Friday, May 7, 2010


In the comments section of a post from my online campaign, I am dealing with a player who is considering suicide.  So this is as good a time as any to address the subject.

Character self-execution is a problem in D&D, most commonly with players who find themselves saddled with poorly rolled statistics - something that does occur through no fault of their own.  It is not enough to say that players 'should' play with whatever they are given, or that stats have nothing to do with the game, or any other such blatant nonsense.  It is true that character is relevant, but it becomes sickeningly dull to always be the druid who must constantly be saved by the rest of the party for lack of hit points, while always standing next to the strapping killer with the 18/86 strength and the 18 constitution.  Let's face it - if every player in the party had poor stats, the whole 'stats don't matter' argument would have a little more relevance ... but any long time player of the game knows what its like when everyone else has three 17s or better, and you are stuck with a player who's best stat is 15 and there's only one of those.

A significant portion of the game does hinge on chance, and while the fellow with the three 17s would play his character as thoroughly if he had only one 15, even he is aware that it would suck to be left with no fallback where it comes to attack, damage, thieving abilities, knowing spells, anti-poison saving throws and so on.  Stats are hugely important to many of the survival qualities of the game ... and the player with the single 15 isn't fooling himself or herself - chances are, they won't live to see 4th level.  So why bother now?

This is less of an issue for you people out there playing one-off campaigns and who don't play week in and week out with the same players.  Next time, for you readers, you'll be the player with the 18 double-ought and someone else can play the tag-along.

This is not so in the sort of sandbox campaign I play.  My characters can expect to live, and live, and live ... the main four members of the party, as they stand right now, have all been alive for two and a half years.  That is a long time to put up with crap stats.

So players get reasonably upset when they get short shrift on their die rolls.  And since I don't let them simply kill themselves, they consider running pell mell into the next combat, hoping an orc will kill them instead.

I've had players that this was so bad with that any grouping of stats less than four scores over 16 wasn't enough - and they'd try to self-execute until finally they got the Holy Grail of die rolls.  Generally, I've asked such people to leave my campaign.

The dependence that some players have upon die rolls has caused me since almost the beginning to insist that I am watching, personally, the six rolls a player makes to create a character.  This is something I can't do online, and it bothers me a little.  I've just known too many people to reason with themselves along the lines of, "if the stats are decent, I won't want to play anyway - I will be a better player if this is a 16 instead of a 14."  Unless you are new to this game, don't tell me you haven't met them also.

I do have a couple of principles I follow to try and mitigate disappointment.  To begin with, I usually insist that any group of six stats rolled have at least one 16 and one 15.  Once upon a time, I would have the player roll one of their middle rolls - preferably a 10 or an 11, until they rolled above 14.  I didn't like to replace low rolls, since I feel numbers below 9 are excellent in adding character, and I didn't like to have them re-roll a 13 or a 14, since these stats are also very useful in providing for a character's survival.  There is often a tendency among new players to think that anything less than a 15 is a throwaway stat - which is a sad commentary on the game.  I think probably later editions tried to play against this with skill selection and the like, but I'm not really sure.  It is, in a good game, a self-correcting perception; a player will learn that every stat has value, once they have learned to play.

I do believe that giving players a variety of personal skills not based on the stats helps to mitigate a selection of poor stats - which I accomplish with my character background lists.  But the long and the short of it is, a player needs to be happy.  I want the player to be happy.  And I have found that most decent, reasonable players can be happy with the minimum of a 15 and a 16 stat - even standing next to the thief with the 19 dexterity.

As far as the tendency to self-destruction, I feel a DM has to live with it to a certain degree.  I am adverse to outright suicide - my opinions are given in the comments section of the linked post above, but I'll reprint them here, with some expugation:

"You cannot be so certain that you would succeed at committing suicide. The act of self-murder is not comparable with the act of killing someone else. It requires resolution and a level of constitution, as the body is full of natural instincts and resistances against anti-survival ... I could not allow the character to toss it away without first having to roll dice to determine if the character had the strength. Now this is a bone of contention with many people, who believe firmly that a character should be able to do anything, and not be affected by doubt, or indecision, or anything else that every human would be afflicted with if the thing to be done were REAL. But my world is an addressing of the REAL, and I would fail in my conceptualization of this game if I allowed characters willy nilly to do everything that seized their Hydeian fancy at a given moment - I don’t care who they kill, but cutting their own arms and legs off, our gouging out their own eyes - simply because the character has a restoration spell - I draw the line at making these things common and ordinary only because a player cannot for five minutes consider that a character would never truly do a thing like this, whatever healing powers existed. There would have to be a pretty good reason for someone to kill themselves, trusting to a resurrection spell, before it would make sense - and in any event, that player would still have to roll dice to succeed. Every uncertain thing in the game requires that dice be rolled to determine success."

Perhaps the word 'Hydeian' is a bit obscure ... I refer to Mr. Hyde, the traditional character without any sense of guilt or conception regarding the consequences of his actions.  I feel that many players would like to have a sort of 'Mr. Hyde button' that they could conveniently push whenever it was necessary to move past the mundane and inconvenient circumstances of their own characters.  "Out of Character" is not a stipulated restriction in the game.  Even the most flower-loving halfling maiden character will sidle a half-step to the left in character if a little brutal butchery will bring in a little gold and experience.  And it is not the DM's pervue to nix such behavior, however much is it irrational given all the time she talks about fuzzy bunnies, or waxing on about the occasional doe drinking from the nearby pond.  The player does indeed have a certain right to cry out adamantly, "But hacking off my own arm IS what my character would do in this situation!"  And I am willing to buy that ... in this situation.

