Let’s talk about permadeath

The comments that flowed from my permadeath example in the consequences post should not have surprised me. Nothing provokes a firestorm like mentioning the magic word permadeath. However something struck me. Opinvu and Thrym’s remarks focused on the gamists/achievers (gamists if you are using the GNS model and achievers if you are using Bartle types) rather than the simulationists (GNS model), dramists (again GNS model) and socializers (Bartle type).

A survey of the most popular (by player numbers) NWN1 and NWN2 roleplay persistent worlds shows a list where most of the worlds have permadeath in some form. It might be “softened” PD, where death becomes permanent after the tenth time, or is only in force for certain character types (usually those with special abilities). Prof1515’s listing of the 19 common features of “roleplay intensive” (RPI) MUDS lists permadeath at number 10:

10. Permanent death. Not “soft” permadeath or other such concepts.

The biggest RP danger from not having permadeath is a logical inconsistency in the lore of the world. That is, players return from the dead, but NPCs don’t. Players tend to prefer this variant of non-PD as it gives them a sense that their character can impact the world. If all of the goblins in the local cave also come back to life, what is the point in killing them off? In this case, your actions have no effect and you might as well stay home. The flip side of this coin is the creation of a subset of characters in the world (the player characters) who cannot be killed. If they do die violently, they return from the grave. If you follow this to its logical conclusion – that some in the world are effectively immortal – you’ll end up with an oligarchy with these immortals at the top and the rest in a position that is more or less at the whim of the immortals. If real life is any guide; that position would not likely be pleasant. Most players don’t want to play a top dog in a dreary, oppression filled world, so lore almost never goes there.

The arguments for permadeath are strong. However, is it really a requirement for immersion? Let’s presume that we don’t want PD because we don’t want to limit our potential playerbase to that subset of roleplayer who will tolerate a PD world. I’ll freely admit that I’m not really any further than when I fiddled with these ideas on Etilica. Are there are ways to encase non-PD in the lore that is both consistent and non-dreary? (presuming that the ultraphysics required to come back from the dead is available in the genre)


About Dave

I’m a 38 year old American who has lived the past 9 years in Germany and India.
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9 Responses to Let’s talk about permadeath

  1. Edward says:

    One key question is whether you want resurrection to be available to all players, including those who just started. Should players need to take precautions to make sure they’re resurrected, or should it be automatic?

    Most paper-and-pencil RPG’s include resurrection but make it at least somewhat difficult. D&D makes resurrection fairly easy for mid- to high-level characters, but it’s usually impractical for low-level characters.

    Many fantasy series build in realistic resurrection. For example, in Stephen Brust’s Vlad Taltos series, resurrection is so easy that murder is not a serious crime. However, Morganti weapons destroy the soul, making resurrection impossible, and their use is anathema.

  2. Thrym says:

    People compare the permadeath online concept to PnP death a lot. However, it’s no where near the same thing. PnP death is a managed system. Permadeath online is an automated system. It is an “apples and oranges” scenario.

    All of the following assumes that there is no means to the party to raise or resurrect the dead PC in the given situations.

    When someone dies in PnP, that player sits there waiting for a chance to gain access to the game again. This can be accomplished in many ways by the DM. But you see that’s the reason they are different … the ever-present Dungeon Master.

    The DM is the game’s operating system. They decide where things go next in order to get the Player involved again. The DM may decide to have the player run a couple of bad guys for the night or if it warrants it make a new PC and introduce them to the party when they finish.

    Recently, I experienced this in a PnP campaign. The party (5th-6th level) was stranded on an island controlled by bad guys with little options for recovering the fallen dwarven monk, Tor Skullcrusher. Ironically, he’d had his skull crushed. Given the options of the limited help on the island, I made a new PC and played him as if I wasn’t going to get Tor back anytime soon, if ever.

    The PnP system is built around player participation. Sure, if you die, you could walk away from the group playing the game and play Xbox or watch a movie or the TV or sit idly by and watch your friends continue. The point of PnP is to get together with your friends and be included in what they are doing.

    In online gaming, it’s difficult to gather parties and even more difficult to garner DM support for said parties. If there’s a DM present, “bam!” you have a PnP situation. The DM controls who lives or dies easier and can fix things if something goes awry … TPK’s or lag deaths.

    However, in an online automated system, you have to consider how things will work if there is no DM.

    As an example, we’ll go with a common scenario … a party of PCs but no DM. Further, we must assume that in order for the system to be utilized the party doesn’t have anything that can raise a fallen comrade.

    If the world is a Permadeath scenario here’s the scenario:

    Tor Skullcrusher gets his head crushed from a critical blow delivered by an ogre. His player didn’t react fast enough to heal himself from previous damage and the single hit bypassed any dying and took him straight to death.

    The world disappears and Tor’s player is left staring at an avatar of a dead PC sitting in limbo somewhere waiting. The player knows the party has no means for raising him. So he considers his options.

    There’s no means to him to catch up to the party with a new PC. It takes 10-15 minutes to make a solid character, and then to get them in game and provision them takes another 10-15 minutes. Assuming we suspend disbelief and the party adopts the new PC as a trusted party member you still have to get to them which is highly unlikely since he’s first level and alone.

    Meanwhile, the party, grieving over their lost comrade has taken to obliterating the ogres to avenge him. With vengeance achieved they gather his belongings and “bury” him in the hills nearby. Not wanting to detract from their original goal as a party (since most of them have limited time playing the game that night) they push on to the next segment of their trip, further distancing them from the Player.

