Disaster as Random Chargen Filter

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One of the problems with holding onto a love of random character generation is that it originally went hand in hand with another major facet of D&D: if you rolled poorly on your character, that character would probably die quickly and you’d get to try again. Conversely, it’s probably likely that players that rolled really exceptional characters had a decent chance of getting overconfident and losing them. Ultimately, that meant that the dungeon was serving as a filter: weak characters tended to die (or be lucky enough to be very interesting to roleplay), and, in the long term, it was hard to get stuck with a character meaningfully weaker than other PCs for the campaign.

Meanwhile, in modern games, most tables that I’m aware of don’t really have a high PC body count. If you use random chargen and roll poorly, you could be stuck as the effective sidekick to the more powerful characters in the party for the whole campaign.

I had an idea while attending the Horror in Gaming panel at Dragon*Con this year that would allow you to reintroduce the filter in a specific circumstance. My original idea was for something I’ve seen in modern action horror movies like Freddy vs. Jason and House of the Dead: dozens of teens at a rave in a dangerous location, suddenly fleeing when monsters attack. It also works for disaster-movie scenarios. But the idea possibly best in that old D&D trope: survivors of the big bad wiping out a village.

I may expand this idea to a loose module in the future, but the basic idea is:

  • The GM (with the help of the players, if they’re interested) generates a bunch of extremely rough character descriptions and puts them on notecards. This would be the kind of details you’d notice in a crowd scene of a disaster or horror movie: race, sex, hair color, age, and a significant item of clothing (possibly just using something like the Pathfinder Face Cards instead). It’s enough to give the players some idea of whether they’d like to play the character long term.
  • The players take turns claiming cards (or get them randomly) until they have an equal number of characters.
  • The GM sets the stage for what’s going on. Players used to games where they improvisationally portray characters with no stats might pick a character or two to do a bit of ad libbling.
  • Something awful starts killing everyone, and the crowd scatters to escape. The PC cards might represent the whole crowd, or be surrounded by NPCs also getting slaughtered.
  • The GM puts obstacles in the way of escaping: dodging monsters and explosions, having to scale walls and fences, stumbling lost in the dark, remembering how to bypass something, soldiering on through choking smoke or light injuries, and begging others for help.
  • Each of these obstacles is an attribute challenge (e.g., in D&D 5e, an ability check for skill or save). When characters get to it, roll up their applicable stat and make the test. Characters that make it through might, if the context makes sense, help those that failed (but not all of them). The goal is to have pretty heavy carnage of characters that fail challenges.
  • After every such obstacle, give the survivors a new character trait (possibly also randomly chosen) like name and other personality highlights (e.g., again for 5e, background, then personality, ideal, flaw, and bond). Allow a little time for roleplaying if the players want to: they should be figuring out which characters they might want to play.
  • Also after every obstacle (or round of obstacles, if the characters split up into different mobs), have the players hang on to one or two characters they like the most right now, put the rest back in the middle, and then redraw until everyone has an even number. This is just in case players have a different rate of attrition.
  • You might also give the players a small set of rerolls to use across all their characters, to get characters they’re growing attached to through a poor roll or two.
  • Repeat obstacles until the character pool has been whittled down to one PC per player (possibly with a few left over to be backup characters/friendly NPCs). If attrition was high enough that not all the necessary attributes and personality traits are chosen, roll those now.
  • Narrate the last of the PCs escaping to a moment of safety long enough to catch their breaths… and worry what they’re going to do about the thing that just wiped out everyone around them. Finish generating the characters (such as picking a class and everything that goes with it).

Ultimately, this method should wind up with PCs that are above average and more-or-less on par with one another, but that still feel random. And you’ve also got a nice baked-in traumatic experience and plot hook to motivate roleplay from there on out.

Borrowing from Video Games: Spelunky’s Sadism

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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.

Limited 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.

Revenants: Alternate D&D Healing Rules

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This system is designed to limit the effectiveness of magical healing in D&D 3.x/Pathfinder. It can be used to make a game grittier without altering all the healing spells directly, or to make a game rules distinction between PCs (who tend to shoot through up in level as soon as gameplay starts) and NPCs (who seem to take years to level).

Unnatural Healing

The energies created by healing magic aren’t, in the long term, compatible with the mortal form. Being healed by the grace of the divine is overwhelming, even painful, as tissues are knit together not by the natural processes of the body, but by the mandate of a god. Healing pushes the body past its mundane limits, and can be very dangerous: magical healing exists on a different plane, and beneath this divine health is a body wracked with injury. Masking the body’s natural limits is dangerous: even a small mending by magic is enough to keep a person from knowing his own point of expiration.

Whenever an individual is healed by magic, begin a separate record of his unspelled hit points. All healing magic only cures the modified total, but further wounds adjust both the mortal and magical totals, and natural healing restores both as well. If the character’s mortal HP are negative, but magical are positive, do not track dying and stabilization—the magic at least prevents the character from unknowingly bleeding to death.

