Archive for Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple

Character Mortality Is Not A Difficulty Slider

Posted in Game Mastering, Roleplaying Games, RPG with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 16, 2015 by Chall

Hi Folks,

A quick update on what I’m up to and then onto the meat of this blog:

As mentioned before Seith and Sword is out. If you like tragic Viking fiction, that’s all about good people trying to kill each other check it out.

Pretty soon I may be involved in another book. Can’t spill the details yet but I’m excited to be a part of it.

Now that that’s out of the way, onto the main event:

David Hill once tweetedEasy mode is for “players who prefer a narrative experience.” Normal mode is “recommended for most players.” Fucking AAA industry.” This echoes something that’s been rattling around in my head for quite some time.

Let’s talk about character mortality. I’m not talking about PC death, that’s something one can come back from. No, I’m talking about mortality, the moment a PC perishes, where the system says: no, this character’s done, you are not allowed to play him ever again. Has kind of a sting to it doesn’t it?

Not that kind of Sting.

Not that kind of Sting.

One reason folks play games that have high character mortality (which I now dub high mort) is for the challenge of it. The last letter in RPG means game, in a game there has to be winners and losers. Winning is character survival, losing is character death. Some feel that, without this simple scoring mechanism, a RPG  isn’t worth playing. If your character dies you must start over with a new one, deal with it, it’s part of the fun.

To bring this back to the above quote, some see high mort as the hard, or normal setting of RPGing. Low mort is easy mode. This is a simple concept, but it’s not one I buy into. More than ‘hardcore play’ goes into PC mortality, it’s no simple slider bar covering ‘narrative’ to ‘normal’. Everything can be narrative. ‘Normal’ is relative. Let us, then, explore deeper, meeting within the nexus of high and low mort.

Folks play high mort games out of a desire for…

Immersion

Let’s face it, slagging dice can be boring, especially when you get into a roll and miss till ad nauseum cycle. A high mort game gets rid of this tedium. If every single exchange could result in your character’s death, even if she’s fighting a foe way beneath her skill, then you can’t help but be pulled into the action. You feel a little of your character’s fear with every single roll.

This doesn’t have to be restricted to combat. In a horror game, fighting is akin to suicide. Every decision you make for your character, where to run, where to hide, who to turn to, becomes significant and meaningful because one wrong step leads to a grizzly end.

Immersion can be an adrenalin rush. One many players enjoy.

A Game That Relies On Smart Play

Let’s face it, standing in an open hallway opening fire against oncoming stormtroopers, charging archers across an open field, walking across a stream towards in cover gunmen, screaming “No.” while blasting your shotgun; these, while awesome, are also incredibly stupid. Many find such scenes jarring. They don’t want Star Wars, Willow or that particular moment from Tombstone. They want their spec. ops characters to plot things out smartly, they want their Shadowrunners to fear plans going awry, they want their hardboiled detectives to rush for cover.

You simply can’t run that sort of game with a system that is forgiving when it comes to defenses and wounds, in other words, something that is low mort. The funny thing is, this sort of game doesn’t set out to murder characters, it’s built into the system. Risks are part of the adventure, smart characters mitigate them. Yet the hard truth is even smart play might lead one to the reaper. Many folks thrive on this sort of dichotomy.

Less Violence

Wait, hear me out. Many games have incredibly lethal combat rules with the proviso: try to avoid it. These sorts of games push characters to sneakiness, cleverness and diplomacy over out and out battle. However, violence isn’t ruled out and, if it happens, some PCs should die, that’s the price one pays for violence. Survival then, in this sort of game, is not excelling at combat, it’s avoiding it.

Besides, there are innumerable other stakes than PC mortality. Will you be able to save your family and friends from a crippling illness? You’ve been betrayed by a loved one, but he’s still necessary for your community to thrive, how do you deal with it? Your lies are catching up with you, quick damage control! Your starship is running out of oxygen, you have three planets in range, which do you choose? And so on and so on…

In real life this is genius compared to solving all your problems with violoence.

In real life, this is genius compared to solving all your problems with violence.

Folks play low mort games out of a desire for…

Investment

I’ve said this earlier, creating characters is hard work. The time you spend doing  it is an investment. You are, in effect, crafting literary work that you hope to enjoy for the upcoming game. When your character dies for the final time, you cash in on that investment. A character you took two hours to write up, with balanced stats, history, background, appearance and ties with other characters, is a very poor investment if she dies in the first five minutes of play. Have that happen a few times and you’ll find yourself writing up such gems as: ‘1st level Fighter Steve: He’s an orphan who hits things’.

