Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Death: The end and the beginning

Death as the archetypal spectre, scythe in hand, looms over the game of larp with palpable gloom. All who play larp can attest to the adrenaline rush inherent within a death defying situation. We play the game for moments where the real falls aways and we are immersed in the moments of fantasy, fear is one of the most powerful propellants to those moments. Yet we as plot runners must be careful, because death can also turn players away. The loss of a favored character can drive a person to a new game or away from LARPs completely. How do we balance these two opposing end points? How do we maintain the immersion while tempering the loss?

It is important to begin with why death is essential to the structure of a good LARP. Realism, within the confines of a fantasy world, dictates that actions must have consequences. These consequences can be large or small, but in the end there must be a final consequence to deter rash action. Death is the generally accepted manifestation of that consequence. The permanent loss of life and playability of a character is the ultimate end point for any series of bad decisions. So realism as defined here is not the same as realism in a novel, we are merely discussing actions and consequences, good actions gain rewards, bad actions lose something ending in death.

Abstractly then, when is death appropriate? It is appropriate when it was predicated by a series of bad decisions. In the game of NERO, it is highly unlikely that you will permanently die without making bade decisions along the way, multiple deaths and buyback provide a safety net from accidental death. So if death is appropriate when led to by bad decisions, how do we make other situations harrowing? NERO handles this through multiple deaths as stated before, it could also be handled by alternative consequences. Look at the comic book heroes who are not inherently death proof, the Punisher, Batman, etc, these characters fail from time to time but they do not always die. Sometimes they are captured, sometimes their identity is put at risk. Plot runners should take note, death is the final consequence not the only consequence.

When will death lead to player dissatisfaction? When it appears inevitable and unwinnable. No module should be designed in such a way that it is unwinnable. There can be fear, a dark period where the heroes are unsure if they will pull through but they should always be able to see that light at the end of the tunnel. Victory should be a handsbreath away and they should succeed or fail on their own actions and decisions. This is why it is so important to have experienced staff and plot, on the fly scaling can make an encounter feel right on the edge much more cleanly than prescaling can. A classic example of this in media is the original Star Wars trilogy, A new Hope ends on an upbeat, then their is the dark period of Empire and finally the poignant victory of Jedi, victory is always in sight but the decisions of teh main characters decide the ending( I am such a dork)

So then what is death? It is our final stick, the big motivator, it drives the players to make accurate, concise, timely decisions. We as plot must be careful to not under or overuse it. Underuse leads to a story that feels unpressed, overuse leads to player disatisfaction. Death is your greatest tool ladies and gentlement, keep its edge sharp with constant reminders but do not dull it on menial tasks.


  1. I actually don't agree with the basic premise of this. Death is not punishment for bad decisions. It should be a part of a risk/reward decision associated with everything that we do.

    If you want to win big, you have to be willing to go big or go home. Only using death as a punishment for bad decisions would create a class-like system in the game, with high level players who make good decisions and low level players who make bad decision (and thus keep dying).

    Everyone should be wary of death, because it's a risk. There's a chance that you might die when you fight a dragon, whether you make the right decisions or not.

  2. See, this is actually a mistake.

    "No module should be designed in such a way that it is unwinnable."

    I'm a firm believer in monkey traps. Side stuff that isn't needed to do what you came to do, but can end up turning greedy adventurers into dead ones. Take a mod I NPC'd at one point, where the adventurers were there to recover a ritual scroll from a library and escape before the lich came back from a nightly jaunt. The scroll was perched neatly on a table, with a few traps and such- but could be gotten relatively easily and quickly.

    Well, the library had what was effectively an unlimited number of minor guardians- all of which had scrolls (mostly non-ritual) as treasure. We had one party literally sit there and decide to "kill the guardians till the treasure ran out". Eventually, they killed and looted their way through about 30 scrolls worth of treasure...and number thirty was the one that alerted the lich after two hours of laying waste to low-level undead.

    The lich proceeded to rift in with it's retainers, being rather wrathful that mortals had laid waste to it's library. Total party kill.

    I've always said death should be a "stupidity tax"- that greedy or foolish acts should be fatal, the more so as characters get to higher levels and should know better to begin with. The impression PC's get when Plot says "There should always be a way to win" is "Plot will always make sure we win in the end.". And they shouldn't.

  3. It all depends on the definition of winning the mod. I'm pretty sure that Tim was referencing modules that are intended to intimidate the PCs without a way for them to win. In your example, there was a clear win condition - get the appropriate scroll.

    I certainly wouldn't put a trap like that for no other reason than to be spiteful. You want to PCs to learn to process information to make good decisions. Too many easy win mods, and they steamroll. But too many death traps for the sake of having a death trap, and you'll instead train the PCs to do nothing whatsoever.