Spelunky is a fun little platformer with an Indiana Jones theme. You travel deeper and deeper into an increasingly bizarre underworld fighting off wildlife and even stranger creatures. It’s a Nintendo-hard type of game; when you die, you start all over again. You have only a few hit points, they’re very hard to recover, and a lot of things in the game can kill you pretty much instantly (or start a series of pratfalls that damage you over and over until it was like dying instantly). That kind of thing seems like it has some lessons to teach about tabletop games that want to have death be a common occurrence.
Strategy vs. Tactics
While you face the levels of Spelunky in a standard thematic order (mines, then underground jungle, then ice caves, etc.), the actual layout of each level is procedurally generated each time. This means that you can’t just learn the sequence (jump here, pause for the bat, drop down, etc.). Instead, you have to learn tactics for individual creatures and keep an eye out for situations that might kill you or which you might turn to your advantage. Spiders are initially very scary: they drop down off the ceiling on you and then proceed to jump in your direction in a way that’s hard to kill with your whip until they’ve already damaged you. But then you realize that you only set them off by walking under them, they take themselves out all the time on floor spikes and dart traps, and their jump is a standard distance that means you can just take a step back and whip them after they land.
Particularly in D&D, which is the game where it’s most common to see a deadly playstyle, much of the old mystery is lost. In the early days, monsters were added with exactly this kind of tactical mastery in mind. A chest can grow arms and teeth and try to get you, that weird rust colored giant bug can destroy your gear, and that floating eye covered in other eyes will turn off your magic and disintegrate you. Over time, we’ve added an increasingly complex palette of monsters, and become increasingly genre savvy about each and every one.
This style of play would advise GMs to go back to the well and completely alter monster design each campaign, only keeping them consistent within a single set of scenarios. The goal is to create monsters that totally blindside players with a bizarre set of tricks, all of which can be countered once players have seen them in action a few times. Even if a character dies to the trick, now the players know how to deal with it the next time.
Nothing Is Inconsequential
Spiders become less scary once you figure out their pattern, but they can still damage you the same if you aren’t paying attention or can’t get out of the way. You’ll be trying to run away from one monster and not looking up at the ceiling, or several will get triggered at once and stagger their jumps so there’s no good time to hit any of them. They never become inconsequential.
A lot of games with a strong power curve (again, D&D in particular) tend to let you “outlevel” certain threats. Your AC, HP, or saves are so high that a particular kind of monster couldn’t even hurt you in its best case ambush. A Spelunky style of game requires either an elimination of the steep defense scaling for PCs, or that the dirty tricks monsters use largely be outside of the traditional defense economy. The weird red goblins pop when they die, knocking adjacent opponents back three squares with no way to avoid it, and suddenly you’re in a room full of red goblins and deep spiked pits.
Quick to Power, Quick to Die
With a lucky combination of treasure and shops, ten minutes into the game you can be flying around on a jetpack, shooting a shotgun, wearing spiked boots, throwing sticky bombs, and using the compass and eye to navigate around and find even more treasure. You’re not going to get much more powerful any further in the game, but it’s not power that makes you immune to falling onto spikes.
Part of the move away from high-lethality tabletop has to do with character attachment. Character creation takes forever, and leveling one up takes tons of playtime. If that character is killed, you’ve wasted who knows how much time getting him to right where he was getting interesting. Telling players that they have to start over again in that situation is a great way to actually tell them, “maybe you should just quit the game, because you’re going to have to slog through a lot of game before you feel like you’re having fun again.”
In this style, you give out levels and treasure quickly, and make sure that character options and gear are largely random. Original D&D had part of this with the 3d6 in order character creation, where every death was a chance to roll again, but it didn’t have fast advancement. If you had randomized chargen, advancement choices reliant on chargen rolls and things that have happened in game, and quick accumulation of loot and experience, you might wind up with players extremely happy to die and get a chance to try out a completely different set of options.
In Spelunky, you can only carry one thing at a time in your hands. You can carry the shotgun, boomerang, or just a pot or rock to make ranged attacks. You can carry a machete for better-than-whip melee damage. You can carry a key to unlock a special chest. Or you can carry a trapped civilian (and getting them out safely is one of the only ways to regain HP). And you can’t use your whip attack when you have any of those items carried, so each strongly limits your options.
Several classic-inspired games, like Torchbearer, have moved to a much stricter inventory, and even modern editions of D&D are trying to get rid of the Christmas Tree Effect. Having only a small handful of items, each of which can do multiple things, but the collection of which can’t let you do everything, is a great way to get players to make interesting choices. You need the adamantine sword for golems but the silver axe for lycanthropes… and you can’t carry both.
Deep and Varied Interest
I imagine the meaning becomes different once you get good enough to beat the game and you’re just trying to beat it with style, but Spelunky’s initial draw is getting deeper and deeper into the dungeon with each restart. Just as one level starts to become easy to beat, you find a new one with new items of interest, and get the feeling you’re drawing further and further down to something amazing.
As long as you don’t TPK too often (or don’t sweat metagaming about what the last group knew), the story of a particular campaign can still draw the players through even though their individual characters are dropping off like flies. Sometimes, many Bothans have to die to forward the plot, and as long as that plot is intriguing and expands with each death-won revelation, your players will keep going. Character attachment doesn’t have to be the only motivating force in gaming.