Sunday, January 24, 2016

In praise of lethality in old-school RPGs


A common complaint about older-school role-playing games (RPGs) is that they are highly lethal and, as the complaint goes "unduly and arbitrarily punish characters and players". And indeed, many newer-school players view such lethality in disdain and prefer their games to include more moderate dangers, less "arbitrary" threats and much stronger player characters. Dungeons and Dragons(TM) 5th Edition is a prime example of this. Around levels 3-5, player characters are already very powerful and are rarely killed by ordinary monsters; I found my 5th level party mowing through undead supposed to be scary, and only moderately challenged by a mummy, energy-draining wraiths and shadow-demons capable of moving through walls. Risks were mitigated; healing was made much easier; and many frightening abilities from earlier editions, such as level drain, poison and disease, were made far more forgiving. Don't get me wrong - we are enjoying the hell out of our D&D 5E campaign set in the Barbarian, Conqueror, King setting with some ACKS rule additions. But the ruleset feels to me more and more forgiving - and sometimes "flat". Risks and threats seem a bit minor compared to what the horrors of a haunted dungeon, a cemetery in midnight or a giant-toad-infested swamp should be.


Older-school games were certainly lethal. Highly lethal. A venomous snake could kill you. Green slime could kill you. Triggering a trap could kill you outright. A fight with several zombies at low level could certainly kill you. Medusae could turn you into stone with a single failed saving throw. At low levels, one or two sword swings had a potential to kill you. In Classic Traveller, you could die during character generation as well, using unrefined fuel could kill you, a single well-placed and lucky laser shot could blow your ship out of the sky, travelling in low passage could kill you, the "first blood" rule could get you severely injured from a single shotgun blast.

Why the lethality? There are plenty of reasons why this actually enhances your game. First and foremost, you typically play adventurers. Why be typical "Normal Man" level 0 villagers eke out a living at 1gp a month from the sweat of their brows, toiling on the harsh soil under the constant threat of starvation - when there are dungeons laden with marvellous amounts of gold and wonderful magical items a day's travel from the typical hamlet? Becuase dungeons are dangerous, and most who venture there do not come back. Adventurers are those brave - or some might say insane - souls who dare delve into these deadly places reeking with the stench of death. The YouTube video linked above - a promotional video for the excellent old-school dungeon called "Barrowmaze" - strikes the nail right on its head. Horrors await those who dare stray away from civilization into the wilds and the ruins of the eldritch past. Villagers huddle in the relative safety of their hovels and even soldiers - typically "Normal Men" as well except for the most grizzled veterans - find safety in their numbers and rarely dare fight anything but other Men, or at most Beast-Men hordes. Only a few foolhardy adventurers dare descend into dungeons in hope of finding gold and glory. Most find their untimely death. But a few survive and carry back sacks full of gold back to civilization, eventually becoming lords and magisters.

But adventuring carries risks. Horrid risks. This is part of the challenge of the game. This is a major source of excitement for the players. A mistake can kill you. Monsters can rip you limb by limb. A venomous snake, like a real venomous snake, is dangerous and frightening - a bite is very likely to kill you. Rush into combat like a fool - and you will typically get butchered. Tread carelessly, and you risk death. Player skill is important. This is a similar challenge to the "Roguelike" genre of digital games which is now enjoying another golden age after existing from the very dawn of digital gaming, from the sci-fi FTL: Faster Than Light, through the post-apocalyptic N.E.O. Scavenger to the fantasy Dungeon Crawl: Stone Soup. In these games, unlike more typical digital games of our day and age, you die easily. And death is permanent - you can't just reload a saved game when you die. When you die - you die. Yet players - myself included - come back and play these games again and again. Why? Because the challenge is exciting, because facing the challenge is enjoyable. Survival is its own reward, is a thing of pride. Player skill is important. Learning how to survive in the N.E.O. Scavenger world, for example, is something you - the player - have to learn; no character skill will save you from contaminated water, hypothermia and infection setting into your wounds; you have to learn how to cope with them. This is challenging. This requires thought and learning. This is also enjoyable for many gamers. An old-school RPG is the tabletop equivalent of "Roguelike" digital games; player skill is important and survival is a challenge - and its own reward.

Finally, having survived the horrors of the low levels, when death hangs over your head each and every moment in the dungeon or in the wilds - is the best background your character can have. Not even ten pages of backstory can mean as much for your character as actual experience you and your fellow player went through with your characters. You start, more or less, as a nobody, and you build your character, your personality and history - by actual adventuring. Classic Traveller adds to this a "lifepath" character generation system where you actually - though briefly - go through risky careers and face a threat of actual death for your character, making your choices and risk management crucial for your character's survival even during that early phase of the game. But even in Classic Traveller, the background your past career - rolled on a few tables in 5-10 minutes or so - is only a paragraph of text in most cases, and then you strike out to the stars to make a real name for yourself. But facing risks and threats builds your character. When a significant portion of the encounters in the game might end in a Total Party Kill (TPK), reaching Name Level - typically the 9th level in D&D-type games - is an achievement to be proud of and not just a given stage in the game.

In short, lethality in an RPG - when done right and framed correctly - can be a source of challenge, excitement and enjoyment. This is what makes older-school so appealing to many people, and this is something every tabletop gamer should try; some might not like it, but others will be thrilled.

22 comments:

  1. Yes I agree to, with everything I think! :)

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  2. Good post!
    I'm another who much prefers the lethal flavored games.
    It's not just the younger players who want the softer/safer variety though. I was in a group with a bunch of grognards where not a single PC died in years of gaming. Somehow they'd gotten the idea that characters are SUPPOSED to go on for years and years and develop long histories... that anything less is failure. No surprise that the GM's wife was writing fan fiction that often blurred into our game sessions.

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    1. Thanks! And my post was less about younger players and more about latter—era games...

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    2. Thanks! And my post was less about younger players and more about latter—era games...

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  3. Nicely put. Lethality and taking big risks are major features of my weekly games with middle schoolers -- they really seem to appreciate a gaming environment that has both persistence and lasting consequences.

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  4. Really enjoyed this post. I do kind of enjoy the older school way of playing.

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    1. Thanks! I'm trying to convert my D&D 3.5E/5E group to S&W or ACKS but I'm not sure how to convince them...

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  5. More power to anyone who enjoys high-mortality RPGs, but myself I only ever played them that way back in the seventies because there was no precedent for playing any other way. What's changed in the gaming culture is that people understand they have options now, and different people want different experiences.

    The first time I ever played D&D, I must have rolled up a dozen characters before one of them survived long enough to make it past the first encounter. And while the experience immediately got me addicted, over the years, the closer I got to a more cinematic style of game, the happier I became. Don't get me wrong. I can enjoy a good rogue-like computer game, and I'm an absolute shark when it comes to strategy board games. But when I pull out the old character sheet, I'm looking for a slowly unfolding plot and long-term character development, not nail-biting suspense. It's certainly not because I've never tried it the other way, and it's not because I've drunk anyone's Kool-Aide. It's just who I am.

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    1. Any playstyle is great as long as the group enjoys it... Some love cinematic play, other love more lethal play...

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  6. Love it when a character gets what's coming to him...builds up the setting as the rest of us realize the stakes, get to avenge him, recruit his replacement, and so on. It's just a game.

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  7. No real chance of death equates to no real drama, in my opinion.

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