Sunday, August 5, 2012

Adjusting Lethality

I am a big believer in the very real threat of character death. For me, both as a player and GM, there is no fun unless there is also some risk, and to have punch it needs to be genuine loss of life and limb. But that is just me, one gamer in an endless sea of gamers with a wide range of sensibilities. And this fact doesn't escape me when I am GMing. While I love the thrill as a player of dodging lethal blows and facing possible death, when I run a game I recognize the preferences of the group are just as important as my own. While I do advocate for my prefered style of play, I also try to gauge the group's expectations and attitudes. It helps if the system you are using has some built in dials to help you adjust the level of lethality to the needs of your game, but a good GM knows how to make adjustements in even the most rigid systems.

Everyone has a different sense of how likely character death should be and how much parity between PCs and NPCs a game ought to have. In talking with players I usually detect three key areas of measurement: appropriateness (when is it appropriate for death to occur), fairness (what level of lethality is fair to the players) and fun (how much character death enhances or harms the player's fun). It sometimes helps to go over these a bit.

My default is as follows: it is appropriate for characters to die when it would be realistic for them to do so, it is fair for characters to die when the in-game events and dice dictate, and it is fun for characters to die a at any stage in the game. So I am probably on the extreme side of let the dice fall where they may, stop your whining and roll up a new guy. However when I get behind the screen, I know I can't just go full throttle with every group. So I ask people for thoughts on the subject between sessions and I explain to them how I intend to handle things.

For example, if I sense that players want me to pull my punches just a bit, I will in fact do so. But I will say to them, in this game, any time a character is surprised (be it NPC or PC) we are going to use optional damage X to increase lethality a bit and make it a touch more realistic.

There is a term for this in gamer circles, it is called being ninja'd. Identifying how comfortable your group is with the concept is critical. Some players expect any character caught unawares to die nearly instantly, and express dissapointment when the majority of RPG systems fail to provide this (though certainly there are some lethal systems that allow it). Other express frustration because they feel it makes the adventure too easy when players ninja critical NPCs. My own opinion is it's wonderful when the party comes up with a cool plan to take out the enemy through stealth.

But this is a door that swings both ways. What is good for the goose is good for the gander so my assumption as a GM is its equally okay for NPCs to ninja PCs when they have an opportunity and desire to do so. But, as you may have guessed, I've met a lot of players who consider this unfair. They don't mind NPCs being ninja'd by PCs, but turn that around and it ruins the game for them. In these cases I have no problem pulling my punches a bit, but it is generally a good idea to make sure the entire group is in agreement on the subject if you decide to use this double standard (and it is a double standard that will disrupt disbelief for some people).

There is another problem that arises here, what if you use a system or agree to use options that make instant kills highly unlikely. As an example, the network system (which is what we use in Servants of Gaius and Terror Network) has two options: closed damage and open damage. Open damage is lethal. With weapons that do 3d10 damage there is a 12% chance of dropping even the toughest of opponents (that chance rises for foe's with lower Hardiness ratings). In my own games I use open damage for any surprise attack. This means if I have a scenario where a bunch of senators are murdered by getting stabbed in the back, these are things the PCs could conceivably also do and not something I am just allowing NPCs to perform for the sake of plot. But if the players want to avoid open damage and only used closed damage (even for surprise attacks) I am more limited, because closed damage rolls are a dice pool with only the single highest result being reckoned (so typically one wound, and two on a ten result). So you have to chip away at a foe a bit (since characters in Network don't drop until they take three wounds). It also means if I have a murder mystery scenario it is a bit odd when the NPCs kill by stabbing guys in the back, but it takes the characters several rounds to do so and usually results in the target escaping.

In a mixed group of players this can be a big problem because some will be totally fine with (and even expect) characters dropping like flies, while others expect the GM to wear 16 ounce gloves (instead of the standard 10-12 ounce ones). For me, ten ounce gloves are slick and fun, but 16 ounce gloves are unweildy and make slow and lumbering matches. I am sure this analogy breaks down on further inspection but I think it has some value here.

This is why I like to use dials in my games. We started with this in Terror Network, by having two types of character sheets with different wound ranges. As our lines expanded we broadened this to three and started adding more optional rules for criticals and damage rolls. I think in the end, this is so specific to each group, that one size fits all is a bit tricky. It is also a question of setting as well.

For instance, a D&D dungeon crawl may get frustrating if each blow has a chance to kill your character. But in a mafia setting, it is equally frustrating if you can' t kill or be killed in a single blow (at least for some people it is).

Ultimately you need to decide what works best for you, then make sure you and your players are on the same page. A lot of conflicts at the table seem to arise when folks have differing expectations about lethality.


  1. When hammering home the real risk of loss of either life or limb, I tend to always go for the limb first. In a system which makes this survivable, it really hones everyone's attention to how dangerous a combat can be. Every combat.

  2. Interesting! Of course, I agree that groups need to find their own preference. For me, the key thing for combat is that it be consequential. Lethality is one consequence, but how lethal combat ought to be depends a lot on genre, and what the game is focusing on.

    In political, intrigue or organized crime games, combat is often straight-up murder, the culmination of a process of social conflict. One roll combat is appropriate because the conflict was well underway before 'combat' started. Death is important because, usually, you're trying to prevent someone from revealing information, which they can do just as well when they're injured. With that in mind, the damage track could be: Healthy, Shaken, Comatose, Dead.

    The death itself is a big deal - it's usually illegal (or at least reputation-busting), so it's a big secret, and managing who knows about it becomes the next problem.

    You can have also games where combat is very consequential, even if death is nearly impossible. Needing to hold objectives, force the rebels out of the treasury, fighting your way to the king before he's captured, or fight bravely enough not to be considered a coward might all be mechanically or narratively meaningful enough that players are on the edge of their seats for every combat. When a loss means that everything the players currently care about comes to ruin, all the better if they're alive to taste bitter defeat!

    A pulp system might be about how cool your character looks while winning (think Indiana Jones, bumping along under the truck), or perhaps where and when you win, rather than /whether/ you win.

    Adventure path-style D&D (linear and combat-centric) inhabits a tricky spot, because combat is so commonplace and grindy that fights just can't be meaningful on their own. (It might take, for example, ten fights in a row to accomplish a plot objective, so the fights individually are more about 'how it goes down' than what's on the line.) This is underscored by the hit point approach, where basically nothing happens to you until you run out; managing the risk of death is a little like budgeting for groceries.

    So D&D combat goes the other way, trying to make combat inherently interesting rather than consequential. It's about enjoying the sand castle you're building - using your newly purchased, clever feat combos you had your eye on since level 1, and reacting to novel tactical challenges (invisibility, reach, interesting locations, etc.)

    I don't think increased lethality makes this sort of combat better - D&D characters have become so complicated over the editions that to have one die is like having the tide take your sand castle, it mostly just sucks! (Though, I have seen more than a few people express gratitude, now they have an opportunity to play a character with different tactical options.)

  3. I agree genre is a big consideration. That was one of the reasons I mentioned dungeon crawls versus mafia (in the former you don't want characters dropping every other fight but in the latter most players seem to prefer high rates of lethality because the genre is about spilling PC and NPC blood). For me the first consideration is how gritty the genre is. If I am playing pulp then nerfing the lethality makes sense to me, if I am playing a more gritty horror setting then I want more lethal options. But I think in general I hover more on the side of lethal.

    For me the measure of a systems lethality is how likely or possible is charact death from a single attack.