Thursday, March 11, 2010

Character Death = Function of Play Style?

In the middle of another controversial post, Faustusnotes tosses out that character death rates have nothing to do with system and are actually dependent on the style of play.  Taken to the extreme, I suppose I would agree; if the "play style" of the group is to stay on the farm and not go out adventuring, I guess the death rate would be pretty low!

At first I thought this point was a no-brainer.  In the comments to his post, I said the following:
In OD&D every class had between 1 and 6 HP at first level! You could be a FIGHTER, for crissakes, the guy who is supposed to be able to kick ass and take names, with 1 HP! To be felled by a single rock thrown by a kobold!
Lets contrast that with 4e, which (just in case your answer to my two questions was no, you have never read or played 4e) starts characters out with their Constitution score worth of HP + a sum of HP determined by their class AND lets you heal yourself during combat once per combat AND lets you heal yourself more or less at will outside of combat AND says you do not actually die until you reach a value equal to negative one half your HP.
Faustusnotes responded with a comment that made me think a little about styles of play and the effect of the system on leveling up.

Carl, I wasn’t thinking just of first level in either of these games – D&D characers double their unkillability at 2nd level, then it goes up by 50% again at 3rd level, and so on – they quite quickly become proof against a few sword blows.
But more specifically, I was thinking that the rate of PC Death really depends on the DMs decisions about what and how many monsters to use, what kind of encounter settings to use (for example, whether the PCs get a chance to plan for combat), and so on. Obviously if you run encounters as simple stand-up fights without preparation or warning, strictly according to the random encounter rules, with the appropriate level-balanced monsters, at 1st level D&D and D&D3.5 are much harder to survive in than 4e. But I don’t think many groups do that, and they certainly don’t have to do that. It’s about style.

There are several problems I have with this statement.  The first is that in every edition prior to 4e, HP were rolled randomly upon leveling up, while 4e awards a set amount of HP based on class at each level.  So for instance, your 1st level Labyrinth Lord character with 3 HP could roll a 1 for HP upon attaining level two.  Far from doubling her unkillability, it would have gone up by a mere 33%.

The second is the unspoken assumption that the character is going to level up at all!  While it is true that even in OD&D (definitely the most lethal version of the game in terms of mechanics, because there are no bonus  HP for high Constitution and all classes use the venerable d6 for HD), a character becomes much more durable at mid to high levels, I would argue that it is much rarer for a character to advance to these levels in OD&D or its ilk than 4e, for instance.  It isn't just the increased HP that 4e doles out or the healing surges; it isn't the fact that multiple stats now can modify AC, or that feats can be used to increase HP; it isn't even the whole death does not occur until the character drops below her negative bloodied value (negative 1/2 total HP); it is the way that 4e is designed as a system to make sure that a party composed of the different roles works together effectively in combat, with the leader restoring lost HP, the strikers dealing out the damage, the defender drawing the attacks... 4e is designed for a the party to be a well oiled machine, each character performing a vital function.  I would argue that this mechanical aspect of 4e design creates a strong pressure on the DM to keep characters alive.  Unlike the old OD&D scenario where a character drops and her player just takes over one of the hirelings, if a member of a 4e party dies the whole game kind of grinds to a halt or at least works much less optimally because one of the party roles is no longer being fulfilled.

Compare that to OD&D, where both in my experience and in the actual play reports I have read of others, it is not at all uncommon to have more characters die before reaching 2d level than not!  I think that is the crux of it; sure, if you survive to 3rd level or higher in OD&D you have a much better chance of not dying from any nick or scratch, but just getting to that point is an accomplishment that is worthy of praise.  This also gets at the actual subject of Faustusnotes post (story based gaming) - in OD&D and other older editions, any character that actually makes it past the most deadly phase of the game already has a story, has already gone through adversity and probably has already had some lucky near death escapades.

