Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Births and Deaths

Although the usual terms are "renaissance," "revolution," or "movement" to describe the resurgence in interest in old school RPGs, I think it's more properly called a "counter-reformation," as it's at least in part an attempt to "push back" against what are seen as uncongenial developments in the hobby. Consequently, some of its more vocal proponents -- myself among them -- are apt, for rhetorical reasons, to exaggerate certain aspects of the Old Ways. A good example of this can be seen in the way that "cheap death" and "expendable characters" are often emphasized as key elements of old school play, often to the detriment of the very points we're trying to make about how RPGs have changed over the years.

In the old days, the death of a player character was not a rare occurrence, but it was far more common at the beginning of a character's career than later on. That is, low-level characters did in fact die quite easily and regularly; their mid to high-level counterparts, however, did not die anymore frequently than most PCs created nowadays. Certainly they might run afoul of a save or die effect of some sort, but it was rare that a character stayed dead unless his player had tired of playing him for some reason.

In remembering our early experiences of gaming, we probably remember the deaths of many ill-fated low-level characters before we finally hit upon the character who, through a combination of luck, skill, and perhaps referee mercy, managed to make it past 3rd level, but do we actually remember those dead characters? With very exceptions, I can't recall the name of almost any of the poor schmucks who were killed by being turned into a pin cushion by kobolds, level drained by wights, dissolved by green slime, or just falling into too deep a pit trap -- not unless their death was particularly memorable in some other way. I don't expect I'm unique in this regard.

Part of the reason we don't remember those dead characters is that because, in old school games, most of them weren't characters, not really anyway. Becoming a "real" character was something one earned through play. Prior to 3rd or 4th level, it was generally unwise to get too attached to a PC, as he was both mechanically fragile and sufficiently lacking in the experiences from which a character is made. Characters are only truly born after they've survived a few adventures. The kind of detachment necessary to undertake this kind of play is made easier with random generation in my opinion. When you sit down at a table without any preconceptions about the kind of character you want to play and see what the dice give you, it's a lot less traumatic when that character suddenly dies in play than if you provide him with an extensive background, personality, and goals due to careful thought beforehand.

That's why I think old schoolers are right to emphasize random character generation as a cornerstone of our preferred style of play. One can distance oneself from such characters sufficiently so that the referee can feel little compunction about letting the dice fall where they may. A closer bond with one's character is something that, in my experience, only grows over time, after the experience of surviving the many things that resulted in the deaths of previous characters. Then one can go ahead and start fleshing out the character further, creating a "living" alter ego, because, despite all the chest thumping and machismo, even mid-level old school D&D characters are very resilient and, when they do die (or get level drained or whatever), it's not that hard to "fix" things if one's willing to make the effort.

In short, I sometimes think we exaggerate the deadliness of old school play, or at least misrepresent the nature of that deadliness. Simultaneously, I think we sell short the importance of random character generation as a necessary corollary to conveying the kind of flavor we prefer. To my mind, the two go hand and hand and I must say, based on Jeff's report, that it sounds as if Goodman Games's DCC RPG gets at least this aspect of old school play. I find that cheering, honestly, and I hope it's something that we collectively might do a better job of explicating.

38 comments:

  1. When Joe Goodman started the game at Garycon he made a comment to the effect that, although the PCs we generated were all peasants and nobodies, we should give some thought to what class they might want to eventually become. I have no idea how much this reflects on the new game.

    His scenario certainly called for high casualties as the party was really just a mob of peasants with pitchforks and rocks doing something way over their heads!

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  2. Food for thought for me.

    Half of Mmy players get way attached to a concept from the start, then, when they die, usually end up making someone mostly identical.

    I think the idea of "made v. born" and "attachment to character concept" are probably a big thing that separates types of players and types of systems.

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  3. I'm not in favor of too much referee mercy, but a couple of non-lethal (but humiliating, or annoying) traps and surprises at the beginning of a new campaign seem to me to be a good way to create the proper paranoia.
    After that though, kill 'em all and let Gary sort 'em out.

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  4. My current game has attached to it a good deal of old school sensibilities (save or die, 1 HP starting characters, no intentional balancing of challenges, etc) and over the 30+ sessions of play, there have been only 5 character deaths. More than many games I have run, but not a revolving door either. I think you have a point that many old-school games are tough but not necessarily meat grinders.

    On the other hand, while some of those 5 deaths have been quickly forgotten, some have been remembered fondly. I think that's a good thing, because it shows my player's level of buy-in for the game. Even if their character seems hopeless, they breathe life into it anyway, in the hopes that the character will survive, not to mention the sheer fun of it.

