Death Systems Matter

I started to respond to Opinvu’s offhand comment to my post on HSM that “the focus shouldn’t be on what the death rules are, but what the environment offers in return”, but realized that it deserves its own post. It is one of the very first choices you should make, along with the genre and the levels/skills/no-progression decision and is probably more important that either of the other two. The death paradigm in effect is probably the single most important decision you can make when designing a world. EVERYTHING revolves around it. By death paradigm, I’m not talking about what the death plane looks like, the lore behind it or whether a player needs to answer a riddle or run a maze to get out. I’m talking about whether the choice of gameplay mechanics mesh. If you are planning to use a hardcore world with permadeath around every corner, you will have to take this into account and not require a six month grind to break your character in. If you are planning on a very grindy world, or one where the characters are in play for very long periods of time, you either want to avoid PD completely or make it rare.

RPI worlds deemphasize the need to the collection of avatar capital (Edward Castranova’s term for the “stuff” – levels, gear, etc. – that a character accumulates) and feature permadeath.

A commenter on one of Syncane’s musings about permadeath put very simply the usual criticism of PD:

On the subject of perma-death (or any other harsh penalty for dying) — the problem with that is that it encourages (or even forces) boring “farming” of the mobs that can’t possibly kill your character rather than “having fun” by engaging challenging (risky) content.

The typical NWN environment , like all other Diku style environments (which means almost all of the active non-text worlds) requires a light to non-existant death penalty. Why? Because they are designed around the idea that there will be a mind numbing quantity of repetitive combat. The very first design decision usually made on NWN worlds is where to put the slider on XP, relative to third edition PnP D&D. The slider is normally set to between 5% and 10% to reflect that players in online worlds involve themselves in a LOT more combat than is typical in a pencil and paper scenario. To add to this, designers often deliberately lower the “challenge rating” (CR) in order to further bring down the XP gain to difficulty ratio for specific mob templates. I call this unfortunate and unbalancing practice “CR jacking”. In such an environment, you will die eventually and if you are playing a weak build or lack skills, you will die quickly and often. If a world combines low XP payout, CR jacking and a high death penalty, it will soon be devoid of players. I’ve seen players leave NWN servers over the death penalty to XP gain ratio. If you add PD to the typical NWN/Diku environment, you’ll have a disaster on your hands.

You have to design your world around your death paradigm.


About Dave

I’m a 38 year old American who has lived the past 9 years in Germany and India.
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