Players aren’t the only ones who might lose investment in a high mort game. If a GM has tied his adventure to the backgrounds and relations of the original PCs, her plots, plans, and dreams might go out the window as they croak.   ‘Well the Avatar’s dead, the woman I hoped would lead the Fire Nation out of chaos has just been shredded to bits, and the only original character left is the cabbage salesman who has no stake in any of this. *sigh* My game’s finished, anyone for Settlers of Catan?”

Low mort games offer insurance for this investment. Players feel safe writing up detailed backgrounds and GMs are more or less sure they can count on most of the PCs pulling through to the inevitable climax. Oh, there can still be curve balls, failure is still possible,and even this sort of game can’t 100% guarantee all the PCs will be there at the end. It’s simply likely most of them will be.

Also, this isn’t to say high mort games can’t have player investment. It’s just that, in my experience, said investment comes only after a few sessions of play. 1st Level Fighter Steve might actually make something of himself, but you’ll have to see if he survives a few sessions first.

1st Level Fighter Steve is actually started off a more indepth character than Super Oswald.

1st Level Fighter Steve actually started off a more in depth character than Super Oswald.

Cinematic Action

That woman standing out in the open in a hallway, exchanging fire with a dozen stormtroopers and living? Some people love that, they want their game to be all about that. Low mort games can offer the players exactly this, the breathing room to try outrageous things and maintain the same character throughout multiple adventures. Such players want to chronicle awesomeness as they web sling, light saber, pirate sail through a sea of adventure. The challenge with this sort of adventure isn’t surviving, it’s coming up with wacky ideas and epic scenes. If the group drives forward  a fun, fantastic, memorable tale, they win.

This isn’t to say characters in such games can never lose. Their big bads will cancel out PC plot immunity. When they appear the action gets really intense as legendary heroes and villains clash. In this case, one or all the PCs might die, but if they do, it’ll be in a blaze of glory.

This isn’t to say that high mort games can’t have amazing scenes. It’s just that they’re rare. Wyatt Earping your way across the stream, without cover, shouting “No!” and shooting down outlaws and surviving can happen, but it’s rare. In that specific case, Wyatt’s player was consigning him to death, he’s just lucky that it turned out the way it did.

A Bloodless Game

Believe it or not, there are some RPGs that have no combat what-so-ever. They’re rare, off the top of my head I was only able to think about two: Golden Sky Stories and Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple. I reached out to Machine Age Productions, cause I know they have games with no violence, and they cited Flatpack and Don’t Break the Caul. Unless they deal with combating calamity and disease, bloodless games are low mort.

It would be easy to assume that such games, with no violence and little to no character death, are unchallenging. This is simply not true. These stories can be deeply emotional. Golden Sky Stories deals with the primal childhood friendships and feelings that made us who we are. Pilgrims takes us on fantastic journeys that will stir smiles and laughter. Don’t Break the Caul is about pregnancy, it would be foolish to think such unengaging.

Yes he's a villain in a non-violent story. Still, No Heart's eons more intimidating than Skeletor.

Yes he’s a villain in a non-violent story. Still, No Heart’s eons more intimidating than Skeletor.

That about wraps these thoughts on character mortality, with one further note: It is incredibly reductive to pigeon hole the entirety of a game into high or low mort. Some games let crazy cinematic action be the mainstay AND  make combat  completely deadly. Others would be high mort if it weren’t for the hero point/fate point system. Some at their base are very deadly, I’m looking at you GURPS, but have options to make it less so. My point is there are numerous reasons, preferences, and options for folks to play games with varying degrees of character mortality. None of them are off or wrong. They are all open to incredible nuance. To reduce character mort  to an Easy > Normal > Hard mode slider is, quite frankly, ridiculous.

Addendum:

I’d like to give a quick shout out to games that handle character mortality in interesting ways:

  • Greg Stafford’s Pendragon: You’ll have many characters who will die, but that’s okay. Your story’s not about a single person but an entire legacy. Pendragon has managed to combine great instant investment and deep immersion into a single system and campaign setting. My hats off to the Pendragon.
  • Andrew Valkauskas’ Fate of the Norns: Ragnarok: You’re playing in a Viking saga, during the ages of Ragnarok, your characters are going to die. However, every character who has a good death, and gets to the heavens, offers your next character rising levels of perks. If you get five characters into the afterlife you can bring one of your old ones back as an Einherjar or Son/Daughter of Muspel. Full disclosure: I wrote a novel for Andrew, so I’m a little biased.
  • Kotodama Heavy Industries’ Tenra Bansho Zero: In this game losing all your vitality will just drop your character unconscious. However, rather than fall so easily you can choose, as your character gets hurt, to inflict wounded and even a death status upon him. Rather than decrease your character’s effectiveness, being wounded or near death makes him stronger. This is perfect for a game with rising action. It also assures that any characters who do die, go out with in a heroic fashion.