Getting back to the subject of play style, it really does not matter if a party has had a chance to plan before being shoved into combat, and it certainly does not matter if the monsters encountered are balanced to the party's level: OD&D is just flat out more deadly at 1st level.  The best laid plans of platemail clad fighters can be laid low with a single roll of the d20.  The absolute lowest AC that an OD&D fighter can have is AC 2 (that is AC 17 for you ascending AC heads), which means that there is still a decent chance of getting hit by even the lowliest of attackers.  Every time combat is engaged in, no matter what the circumstances or the play style, players of OD&D characters hold their breath a little because they know that they are one unlucky roll away from death at any moment.

One final point about leveling up:  4e has a very clear and well defined number of encounters (10) that it takes to reach 2d level.  Lets look at Labyrinth Lord style XP for a second - at 15 XP each, a party of four would have to kill something like 500 orcs to level up!  To level up in ten encounters at that rate would require killing 50 orcs an encounter!  XP for GP helps this somewhat, but it still takes a much longer time to level up in older editions of the game, prolonging the sweet agony of the "sudden death" levels and making Faustusnotes position that PC mortality is a function of playstyle even more untenable.


  1. This is kinda tangental to your post topic but...

    Lethality is one of the features that I've never really grasped. I mean, I understand the whole aspect where failure needs to have consequences or winning doesn't matter (I don't entirely buy into it, but I at least understand the argument)... but the it often feels like older games are held up as this glorious death-march of low level characters. I didn't like it when I started playing nearly 3 decades ago,and I don't like it now...

  2. Carl,

    Using 1 HP as the example, that you, and then faustnotes reiterated, any increase in HP at second level is at least a 100% increase, or, as faustnotes stated, a doubling of existing HP.
    --Furthermore, increasing 1 HP from 1st level to any amount beyond that at 2nd level (the average of which is roughly 16.67%) should, by Chainmail standards, indicate a second death-avoiding opportunity.

    The problem with the progressive HP model fostered by OD&D is that the meaning of 1 HP = 1 Hit is lost in the sense of a matriculation of toughness. HPs in AD&D required Gary's explanation that toughness was not really in view, but rather skill and luck and divine providence.
    --Regardless of what function 4e or 6e or Ultra D&D 3000 has as its metric for HPs, as long as one looks at progressive HPs as a measure of toughness, it will fall down in examination.

    But, at the end of the day, if the healing/recovery system(s) in that particular edition are in-line with the average losses, the death rate (baring extraordinary circumstances) will be low.
    --However, in OD&D, the sting of the intentional Chainmail metric of 1 HP = 1 Hit model was warped by the presence of battlefield/dungeon/exploration healing, whether by spell or potion, etc.

    Think of this from a modern perspective: A trooper is shot in the streets of a Middle Eastern insurgency. His ballistic plate is penetrated (a 'hit' in D&D terms). He begins to bleed out. The medic begins to stabilise him (not heal him, but stabilise) if the tissue damage/blood vessel damage isn't too great. Otherwise, the individual is bleeding out and must be evacuated from the field, or perishes (possibly on the spot, possibly even from '1 Hit'). That is the Chainmail 1 Hit = 1 HP.

    With OD&D's 1d6 HP mated with OD&D's all weapons do 1d6 HP damage, it is an odds-game that averages to 1 Hit = 1 Kill (1d6 v. 1d6 = 3.5 v. 3.5 = 0 HP remaining = Death).
    --As soon as the character or creature has 2HD, the odds for 1 Hit = 1 Kill change. It may seem sketchy, but it is now a function of percentage-step increases in survivability.

    If 4e's (or 5th's or Ultra, what have you) methodology keeps these percentage-step increases in mind in designing meticulously balanced encounters, that is the reason why they have fewer fatalities per session.
    --But, if the Chainmail assumption is then tweaked by variable damage and variable HD, and Con bonuses and HD+HP bonuses for monsters, and a vested disinterest in statistical balance, then one can say that both the system AND the playstyle engendered by the D&Disms (prior to 4e) are responsible for higher fatality rates.

    as 'anonynos' states in their own way, above, it is often portrayed (IMO, more so in the OSR than the OS in general) that character death is a badge of honour, then it is no wonder that that *style of play* coupled with the (Varible Damage + Variable HD) methodology would result in higher character fatalities.