    You might be saying to yourself … well that’s a very particular scenario. Yes, but it’s replicated frequently in any given persistent multiplayer world. And you might be saying to yourself, that scenario can be accomplished in a non-permadeath system.

    However, in a respawning system, the player may have to respawn, and they may have to travel through some tough areas to catch up, but they haven’t lost everything and had to start over so they could conceivably catch up to the party … AND … the party knows according to lore that some people come back … there’s a chance their comrade will catch up to them.

    So they camp after defeating the ogres and what-do-you-know … Tor strolls into camp in the morning looking haggard and his face looks odd in the lighting because his head’s a new shape. And his player doesn’t have to worry about not getting to play the game with his buds and he feels good about the evening still even though he had a huge setback.

  3. G says:

    A couple idears on death and immersion. The idea being that dying really really really sucks but make it… easier to avoid a death.

    Have players drop without dying (incapacitate, ko, daze, coma, etc) a little easier, when revived they have temporary and minor to major debuffs (varying by degree of lethality of the wounds and states they dropped). “But in combat, everyone always makes sure their opponent is dead during a fight before changing targets!” naw they don’t. Not IRL or in entertainment.

    A very kicked ass is easier to mend than a just a little bit dead one. Most of the time, after some spiritual healin’ or Dr McCoy techno healing (depending on setting) the adventure resumes in just a few minutes (if they were as dead as a rock in 90% of online games the time lost would be about the same since you can be resurrected\cloned via drop o the hat) . The asskicking has significant meaning but it’s not a night-ender for anyone. hmmm, to keep it from screwing up the whole night scale the debuffs accordingly, the game can’t be immersing if nobody is playing because it’s a giant pain in the ass.

    Layer combat related death and dying. That’s one layer. Another can be with items, but make it tie in with the world as best ya can.

    “As a reward for joining Sulking Uberbrooders of Central Killshire they have given each of you a clock necklace that will rescue you in times of great peril.”

    In an impending death and (normal) inescapable doom scenario, the pc’s body is spirited away to the Uberbrooder temple where they wake up (severely weakened as it uses your mojo to power the spell) in a bathtub full of Dapper Dan. This player is unable to be teleported for the next X amount of time. Note, didn’t say they couldn’t take a boat ride (or magic carpet ride!) but this is going to take a bit of time and it’s not a 100% night-ender but it is an aww pewp moment.

    The S.U.C.K. item also has limitations.
    And Death still has it’s teeth!

    if capture is a likely scenario vs npc’s, make it so. Ransom them to their faction and you’ve added groovy content that for the most part doesn’t exist in online gaming.

    and the list goes on and on man

    I can do this all day for 4k a month

    what say you!


  4. Edward says:

    Even in a fully automated system, there are many options other than just “permadeath” or “respawning”. Perhaps the player has to plan to be resurrected, possibly using a Contingency spell, having a certain item, or making arrangements with a temple. Perhaps some races (or classes) respawn and some don’t. (Those which don’t respawn might have other advantages.) Perhaps certain weapons or creatures cause permanent death, but most only trigger a respawn. And then of course there are questions about what the character loses to a respawn — items, money, experience, stats, aging, etc. Perhaps there are different types of resurrection, some better than others.

    Of course, most or all of these ideas have been tried at one time or another. I wouldn’t look only at death systems from MMO’s, though.

  5. Thrym says:

    It isn’t about the system. It’s about the players. What will hurt your playerbase and what will manage your playerbase.

    The rest are just specifics of the system.

    Permadeath has the most potential to damage a playerbase as it’s specifically set towards a small demographic of players.

    If you want to maximize the playerbase’s attitude toward the death system … simply don’t penalize the PCs much. If they lose time respawning, then that’s it. If they respawn in place take the minimum or create a timer respawn.

    In the end, it’s all about balancing the death system (one has to exist) with your playerbase’s attitudes and the world’s lore.

  6. Dave says:

    >Permadeath has the most potential to damage a playerbase as it’s specifically set towards a small demographic of players.

    Exactly! Which is why I think that it is worth asking the question: How can you craft a lore that allows you to not have PD, or have “soft” PD (limited to certain character choices for those players willing to take risks for more power), but avoids the usual glossing over of PD’s effect on society.

    PD is acceptable to a certain type of player. Another type of player wants an immersive roleplay environment. These two traits are unrelated; so good luck finding those roleplayers who tolerate PD.

    Players are generally good about coming up with some in-character explanation on the fly. The point is that they should not have to. Everything should be self consistent.

  7. Dave says:

    >Have players drop without dying (incapacitate, ko, daze, coma, etc) a little easier, when revived they have temporary and minor to major debuffs (varying by degree of lethality of the wounds and states they dropped). “But in combat, everyone always makes sure their opponent is dead during a fight before changing targets!” naw they don’t. Not IRL or in entertainment.

    You did not actually die is certainly a viable option in many cases. LoTRO uses this.

    >if capture is a likely scenario vs npc’s, make it so. Ransom them to their faction and you’ve added groovy content that for the most part doesn’t exist in online gaming.

    Dude! You did not actually die fighting that orc! You got beaten to a pulp, looted and dragged back to be held for ransom! Awesomeness!

    I’m not sure that this would logically work in all scenarios (predators would eat the dead character rather than hold him for ransom), but it certainly has merit for a closer look.

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