    There is no doubt however, that time definiely is a factor in feeling the loss. When Gorebeard the 6th level dwarf, and only original character left in the party, died last weekend at the end of a hard fought seige to claim a city from rat-men, there was shock and dismay all around. Everyone recalled all of the close shaves the grungy and gung-ho dwarf endured and it really served as a testament to the feeling of reward for survival in a game where death is a greater possibility. The player even kept the sheet as a momento.

    It was great.

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  5. So James, what you seem to be saying is old school D&D character generation is much like Traveller, in that you can die during character generation, but it takes a lot longer than Traveller -- ending at, say, third level.

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  6. Back in the 80’s we kept a book of death playing Dragonquest. I don’t think I was a killer GM or anything, just very easy to die in a system where your hit points remains static and the only a few spells could really heal in combat. Most healing was post-combat. The group in the mid-90’s didn’t keep a book of death, but we kept old character sheets and would occasionally look back at how the characters died. As far as randomness in character generation goes, I’ve always been fond of Dragonquest’s generation system. Roll for you race, assign your attributes and roll for additional minor characteristics or attributes.

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  7. I found my players were more likely to remember their dead character's name when I drew a little skull on a piece of paper, wrote the character's name on it and then glued the little skull onto my referee's screen.
    What a coincidence. My word verification is "luzerse."

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  9. There was an indy game company back in the 70's use to sell a death certificates that the GM would fill out after someone's PC bit the dust.. Pretty witty as I recall...

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  10. >Half of Mmy players get way attached to a concept from the start, then, when they die, usually end up making someone mostly identical<

    Zak, I found this to be mostly true in my case when it came to female players. In the 90's, much like you now, most of my players were girls so I saw what you speak of a lot.

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  11. The dead PC's I remember the most from my games are the ones killed by another PC.

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  12. Unlike Jaimes, I remember the names of my dead avatars...

    High death rate at low levels made us more fond of our surviving characters. That's a fact. We knew reaching the third level (with its "relative" security) was a very difficult task, and we accepted it as part of the fun.

    It's interesting how, in a "modern" RPG, you create a powerful and strong hero, spending hours to choose your previous careers, skills and history while Old School RPG were all about BECOMING a hero and creating your character was rather simple procedure...

    That's a hell of a difference.

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  13. I'm glad you started this post with that fun list of analogies, because it's helped me figure out my own position.

    You may be a counter-reformationist, but me? I can see clearly now that I'm pre-millennial dispensationalist.

    In other words, I'm still waiting for the great Revelation of the Game still to come.

    While I enjoy immensely reading blogs such as yours about the OSR, to me, Gary G. and the other founding fathers were onto something that had great PROMISE, but wasn't quite there yet.

    And it isn't there yet today. I'm still looking for that great, great game, which delivers vivid action, immersive roleplaying, and rollicking worldbuilding in a way that is infectious, has gritty realism, and constant surprises.

    I love reading OSR blogs because they remind me so much of that time in the late 1970s, when I was sucked in with the promise that some day, an even better ruleset, setting, and experience would emerge.

    And in the time since, there have been many great ideas, many smart advances, and all of it continues to point to what the rpg can become.

    But it isn't there yet. I'm still waiting. Just like the messianists, I guess!

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  14. Tony, you have perfectly summed up my thinking. I, too, am a pre-millennial dispensationalist! That's why my simulacrum has now diverged so far off course. (Though it was a fair jump to begin with.)


    Also, I love a combination of random and chosen character creation, along with a bit of gamble. I like it when random scores force you to make tough decisions on which class to choose and so forth.

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  15. D.A.H. -- yes, a combo of random and chosen aspects of character creation. I totally agree.

    That's why I've been more and more interested in the Traveller system of creation (James has been bringing it up lately, too.)

    I've been experimenting with using Traveller structure -- choosing careers, with random outcomes -- but adapting it to fantasy, using the careers list from WFRP. The results are extremely fun.

    It has always irked me a bit that the the archetypal D&D starting character -- your 17-year-old Conan-like thug -- in like 3 weeks of game time attains superhero status.

    In the system I've been playing around with, we're creating 42-year-old shopkeepers who also have backgrounds as rat-catchers, chimneysweeps, and highwaymen. (And a thousand other combos.) Over that history, they've picked up a wonderful hodgepodge of skills and traits, and they're ready for another career change -- adventurer.

    We're endlessly tinkering with the setup, but it feels a lot more satisfying than D&D character creation (particularly for a bunch of 40-something gamers!).

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  16. One of the things I like about Pendragon is that failure and death are real risks, but are partially mitigated by the having an heir, which nicely encourages, but does not mandate, getting married and having kids, with all the complications and roleplaying opportunities that ensue.