    That's why I've always favoured the Gamma World / Morrow Project model that 'HPs' actually model physical trauma, rather than 1 HP = 1 Kill, as the latter method creates a strange economy of disparity (some would claim, 'chance'), whereas the military and police forces do their best to ensure that variables are reduced as much as possible when their prosecutors of warfare are sent out into harm's way.

    So, I hope I've demonstrated that design philosophy, play style, AND grit are what accounts for PC fatalities, as much as the 'luck of the roll', in any game.

  3. I would say that character mortality is entirely dependent on play style. In any system where the PCs can be killed, the group will have a specific (likely unstated) tolerance for the risk of death... just like they have similar meters for sexual content, cheesy puns and funny voices.

    Yes, 4E is systemically tilted against mortality while OD&D makes PC deaths quite probable. All other things being equal. But are they?

    The desire for tension, risk & triumph varies from group to group & even from player to player. Because as a player I personally minimize risk in character, I adjust my play in games of differing systemic risk to produce similar actual levels of danger.

    As a DM, I use my discretion to involve players of different temperaments (lone wolves, 'hulk smash!', juggling-at-the-inn) in situations with different levels of risk as suits what they find entertaining in a game.

    In a way there isn't really a RAW RPG... they are all a dance of Rules-As-Interpreted & Rules-In-Play.

  4. I've killed 3 PCs during the first 4 levels of adventuring in our 4E campaign. The Raise Dead ritual, available at 1st level, replaces the hireling mechanic of OD&D. I'd say my experience favors death rate as a function of play style. :)

  5. In all the years we played Moldvay, Mentzer, and AD&D, I don't think we *ever* had a character die. Ever. Same for 2nd edition and 3rd edition for that matter. (The one character of mine who has ever died did so voluntarily, calling on the Gods of Lankhmar to strike down an all-powerful cult of demon-worshippers.) And each system involved different GMs, different players, and different cities. Which is why 4E just struck me as a mechanical realization of a common playstyle (i.e., recognizing that there was the gap you describe between the rules-as-written and the game-as-she-is-played--and then eliminating that gap). Obviously this is not the only common playstyle out in the wild; the gap wasn't there for lots of folks. But I would suggest that the low lethality predilection is not necessarily a *new* thing in D&D circles.

  6. S&W. Seven sessions and one character death (and plenty of near death). That one character death sent a hush around the table. Nobody thought it would really happen. Now they know it can happen and the game is much more exciting for it. Only two characters have reached 2nd level. They still roll for their HPs on a new level but to help them out they have to roll in the top 50% of their HD.

    It's knowing that death is hanging round any corner (or die roll) is what, IMO, fills the air with tension, regardless of DM, players, or mechanics. Do I fudge rolls to keep the game alive, sure. But when it's time to die, it's time to die.

  7. I guess if "play style" includes ignoring the rules as written, then it is much easier to say that it is play style that controls PC mortality. The most common example would be houseruling that PCs start with max HP at first level. Of course, I would argue that modifying the RAW to decrease mortality is actually PROOF of what I was saying - if you have to change the mechanics of the game to increase survivability, then obviously the mechanics directly impact mortality.

    @Timeshadows - thanks for the thoughtful analysy. I also prefer gamma worldt style HP, but I have slowly come around to seeing low starting HP in OD&D as, if not a feature, at least a contributor to the unique feel of the game when played RAW.

    @Kameron - I think your example proves that it is system, not playstyle - character death is when you have to roll up a new character because your character is gone. OD&D doesn't even give clerics a spell at first level, let alone access to raise dead! Making it mechanically easier to just bring back a character is the ultimate way to reduce PC mortality in a system. 4e takes it to the extreme

  8. Carl,

    Thanks for the reply.
    --I grok the point. :)

    What are your thoughts on:



  9. @Carl: Go back and read any edition's player's handbook. They all have the same message: the things written in this book are guidelines, not necessarily hard and fast rules. D&D has always encouraged houseruling. The game was never intended to be played strictly rules-as-written.

