August 7, 2012

System Death

Should a game system kill a character or should the environment/monsters/setting/adventure kill a character?

I have seen game systems that penalize a character for doing cool stuff, for playing their character. Specifically the use of magic. If you cast a spell there is a chance the character will go insane or lose stats that eventually causes the death of the character. Every time a player rolls a specific number, such as a 1, when using a specific character skill or item they move one step closer to character death.

There is a delineation between System Death, when system mechanics lead to the death of a character, and environmental effects or monsters that kill a character. I also do not mind putting in system mechanics to limit the use of certain powers and abilities; this is often done for the sake of balance. What I do not like is System Death, especially if said power or ability is part of the core concept of the character. I prefer a character death that comes from making bad choices, from ignoring the warning signs of impending doom. I would prefer a player says "My character was killed by a Balrog" or "My character was killed by stepping into a Sphere of Annihilation" rather than "My character died because I rolled a 1 on my spell casting".

I can understand that System Death is often a mechanic to add tension, but it is not my preference. Let a character die from choices the player makes, not from some arbitrary system mechanic. How do you feel about game system mechanics that send a character into the downward spiral of character death?


shortymonster said...

Unhallowed Metropolis has a madness system that works kind of how you described it. Screw up using psychic powers and get an instability point, get X number of them, and go a bit crazy. Repeat with culminating effects until full on crazy time fun.

this is a slow process and can be reversed, or even avoided by careful choice of how often and how you use the powers. I think that that's key, it shouldn't be a one fail=death situation, but more a creeping terror that could one day lead to the end, but with planning and care be reduced.

jackstoolbox said...

I don't think the delineation between "environmental" death and "system" death is as clear cut as you portray. After all, dying to a balrog is just the culmination of several bad die rolls; unless the system says "if you roll a 1, you die," the same can be said for your "fatal magic mechanics" example.

Additionally, unless there's an automatic mechanic that slowly grinds down players, they DO die based on poor decision making, because they chose to cast the spell. If they didn't know the rules then maybe it can feel unfair, but if they knew "casting spells means a 1 in 6 chance of dying" and they chose to cast spells anyways, that's their choice (and the resulting consequences).

And if you want to say "my character was killed by a Balrog" instead of "the DM rolled more damage than I had hp," it's only fair to say, "my character died by meddling with forces beyond his control" rather than "because I rolled a 1 while casting a spell."

I think these kind of system-based consequences are not arbitrary, but offer flavor to the setting. If magic drives people insane, having a mechanic where characters can go mad by casting spells makes sense. It's fair to not like that, but you need to admit either "I don't like magic making people go insane" or "I don't like bad things happening to my character" -- and the later admission is not a flaw in the game's system.

jackstoolbox said...

@shortymonster, Brenden at Untimately has a post about the legitimacy of save-or-die effects. In short, if you're making the save you've already messed up (springing the trap, looking at Medusa, etc). With planning and care these things can be avoided or prepared for, and the saving throw is actually a bit of mercy.

Philo Pharynx said...

Some genres are gritty and messy and I think these types of mechanics are fitted to them. The important part is that the players need to know the downsides before character generation. I also think that the reward should be worth the downside.

One area where I think this worked was in WEG's Star Wars game. You could call on the dark side any time. It gave power, but you risked the character falling to evil.