For example, a 2nd level mortal with 20 HP takes 10 points of damage. He is granted a healing spell that gives him 8 HP… his actual HP is recorded as 10, but his magically modified total is 18.

He takes a 14 point wound, reducing his totals to -4 and 4. As far as his body is concerned, he should be dying, but the magic allows him to act as if everything is fine.

He is again healed for 8 points to -4/12. If he takes 6 more points of damage, he will be dead even though the magic allows him to walk around as if nothing is wrong.

However, if he escapes the fight without further damage, he will begin to heal naturally at his normal rate of 2/day (discounting the Heal skill). In 4 days, he will feel perfectly fine, but he actually needs 12 days to even his mundane total to his magical one (and remove the distinction).

Death and Resurrection

If a character’s mundane HP ever reach -10 or lower, he is dead, even if magical healing keeps him from realizing it. Crossing this line permanently ends his life, and he begins living on time borrowed from the gods. As soon as mundane hit points reach -10, cease tracking them as they no longer matter. Instead, the character is now effectively a Revenant, though he gains no undead traits, instead suffused with magical life. He no longer heals naturally, and can only be restored with magic. He must immediately decide on the goal that is keeping him moving (with the GM’s input or control; see below).

Characters that are reduced below -10 without previously acquiring healing (or even after becoming Revenants) can be restored to Revenant status with simple healing magic if healed back above -10 before their soul departs at sunset (or other short-term, setting-appropriate limit). Those that had not previously become Revenants must also gain a Revenant goal or the healing cannot restore the body. After sunset, only magics such as Raise Dead can restore a dead individual, and these, too, create a Revenant, not a true mortal, forcing the target to take up a goal or remain forever dead.

Once a Revenant completes his goal, no further magical healing is possible and the divine energies quickly bleed out of his system (at a rate of HD per round, hour, or day, depending on how much time the GM wants Revenants to have to say goodbyes and tie up loose ends). Once the Revenant drops below 0 HP, it is the final end for him: further healing or resurrection magic does nothing unless something changes to invalidate his success at his goal and a great hero is needed again.

Goals of Revenants

For most Revenants, the goal that drives them should be to avenge their death by killing the being responsible. In general, this should be either the individual that dealt the killing blow or the being responsible for the attack (i.e., the mastermind behind the combat that killed the Revenant). This mastermind should be someone the Revenant is aware of or, if the leadership of the murderer is secret, only a step or two removed from the killer. Additionally, the target of the goal should not be more than a few HD greater than the Revenant. Essentially, if the Revenant’s death was part of a plot, the mastermind should be within the Revenant’s power to kill within the short term. If it is unrealistic for the Revenant to achieve his goals in a short period, the target should fall upon the most responsible leader that the Revenant can get to.

Other goals should be similarly short term, if the GM lets the dead character define his own agenda. They should be concrete, measurable, and obvious to the character to keep him going. Example goals could be evacuating a village before it is destroyed, destroying an artifact, defending an item or location from a specific assault, and so on. Any goal that would reasonably take several months or more to achieve should only be approved if the GM wants the character to stick around for much longer.

However, even with longer term goals, the Revenant is essentially geased by his own agenda. If the character has made no measurable progress towards his goal since the last sunset, he cannot be healed. If the character goes more than a day without making progress, he begins to bleed HP at Level/Day until he once again begins working towards his goal. Without constant focus on the force that allows the hero to transcend death, the divine energy cannot be retained by his spirit.

Revenant’s Speed

A possible benefit of being a Revenant, for games where it makes sense, is an increased rate of leveling: as an essentially magical being with a razor focus on attaining a goal, the limits of mortal learning do not apply to the character. Essentially, a Revenant levels faster than true mortals, quickly accumulating experience that would take a regular character years to achieve. Give the Revenant up to 10 times as much XP as you give a regular character (exact rate should vary based on how long you give the Revenant to live, whether you have a mixed party, and how fast characters normally level in the world… it may be reasonable to drastically cut the exp awarded to still-living characters if you want a world where only those on borrowed time achieve high level in the course of a single adventure path).

Less Gritty Option

As written, the rules reduce healing pretty much to +10 HP before a swift slope to Revenancy. If you want healing to matter a bit more, use the following options:

  • Number of dice of healing is actually applied to mundane HP. For example, a roll of 12 on 3d6 heals 3 mundane HP and 12 magic HP.
  • Character level is added to negative HP required to die. A third level character dies at -13, not -10.

These rules should allow magical healing to scale a bit more with level so it actually remains viable while still increasing the risk of Revenancy and reducing the efficiency of trying to heal to full after each encounter.

