(I’ve been thinking of refinements to the Heroes, not Serial Martyrs (HSM) concept and how to best present the concept in a single article. I promise afterwards to stop beating this dead horse for now and write about other topics)
In the purely action environment of most modern, 3D diku worlds, where players are always on Vent, never in character and focus on game mechanics because “it’s just a game”, then there are no real problems with the currently standard die/respawn cycle (serial martyrdom) of handling character death. For hardcore roleplay worlds, being one part game, one part social world and one part soundstage for collaborative community theatre, death is a core design problem. If standard diku style fuge-plane/respawn systems are used for player characters (and possibly select NPCs) only, then we either we follow the logical rabbit down the hole and face an Orwellian society or conveniently ignore the ramifications as is usually the case. If we extend the serial martyrdom across NPCs as well to avoid the unpleasant Orwellian side, then we face player revolution over the loss of meaning in the actions of their characters (no point in killing the orc king if he just respawns, now is there?) as well and considerations as to the society that may result from everyone having access to the respawn button. It may be an interesting society; it might make a great story or novel, but would have jarring immersion issues preventing players from establishing long term emotional attachment. If we accept that permanent death is an important element – both the fear of it and the risk of it in heroism – of narrative in roleplay environments, then the currently standard die/respawn cycle (serial martyrdom) of diku style worlds is certainly unhelpful. Unfortunately, the obvious solution, permadeath, usually – with the exception of a couple of RPI text MUDS – results in empty worlds.
The problems with Permadeath
- Players are risk averse; especially in cases where they accumulate considerable avatar capital. Even if there is no on-character-sheet avatar capital accumulation, there is considerable soft avatar capital in a roleplay environment from the storylines that a character is involved in. Weighing risks greater than rewards is part of human nature and designers should accept that. This is the principal reason for the near universal rejection of permadeath by players.
- If players see something on the character sheet, they feel that they can use it. 100 hit points does not mean 50 to burn and 50 as a reserve; it means 100 to burn and they will happily push it to the very limit. Pulling punches and not being able to use the full range of what is on the character sheet will be unsatisfying to them.
- Players don’t like being reminded of their aversion to risk. This makes point 2 doubly unsatisfying.
Roleplay persistent worlds are not the only genre with a serious problem regarding how to handle character death. The horror genre relies on its ability to build tension due to fear and the usual death in games problems plays havoc there as well. Unfortunately, the possible solutions laid out by Nels Anderson in part II of his excellent series handling death in the horror genre, especially the “keep it short” bits, are not really applicable to the roleplay PW scenario where the player may spend hundreds of hours with his/her character.
Most persistent current world non PD death systems – the serial martyrdom systems – work by openly allowing the player to use the full range of what is on the character sheet and sparing them any serious risk by removing them from the situation and applying a mild (or non-existent) penalty; which is why they are generally considered acceptable to players, despite their undesirable side effects. Fundamentally, what “death” (or what Richard Bartle once unceremoniously labeled “wuss slap”) in non-PD systems is doing is removing the character from the situation. There may or may not be loss of avatar capital involved, but fundamentally, the character is being moved to a safe place to “start over”.
Most attempts at creating “soft” permadeath systems try to incorporate this “soft landing” to some degree. One approach is to replace the dead character with a relative, thus allowing the player to hold on to the hard avatar capital of gear and/or experience. I’ve seen variations of this idea put forth many times in mailing lists, forums and blogs, most recently by Flatfingers and Syncane. This system is really “respawn with a new avatar image and name” and in the case of roleplay environments still results in the loss of soft avatar capital, so it is not really an acceptable solution. Other approaches are to only kick in after X number of deaths or are used to unlock otherwise unavailable powers. None of these, with the exception perhaps of the last one, are really acceptable in a hardcore roleplay environment, which is why RPI text MUDS tend to have “hard” permadeath with no soft landing.
What is clear is that for – from the perspective of most players – a permadeath system to work, it has to assuage the players’ aversion to risk by providing a landing ramp that can functionally replace the trip to the graveyard/death-plane/respawn-button. The aim of the Heroes, not Serial Martyrs (HSM) approach to permadeath is to overcome the player objections to permadeath by the following rules:
- Offer the option of a safe landing via “safe passage” in the game mechanics for near death characters.
