Thursday, January 6, 2011

PCs Never Die, They Just Whine Away

For a long time now I have noticed an increasingly popular trend among RPG players on forums such as the ones found at Giant in the Playground or even Paizo Publushing's own forums; and while it may not be a universal truth, I've been seeing it enough to take notice.

There's a fine line between brave and stupid.
The trend is this idea that player characters (PCs) aren't supposed to die. I see it popping up more and more frequently in gaming conversations of all topics (GMing, adventures, campaigns, problem players, how to run good games, etc). I find it popping up everywhere and toted about as if it were common knowledge throughout the gaming community. The absolute worst thing ever must be the death of a player character.

But wait! There is one monstrosity spoken of that rivals if not exceeds the dreaded PC death, and that is the even more dreaded TPK (total party kill); where the entire adventuring party meets their demise at the hands of some terrible monster or unfortunate end; ending the campaign and the world as we know it. The horror!

Ok, so obviously I'm being a little sarcastic in my delivery of the theme, but that's the gist of it. I keep noticing that in these games where PCs are in constant life or death struggles, people are getting really testy if a PC actually bites the bullet. In d20 based games like Pathfinder (TM) or the 3.5 Dungeons & Dragons (TM) systems where they have sections of the rules entitled things like Death and Dying, one might think that the chance for a character to die doing something dangerous like waging wars and fighting monsters might be almost expected.

Surely pissing in his cornflakes wouldn't get him that mad!
It seems to me that there's a growing sense of entitlement among gamers today. The idea that player characters aren't supposed to die, or are only supposed to die if it's a "heroic death". Situatons such as players complaining that GMs being unfair because a critical hit killed a player character, and having PCs acting in illogical or outright bizarre because they don't fear that the consequences of their actions could prove fatal.

This growing trend bugs me for the following reasons:
Someone might get this reference...
1) It's very unsporting. I usually think people play games because it's fun and challenging. If you take the chance of risk out of it, it becomes boring fast. It's like going through the motions of playing a game, but the result is already forgone. Imagine playing a cardgame tutorial where you always draw the same cards, and you will always win, because it's just a tutorial and you're not really playing but instead going through the motions. It's kind of like that.

I dislike this sense of entitlement. I'm right on the forefront for PC rights, but this is just silly. I don't advocate using challenges that are beyond your PC's capabilities, and I encourage erring on the side of caution. If you make a mistake as a GM and over estimated your PCs, well apologizing and asking to try again is fine and commendable. However, when an orc warrior rolls a critical hit on his greataxe for 3d12+9 points of damage, don't complain that your GM should have made them wield 1d4+3 daggers or tell him he shouldn't count the critical hit. That doesn't sound much like a good gamer (it sounds kind of whiny actually).

3) If you don't want to play the game, why are you? When my friends and I sit down to play a good game of Pathfinder(TM), we know that our GM will try his best to give us a good game with fun challenges, interesting characters to interact with, maybe a puzzle or two, and a glimpse at heroic action. We'll try to reduce the chances of our demise. We'll make plans, come up with strategies and ideas, and try not to take unneeded risks. We don't want to be on the receiving end of enemies wielding axes, and we use spells like protection from evil and death ward to guard against mind-control and instant-death effects. If our players live, we feel a sense of great success; if they die, we roll new characters and explore a new adventure (or the same adventure through different eyes, occasionally).

This is not how the game is supposed to be played.
4) It makes us sound crazy. I was running a game online and a player begged me not to have a shadow attack his character because his character could die. Another played in an online game I was running, a group of 4 players (1 wizard, 1 witch, 1 fighter, 1 cleric) ended up attracting the attention of zombie guards who were physically very strong and tough but incredibly slow, and the wizard and the witch both ran into melee to cast shocking grasp and burning hands on the monsters who, being strong and tough, didn't fall down. The player playing the witch begged for a "deux ex machina" (Deus ex machina is a god introduced into a play to resolve the entanglements of the plot) to save the PCs from their mistakes. Sheesh, roll up a new character. If you're so attached to this fictional character, you probably shouldn't be having them out on dangerous adventures, fighting man eating monsters, and getting fireballs tossed at them.

This adventure is awesome and hard.
There's also the fact this seems to be a relatively new occurrence. Looking back on classic Dungeons & Dragons (TM) modules from the 70s, 80s, 90s, and even more recent adventures such as The Red Hand of Doom, we can see that challenges exist and are meant to be real. Player characters died. The Red Hand of Doom openly says it expects PCs to die and the players could possibly find a rod of resurrection with a couple of charges left early on, but those charges can get used up fast. Some classic modules or older editions sometimes suggested making extra characters that could be pulled into the story quickly to replace a PC that dies.

I've been playing D20 based fantasy RPGs since Dungeons & Dragons(TM) 3rd Edition was released in 2000. I spent a great deal of time on the internet on forums of all kinds discussing my favorite game. This seems to me like a rather recent occurrence in the past several years.

My Thoughts: I think that this attitude is really a negative thing in the gaming community. While not assuredly a problem in every group, the idea that playing the game as it was intended to be played is wrong strikes me the wrong way. It may sound elitist (or perhaps philosophical) but I think it's important to learn from your mistakes. When you run up to a giant and decide to poke it with your sword, and he turns you into pudding, then you'll learn not to do that next time. You can learn from your mistakes. Maybe you find yourself in a situation where you're outnumbered or outmatched; maybe you should retreat and find another solution.

Even if your PC dies, you can always grab some more dice (or your point-buy chart) and roll a new one. Give life to a new character. Try something new, something fun, or just try again. Nothing lost, nothing gained.

Setting out on Adventure...

Most traditional role-playing games have a theme that connects them regardless of genre, publisher, writer, programmer, or rule-set. That theme is one of advancement. From the oldest days of the original Dungeons & Dragons (TM) game, to the modern computer-based games like Dragon Age (TM) or World of Warcraft (TM), players set out on some sort of journey. The journey may be one of self-discovery, personal gain, valorous heroics, or even to save the world.

Ultimately, however, all these games have a common theme. Growth. This idea that your life and experiences can shape you to be something more; something greater. So too do I set out on my journey now as both a writer and designer for my favorite games; the very games that taught me to realize that life teaches us a lot. Trying to become a successful designer is a scary prospect, but it is the first steps on the road of a new adventure.

It feels like Level 1 all over again...