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Author Topic: Have 'death free' PCs become the norm?  (Read 2069 times)

Simlasa

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Have 'death free' PCs become the norm?
« on: September 13, 2020, 06:15:50 PM »
On our local FB group (predominantly focused on 5e), a fellow was claiming that it has become the norm that no PCs should fear death in any games.

I was not aware of that. I know there have always been groups that played that way... with the GM fudging rolls and making sure everyone kinda got what they wanted.
When I asked him why he thought that he really had no evidence to support it... it's just seemed to be what he liked and had experienced.Myself, I have tried to stay out of those groups... or dropped out when I found that's how they played.

Whenever the topic comes up online (in the places I frequent) there always seems to be a mix of preferences, no solid majority one way or another... though the 5e crowd seems to talk about what makes a 'good story' a lot.

Our local group has had a few people rage quit over the years when things didn't work out for their PCs (not just death)... one guy insisted he should get a 'save point'... but it's rare.

So what have y'all experienced? Is 'death free' (or just consequence free) the current trend? More than it used to be?
I can only speak of the folks who I've chosen to game with... and PC death is always on the table.

HappyDaze

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Re: Have 'death free' PCs become the norm?
« Reply #1 on: September 13, 2020, 06:30:14 PM »
5e certainly leans into being "consequence light" if played by RAW. Generally, PCs get knocked down, then pop right back up after a healing word and then continue the fight. Repeating as necessariy. This requires some effort in party creation--making sure several PCs can cast healing word is a massive increase to PC survivability, but it's not hard to do. Remember too that, per RAW, an overnight sleep (long rest) restores full hit points, and with healing types generally able to reconfigure their spells in the smae period of time, anything that didn't lead to instant death is largely shrugged off within 24 hours. That's not to say that death is impossible, but in a game that's largely based on attrition, PCs have a hell of a lot of ways of avoiding being worn down.

Pat

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Re: Have 'death free' PCs become the norm?
« Reply #2 on: September 13, 2020, 06:34:33 PM »
Back when death was hardcoded in D&D's DNA, most DMs fudged away death to a greater or lesser degree. And many of those shifted to other more forgiving games, where fudging was easier or death was entirely elective. Over time, D&D also got softer and more forgiving, making BTB death rarer and easier to avoid. I think a default safety net did become the norm, at one point. But I also think the first wave of the OSR pushed back against that idea, and there's been stronger advocacy for games where death can happen at any time.

So I believe the norm is a spectrum, partially indicated by choice of games, but even more by what goes on behind the DM's screen. I suspect few DMs truly let the die fall as they will every time, but whether a particular DM intervenes in rare cases when it seems particularly unfair or disruptive, or whether they do so regularly, will vary.

Simlasa

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Re: Have 'death free' PCs become the norm?
« Reply #3 on: September 13, 2020, 07:04:44 PM »
But I also think the first wave of the OSR pushed back against that idea, and there's been stronger advocacy for games where death can happen at any time.
That might be part of what attracted me to the OSR and back to earlier (earlier than when I'd started) versions of D&D. Not specifically looking for games that happily kill PCs, but a step back from the PC as precious ubermensch that seemed to be coming out of what little I saw of 3e (and in other D&D fans I'd run into). I wanted games where food, water and torches can run out... not everyone having magical gewgaws that removed those concerns.
I think I just wanted to be playing games that were scarier, and less about power fantasy.

Marchand

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Re: Have 'death free' PCs become the norm?
« Reply #4 on: September 13, 2020, 10:00:20 PM »
Here's the thing. It's all very old school that death is a possibility.


But... in practice you can't have a guy sitting out the rest of the campaign because his PC got offed in the first session.


So he rolls up a new PC and dives back in. Possibly at >1st level, if everyone else is higher level.


We are really talking about calibrating the death penalty. At one extreme, start again from 1st level. At the other, no PC death. In the middle, restart somewhere behind your peers.


It is easy to see how a table could soon decide effectively no PC death, to avoid anyone feeling like a "loser".


But it's worth emphasising (maybe to newer players reared on 5e in particular) that you can have fun another way, where there are real stakes because of harsh death penalties (restart from 1st or from previous level -5 or something), but where those penalties can happen to anyone, and there is real satisfaction from surviving.


Slightly separate thought: death penalties can also work in in-game-world terms. Classic Traveller supports this kind of approach because there is no levelling up and PC advancement is in-universe i.e. more stuff, more power. That sort of automatically enforces a meaningful death penalty, so long as you don't go the cheeseball "I left all my stuff to my long-lost twin brother" route.

« Last Edit: September 13, 2020, 10:02:59 PM by Marchand »
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Stephen Tannhauser

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Re: Have 'death free' PCs become the norm?
« Reply #5 on: September 13, 2020, 10:19:06 PM »
There was always a tendency to steer away from death in the games I ran, because we tended to be fairly story-focused and having heroes die undramatically or anticlimactically ruined a lot of what we were looking for out of the game. But it does make a difference when that's a sort of informal, behind-the-scenes fudging that the GM can turn off when appropriate (like in big boss battles) and when the rules are explicitly set up to make it very difficult for PCs to die (q.v. 7th Sea).

