Thursday, 10 June 2021

The Story is the Campaign, Not the PCs - Or, is D&D a Soap Opera?

Today, a charming and interesting PC, who had taken on an unlikely leadership role in my weekly game and had literally just reached 2nd level after a heroic sequence of events, died meaninglessly in a random encounter with earwigmen. 

My game is rich in senseless PC death. By my count we have lost 8 or 9 PCs so far, in something over 20 sessions. Some of these had reached level 3 or 4. None of them really died in grand circumstances - and a high proportion were killed by wandering monsters. 

The deaths have been deflating. At times, old school D&D can seem nihilistic. Just as things seem to be going in one direction, a roll of the dice (I do almost all the dice rolling in the open) sends everything careering sideways - and sometimes seemingly backwards. 

I am usually relatively sanguine about this, because deflation is a valid emotion too, and I remain convinced that the realistic possibility of PC death raises the stakes and makes the game feel more real. But I am also human, and I was gutted when that earwigman rolled maximum damage and did away with poor Pupli. 

At times like this, it helps to remind oneself that, while it is an OSR mantra that the 'story' emerges through play and not by design, it is probably more accurate to say that story operates at a different level of abstraction to modern RPGs. Ever since the 'silver age' of RPGs, the idea has been that the story is about what happens to the individual PCs. In an old school game, by contrast, the story is really the campaign. Individual PCs come and go, but they are not the focus - the narrative is about the events that take place (in which the PCs, of course, play a role). Pupli the Etruscan 'Maru' of Nortia died today, but his player slipped into the role of one of the disciples that he had gathered, and events will take their course next week in the aftermath of his death.

This, in my view, ultimately instantiates a much richer understanding of story than that which is advocated in the mainstream. A PC dies and ceases to be of interest directly, but we become interested in his death and what it signifies, and this adds fresh layers. What will Pupli's followers do now that he has gone? Will his comrades try to avenge him? Suddenly there is more going on in the campaign than there was before, and this is what matters, because - to reiterate - the campaign is the story, and the story is the campaign.

Another way of putting this is that D&D is a bit like a soap opera, but with orcs. Individual characters arrive, and we might like them and grow to care about them, but they'll all go away again in the end (even  Ken Barlow). The story is not about any particular one of them, and it survives their deaths, comas, accidents, etc. It's Neighbours that we watch, not "The Adventures of Felicity Scully". You would be hard pressed to argue that Neighbours or Coronation Street are not in themselves stories - Neverending Stories perhaps - merely because they have no clearly delineated beginnings, middles or ends, or permanent characters. Indeed, the fact that no character is bigger than the capital-S Story is a large part of the appeal. 


  1. "earwigmen" haha yuck. Even without getting into the whole folklore with earwigs burrowing into peoples' ears that's a nasty image. Something about animal-men based on atypical animals will always be appealing to me.

    1. Yoon-Suin is so great for this!! I used the barnacle-men and eel-men in my old D&D campaign.

  2. I have never yet killed a character as a referee. Don't know if that is me being too soft on my players or if my players are just playing smart. I try to be brutal but fair. There's always a way to solve something even if it is just as simple as "Don't go into the room of inescapable doom." I do have a clause policy like if a character is stabbed right next to a hospital, they get healed by the hospital. I do give them healing stuff and a lot of retainers, maybe I shouldn't, but my feelings are if you are really delving into a dangerous place full of monstrosities, you bring a small army with you.
    I do like the idea of Story as Campaign though. I think it would be fascinating to run a horror game like Eternal Darkness, where the story is the aeon-long stretching plan of a Dark God and the people fighting it throughout the years, or a horror game about a place where horrible stuff happens, like the Overlook Hotel and players play the various people who lived there over the years (A previous character comes back as a monster?), or even a fantasy game where you play multiple characters throughout, you don't get a distinct sense of the characters but you do get a distinct vision of the setting.

  3. There's a lot of truth to what you say - as you know, other than your game I've been playing solely 5e, where it does often feel as though almost every fight is a foregone conclusion, and death only a possibility when either the players act incredibly stupidly, or the DM bumped the challenge rating up more than they'd intended. The 5e campaign I got most involved in was the one with the most deaths (although a lot of these were NPC deaths, but NPCs the party had become very attached to - the campaign was scripted with a structure something like a Netflix series, and the waves of deaths and mournings were what deepened the involvement of the surviving players. Things got very emotional on a regular basis, and monuments and memorials served to remind us all of what we'd lost).

    Once that campaign had ended, we took the soap opera element even further, by playing out the next few hundred years of events in the continent where it'd been set using Kingdom - - a GM-less RPG which excels at building collaborative storytelling.

  4. I don't recall that last time a PC died in one of my campaigns. It's been a very, very long time.

    While the campaign's story isn't the any one PCs' story, isn't it collectively their tale? Without the PCs does the campaign exist or even matter?

    Obviously I don't run Medieval Fantasy/D&D-type games very often (hardly ever) so I may not have a good grasp of the dynamic any longer but I recall really disliking pointless and uninteresting deaths as both a Player and a GM.

    My approach these days is more akin to an ensemble TV series. Star Trek: The Next Generation is absolutely the story of Roddenberry's near-idyllic future but isn't it really about Jean-Luc Picard, Data, Worf, Will Riker, Deanna Troi, and the rest of the characters? Without them you wouldn't have a show and without the characters' and their stories, no campaign.

  5. A solid analogy! One of the most disappointing things about our new golden age of television is the eventual conclusion of a series. 9 times out of 10 you're just not going to stick that landing even with the best of intentions. Maybe just enjoying the ride without worrying about a destination would be best (looking hard at Game of Thrones now).

  6. What, the party cannot pool up 4,500 gold for a raise dead?

    Because character death at higher levels can make a real interparty mismatch unless you permit a replacement character to start at a higher level (good reason PCs should have henchpersons and followers).

    Arduin somewhat solved the problem of character death by providing an alternate hit point system where low level characters start with more hit points (I think 4e borrowed this idea from Arduin). For example, a female half-elf starts with 15 hit points, plus a one-time bonus of 1 hit point per Con ability above 12. Then warrior and thief types start with +5 additional base hit points; cleric types, bards, and split classed characters +3. (Mage types receive no base bonus)

    After determining the base, warrior and thief receive 1 additional hit point per level; cleric types, bards, and split classed characters 1 hit point per 2 levels, and mage types receive 1 hit point per 3 levels.

    This system results in low-level death less likely, high-level combat more risky, and has the idea that players can run low and high level characters together on any expedition.

    The system is in Arduin Grimoire Volume III, "Runes of Doom"