Saturday, 22 November 2008

Death and Difficulty

I think part of the reason why I'm attracted to the rpg's I really love and have played the most (BECMI and 2e AD&D, Cyberpunk 2020, MERP, RuneQuest, early Shadowrun) is Death. That is to say, in those games, it's tough for characters to live through even one adventure or mission - they are fragile entities whose capacity for survival is limited. High level PCs are treasured rarities who you come to have great affection for merely by dint of their luck or toughness.

Thinking about it, I rather like the few computer games I do for the same reasons. ToME, Oolite and Dwarf Fortress have incredibly steep learning curves which result in restart after restart; my list of beginning characters who never got beyond the first dungeon crawl in ToME runs into the hundreds, and even docking a spacecraft in Oolite is a difficult process to master.

Is it a kind of vicarious masochism? Possibly. But I'm more inclined to put it down to respect. BECMI and ToME are proper games who are difficult to master, and rewarding only through effort and luck; they don't mollycoddle and success in them must be earned. You have to appreciate a game like that - it's the difference, I suppose, between Monopoly and The Game of Life. One is an amusing diversion for kids. The other is a fun and interesting activity for all ages.


  1. I too feel the same way. I think its why after discovering Melee/Wizard/TFT we abandoned D&D for the most part. D&D was fun and exciting until about 5th or 6th level, then it became "easy." You had to consistently ratchet up creatures and adventure as characters became over powered and previously deadly threats became speed bumps.

    The threat of danger is what makes adventuring fun. It makes you think about what actions you take. No danger, means no adventure, means no fun. The threat of losing your character has to be inherent or there is no excitement in the adventure.

  2. Fenway: Actually this is one of the major problems inherent in D&D's level-based play. A game like Cyberpunk 2020 is way more deadly - it doesn't matter how experienced or rich your character is; a 9mm round to the head is still likely to kill him. It definitely keeps a player on his toes at all stages of the character's career.

    Mind you, older editions of D&D had plenty of opportunity for quick death even when it came to higher level characters. A level 20 wizard can still choke to death on a throat leech within three rounds, for example.

  3. Dwarf Fortress is an interesting pick for a list of games that are difficult.

    It kind of maintains the D&D leveling problem; once you figure out the ghastly UI and a few of the minor foibles of the dwarves themselves, you're done. The game is stupidly easy after you figure it out.

    That said, I agree with the article by and large. Death is a rarity in third and fourth editions, and I think that's sort of a problem. Plus, it makes it harder to get rid of the character with the fifteen-page teenaged angst backstory.

  4. David: I've only been playing it for a bit, and am still grappling with said UI!

    The lack of 15 page backstories is one of the major reasons for my sticking with pre-WotC editions of D&D. ;)

  5. If combat is more dangerous, then "there are many old adventurers, and many bold adventurers; but not many old, bold adventurers."

    Even with the incentives to avoid pointless fights in older editions, D&D has from the start been to a notable degree about combat and other physical perils. In (e.g.) RuneQuest and Traveller, players tend to be rather more cautious.

    The accumulation of hit points with experience levels facilitates the merging of long-term character development with frequent combat. Basically, the longer a character is played the more decision points and chances lie between it and sudden death.

  6. Agreed. That's part of the reason I love over-powered DnD games - the feeling of being a 2nd level wizard, and casting both your magic missles, then freaking out is comparable to knowing that the critter you're facing has a fairly good chance of one-shotting you if you aren't careful and good.

    I love Shadowrun for that - the SR games I play have very quick death - I've tinkered with adding more lethality, because without death, you're just listening to a story (imho).

    People never understood why I let my characters die (our games often have rules for miraculous recovery - you survived by spending a fate point and gaining a crippling flaw or some such) - that's kind of the point. If I bring them back, why did it matter that I died?

    Course, I also have serious issues with character creation - at no time when I was actively gaming did my stable of characters drop below 5. I even had a thread on our message boards titled "The stable."

    Then it was "The stable - Core rules' "The stable - advanced" and "The stable - kobolds."

    That last one was a good game.

  7. Shiren the Wanderer (a roguelike (Torneko-like?) for the DS) was introduced to me as "The RPG where you go up in levels." I definitely feel that there's a place for games with that kind of learning curve, and for games with all sorts of other ones.

    But: some of those curves won't work as well in group mediums. If we assume everyone at a table needs to both be able to understand the system, and to give over the time to accomplish that, then a more demanding system will deplete the field of possible group members a lot.

    That is, there's all kinds of people I want to play with, so its a good thing there's all kinds of games to play with them. No one else needs to be subjected to my struggles with Dwarf Fortress, though they may be subjected to me talking about it afterwards

  8. Lorechaser: I love Shadowrun for that - the SR games I play have very quick death - I've tinkered with adding more lethality, because without death, you're just listening to a story (imho).

    One of the reasons why I love Cyberpunk 2020, for all its flaws. Even if you don't die from a combat, you know you've been in one - shattered limbs, permanent damage and long hospital lay-offs are par for the course.

    Nick: You're probably right about depleting the pool of players. This is the problem that we all come up against when we have a vision of the Type Of Game We Want To Play.

  9. Ooooh - that reminds me.

    Hunter: the Reckoning. Either the old version or the new (more so the old) - you're humans. Your foes are uber vampires, mages, zombies, werewolves.

    They are orders of magnitude tougher than you.

    So pretty much, it's your entire group against one single foe, and you *know* at least one of you will come out dead, crippled, evil, or some such.

    Which makes it so much fun.