- Give a clear feedback in the game UI to the player that the character is in a bad situation and needs to be immediately extracted.
- Shift the burden of removing the character from the adverse situation from the server to the player.
The actually mechanics of the safe passage in a particular HSM implementation would vary from game design to game design, but the key remains. Whether to press the situation or play it safe is always a player decision and permadeath does not happen without player consent. If the player heeds the warning, and removes his/her character from the situation, HSM is functionally little different from the standard fuge-plane systems in terms of mechanics (though it is a world apart in narrative and lore terms). If the player ignores the warning feedback, it should be in the full knowledge that permanent character death will likely be the result and is in either explicit or implicit (through inaction) agreement with this possible outcome.
One thing you always have to keep in mind with HSM is part two in my problems with permadeath list above. Players will always see everything on the character sheet as resources to be used. Moreover, if they come to understand the underlying principals used in the safe passage mechanism, they internalize that mechanic into their assets, abuse it and be angry when their character dies. The key lies in managing player expectations. It should seem less like “playing it safe” than “whoah, this is hairy, I better scoot”! To prevent players from internalizing the safe passage landing ramp, it should either be completely hidden, or impossible to predict with much certainty.
Lastly, there are the abusers. Every roleplay PW designer/admin that I know can point to at least one “powergamer” who will use anything to maximize his (always a ‘his’) character and will happily abuse the safe passage if it is possible. A good HSM system needs to take these people into account and make attempts at abuse too risky to be a winning strategy, but not punish the average user in the crossfire.
HSM is an early stage idea at this point – a hypothetical general approach to PD. It has not yet been tried and I can think of a zillion ways to do it badly. One critical point however is that the exact safe passage conditions should never be known to the player. It should be enough for them to extract themselves from the situation, but it should never be something that they can rely on and ideally, the actual mechanism is hidden. There are a lot of tricky issues – specifically how to handle the grace buffer based on the mechanics of the world – and the devil is in the details; but I don’t think it is an insurmountable problem. It is instead an interesting design issue.
Anyone who wanted to test HSM in an NWN (or similarly diku) environment could try something like the following:
1 – On the on death event (triggered when a PC’s hit points reach 0), set the player to invulnerable for a random period of time. This time should be the time it takes to traverse the zone (to ensure escape) + something random. If the zone is particularly laggy or if lag tends to occur during peak hours, you can add an appropriate lag factor; for example based on the current number of players on the server and creatures in the zone. We’ll call this time the safe passage countdown time.
2 – Start a thread/process/script that will wait out the safe passage countdown time before continuing in 4.
3- If the PC leaves the zone (and is not going deeper into a dungeon crawl) during safe passage countdown time, then port him/her to a designated safe zone, remove the invulnerability and set him/her at 1 hit point. This represents the PC immediately returning to town. In this case, there is little functional difference between a traditional fuge-plane death system (at least a mild penalty one) and HSM.
4 – If at the end of the wait period, the PC is still invulnerable and still has less than one hit point, kill him/her. This is permadeath.
To prevent abuse, we also need to following elements:
5 – Once safe invulnerability is turned off, it can’t be turned on again for that character for some time (say five minutes). When the invulnerability is removed, record the time and in the onDeath event, ensure that at least five minutes has passed before allowing it to be turned back on. We’ll call this the blackout period. If the OnDeath event is triggered during the blackout period… permadeath.
6 – Extend the blackout period to a longer period (say 15 minutes) in the zone that it was last triggered. This is a good way to prevent the extreme serial martyrdom scenario where a player runs back to town, rests and runs back to finish off an already weakened enemy. (and its people who pull this kind of wankerism who will tell you with a straight face that they disdain “campfire RP” and that their character is a “hero”)
7 – If the player character is healed, remove the invulnerability and start the appropriate blackout timers. This prevents the scenario where safe passage is abused by allowing tanks to go invulnerable and then healing them before the end of the timer and the abuse scenario where the player uses the safe passage invulnerability to finish off an enemy (and probably uses only DPS, leaving healing until after the fight), then heals and continues normally. In both cases, safe passage would likely be unavailable for a long period of time and could potentially put the character in mortal danger. If you stick it out instead of fleeing, make it count.