206 – The Illusion of Death in RPGs

The Mythcreant Podcast

Players don’t just want to win. They want to win by the skin of their teeth. They want to feel like the dragon could have eaten them and they just barely got away. So how do you create that feeling without actually killing any characters? That’s what we’re talking about this week, including everything from how to make your villains threatening to what happens if you actually do kill off PCs whenever the dice say to. Also, a few strolls down memory lane to the campaigns of yesteryear!

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Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton. Used with permission.

Show Notes:

Torchbearer Cave Troll Fight



Stalagmites and Stalactites

Sequel Campaigns

Ned Stark

Season 3 Buffy

5E D&D

Legend of the Five Rings

Tenra Bansho Zero

Treat your friends to an evening of dark ritual murder. In a fictional game scenario, of course. Uncover your lost memories and save the day in our stand-alone game, The Voyage.

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  1. Alejandro A Zarate

    I love your show, but I take UMBRAGE at the idea that dice should be fudged to avoid character death.

    If you find yourself having to ignore the rules of a game, then probably one of these is happening: a) either you’re playing the game wrong, or b) you’re playing the wrong game, or c) the game Is terribly designed.

    If you find the game you’re playing has too high lethality foto your taste, maybe it’s meant to ve that way. Maybe it’s meant to encourage you to avoid combat at all costs like in Cthulhu Dark, where engaging a creature in combat always means you automatically die. Maybe the survival element is part of what makes it fun, like with old school D&D (after all, if character creation Is little more than rolling 3d6 six times o
    in order and picking one of seven clases, you should be back playing in no time).

    If character death bugs you so much, why not play games in which character death is not an option? Example: Icons, a superhero game based on FATE, specifically states that in the superhero genre death isn’t ever permanent, so your character will be back in a couple sessions. It makes a lot more sense to just play a nonlethal game than to roll dice and then just do whatever you like (which is pretty much just playing pretend but with a plastic rattling pantomime).

    Okay, that’s out of my system. Love the show, I just really strongly disagree on that one point.

  2. Matthew

    DO NOT fudge your dice rolls. If you fudge rolls to save characters (or to kill them) you are just a lying cheater.

    There are an infinite number of ways to have the game you’re playing create the kinds of results that you want, if you set up the initial conditions properly. If your group decides that character death is off the table (this is a conversation for session zero), then you should arrange the game beforehand to prevent this from happening.

  3. Lizard with Hat

    I personally don’t fudge dice, but my players are aware of that fact and they like the unpredictability of taking any role as I comes.
    Our safety feature is that character death (or severe injuries) can be taken if the player likes but are not a must – except the deliberately overextend.

    And yes i had fights where the opponents lost through bad look but this adds to my players enjoyment as they see that they are not the only ones with bad luck.

    I think the vail between in-time and out-time are quite blurry in my groups and I have nothing against fudging dice, its a matter of taste i guess.

  4. TheKazz

    My personal take on this is that as a GM you are not a slave to the rules and mechanics of the system you are running but you should try to follow the rules as much as possible. Personally I am ok with fudging some rolls in rare instances or possibly to just not roll if you’re try to drive a very cinematic scene for example think of the chase scenes in Lord of the Rings or the Hobbit when they are running from the goblins/balrog. If you are trying to create a scene with that sort of tension I think it’s perfectly reasonable to simply allow the entire success/failure state rest on the skill checks of the players and as the GM not roll any dice at all. I will run these as extended skill checks where the players basically need to not get say 3 failures in 5 rolls assuming they don’t fail the skill challenge then when a horde of goblis try to attack them when they run by I don’t roll an attack for the goblins they just fail their attack because the player hasn’t failed 3 of their tests yet. Basically bust because something might feel like a combat scenario doesn’t mean you need to use the mechanics for combat in that situation this keeps the tension high without allowing the mechanics to dictate how you are telling the story.

    I will say you should avoid changing dice rolls for things that are directly detrimental to your PCs whether it is in their favor or not. That said you again you are the GM you don’t need to be a slave to the mechanics of the system. If the rules say the PC should be dead it is completely within your power to say “fuck that you wake up in a dark room tied to a chair with a orc standing over you and now need to figure out how to escape.” Allowing your heroes to be flat out killed because they lost a fight when you don’t want them to die is a result of you as a GM lacking the creativity to apply appropriate non-lethal consequences to their failure. It’s the opposite side of the coin to something that plagues every GM which is when players think that the only solution to any given problem is stabbing it in the face and being murder hobos. Your NPCs don’t have to be murder hobos any more than your PCs do. A big part of what I do as part of my prep as a GM is creating fail state encounters. If I have a 12 foot wide chasm that I know they will need to cross as part of an encounter I have a “what if” encounter ready for them should one or more of them fail to make it across and end up falling into said chasm if none of them fall then that what if encounter gets tucked away so I have something that’s already prepared for the next time I have a chasm or “bottomless pit” type hazard. If they are fighting a tough group of bandit I have a what if they lose to the bandits encounter ready where maybe they are captured caged and sold as slaves. This derails the adventure and gives the players a story based consequences to their actions that then now need to resolve.

    In cases of a partial failure for example two out of four party members hit 0 hp in the encounter but the other two finish the fight those two PCs that “died” may just be gravely wounded and the surviving two members now need to desperately attempt to keep them alive by finding medical herbs while the two that fail find themselves in an astral form where theier spirits must fight to keep a connection to their physical bodies long enough for their friends to find those healing herbs and get them back on their feet. Maybe they have a near death experience and get sent to hell or some other outter plane only for their patron deity to send them back to complete some holy mission. There was even a time when one of my PCs should have died and instead I told him he got his sword arm mangled which got infected and they to have the arm amputated. So they had to spend a fair amount of time learning to fight with their off hand and eventually got a magical construct to replace their lost arm and ended up being ambidextrous after that and had a sweet cyborg arm. So this is one of my favorite things to do when my players fail combat as there are some serious consequences for failure but it eventually gets to the point where had they not had that failure they wouldn’t have got some really cool thing later down the road so my players learn to embrace failure and understand that it’s not always a bad thing and can lead to some pretty awesome upsides later.

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