and use them in his experiments if they don’t work out. 

Having a game with death doesn’t mean killing PCs, its about keeping the threat real, and making the costs of cheating it known.

I’ve also noticed that sometimes players prefer their new, post death PC. In my home game a few years ago one of the PC’s died and switched from being a long time wizard to a fighter. He was very obviously happier with the fighter. But if his PC hadn’t died, he would likely have played that wizard for ages. 

We focus on the lost character and don’t see the new potential. I think death in TTRPGs also plays into our affective forecasting issues, we overestimate the impact of character death on players, and seek to avoid it at all costs. 

I think the threat of death adds to verisimilitude and immersion. Things that mimic real life add verisimilitude to the game, and help us become immersed in play. Death is one of those hard limits that mimics real life, which has many of these. It makes the game world feel independent, and makes the achievements feel more real. 

Perhaps the most exciting game I ever played in was one where I was running a 1st level illusionist with 2 hp. I knew that anything that did any damage to me was likely lethal. So I had to play in such a way as to avoid combat and damage at all costs. However, there were only three of us, so I had to get in there or we wouldn’t make much progress. The combination of threat of immediate death and the need to push forward and play aggressively but smart was intoxicating. 

Do what is comfortable for your group, I can only speak for what works for us. Being saved, “just” getting out in time, the deadly crossbow bolt just narrowly missing, that sort of thing happening all the time drop kicks me out of immersion and out of the game. I’ve played in games where it becomes obvious the DM is helping us out a lot, and honestly it removes the challenge, and the fun, of the game for me.

There are two broad approaches to playing TTRPG’s like D&D that are both popular, in one case D&D is more about shared storytelling, in this more narrative, social role play style of play, death means you end a character’s story, and that might be harder to take. So I can see why it would be tempting to remove death from the game, and sort of tacitly accept that your character will endure challenges and setbacks, but they won’t die.

The other style of play treats D&D like a game, and games are meant to be challenging, the threat of death (essentially having your piece removed from the board so to speak) is a crucial component of that challenge. I find that those who are more focused on the gaming aspects of D&D than the narrative aspects (though I acknowledge they are intertwined) seem to be more comfortable with the idea of character death. I think it is a crucial part of what makes the game challenging, and thus a better and more satisfying game for me.

One last example. 

In our run through Barrier Peaks one of the party magic-users had his brain eaten by an intellect devourer, and it climbed into his skull and walked around in his body for a while, without anyone realizing it. Then, at an opportune time, he enlarged to a giant size and attacked the party from within. The party thief had to kill him to stop him from killing everyone. The thief snuck up behind the intellect devourer in the magic-user’s body who was bludgeoning the party ranger to death and ran him through with his sword, causing the host body to die and the intellect devourer to burst out of his skull and run away. They chased that damned thing through the ship, and eventually finished it off with a flame strike from the party priest.

That whole sequence has been talked about more than any movie scene, any book scene, any video game scene the boys talk about. 


You want a piece of this, it will electrify your game.

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