Wednesday, January 23, 2019

5e: Achilles Heel

I'd like to revisit why I am writing these posts about the 5th Edition Player Handbook.  I don't know the book or the system; yet it has clearly taken over the rhetoric of D&D in these last four years, so that huge swaths of the conversation now invoke dozens of terms and ideas directly connected only to this edition.  And it is clear that the framework of D&D has changed, and is changing, moving away from a group narrative rooted in boundaries to one where boundaries have ceased to matter.  Where formerly we could tell a joke about a player wanting to make a perception check to learn the weak point in an enemy's armor in order to gain a bonus to his attack role, that sort of thing is becoming the norm.  The "game" is becoming a crusade in how to bend the definitions of existing skills so that any skill may be used to create any success than strategizing how to succeed at a situation despite skills.  We're pretty much at the point where players don't want to participate in adventures unless they have a skill set that ensures they'll succeed.

I recall hearing the first rumblings against player death in the 80s and dismissing the complaints and resistance as something we could dismiss.  We can't dismiss it now; take a strange player into your traditional game and there's a good chance that if you kill their character there will be a scene.  One of the key points of a "session zero" at present is to explain how you feel about player death: is it allowed?  Is it common?  Under what circumstances is it allowed to happen?  Obviously, not when a wandering monster is encountered!  And certainly not from disease or some freak happenstance.

The game community has never been reconciled on this game element. A player doesn't want their beloved character to die, the DM feels awful about it and who's to say that the dice can't be picked up and rolled again.  Why is death even important?  Don't characters in television shows or book/film series have plot armor?  Of course they do.  Those things sell, those things are riddled with excitement; what is the difference between those things and my character in this D&D world?  It seems insane to create a character, fill it out, enrich it, spend hours and hours running it, only to then throw it away when it dies.  Insane!

D&D's Achilles Heel is that as a system it's not friendly to human beings.  Human beings gravitate towards comfort, reassurance, reliability or custom.  In my RPG 201 course I wrote about how we seek rupture because from reconstruction we grow as people; but in most cases we seek a particular kind of rupture.  One that doesn't require too great a risk; or that might amount to a real loss.  Most don't want to be upset too much; and for D&D, player death is just too far.

Worse, it feels a bit too much like real death.  If we're in a campaign that allows death; where rolls against death are a regular feature; then every adventure our character survives feels like we're pushing our luck.  Each adventure adds to our resource of memories, our increase in power ... and in the amount of loss we're going to experience when that character dies.  And we know, if we keep playing that character, if we keep pushing it, the character will die.  Sooner or later, the dice just aren't going to fall our way.  And then ... then ... everything we've fought for and suffered for will be gone.  Just gone.

And our only option ~ in the death-is-possible framework ~ is to retire the character.  Which feels like death.  If only death weren't hanging over our heads. If only our beloved characters didn't have to die.  Then we could enjoy playing them forever.

Except, of course, we can't.  Because we, my friends, are going to die.  For real.  And that's really the subject here, isn't it?  That is really the thing we can't reconcile; the flat out recognition that the longer we're here, the harder we've fought to get here, the less fair death feels.

Commonly, young people will look at the very old and think, "Why don't they just let themselves die?  They've lived a good life.  They should want to go now."  But as young people get older, they turn away from those thoughts.  They think they're going to hate being old, but as they roll into their 50s, 60s and 70s, it seems like a good idea not to quit.  Slowly, it looks like the young people who don't appreciate what they have.

Every day, there's that underlying memory that, yes, this might be the day.  We're stepping off a curb; we choke on something we've eaten; there's a strange pain in a place we've never felt pain before.  Some stupid, silly, unlucky, irrational thing ... and just like that, we're gone.  And if we need a reminder, we hear about Jack who was cleaning his rain gutters or Jenny who skipped getting her car tuned up last Spring, or poor Jim ... died of cancer.  Yeah.  Came up on him suddenly and he was gone.

And to make it worse, the older you get, the more reminders there are.  Partly because everyone around you is getting old too but also because as you live and drift around on the planet you accumulate people whose funerals you might attend.  Unless you're one of the unlucky ones, you don't have a memory of attending the funeral of Brenda or Britt or Brad in the sixth grade ... but you'll notice a string of funerals when you're 62, watching all three buried in their turn.  It makes you think.

D&D asking you to court that, to deliberately insert that sort of shit into your life, isn't reasonable.  Especially when no one should die because they went out to clean their rain gutters.  That shit just ain't kosher.

So don't tell ME, they say, that my character was killed because some one-hit-die kobald got lucky with a thrown dagger.  MY precious character isn't going to die because you, Mr. DM, thinks that a breath weapon deserves a shot at instant kill.  That ain't MY game.  That's not the game for ME.

Whether or not 5e is deliberately courting this attitude, the tone of the book clearly encourages it.  While twice in the introduction there is an acknowledgement that the players "might" die, there's no paragraph that addresses it up front; no solid, framed argument in the introduction that the game is about survival; nothing that states in boldface that your agenda is to live and not die.  It's all subtly hinted at, in language that we've come to connect with movie trailers and ad campaigns:  Batman is fighting his toughest foe yet; this summer Katniss is entering into the most dangerous of games; this is really, truly, seriously going to be the scariest rollercoaster you've ever experienced.  Yeah.  We're sure.

The company knows where its bread is buttered.  By far, the vast number of fresh young, dumb and full of cum players don't want a potential zero-sum game.  The character is too cool to die and rolling new characters is dull ... something I've heard said a thousand times but which I have NEVER actually experienced with any person ever rolling a character in my world.  Must be the people I play with.

