Heroes, not Serial Martyrs

Some time ago, I wrote a post on permadeath. That a lack of permadeath removes death (as well as the fear of death and death’s consequences) as a narrative device is not in dispute. The real problem is how to handle the conflicting needs of roleplayers to have the full spectrum of narrative devices available, with the general desire of players not to lose their characters to a lag spike.

A possible idea comes from Hindu mythology. There was once a demon named Bali. This demon was an ambitious fellow; so he performed many austerities and acts of charity such that he became invincible and threw the gods out of heaven. They could not do anything about him. Eventually, through an act of trickery, lord Vishnu made him give up heaven and retreat to the underworld. What is interesting about this story is the simple fact that Bali had built up so much good karma that he could not be harmed. We could look at this story as a simple case where he achieved very high level, or had monsterous buffs, etc. that he simple owned anyone else who opposed him.

There is an alternative explanation however: the “die rolls were being fudged” to reflect his karma.

If you were to survey literature, one constant is clear; unless the hero is supposed to die as a literary device, he does not die. Normal people die, but heroes (and great villians) are blessed by fate. There are no reoccurring trips to the afterlife. Instead, it is narrow brushes with death that rule the day. The bullet narrowly misses the hero’s head. The bomb is shut off in the last second on the clock. The trolls about to eat the hero argue about how to cook him until daylight turns them to stone.

Which brings us to what I call the Heroes, not Serial Martyrs (HSM) approach to death. Simply don’t kill the player characters off. Give them some sort of buffer of fudged die rolls. The bullets that should be riddling their corpse are instead whizzing past their head. The deathblow from the black knight’s sword instead narrowly misses. While doing this, make it clear to them that they should be dead now and if they push their luck too far, it could end badly. If they heed the warning and remove themselves from the situation, then all will be well. In an HSM environment, a character can only die if the player means to allow it; such as heroically holding the rear guard and ignoring the warning messages. This is in direct contrast to the serial martyrs approach of it being easy to die, but just as easy to get back into the action.

The fudge buffer need not be infinite and there are many variations that can be used depending on how “dangerous” the designer wants the worlds to be. It could be set at character creation and not possible to increase. This is similar to the after X number of deaths, the character is perma’d approach to PD (one of the “soft” permadeath approaches). It could be on a per incident basis, allowing an infinite number of hair raising “near misses”. It could be based on pious acts of the character, such as in the case of Bali, or quests, etc.

The HSM approach may allow us to keep a relaxed approach to play in dangerous situations (and avoid the resultant player loss of hardcore PD), while retaining death as a narrative device. .


About Dave

I’m a 38 year old American who has lived the past 9 years in Germany and India.
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5 Responses to Heroes, not Serial Martyrs

  1. Thrym says:

    I think you are off the path a bit. Okay, let’s for a second consider that the HERO is so karmic endowed and can’t possibly be killed until the Player decides to let him die. Let’s look at the various implications of this.

    1. Character development: “Wow, I just dodged a series of bullets. I must be the One. Morpheus, I believe you now.” The character then proceeds to develop the god complex of Bali (using your abbreviated Hindu reference) and begins running head long into everything with the set belief that he’s a god and he says YES!

    2. Player immersion: “Oh my god, I am a god.” Runs around whacking everything in sight knowing full well that he can’t be killed. There are absolutely no repercussions from his actions that he can’t easily accept. Gold loss? Big whoop. “I get it back because I can easily survive the fight and score a bigger payout. Karma loss … oh no, I can’t die. *fake quakes in his boots*”

    3. System balance: *watches the bullets whiz past his head and the bandits look at him in stunned amazement* … Now what? The bandits give up and despawn because he’s a “hero” and they can’t possibly win thus resolving what to do with the encounter since the hero isn’t dead. Oh wait … they all become buds and start passing a wine bottle around and commence with the hardcore social roleplay.

    How in Hel’s name is this any better then a well thought out and lore explained death system where the character’s soul does speak briefly with a higher power and is returned to the prime material plane because he is Da Hero!? All you are doing is mitigating the “death” concept and now must work even harder to explain the circumstances in the moment.