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  17. I am about to run a dungeon base game using osric. I have had all my players roll two characters and made sure everyone knows death happens. ALLOT.
    Too me character death is a big part of old games. New games just do everything they can to make it safe to be an adventure. If you survive to level to 3rd level than you got something to brag about.

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  18. That's right. In RPG games, just as in real life, character is a thing that happens over time.

    The more of the work you try to artificially force up-front (ten-page 1st level character "histories", anyway?), the less believable and memorable the final result.

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  19. @ limpey - hahaha!! Consider that stolen! Gives new meaning to "In your face" :P

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  20. I corroborate everything Jeff said, although I played the session after his.

    We each had two characters; my first, Fast Eddie the Astrologer, was the first casualty of the day, as his first action "Gems, you say? I'll pry one out with my knife!" led to his immediate demise. And my other character, like Jeff's, was the one (Grorch the Uncomplaining, Gravedigger) to put the ball in the concavity and get the Vision Of The Goat-Headed Alien (which could only end well, of course).

    I talked to Goodman a little about this, because he felt I did more characterization than many of the other players, and, well, for me, it was a matter of letting the randomly-rolled stats and the randomly-rolled occupation provide a characterization. Grorch had high stamina, reasonably high intelligence, and crap everything else, including awful luck which manifested (when combined with his low strength) as a -4 (!!) in melee (low agility too). So clearly he's someone who stands in the rain and digs and digs and digs, and thinks a lot about stuff, and never ever ever says anything that could possibly be interpreted as starting a fight.

    Given what he ended up doing, he's clearly headed towards necromancy. Had Fast Eddie lived, he woulda been a thief or illusionist in the making. Six stats and a job? There's a story there, if you want to think about it for a couple minutes.

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  21. That's right. In RPG games, just as in real life, character is a thing that happens over time.

    Yeah, ya might want to take that into account in your opinionated commentary, Willie.

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  22. Adam is dead on, and Grorch was a great character...sadly, having rolled a 3 for personality my radish farmer character proceeded to be anti-social and rather mean spirited...

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  23. "Yeah, ya might want to take that into account in your opinionated commentary, Willie."

    That doesn't even make sense. Literally.

    Are you trying to insult me or what? Who even are you?

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  24. The best campaign I ever played -- 6 years long -- ended with half of the party dying in the end. And those were glorious deaths. It was an epic, world-shattering ending with the final battle looking iffy until the final end. You had characters knowingly sacrifice themselves just to buy someone else another round.

    We were more proud of those deaths than any campaign that ended with living characters before or since.

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  25. Regarding randomly generated characters: it is one of the things I love more in old games.
    If a player is given too much choice/ control in character creation, most of the times he or she will end up playing always the same character. This is something I find extremely boring, and is one of the hallmarks of "modern" gaming.

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  26. In this way, I am backing you all the way- let a thousand flowers bloom for us to recover what was once lost with the mania or as some might see the mad dash to emulate the competition (computer based games). What they failed to realize was that games were fun because they involved real interaction. And, while the old school could allow dice to fall where they may, they were not adverse to dice falling off the gaming table - otherwise, something no mathematical model could construct - the unbelievable creativity that individuals and groups show.

    I am somewhat skeptical of Goodman but like all companies they have their strengths and weakness. I prefer to steal their strengths and ignore their weaknesses by taking ownership over the game. That is what the Old Skool is all about - not being hemmed in by ever increasing supplements or books unless they further liberate the imagination.

    Newbies of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your rigid application of "the rules".

    As per main posting, I think we old school gamers accepted that death was part of life. I admit that I was rather late coming on board with this topic (being a child of the Hickman Revolution) but never believed that my characters to be unbeatable even as they strove toward immortality. I also got to enjoy to play lower level characters which drove me into likes of Cthulhu & Traveller - where knowledge acquisition is prized over stuff.

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  27. Our DM uses skull and cross bones stickers and puts them on his DM screen as badges of honor, like notches in his belt. It creates a certain gallows humor and dark mirth that we all enjoy.

    As players we've had a lengthy discussion and our group consensus was that any combination of a series of bad die rolls (not save or die) or player misjudgments are fair game for character death. But then again, we tend to spend time developing their backgrounds, personalities, and playing styles at the beginning.

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  28. As I've said before, I've never had a character croak where a better, spicier character didn't pop up to replace them.

    When Ferret the Brownie got smushed by a giant, Zzapokk the Lizard Man, my favorite character ever, stepped into his tiny shoes.

    When Nosnoj the Magic Man got punched in the neck by a zombie, Freddie the Bastard arose from among the hirelings and went on to glory.

    Sometimes, character death is the dice's way of telling you you could be playing a better character.