Some possible thoughts on the topic which occur to me:

- Probability/frequency of character death should be directly related to ease of player re-entry. If it takes ninety minutes to generate a character, but half the characters you generate die within thirty minutes, the game is definitely on the losing side of the EROEI (Entertainment Return On Effort Invested) equation.

- Even games where it's very difficult for characters to die should make it quite possible for characters to lose in some way, so the game has to create stakes the players will value. 7th Sea does this by encouraging PCs to get very invested in the in-game relationships, so getting beat by a hated enemy really hurts even if they survive it.

- Even in non-story-focused games, death is more meaningful when the players can see how it comes out of their own choices, and those choices have to be meaningful themselves, i.e. the player has to have at least some sense of the stakes and the odds and a chance to take another path. Sphere-of-annihilation-in-the-statue's-mouth gags aren't fun for anybody but the GM, and even single saving rolls vs. death that come out of nowhere can feel cheap; nobody wants a character built up over months to be wiped out in one instant by a single fluke 1.
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cenmarik

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Re: Have 'death free' PCs become the norm?
« Reply #6 on: September 13, 2020, 10:28:06 PM »
I saw that in the PF1E era as normalized behavior. Which was incredibly strange to me. With lighter systems, the storygamer element is understood. But crunchy where the numbers could go south quickly, and then going full bitchlord when it happens? Very strange.

When we do open calls for players, it's kind of fascinating... wondering what's in some of these people's heads. "Gaming in the style of Conan, where life is cheap. Death isn't always waiting, but if you're not paying attention, and the dice rolls align, it can happen."

First dude we got wanted to play a 13yr old anime tutu girl that had a small book as a backstory. (We got the feeling he used the same character in every game.) WtF? No, dude.

People are a trip.

Steven Mitchell

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Re: Have 'death free' PCs become the norm?
« Reply #7 on: September 13, 2020, 11:59:07 PM »
There's a plus and minus to character death being on the line. I've seen it go both extremes:

A. Characters have things go their way until they don't.  Hilarious string of modestly bad choices escalates into pear shape really quick, possibly even a TPK.  Everyone laughs.
B. That one players seems to be the "walking landmine detector". It doesn't seem to matter what they do, they go through characters like water.

 In the second case, sure it happens with an inexperienced player.  But I've also seen it happen where the player has a string of what can only be called really bad luck over an extended period.  It's funny the first 2 or 3 characters that buy it, but increasingly less funny as it continues.  Eventually it turns around.  I've even seen a few players take it all in stride.  But it isn't exactly fun while it lasts. 

In games that I run, I prefer that death be on the line most of the time but relatively rare in practice, with zero fudge from the GM to make it so.  Which in effect means that I want something like the 5E death saves or some kind of hero points or similar, limited mechanic that gives players a few outs.  (Default 5E isn't enough threat.  5e with some of the more deadly options in place can be.)  Not enough to stop deaths or even TPKs when bad choices escalate, but enough to stop the seemingly random, "Pick on Joe for 5 sessions" streaks.  Or you could say that I don't care if a character ever dies, as long as the players are afraid that the characters could die at any moment and know that I won't save them if it happens.  Some players only learn that by getting a character killed, but a few learn it by watching someone else get a character killed.

Since I also run heavy "secrets" in my games and expect the players to scout and research or quickly risk getting into something deadly, the more likely consequences instead of death is that the characters fail.  Mainly, because I'll set up situations where they'll need to try something risky at some point, and sometimes the players decide it isn't worth it.  That's OK too:  You didn't think you could stop the zombie horde so now the village is overrun and you are retreating through the woods.  It makes the times when the players decide they have to try it anyway that much more meaningful.  Plus, it means usually when the players put their characters on the line, they know it.
« Last Edit: September 14, 2020, 12:00:53 AM by Steven Mitchell »

Spinachcat

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Re: Have 'death free' PCs become the norm?
« Reply #8 on: September 14, 2020, 01:48:01 AM »
As social media has proved beyond a doubt, 5e has swamped the hobby with losers, so its no surprise that "auto-win, no-dying" would become popular.


PC death should depend mostly on the genre. Death should be rare (but not impossible) in some genres, but more common in others.


I enjoyed running superhero RPGs in the past and I doubt we had more than 1 death in 100 sessions. However, I mostly run horror, fantasy horror and space horror (hmm...there's a trend there) so 1 death every 2-3 sessions is totally acceptable.

HappyDaze

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Re: Have 'death free' PCs become the norm?
« Reply #9 on: September 14, 2020, 05:40:52 AM »
Once I came to the realization that 5e was fantasy superheroes with death being about as uncommon (and even more commonly reversible) as in an Avengers comic or film, I felt much more comfortable with the game. If I play/run it now, I know to take that mindset rather than fight it and become frustrated. If I don't want that feel, I don't play 5e, and instead turn to something like WFRP, L5R, or something else more deadly.