  2. Opinvu says:

    This sort of “karma” based world with the Bali template would turn into an unbalanced elite group of immortal-like characters. It removes the chance that there is some greater threat in the world than themselves. This type of world would require a new ruleset for the players character and classes. Encounters would funnel into a narrow set of a few scenarios that present any real challenge or risk of failure faster than having just no death rules at all. Plus, everyone would just be on one bandwagon.

    The goal is still missed with this solution. As Thrym points out, there must be more chances of failure/defeat than there is of success. A casino is life wrapped up into tiny machines and tables. With each action there is unpredictable reaction with a determinable amount of chance. So is the RP world. If every new situation or bigger threat isn’t a thread the needle type accomplishment, the fun factor is lost after the first time. And then it don’t matter if ya die or not, it was boring.

    I think the focus shouldn’t be on what the death rules are, but what the environment offers in return. If you want harsh death rules to be more acceptable, make the inevitable death more noticeable to the player sooner and help them make better tactical decisions. Give them a fairy that tells them to run! A subconscious audible cry of cowardice. Hold on now, just think of it….. Player reaches 5 hp out of 30, he runs and hides with fear. Automatic, runs and hides and tries to eat cake to calm his nerves. If he succeeds in eating cake, you can heal and run or heal and fight.

  3. Dave says:

    Actually Opinvu, the HSM approach is an attempt to avoid exactly the situation you describe. What do those bandits think of those people whose corpses they can’t rob and who repeatedly come back from the dead to try and kill them again? If a player character has the respawn button available, he/she is effectively immortal. If I kill my enemy and he repeatedly comes back from the dead, I’ve accomplished nothing by killing him. If I myself am not immortal, I can never win as he only needs to kill me once to end the conflict. As the player characters are effectively immortal, they are effectively omnipotent from the perspective of the NPCs who are subject to 1x permadeath. Carrying it to the logical conclusion, word of those characters would quickly spread and they would probably almost never see hostiles. The orcs and bandits would instead greet them with a sycophantic “hello sir, how can I help you”.

    HSM is a permadeath system. The out of context purpose of the buffer is to give the player a chance to remove himself from the situation. While the buffer may or not be extensive, there is permanent character death at the other end. The player may take the calculated risk that he can kill off the bandits before he runs out of buffer. If he bit off more than he could chew, then the surviving bandits get some well earned loot.

    The buffer gives true opportunity for heroic action on the part of the player. The character may chose to hold the bridge against the goblin horde until his last breath if necessary; his player ignoring the warnings about his living character on borrowed time. If the player does not want to with flirt with losing his character, the buffer gives him the ability to beat a retreat when things get too hairy. Under traditional non-PD death systems, there is no room for heroism. Your hit points run out – quickly or slowly depending on how “dangerous” the world is and you find yourself instantly removed from the situation. The only “heroism” is in simply eating the death penalty if there is one, instead of engaging in the usual methods that may be available for skirting the penalty. The buffer allows the player to decide to try and be a hero and stick it out at great risk, or bravely run away.

    An endless buffer is an extreme case; though some worlds may wish to use it, just as there are worlds with no death penalty. In most cases, the buffer should be limited and it is probably wise to keep the exact extent of the buffer secret as a certain subset of the playerbase would treat it as part of the character stats, ignore the warnings and whine about PD when they get their character killed. There should be some UI aid – perhaps a flashing red skull – that indicates to the player that they are burning buffer.

    Lastly, I don’t see it as that great a departure from traditional systems in terms of gameplay. Using Thrym’s example of the 30hp character reduced to 5. Yes, this is a good time to beat a retreat. Often however that is simply not mechanically possible and the character gets killed while trying to retreat, triggering an automatic removal from the situation. The buffer allows the character to remove themselves, effectively giving the same result as the visit to the afterlife in most cases; but without the dodgy logical lore consequences.

  4. Pingback: Death Systems Matter « Dancing Elephants

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