Friday, June 14, 2013

Danger vs Lethality in Roleplaying Games

Several weeks ago the Pelgrane Press website posted a very intriguing article on the versatility of 13th Age Backgrounds.  Taking this idea and running with it, someone posted some lasting wound houserules in the 13th Age Google+ group.  I've been thinking about this topic a lot lately.

It's no surprise that narrative-centric games tend to be less lethal compared with grittier simulationist-style games.  If the story is the most important aspect of the game, a dead PC can really muck things up.    Not only does it drastically affect the game's ongoing narrative, but precisely because the game is so focused on story that probably means that the player put a whole lot of creative effort into that character.  Of course if you go too far in that "safe" direction, what's the point?  If the chance of dying is negligibly small where's the risk?

At this point we need to make a distinction between danger and lethality.  Edge of the Empire is a great example of this.  True to its narrative roots, it's pretty hard for PCs to actually die in EotE.  And yet, I've heard a lot of comments about how "lethal" the system is.  That's not exactly true because lethality implies death (but who knows, maybe they had GMs that slit the PCs throats once they're unconscious).  Rather, it's extremely easy for PCs to drop in a fight, even if dropping doesn't come close to killing them.  Guns don't kill people, critical injury tables kill people!  Personally I think this is an extremely elegant solution as combat still feels appropriately dangerous and full of risk.  It was pretty clear from the start (well, if we ignore the Gamorrean encounter from the Beginner's Box...) that combat has real consequences.  My players became much more cautious than they are in d20 games, pretty much instinctively.  They actively tried to avoid combat (you know, like most real people do).  So you can have your cake (low risk of character death screwing the story), and eat it too (combat is still dangerous).  There's also more incentive to fight smart.

Because 13th Age uses inflating HP whereas Edge doesn't it's impossible to translate mechanics even remotely closely.  And yet, both games are narrative-focused systems with an emphasis on cinematic action.  Despite the similarities, combat presents few risks in 13th Age.  My Cleric player isn't even afraid of dropping because the death save rule is so generous, and besides that they don't drop very often (thanks to the fact that they're a Fighter, Paladin, and Cleric adventuring together).  Sure, combat's still fun, but it'd be more fun if there were more risk (despite the relative feeling of safety, my players still describe my encounters as "hard," and I agree completely).

I'm reminded of an episode from season 7 of Buffy, which I watched recently.  Buffy gets grievously injured fighting a turok-han (ubervamp), and it was precisely those injuries that made for a compelling story.  Buffy doesn't get seriously hurt all that often.  Heck, she's probably more likely to die ;)  It's pretty routine watching her fight monsters, but it soon becomes clear that she's outgunned.  The scene starts out as a typical fight scene, but soon it starts looking bad for our Slayer.  Instead of coming through victoriously as usual, the frame rate increases.  The turok-han appears to move even faster as he attacks Buffy, and the attacks get more brutal-looking.  Finally it crushes her under a big pile of debris, draining morale and hammering in the point that "this is bad."  In RPG terms she didn't just lose the fight, but she sustained a critical injury (or lasting wound).  The element of danger was very visceral even though the fight wasn't lethal.

Injuries aren't just for "simulationists," they make for compelling narrative, too!  They're a challenge to be overcome.  Players can be creative describing how the injury hampers them, and then they feel even better when they overcome the odds and emerge victorious.  There's a reason why most final fights see the hero facing a superior foe - it's more interesting and people generally like seeing the underdog prevail.

I'll conclude by referring to another example (because I watched Iron Man today).  Imagine if Obadiah hadn't built a bigger suit, or better yet if he hadn't stolen Tony Stark's second mini-arc reactor, leaving him with the less powerful prototype.  Would you be as emotionally invested in the movie's conclusion if Iron Man went into that final confrontation at full strength?  If he was able to win with brute force instead of being forced to use guile?  It would be completely anti-climactic.  Shouldn't this be exactly the type of thing that an RPG should model (cinematic combat, overcoming challenges, opportunities for player creativity)?  In my next post I'll brainstorm some ideas for injecting more danger into 13th Age.

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