Narrative Games in Dangerous Worlds

I realize that this could be a controversial topic.  It could stir up all sorts of gamer rage jargon.  Terms like sandbox, railroad, GM fiat.  Let me start off by saying this is a technique I use in very specific types of games.  It is not a constant at every game that I run.  Nor am I saying that this style of game is the only game type out there, or that it is the only way to run a successful game.   Got it?  Good.  Let’s talk about Plot Immunity.

Narrative Games in Dangerous Worlds

As the title of this post suggests, this technique is for a heavily story driven game in systems where one bad roll can see all the work that the players and GM put into the story destroyed.  The idea of Plot Immunity was an idea I have toyed around with behind the screen for years.  It started subtly.  I fudged rolls on behalf of the party, ignored monster’s critical hits on night when the rolls were in my favor.  But it became a formal idea during my Anima game.

This requires a brief explanation of how the Anima system works.  You roll percentile dice to attack and defend, adding in your skill percentage to your final roll.  However, if you roll a 01-03%, you have fumbled.  You roll again and subtract that roll from your skill, possibly giving you a negative final value.  If you roll a 90%+ you critical, and you roll again and add both rolls to your skill.  If that second roll is 91%+, you roll again. Each time the crit range decrease by one, but still the possibility exists for multiple critical rolls skyrocketing your final value.  The defense roll is subtracted from the attack roll, and the remainder converts to a % of your weapon damage.  Roll high enough to attack and you could very easily see upwards of 500% damage.  See where I am going with this?

It was not Dungeons and Dragons, where a critical does double damage.  This was a system where you could easily QUINTUPLE your damage in a single hit.  And if your enemy fumbled, that damage could increase even more.  This meant, mechanically, any PC was one bad roll from dying.  ‘Realistic’? Possibly.  Fun…. Not so much.  And with the story of the game being very player focused and narrative, I was not happy with this possibility.

Immunity

With this in mind, at the start of the game, I introduced a formalized Plot Immunity.  Simplified, it stated that unless the player went out of his way to do something death worthy, ie: leaping into a volcano, the PC could not die over the course of a standard session.  They could be rendered unconscious, and there would be in game consequences, but death would not be one of them.  It freed the players from the worry of the system and allowed them to focus on having fun with their characters, plots, and trying things they might not have attempted for fear of mechanical retribution.

This was balanced with specific encounters, usually revolving around the main villains of the game, where I revoked Plot Immunity.  Those scenes suddenly leapt up in intensity.  Everyone realized that something real was at stake.  It worked out well, abet with a little bit of refining needed as the game progressed.

Refined Definition

After the Anima Game, which you can read about here if you are interested, Plot Immunity went on the shelf.  After that I ran a number of games where it was not as appropriate.  A sandbox style exploration game in Adventurer, Conqueror, King.  A Legend of the Five Rings game, where death is always a single sword strike away.  A Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition game, which has built in Plot Immunity, because you have to TRY to kill the characters.  But this week we started a new game, using the Dungeons and Dragons Next rules set.  The co-DM and I talked about what we had planned and agreed that Plot Immunity was definitely applicable to this game.  But we still wanted a Next specific version of Immunity, so here is what we came up with.

If a character is reduced to 0 HP, they will begin to make death saves as normal.  If they would die for any reason, they instead suffer a campaign loss.  This could be a loss of limb, resources, or even freedom.  We told the group that it might even mean they have been captured and have to play the PC’s opponents during the rescue encounter.  Everyone at the table was on board, and realized that in inclusion of Plot Immunity also means there will be times where it will be revoked.

Keys to Use

Plot Immunity is a powerful narrative tool that enables both the GM and the players to play without a mechanical Doom of Damocles. But like all tools, it has a proper time and place for its use.  Here is some advice on how to use this mechanic.

Narrative PlayPlot Immunity works best when the players and the GM are focused on a narrative play style.  Notice I say players & GM.  You need to have player input and buy in for Plot Immunity to shine, and it works best when the players are driving the story.  Otherwise you risk running into some of negative aspects of railroading.  Also, this technique doesn’t work as well in a traditional sandbox style game.  That style’s focus on the perils of exploration, in my mind, necessitates the need for sudden death.

Requirements – If you are thinking about using this technique, refer to the title of the post, and see if it applies to your situation.  Again, this technique works best when the mechanics of the game system would work against the story.  The other important question to ask at this point is ‘Does this system make sense to use for this game.’  If you can switch to a system that better fits your play style, consider that.  But if you are dead set on playing a narrative focused game in, say, Anima, I would recommend using this technique.

Common Sense ­– This might be the most important piece of advice concerning Plot Immunity.  I saw Plot Immunity ruin a game.  Completely and utterly destroyed a friend’s game.  The GM was so focused on the story, that he ignored absurd situations that should have killed his PC’s.  Like starting a fight outnumbered 250:1.  The players soon stopped taking the game seriously and the GM stopped running the game in frustration, after a session where one PC rode a ballista bolt into the front line of an attacking army… naked.   So make it clear to you players that while they are immune to some of mechanical aspects that might kill their characters, they are not immune to their own stupidity.

As with all GMing techniques and house rules, communicate with your players.  If you decide to use Plot Immunity, let them know what it means to you, and how you plan to mechanically enforce it.  I did not do this well in the Anima game, and a player lost a character due to the fact that I had not figured out how to implement Immunity.  I hope that this helps you avoid the scars I earned putting this tool into play.

 

Monday’s post will be one part of the prologue from my new Ta’nar novel.  I am breaking it up into 6 posts, each part being released for the next month and a half.

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2 thoughts on “Narrative Games in Dangerous Worlds

  1. […] rules, how pervasive the possibility of death is. There are ways around this (see my article on Plot Immunity), but the first step in understanding how death works in your game is to….well…. understand how […]

  2. […] of the things we mention is Plot Immunity, which you can read more by visiting JM’s blog. If you have a story of how you or your players failed forward, we’d love to hear about it. […]

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