How Do High-Death Rpgs Even Work?!

Tuesday , 11, April 2017 20 Comments

Aaron B. writes in with a question:

“Okay, that frequency of deaths is new to me, so I’m intrigued. I really like this idea of not seeing a new character as a hero with a destiny that the player is immediately attached to. As a practical matter, though, what do you do when it happens? Roll a new character, who….pops out of the bushes and suddenly offers to take Deadmeat’s place?”

This will play out in a variety of ways depending on the scenario.

In B2: Keep on the Borderlands, players start off at the titular keep. With the Moldvay Basic rules, it takes one hour to roll up characters and explain the game and about two hours to play out the first trip to the Caves of Chaos. In the time it takes for the players to hash out their next move and purchase equipment, replacement characters will have been rolled up. Subsequent delves will take between one and two hours each and will have a wild range of outcomes, from utter disaster to minimal loot to epic success. Any new adventurers that join the hijinx are deemed to have just shown up to the borderlands in order to get in on the gold-rush and may enter play any time that the party returns to their home base at the Keep.

In X1: Isle of Dread, the players have arrived to a remote island. Replacement characters are harder to justify, so you end up with friendly cat-men, cave men, and tribal peoples joining up as hirelings and replacement PCs as characters succumb to the meatgrinder. Contemporary players expect to either “clean out” the island or else to have exactly the amount of resources to find the inevitable “end game” fight and win the prize… but in reality, they need to scout around looking for any reasonably lucrative opportunity, pull the D&D equivalent of a heist, and then hustle back to civilization to declare that leveling up two or three characters is sufficiently awesome no matter what ever else happened. Alternately, players could settle in to their matriarchal village with the intent of hanging around for a calculated and systematic domain-building exercise. But as with retreating, out-of-the-box thinking rarely seems to cross contemporary players’ minds. New school players expect to be shown the rails directly and then play a part in a de facto script. They’re just not used to having to make a decision about what an adventure objective really ought to be, whether in the dungeon or the wilderness.

20 Comments
  • DanH says:

    Henchmen and hirelings.
    This was another facet of play that the oft-maligned encumbrance rules drove quite well.

  • instasetting says:

    Multiverser has the high death thing in that you die and travel to another universe. Now this does allow the creation of high level characters who might well have a trail of unfinished quests behind them.

  • Astrsorceror says:

    It depends upon the campaign. Typically, I set up a specific adventure to have a probability of one character dying if handled competently, with a real risk of everyone dying if handled incompetently, and a chance of everyone living if handled with unusual skill. Loot typically requires success, though small items acquired along the way make sense.

    Afterwards, there is a chance for new characters between adventures if characters die, or players change their minds.

  • On X1, replacement adventurers can arrive via convenient nearby shipwreck, or via inconvenient demonic-drop-off (after annoying an uncharitable magician, naturally).

  • roo_ster says:

    Replacement characters/meat:

    1. Start at 1st level and stay out of the way, but soak up XP?
    OR
    2. Start at the level of the surviving characters?
    OR
    3. ???

  • roo_ster says:

    Starting my kiddos out on U1, Sinister Secrets of Saltmarsh. Using the OSRIC system, as it comes all in one book…though might expand into true ADD1E later.

    Anyways, they are 1st level and new to RPGs. Neither has died yet, but they have retreated to treat poisons and heal up from damage twice and are just now getting to the caverns.

    Amazingly, both are perfectly fine with THAC0 & decending armor classes. Guess nobody told them it was unworkable.

    OSRIC is kind of AD&D1E, but streamlined. Very playable and I highly suggest it if you can’t find your ADD1E books or just don;t want to lug around 50lbs of books. I do have ADD1E PHB and DMG in .pdf to search for more obscure stuff OSRIC leaves out.

  • Aaron B. says:

    Hey, thanks for answering my question. I suppose if the entire party dies, that makes it even easier in-story: a new party comes along and hears the tale.

    I tracked down some other discussions of high PC mortality, and it seems like players are pretty binary about it: they either think of their characters as extensions of themselves and thus PC death ruins the game for them; or they see them as characters in a story, so their deaths can be as interesting and fun as anything else. Next time I play, I’m going to try to encourage the latter. It seems more in line with the way the game was designed to work, and it would mean I don’t need to work as hard to try to make everything just challenging enough but not too much.

    Interestingly, one of the earliest D&D (or AD&D, I guess) computer games, Pool of Radiance on the Commodore 64, allowed you to roll up as many characters as you liked, and made it easy to swap new characters in for dead ones whenever you got back to town. It also capped PC level at 5 or 6, which you’d reach well before the game was finished, so you could probably replace dead PCs now and then without having to worry that you wouldn’t be strong enough at the end. So it seems like it was designed to allow for PC deaths in a way most computer games aren’t now. I think at that time they were still trying to stick to the same rules and experience as the tabletop game as much as possible.