Problem is, players want to argue that the situation is that the guy at the next table made a five g.p. wager that the player wouldn't cut off his arm, and pride demands that now he must, that being that player's character.  And somewhere along this line I start to feel like, what the fuck am I doing running these morons in my campaign?  I could be having sex instead right now.

Not because they should be running their characters to suit me, but because they should be running characters who have more on the ball than what prideful proof they can offer with vivisection at the local tavern.  Sorry, it's just not the sort of thing that amuses me.  Whereas DMing is effort, and I don't want to waste it on characters bent on proving their general idiocy rather than acting as rational beings.  And so it is invariably at that moment that I'd like to have the nimble stranger in the corner throw off her robes, demonstrate herself to be a night hag, and use the character's recent loss of limb as an opportunity to enhance her general dining experience.  Just because.

I don't mind if the character wishes to self-execute by orc so much as I despise the practice of suicide - but either way, the player should manage it in such a manner that I am impressed with the thought given, or I am duped by the apparent innocence of the plan.  I repeat, again, that I am in the role of the opposition, there to provide obstacles to whatever the characters may wish to do - and self-destruction is no less of a goal than any other.  If the character will do it, I will thwart it, by whatever reasonable means I have available.  If you will insist a character must be clever in order to kill an opponent, I will insist that a character must be clever to kill his or her self.


R said...

This is certainly a troubling issue. I haven't had players actually want to kill themselves, but I have had them become so apathetic that they just skip sessions until everybody's dead and it's time to roll up new characters.

Have you considered keeping their stats secret from them? It's not like any person in the real world could judge their strength on a rating from 3-18 anyway. Maybe just let the players know if they're "pretty strong" or something along those lines. It's not a perfect solution, and it'd involve a lot more bookkeeping on the DM side, but it might mitigate the attachment to ability scores (though, eventually, I'm sure the PCs would be able to figure out what their stats were - it would just take longer).

Alexis said...

Hah. Thanks R, but I described this as 'a problem.' I'm not actually having an issue with this. I'm only describing the circumstance.

Does everything I write sound like a rant?

Anonymous said...

Speaking as the player in question, to any who might think this is an issue about my stats, it's not. I took Alexis's post as a reference to the more common situation (in his experience) that causes a suicidal approach.

The reason I've gone down this road is through the character development that has happened "in my head" - this particular situation is a first for me and I'm still trying to articulate the motivations and thoughts that have come to this point. Suffice it to say that I'd much rather be bummed that my stats were low.

Matt Conlon said...

I can certainly see this coming about, but I've never see in first hand. Truth be told, I prefer to keep games a little bit looser than most. If I'm GMing, I don't care how you came up with the stats your character has... Roll them, re-roll ones or twos, hell, don't roll at all if you want. The object is to have fun and do something you want to do... If you wanna just write in your stats, go nuts. all 18s? not such a big deal in the grand scheme of the game. There's always a bigger fish, there's always obstacles that have nothing to do with your ability check modifiers etc...

I'd rather see everyone at the table excited to be playing what they've created, even if it is a bit self absorbed or egotistical to have a perfect character.

Perhaps my group is a little bit more relaxed than most, but we all have very busy lives that tend to get in the way, so getting us all together can be difficult. sometimes it's once a month, sometimes it's less... If someone can't make it, we just sorta put their character in stasis, and no one notices that they're not there... when they come back, it's as if nothing happened, except that they miss out on the XP... It's a little non statndard, but it suits our needs.

Oddbit said...

I'll admit I am an offender. In one game without random stats, I made a character that was a great asset to the team. As long as they didn't face threats immune to their core abilities. Around the fifth encounter in four sessions this occurred, I basically nuked the character along with another character who felt too bound by their mental disadvantage.

JB said...

Mmm...the low stat/anti-play thing can be a dilemma in long running games, I know. It's an interesting challenge.

These days, as a very "by-the-book-B/X" DM, I find it less a serious issue. The minor adjustments allowed for prime requisites generally ensure quality PCs, despite 3D6 rolls. But stats are much more important in AD&D (and later editions).

When I was running long term (multiple year) AD&D campaigns, we generally started with "what class-race do you want to play?" and then made sure the character met the ability requirements, using one or more of the several dice rolling techniques presented in the books. Similar to Matt (above) the important thing for fun was that everyone had a character they wanted to play.

During my short stint with D20, I generally had everyone split 78 points over their six dice rolling at all.

The "suicide by orc" thing seems a little extreme to me...can't they simply "retire the character" and make a new one? Or is there a minimum retirement age (65?) in your campaign?
; )

Alexis said...

I don't have anyone try the suicide thing any more - that refers to campaigns years ago, when I played with highly challenged people.

Roger the GS said...

The trick here is finding the balance in terms of fairness. Players want the chance to be distinctive, and a system in which everyone is equally special means no one is special. But they also want a minimum safety net and certainly the relative deprivation you speak of stings deeper than if all PCs are equally afflicted.

In other words, social-economic policy writ small.

Guillaume JAY said...

Last time I created a character far from the dm, I used this

It's the next best thing to "watching, personally, the six rolls a player makes to create a character"

alessandro said...

I'm currently playing an ad&d campaing, with friends back in italy.
we use skype and our google accounts to share our character sheets..
for dice rolling instead, our master (who's a IT engineer) has cooked up a clever dice thinghy (bow before my mad IT language skills!)'s on an IRC chat and once we're all logged in, everybody can see the results of every dice roll each of us attempt.
so..all above board..and no issue during character creation (or indeed gameplay)
thought I'd say it, since you mentioned the issue of "wanting to see the dice rolls" whilst playing online.
in other words, it IS possible.