Death vs. It Gets Worse

In The Confession: I Am Not An Old-School DM, Erik talks about how certain old school expectations aren’t being met, in his mind.

Key among them regards PC death.  Old school play seems to imply that death is waiting at any moment, and keeping the PCs alive is the responsibility of the players playing well, and cautiously.

Of course, this runs headlong into the intended goal of Wampus Country being based on ‘Tall Tale Spectacle’.  The setting is intended to be light-hearted and at times goofy, with all that implies… which includes the ability, and some might say responsibility or duty, of doing things that are not sensible.  Erik presents us with some weird things — any number of anthropomorphic animals, as a start (not furries, they fit in as basically funny-shaped people).  The game being what it is, they tend to get treated pretty straight as just funny-shaped people.

Last session my character was considered ‘very egalitarian’ because he figured that if it talks, wears clothes, and stands more or less upright it’s a person. Mind you, this came up as part of a conversation about not leaving a highly-portable, highly-valuable object in the cart one of them was guarding for us, just in case he decided to scamper off with it.

In any case, while I won’t say that death has no place in a campaign like this, the looming menace of death due to bad decisions leads to the group playing fairly cautiously.

Caution has no place in Tall Tale Spectacle.  If anything, it is to be avoided; the right-minded cautious people are boring people who are there primarily to provide a foil for the PCs’ awesomeness.

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen would have been a very boring story indeed had he done the sensible things.

In a Google+ conversation with Erik a week or two ago we realized there is a certain amount of expectations management needed.  Entirely removing the threat of death from the setting might not be appropriate, but there is another option.

It Gets Worse.

Rather than having death be the end of a character, as it might in other places, the setting may work better if there is an expectation that while your character might not die through misfortune, or even bad decisions, there is still consequence to such things.

To use Erik’s example from the linked blog post, a TPK doesn’t necessarily mean the entire party is dead and the players are rolling new characters.  Oh no, that could be too simple.  Instead, they might wake up in the ogres’ stewpot (thankfully not already skinned, boned, and dredged in flour)… Things Got Worse, but they still have a chance to talk their way out of it, or escape through cunning means.

It Gets Worse removes the most unfun element of bad decision making and replaces it with complication, that if handled well could even end up becoming opportunity.  It extends the story rather than ending or resetting it, things most people would probably agree are unfun.

It can also work at the personal level rather than the party level.  ‘Death’ does not need to mean “rifle his pockets before dumping him in a hole” (or even “salvage his belongings for his family before respectfully interring him, with a suitable grave marker” if you want to be more politically correct).  ‘Death’ can, for this setting, be considered a time out for the character until he can be recovered.

This recovery might be explicitly at the hands of the other PCs (such as our current mission to rescue Chauncy), or it might be handled in a one-off session with the DM, or even handled off-stage entirely.

If you want to be ‘more gamist’ about it you could simple treat it as a time out until the cost of a raise dead is covered.  Classically this might be a point of Constitution and/or losing a level.  Instead, you might consider the loss of a point of Constitution to be due to injury (he didn’t die after falling down the cliff, but he was mildly crippled and it took him a long time to get back to town after being left for dead) or the ‘loss’ of a level to be due to not gaining the experience points needed to gain a level with everyone else (he was so injured, or couldn’t escape from imprisonment, long enough that the rest of the party left him behind level-wise).

That suits Wampus Country well, I think.  I can see people taking more chances with their character because the spectre of death is softened, and can lead to more possibilities for adventure.

And sometimes, It Gets Worse could actually be worse than the PC dying… but not in a bad way.  Things just get… complicated.

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7 Comments to "Death vs. It Gets Worse"

  1. Joseph Charpak's Gravatar Joseph Charpak
    September 24, 2012 - 12:06 pm | Permalink

    Could just mean character is humiliated in some way. Smells real bad for a month of game time, has a wierd flower decide to grow out of his head, or becomes out of phase *just slightly*: is visible and can’t walk through walls but can’t be hit or hit things either. better figure out how to eat, quick!

  2. Chakat Firepaw's Gravatar Chakat Firepaw
    September 25, 2012 - 9:34 pm | Permalink

    A small point of order: Furries run the gamut from people with a slightly odd shape[1] all the way to beings which are hard to understand because they think and act in a way the makes it obvious that they aren’t descended from savanna living apes.

    [1] Such as the female characters from Omaha the Cat Dancer, who had tails, ears and generally a slight animalistic cast to their faces.

  3. September 26, 2012 - 12:10 am | Permalink

    Such considerations are also relevant in a game where the PCs are actually immortal, or at least within a stone’s throw of it. I don’t know how Vampire deals with it, I guess something similar. Exalted and Nobilis sound like likely candidates too.
    I have a general principle of trying to make PC death the player’s responsibility: if the character’s player feels they should die in that situation, that’s what happens. Otherwise, It Gets Worse. Hopara is fairly explicit about this deal. (On a side note I intend to see if Hopara can be awesomed up a bit, sometime this week. Yeah, on top of everything else I have to do, deal with it)

    • September 28, 2012 - 2:56 am | Permalink

      Oh, Mystic Empyrean is another example of a game where you play an immortal (you play a personification of something, so a bit like Nobilis AIUI).

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