09 March 2012

Pen and Paper: Casualties among PCs part 1 - I am a cruel GM.

When it comes to traditional pen & paper RPGs there are two types of games you can play and I will judge you as a person depending on which you favor. There is the no-fail-state heroes can't die power-fantasy that a lot of early DnD-goups seem to have favored and there is games where your character can actually die. I despise the former, as it makes all combat and adventuring devoid of risk and thus pointless. As a friend of mine once said: „Adventure without risk is Disney world.“

It's for the same reason as Superman stopping a simple thug from a robbery is, while a good thing to do, not exactly heroic as there is no personal risk involved. If I know that my game master won't let me die in an encounter with a group of, say, orcs, what's the point of fighting them? If a battle was hard-fought, with actual risks and even casualties involved, it will make victory much sweeter and, if the heroes actually fail, it will make defeat a poetic thing, a part of the story.

There are role-playing systems that focus on you failing, mostly the horror-games like Call of Cthulhu or Little Fears, where it's the exception rather than the rule for the player characters to have any sort of good outcome from the story. But I strongly believe that even in a long-term campaign with different storylines, death of their characters should be a risk that players just have to face.

When I first DMed a game, my own homebrew post-apocalyptic setting, it was with a group of mostly strangers at our university role-playing club. I told them before playing, even before character-creation, that I was going to handle this in a realistic way. I told them „when bullets fly, people will die“, trying to get them to consider avoiding lethal violence where at all possible, as real people would – if you get into a firefight, there is always a very high risk of gruesome injuries and in an age where the next hospital might be a thousand kilometers of wasteland-travel away, you better think twice before starting a fight like this. This goes for any risky behaviour. Just be careful, I told them. They didn't listen.

The first thing they do after leaving their tribal village and set up camp for the first night in the wild is to split up in search for a source of water. They go out in random pairings so when a lynx attacks one of the groups, it's the groups geeky scholar-type (and medic) and the mechanic who get hit. So they have barely started their adventure and one of them is unconscious, with a heavy stomach-wound that's going to get infected and he was the one who could do first aid. It went on like that, culminating in an ambush that killed two of them, while crippling another two. But they learned fast. It wasn't about skills and die-rolls, it was about decisions. It was about the skill of the players more than it was about the skill of their characters. And they started to enjoy their victories. Because they were hard-earned, surviving a fight was something the players celebrated and had their characters celebrate too.

And that is a principle I have held high in GMing: The harder the obstacle, the merrier overcoming it. Also, defeat doesn't have to mean death. How many RPG-groups ever get the idea of surrendering if they can't win? It's a possibility, you know? Another thing about any open-form game has always been for me (and a few other I have played with have adopted this philosophy in their own campaigns): Put the players in a situation where you, the GM, do not know how they could survive it. If the game is free-form enough (the limited environment of a dungeon isn't a good example here), the players will find a way that you didn't think of. After all, they have several brains, you only have one.

I like open-ended RPing more than any other form. And there needs to be risk. In the next installments of this series, I'll talk about the deaths of a few player-characters I've had. Except for one, I enjoyed the experience of all of them. It's just a part of their story – and how many heroes in actual heroic literature end up living to an old age?

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