I saw some discussions this week on Tomb of Horrors and it got me thinking about lethality and fun in RPGs (something I've posted about plenty before). Personally I don't want to weigh in on the module. If someone doesn't like it, or if someone likes it, that really isn't something that affects me much. But I was interested in the discussions it generated because this is one of those topics that always comes up among gamers, and it isn't limited to intense fans online. So I think it is a topic that is important for people to talk about, to set expectations around. Lately I've been thinking about how it emerged in each of our games.
I view lethality as both a mechanical and GMing matter. Character death is more likely to come up in some systems than others, and a lot of it is baked into the mechanics themselves. But from the GM side, how hard you push the players, how often you take off the kid gloves, these all impact whether characters live or die. So even if you are playing the game 100%, the GM still has a huge impact on survivability. And for me lethality changes a lot from campaign to campaign.
All approaches are viable here. If players want a game where PCs have a little extra padding form death, especially if they are focused on things away from combat, that can be a lot of fun. But when I am doing a mafia game or a classic dungeon crawl, I like having death on the table. I've enjoyed high body count games, games where characters never die, and games that in the middle. You can see this in our games as well.
Crime Network is meant to be lethal (and in my opinion the core rules actually are not quite lethal enough). Of all of our early Network Games (pre-Servants of Gaius), Crime Network encouraged character death more than any other. Some of our later games have shifted from that a bit. Sertorius is meant to be more in the middle, for example, because we wanted dungeon crawls and crazy magical battles. The real reason we made Sertori demigods emerged from this. Originally Sertori were normal men who manipulated magical energy but every time I ran a dungeon crawl they kept dying. So I decided to give them a bunch of extra Max Wounds out of the gate to act as a buffer, then we explained this after the fact with the whole 'fragment of a dead god in their soul'. Having an ancient deity die and release magic into the world was there from the start, but initially it was imagined as energy flowing freely in the world that people could manipulate, not located in the PCs themselves. So in Sertorius we gave PCs enough health that they could survive, but they'd still die if they were unlucky or pushed beyond their limits (and this panned out in play with a number of PC deaths). This then informed the flavor of the setting.
When we got to Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate (which should go to layout in February by the way), I wanted to bring the lethality more into the control of the characters and NPC but still have death be a threat. I didn't want to eliminate it completely, because it is a bloody genre, but the aim wasn't to accidentally slaughter PCs or make character death a frequent thing. What I wanted was for killing to be a bit of a choice. I also wanted characters to be harder to kill as they grew in power but easier to kill early on. So we established that there was a certain expectation that people controlled their attacks, and we gave PCs the ability to do that. That way if you dish out 7 wounds, you can control it so it only inflicts 5 if your foe has just 5 wounds remaining (instead of killing him---though you can opt to kill). This applies to NPCs as well. The same thing applies to maiming. It is a choice. It can still be unexpectedly lethal to the players if they take on a Profound Master who is hell-bent on killing people in her path, of course. We also increased wounds with Qi level to make characters tougher as time passed.
So with Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate, PCs still die, but it is unlikely that a foe will accidentally kill you. Generally characters will die when an NPC is truly intent on doing them harm, or if they do something like fall off of a 200 foot cliff. The same goes for maiming, and it is a two way street as well (so players can exert control with their techniques to decide if they want to deliver a killing blow or not).
I find all these different approaches enjoyable for very different reasons. To me it comes down to two thing: what the campaign/game is about and the gaming sensibilities of the players at my table. Personally as a Player, I find I have more fun when things are lethal. As a GM I liked the sense of uncertainty the potential for character death can create but I am pretty flexible since my goal is to entertain my players.
In the right group, a super lethal grind can be a lot of fun. But games where you pretty much know the characters will survive can also be enjoyable. When I was a younger GM a leaned more toward the latter, then later leaned toward the former. Now I realize I have more fun, and so do my players, if I gauge their preferences on the matter and run the game accordingly. Or if a certain amount of lethality is real important to the concept (like Call of Cthulu or Crime Network), I simply explain this is part of the premise and they should be prepared for character death.