    • Taarkoth says:

      Also try to encourage use of the henchmen rules. Each player having an entire retinue of characters can make it very easy to deal with pc death, since the player can just take over one of his henchmen as a new character when his old one dies.

  • Robert says:

    You have henchmen that level up with you but slightly slower (As the XP is divided)When a main dies, pick your favorite Henchmen to play. You can add bonuses or penalties as the needs might be. Why aren’t you playing with Henchmen? If your campaign is so easy that your lone characters can carry everything and don’t die the first time they are surrounded then you need to shake it up a bit.

    This is of course just one way to do it.

  • cirsova says:

    “they…think of their characters as extensions of themselves and thus PC death ruins the game for them”.

    This is an ailment best cured by aversion therapy.

  • Jon Mollison says:

    Some of us view our character as a pawn. When it dies, we press START amd try again with a new guy. It works in video games, so I honestly don’t get why people think it doesn’t in tabletop gaming.

  • Rainforest Giant says:

    Ah for the good old days when you didn’t bother naming your fighting man until second level or so.

  • The exact method by which a new PC is introduced really depends on the campaign. In my own games it usually involves either a new recruit in town or a captive or chance encounter in a dungeon. Since this is how Fafhrd meets the Grey Mouser, and how Conan meets the Prince of Thieves, Valeria, and Belit, I think it’s perfectly fine in play! (“This big barbarian just surrendered to us after a hard fight in which we killed all his shipmates. I think we should make him 2nd in command of the ship.” “Cool. I agree.” “You in, barbarian?” “Yeah.” That’s basically Queen of the Black Coast.)

    In ACKS, we have a provision for so-called “Reserve XP”. If you pointlessly waste your treasure on frivolities, you accumulate Reserve XP which you can apply towards a new character when your current character passes away.

    That said, it’s not really even necessary to use such a rule. In ACKS and B/x and AD&D, the XP requirements double with each level, which means that any new PCs introduced will very quickly get to within one level of the current characters. (E.g. Bob and Sally both reach level 4 at have 16K experience. Both need 32K to reach next level. Bob dies, however. Bob2 joins the party. The party accumulates another 16K experience. Bob2 is now 4th level, Sally is 5th level. When they accumulate another 16K, Bob2 and Sally are both 5th level).

  • Aaron B. says:

    Thanks for all the ideas, everyone. Good points about henchmen. I don’t think I’ve ever used them enough because, in the Basic rules at least, “Retainers are never characters run by players; retainers are always NPCs run by the DM.” So if my 4 PCs had 4 henchmen, I’d by doing half of the playing — more work for me and less fun for them, I thought.

    So do you let the players play the henchmen too?

  • DanH says:

    Speaking only of my games, henchmen yes, hirelings no. And if/when morale checks were made for either one I, as DM, rolled them.

    • Aaron B. says:

      Ah, that makes sense. Instead of henchmen and hirelings, BECMI talks about retainers, mercenaries, and specialists. Retainers are roughly henchmen, I think: they have a character class and get half shares of treasure/XP. Mercenaries are hired soldiers for military-type efforts (not dungeon crawling). Specialists are non-military hirelings that don’t go on adventures, like an armorer or spy, normally hired after you get to higher levels and need to staff a dominion.

      So I could let the PCs play their retainers/henchmen. The difference between a player running a PC and two henchmen, versus a player running 3 PCs, would be that that he’d be expected to role-play them in that way, with the PC acting as a real leader, treating them fairly and not using them as cannon fodder. That actually sounds pretty cool.

  • DanH says:

    Essentially yes. But hirelings might actually go on the adventure, an example would be a native guide and/or bearers that the party hires. They may be somewhat useful in a fight by protecting the luggage or defending themselves, pulling an injured party member to (relative) safety etc. But they will only do so at minimal risk to themselves and they are very likely to break and run or desert if things get too hairy.

  • Robert says:

    Henchmen are player controlled.

    Hirelings are player controlled as long as they treat them nicely and don’t ask them to do anything too dangerous or stupid. They should also have a secret loyalty level that the GM tests occasionally to see if they stay loyal, run or even betray your group.

    There are various ways in which a Hireling could become a henchman – trial of fire that makes them super loyal, looking up to a higher level character, etc. etc.

  • Robert says:

    When everyone has a couple of henchmen, give them two competing desires.

    Main group goes after 1, Henchmen group goes after 2. That way you have 2 campaigns for the price of 1. Gives you a way of working campaigns around player absence and so on.

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