JeffB

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Re: Have 'death free' PCs become the norm?
« Reply #10 on: September 14, 2020, 07:20:07 AM »
I guess I sit somewhere between OD&D and 4/5E- I'm not into Save or Die, Immediate Level Loss from Undead, and similar old school mechanics ( I hated them back in the OD&D days too-I always toned this stuff down)

But I prefer the game to have some lethality. Not RQ lethality, where every combat is chance of permanent limb loss or death.  I generally set up my own adventures to have few, but meaningful/tough fights, I tone down healing overall, but even in my OD&D games I use a "recovery" type mechanic because healing and magic items are rare.

I kind of like 13th Age's approach, and I tend to use it- PC's can't be killed by low level minion types. Sure they go down and out for the session if appropriate, but not killed. They likely receive a campaign loss.  Only named/important/boss type NPCs or Monsters can perma kill the PCs.

This all goes out the window if it's a one shot type game or an alternate to our normal campaign and characters like CoC or RQ, or Star Wars or something.
« Last Edit: September 14, 2020, 07:22:32 AM by JeffB »

Chris24601

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Re: Have 'death free' PCs become the norm?
« Reply #11 on: September 14, 2020, 08:36:24 AM »
I tend to fall into the “death should happen, but it should be on the rare side and tend towards meaningful” camp.



Even if adventures are not actually stories, the PCs are their player’s chosen protagonists for any story you are recounting after the fact and “I slipped and fell to my death on the way to the dungeon” is just not terribly interesting.


Generally, I prefer systems where death requires a string of bad decisions to occur; definitely not just a single bad roll.


It’s part of my reasoning for having rather high starting hit points that increase slowly (a max level PC has just less than 4x the hp of a starting PC) with even high-level attacks only able to deal that base level in a single attack on a crit.


The idea being that, as protagonists, PC’s have got just enough luck that if they’ve unexpectedly entered the lair of a very powerful creature (possible because I run sandboxes) AND they turn and run immediately they’ll most likely survive. If they stay and fight after seeing an ally lose 90% of their hit points in a single attack... that’s on them and they’ve chosen a path of certain death.


Now, I will also make the distinction between systems where the character generation is fast and often heavily randomized (ex. roll 3d6 in order, then choose a class and basic gear and you’re ready to play) vs. systems where you have full control of the character creation process and that system is a bit more in depth (ex. assign stat array, choose race and racial options, choose class and class options, choose background and background options, choose equipment).


The former can get away with a lot of PC deaths/churn; particularly if the campaign is set up for easy replacement within game sessions because there’s no particular investment; you’re not even guaranteed to get a class you really want to play because your rolled stats were only good for something else.


The latter tend to start with stronger investment by the player both because they spent longer and because each choice was their first choice and each time they have to make a new character due to death they’re penalized by having to go with second or third choices if they want to avoid the “identical twin” PC (which, at least in these parts, is fairly stigmatized). Such systems generally need a softer approach to PC death as a result.


Similarly, another factor in the equation is permanence. A system where a relatively trivial expenditure (for PCs anyway) can easily restore a dead PC to life (bonus points if, like 3e, the XP system was geared to allow PCs who fell behind due to level drain/death to catch back up) then death can be common and cheap because it’s not REALLY the end of the PC, it’s a speed bump.


By contrast, a setting where death is virtually always permanent needs protagonist death to be relatively rare... though such settings tend to use “badly beaten/wounded and need time to recover” the way those casual resurrection settings use death.


So at the two extremes... a setting where chargen is quick and randomized with easy resurrection for PCs you care enough about to bring back can get away with cheap and common death. By contrast, a setting where chargen is detailed and all aspects are player chosen and where resurrection is nearly impossible at best will be best served by systems where death is rare and, ideally, other setbacks can be employed to inflict loss.

Steven Mitchell

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Re: Have 'death free' PCs become the norm?
« Reply #12 on: September 14, 2020, 08:46:56 AM »
Strangely enough, even though I prefer rare death, I don't care whether the death is meaningful or not, in the usual sense of the phrase.  In fact, the last 4 deaths I had in game where all rather meaningless by that criteria.  It was the very meaningless that made the deaths stick and be poignant to the players, though.  It reinforced that the world was cruel, even if the game system wasn't. :)

S'mon

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Re: Have 'death free' PCs become the norm?
« Reply #13 on: September 14, 2020, 10:14:41 AM »
I've not seen many players expect or demand death-free gaming, at least with D&D. I also don't think it's more common than ca 2008, the first time I saw it.
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Zalman

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Re: Have 'death free' PCs become the norm?
« Reply #14 on: September 14, 2020, 10:45:43 AM »
If any of my players have expected a death-free game, they never mentioned it to me, and have been quickly disabused of that notion in play. What I do know is that they keep coming back each week.

As far as the quality of death goes, how "meaningful" it is in terms of the story is up to the players -- whatever they want to make or not make of it is fine with me. I do prefer deaths that result from player decisions, so I tend to avoid mechanics that encourage random death. But my games are certainly dangerous enough to make plenty of those decisions critical ones.
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