    I just don't understand what the controversy is here. The "mechanics" are loose guidelines to having fun in a fantasy world. The "playstyle" is what the players and the DM agree to play, which could be lethal traps around every corner or it could be fighting monsters. In 4e, hp does not equal toughness, and hits don't necessarily mean physical damage. It also represents the creature's ability to keep fighting under the circumstances or their ability to hold off the attacks coming at them. As D&D has always been, the numbers are abstractions. So what's the big deal?

  10. @ Kevin - I do not see houserules as being playstyle - they are changes to the mechanics of the game. Whether or not houserules are common, or even specifically discussed in the rules, is irrelevant to this discussion. I am not saying it is wrong to houserule - you just cannot include houerules in comparisons across editions, because houserules very by definition from house to house.

    IMO, playstyle is HOW the group plays, not WHAT the group plays. A group that never engages in roleplaying outside of combat, attacking everything they meet on sight, would be an (extreme) example of a particular kind of playstyle, as opposed to, lets say, a group that spends most of their time outside of combat engaged in political maneuvering.

    When discussing if mechanics have an impact on player mortality, it is more than a little disingenuous to invoke houserules as a reason that a given edition is NOT deadlier than another. Sure, your group might have a houserule that a character can only actually die if her player is OK with that, and if not, the character is reduced to 1 HP - but you could not then claim that OD&D is not deadly because no one ever dies in your game! It is the mechanics of the houserule that makes the game not deadly, not the mechanics of the system in that example.

  11. After rereading all the comments above, I think I have a different idea of what "playstyle" means than many. I don't wrap houserules up into playstyles, but that seems to be a common interpretation.

    For instance, Rob Barret's post above where he revealed that in all the years he has played the various editions, his group NEVER had a player die - there was obviously either some extreme houseruling or dice fudging going on there. Nothing wrong with that, it just wasn't what I had in mind when I was thinking about mechanics vs. playstyle.

    Fudging dice rolls is an interesting grey area, one that doesn't really qualify as a houserule (I have never heard a group explicitly say that they fudged dice rolls in the manner that a houserule is laid out there) but one that obviously has a very real impact on PC mortality. Rolling the dice out in the open and sticking to what they say is the way I roll, so to speak, and it is a way that I associate with old school gaming. It is, of course, also the way that the rules assume the game will be played - I have never read anything about fudging, ignoring or rerolling unsatisfactory dice rolls in ANY edition of the game. Does this fall underneath playstyle? Food for thought, and perhaps I should make a new post about houserules and dice rolling tendencies!

  12. When I was thinking of playstyle I wasn't really including fudging dice rolls or house ruling in it. I was thinking more about the kinds of monsters the DM chooses to use, the circumstances in which they're met, the amount of treasure given out, how much planning time the players get, whether the DM throws in a sleep spell in the first encounter to give them a fighting chance, etc.

    Also your example of 4e meshing the character roles better is an example of play style not rules, right? It also suggests that if you played a different style - for example, a party with no controllers and no tanks - then the game would be very deadly indeed, unless the DM adjusted the monsters accordingly.

    I don't think you should assume that no deaths=fudging dice. It could just mean that the first couple of adventures were set up to ensure PCs could plan for battle, had access to hirelings early, and so on.

    Looking at straight mechanics for the most venerable version of the game you quote, on average every PC becomes twice as hard to kill at second level as first; in individual instances they can increase by as little as 16%, and as much as 600%; but the long-run average over many sessions will be a doubling of non-killability at the first level-gain, etc.

    Also note my comment explicitly allows for a straight mechanical interpretation of 1e as more deadly than 4e; I just don't see it as being practically very applicable.


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