Writing these posts about 5th Edition is an opportunity to explore these sentiments, and others, in this era of a new philosophy.  If I'm vicious, or bitter, or niggling in my deconstruction, it is because I think the new game as written is failing the community.  I think it would have been possible to write a good argument for player death; and to stand by it as a company.  I think the position would have ensured vitality and a sense of deeper drama and risk than mere schlock characters that couldn't die.  I think that the company is playing the short game ~ and that they can afford to play it because there is no competition.

It's easiest to design a game that kids will play for a few years ... or that will be interesting enough for a particular kind of player that they can keep going through the same motions for decades.  Most of the staff behind the book aren't very creative, if the book is any indication.  They're not good writers or thinkers, either.  It is hard for them to sustain a single thought for more than three paragraphs.  The language of the book paints the page like a shotgun: rarely does the second sentence expand meaningfully on the first one.  Each sentence tries to introduce a brand new idea, grouped into a paragraph where each idea is about magic, adventure, dice, etcetera.  There's no position; no theory; no argument; no effort to convince or elaborate.  A paragraph begins with a sentence (p.8):
"Magic is also a favored tool of villains."

And then nothing explaining the sentence or why villains particularly and not others.  Just a list of villain synonyms and their actions, like a list alone is all that's needed to convey an idea.  Then we finish by saying the good guys ought to use magic too.  Duh.  It is all empty.

Without guidance, all we have is an awful mess.


  1. Setbacks are heroic, death is tragedic. Modernity doesn't do tragedy (and copes increasingly less well with death on the whole).

    Above everything, death doesn't sell. Add to this the fact that, as a business, the gaps eminently worth bridging are the ones to comics (or comic-based movies) and videogames, the former having a rather fluid interpretation of death, the later a medium that has gradually become more forgiving as it matured.

    Today you no longer beat games, you explore them. Death is nought but a trifle in the path of those safely anchored to the last save point.

  2. Not just the threat of death, but the actual occurrence of the thing is an extremely important aspect of the game in my experience.

    I grew up playing BECMI run by my Dad. Right now I am working through a series of interviews with my Dad about the games we played as a family when I was a kid, which I will eventually transcribe and post on my blog. From these interviews I've come to realize that PC death was relatively uncommon compared to what most old school gamers talk about, but it was still present.

    As kids we weren't really that afraid of character death because of a common practice we held. The games were of a sporadic open table/open GM nature. We might start a campaign one week, but the next we might do a completely different campaign with different PCs and a different GM and a different setting(though usually the setting was nominally the Known World aka Mystara), and never return to the first weeks campaign. So when a character died in one campaign we would often reuse that character in a different/new campaign, sometimes at the level they died and sometimes we would adjust them to a level appropriate to the campaign. For us a character was never gone forever when they died, we could always play them later. I've found this rule we used and the attitude I developed about PC death are incompatible with actual play since moving on to the more traditional campaign style. So now for me, the impact of a PC death is different, and tied to that I dread making a new PC because I've played so many I feel like I am just recreating a character I already have and could transfer to the new campaign.

  3. I'd like to answer Lance's point about death being relatively uncommon. He's right. I played in about two dozen campaigns between 1979 and 1986, run by DMs between the ages of 15 and 45, and in all of those campaigns (including my own) the average chance of death was that one character might die every 8 to 20 runnings. Usually a character would then be raised, and occasionally the raise failed (which was a thing), resulting in permanent death about 1 time in 10. So death was not regular.

    HOWEVER ... there were "death fetishists" in the game community in those days who got off on a certain kind of self-made and purchased modules (like the Tomb of Horrors), who considered it hilarious to die every few minutes and to have a pile of characters ready to walk into whatever meat grinder the DM planned. These nihilists used to be THE pariahs of legitimate gaming, as they wouldn't hesitate to disrupt campaigns with all the tropes they established: slaughtering random townspeople and old men, hurling themselves stupidly into traps and piles of monsters, burning down everything, cheerfully taking another from their stock of characters and doing it all again.

    It is these people who created the myth that OSR games used to be about death ... largely because TSR catered to those kind because several of the staff WERE those kind.

  4. I remember having a couple of NPCs that would join the party if a player was gone or what-not. If every character was near death and I had to decide what character got hit that was the roll I fudged, the blow was gonna hit the NPC and give our team one more round.... Played right the NPC deaths were pretty meaningful.

  5. Diminishing consequence is a feature of computer games, as well. Games in the 80's tended to be unforgiving - you lose all your lives in Super Mario Bros, you start the game over at the beginning. No save files. Your only option was a total do-over.

    Over time, (computer) game designers have realized *people don't like to lose*. Probably for the reason you outline in this post. Games now auto-save regularly. Difficulties are set so the average casual player will die seldom, and when they do, they lose very little progress.

    Even "hard" modern games like Dark Souls or Super Meat Boy, billed as throwbacks to the unforgiving games of yesteryear, have these features. In Dark Souls, death means dropping your "souls" (experience points) on the ground to be picked up later and respawning at the closest bonfire. Super Meat Boy makes you restart the level when you die, but you can do so an unlimited number of times.

    "Iron-man" modes with one save and perma-death are a niche market, and even games which offer such a mode (very few) offer it merely as an option. The vast majority of people simply don't like perma-death, aren't interested in playing with it, and would never consider playing a game where this was enforced.

    So yes - WotC could have pushed perma-death hard in 5e, and yes, the game would likely have been the better for it. But make no mistake - it would either be ignored, or reduce the popularity of the game. For a business, not an appealing prospect.


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