Consciousness Twinning

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(Originally posted August 2009)

I had an interesting idea for a weird-sciencey explanation for respawning in a scifi videogame context:

Late in the 21st century, we figured out transportation. You know, like Star Trek: the state of all your atoms and molecules and stuff is determined and replicated somewhere else. The method for doing it wound up being quite elegant, if you’re a big-brained string theorist guy. But, the interesting part, was the first guy they tried it on raised the obvious objections: “don’t I just die here and a copy of me is made somewhere else?” He made them see if they could create the copy somewhere else without destroying his current body. And damned if they couldn’t. But there was the weird part.

You’ve heard of quantum entanglement? The little quarks bouncing up and down one place and affecting their brother quarks across time and space with no regard for the speed of light? It turns out consciousness is like that. Something about your brain state, when it’s copied exactly, results in you basically being in two places at once. The first guy had to be put in sensory deprivation to deal with it, but he had two bodies and was aware of them at the same time. You have to be a special kind of person to be able to deal with that much sensory overload, though, and nobody’s figured out how to effectively use two bodies, yet.

Anyway, the persistence of consciousness issues aside, they tried a standard transport: kill a guy here and build him there. That worked out less well. That guy showed up at his destination with nasty gaps in memory and personality shifts. Turns out, without his consciousness holding the wave state open or whatever for even a moment, when they recreated him his brain pathways collapsed just a bit. They figured if they tried to clone someone out of cold storage that way, he might just wake up a vegetable. Religious folks rejoiced that there was something special about sapience, even if it was just the weird quantum wave form generated by the flow of electrons through your nerves.

There was a solution, for the wealthy or the special: a brain in a jar. You selectively clone someone’s brain, drop it in a nutrient bath, and go about your business. The guy dies or needs to be transported, there’s still a brain in a jar in a lab somewhere holding open those consciousness pathways, seeing everything the guy saw up to his moment of death, creating a stable platform to resurrect him on. Plus, if you stick a couple electrodes in the jar brain, you have a completely secure way of communicating with agents in the field by giving them the information in a locked-down facility and twinning it over to the live dude.

And that’s how the elite agents operate. They have a backup brain in a jar somewhere. They can receive orders deep in enemy territory, be transported willy-nilly wherever there’s resources to do so, and even be recreated with full memories after the moment of “death.” I hear it’s an awesome insurance package… if you trust your boss to own a working copy of your brain.

Modular Game Idea: The Star that Burns Brightest…

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Originally posted January 2007

Applicable To: Any massive multiplayer game that wishes to implement permanent death (PD) as a check against players ultimately clustering at the level cap/unsatisfying endgame, but doesn’t want to drive off newbies who are afraid that they’ll get killed.

All player characters have a flag that defaults to enabled, but can be disabled at will. When disabled, it can be re-enabled at will, with a slight delay period.

When the flag is enabled, the character is in safe mode (“insured,” “resurrectable,” “registered at the cloning facility,” or whatever else the world fiction is for recovering from losing a fight). The player plays the game normally.

Each time the flag is disabled, the player is warned that the character is now vulnerable to permanent death. Individual games may decide whether or not to allow some benefits to roll to a new character after a character dies permanently. When the flag is disabled, the character is deleted from the server on death, and the player must switch to an alternate character.

Additionally, while the flag is disabled, the character accrues intangible game rewards (exp, skill increases, etc.) at an X% greater rate. This percent increase can be tweaked to whatever provides the greatest risk/reward proposition to players. While the flag is disabled, the character’s level cap is Y% greater than the normal level cap; if the flag is re-enabled while the character is beyond the normal level cap, the extra levels are temporarily lost until the flag is once more disabled.

Disadvantages of this MGI:

  • Unflagged players will complain when they die
  • Flagged players will complain that they don’t receive the same leveling benefits as unflagged players
  • Add-ons and strategies will be developed to unflag the player for the optimal periods to still make use of the safety net when in actual danger (the reason for the delay on re-flagging, to prevent a mod that re-flags at the instant before death)

Advantages of this MGI:

  • The endgame can be tweaked to be difficult but possible for flagged characters. Unflagged characters gain a benefit of increased levels to tackle endgame challenges at the risk of permanent death. Outleveling the endgame becomes an ongoing risk commensurate with its rewards.
  • Those adamantly against PD regard the game as having no PD by default. Those most likely to outlevel content, for whom PD is a typically touted balancing mechanism, will be more likely to enable it for themselves.
  • Players can disable PD when they are in situations where PD would be unfair: when idle in a dangerous area, when engaging in unregulated PvP, when there is above average lag, etc.
  • Even in open PvP situations, griefers have no way to tell when most players are unflagged, so will not know who can be attacked in order to player kill (PK). The only players that are obviously unflagged are those beyond the level cap; these targets are both the hardest for griefers, and griefers will generally have to open themselves to PD to have a shot at killing them.