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  29. If this is the RPG Counter-Reformation, can we expect a Thirty Year's War soon? Paging Mother Courage... (Ah well... Paris is worth descending armour class...)

    More seriously -- in my experience if players are attached to their characters they'll find ways to bring them back, even if resurrection isn't freely available. In the longest campaign I played we had characters poisoned, turned to gold and sucked into extradimensional voids and they all came back (or at least were animated, in the case of the gold dwarf), but not without effort on our part.

    For most RPGs I tend to hew to the Aristotelian idea that character is repeated action -- in other words, you establish who your character is by what s/he does. (Something I believe in when writing as well.) The main exception is superhero games, where the genre demands more detail before playing.

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  30. Giga Boy: If a player is given too much choice/ control in character creation, most of the times he or she will end up playing always the same character. This is...one of the hallmarks of "modern" gaming.

    Really? Somehow, I've failed to observe this hallmark phenomenon in my 15+ years of gaming. In fact, typically what I see is the opposite: players who want to try something new and different after their old character retires.

    Actually, we do have one guy in our group who always plays the ranger. He's been consistently playing rangers from 2nd edition onward. He's even played ranger-like characters in non-D&D systems. I think there's just something about that archetype that appeals to him. He's the odd guy, though. Most people want to move on, try something new, stir the pot a bit.

    There is something that appeals to me in the challenge of surviving to a certain level before being allowed to become a "true character." I'm trying to convince my group to do some OD&D gaming on nights when we don't run our usual 4e campaign.

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  31. @Will: The more of the work you try to artificially force up-front (ten-page 1st level character "histories", anyway?), the less believable and memorable the final result.

    I disagree. The most memorable characters my group has ever made were those in which we sat down as a group and spent a few hours doing character creation together. That included coming up with brief (one-paragraph) backgrounds, and tying the characters together through shared experiences and relationships.

    I'd make the argument that this style of character generation isn't artificial and it certainly wasn't forced. I don't feel there's a big benefit in making people write out long backgrounds for starting characters. In fact, I feel that having people write out long backgrounds in isolation from the rest of the group is a recipe for the group to feel fragmented and disjointed, which is something I try to avoid.

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  32. Yep, Pendragon's Winter Turn is great stuff.

    That's one thing I like about using clans in Tekumel. A PC can start with a blank slate character who has some nebulous ties and affiliations to others and if the PC dies before long there's always another clan cousin around to replace the last PC. Or in a pinch a servant. If you're at a new location, neo problem, just go to the local clanhouse or related clan and pick a new PC out. And have an adventure or two at or on the way to the clanhouse.

    I prefer to have characters built around a concept with a strong spark of inspiration and a few details with plenty of elbow room for development in play and from interaction with the other players. Always looking to try something new or at least based around a setting's appeal to me.

    Something like Mongoose's Traveller or Runequest 2 themed group skill packages is nice. Loose group concepts with a round robin filling in gaps allows for random chargen while still having some base proficiency.

    I don't know about using terms like Counter-Reformation et al. Too real world religiously charged IMO. They first bring to mind the Inquisition, an ossified Orthodoxy reaffirming baroque additions and other aspects best not associated with any gaming style. The antithesis of DIY and No One True Way. And sets up "the other side" as being just that.

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  33. Must be right, no one in my recent B2 ITGW game died! But one player rolled a 4 str for his dwarf and loved it.

    P.S. I always thought the deadly part was 1/2 an in joke and not to be taken seriously.

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  34. I think the idea of "made v. born" and "attachment to character concept" are probably a big thing that separates types of players and types of systems.

    I think there's more than a little truth to this.

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  35. So James, what you seem to be saying is old school D&D character generation is much like Traveller, in that you can die during character generation, but it takes a lot longer than Traveller -- ending at, say, third level.

    Sorta. The big exception I take to the analogy is that, while a newly created Traveller character might be 46 years old and with an implied history as a result of the character generation system, he's still not much more of a character than a 1st-level fighter in D&D. Becoming a character is what happens through play.

    That said, I don't one should become any more attached to a 1st-level fighter than to a character you're rolling up in Traveller, who's probably likely to die or fail to re-enlist before you're entirely happy with the results.

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  36. It has always irked me a bit that the the archetypal D&D starting character -- your 17-year-old Conan-like thug -- in like 3 weeks of game time attains superhero status.

    That's part of why I prefer slow advancement systems. In the year of weekly play I've had for my Dwimmermount campaign, the characters are still mostly 4th-5th level. That's admittedly more powerful than a know-nothing kid from the sticks out to make his name in the world, but it's far from a superhero.

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  37. Sometimes, character death is the dice's way of telling you you could be playing a better character.

    Someone should make a T-shirt with this written on it. I'd buy one without hesitation. :)

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