Dealing With Death – Part 4 – When It Happens

Over the course of this series, I have talked about preparing for death in a campaign. But today I want to wrap up by taking a look at how to handle the moment at the table when death emerges.

The Painful Sting

For GMs, it is important to remember that there is loss in death. Obviously, the longer the character has been involved in the story, the greater the loss GMs and players will feel. It is only natural. You have worked with that player to involve the character within the emergent story. New players tend to take the loss of characters harder than experienced players, but this is not always the case.  You know your players better than I do, but one thing aids in dealing with a character death. Taking the time to recognize the characters passing.

It does not have to be elaborate, although I have heard about games where wakes and funerals are held for characters who have passed.  I have a simple tradition at my table. When a character dies, once it is irrevocable, I stand and give the player a sharp salute. It started off because I wanted provide some sort of recognition when a character passed from the game. I gave the salute because it was quick and obvious, but as it worked its way into my games, something strange developed. The salute became a ceremony, a rallying signal for the group to take a moment for the dead character. It is usually accompanied by curses, laughter, a round of quick comments, ect. After the session, I try to chat about the death, if we have time, or if it is exceptionally painful.

I have come to believe that this is an important piece of dealing with character’s dying in the game. Creating a group tradition around death can establish how players react when their character dies. Whether it plays out reverently or irreverently depends greatly on your group and the situation.  It can remove the sting by providing a framework for dealing with it.

Conclusion

Death is a pretty heady subject to tackle, even if it is only character death. I feel like I have just scratched the surface with this article, I am sure greater minds could spend four times the time on this subject. But I hope that this gave you some things to think about and some new ways to use and deal with character death in your game.

In October, I will start a series on 13th Age GMing. The game is unique and has some unique narrative components that I think are very insightful, but they require some thought to get the most out of them. See you next week.

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Some of My Icons

In response to some inquiries about my home world, I thought that today, instead of a review I would post my icons from my Player’s Guide.

Icons of Ta’nar –

The Black Duke – Yizgarth

hails from the island kingdom of Yalith and is lord of the soul-stealing Banetal.  He has sent his agents and thralls southward where they scour the Desolates searching what the Duke desires.

The Condemned – The Rivener

is a mystery from a previous age.  The wight travels about Sentali, seeking out the gnarls of fate that would cause global upheaval and ends all involved with amoral brutality.  Constantly seeking absolution for an unknown crime, his bloodstained trail crisscrosses the continent.

The Dracolich – Zenhir

born from the ashes of the Fifth Age, the Dragon Emperor has risen again, set free by the deeds of foolish mortals. The dread Zenhir seeks to reclaim what was taken from him at the turning of the Sixth Age. Namely, the world and all within it.

The Empress – Reayne of Kardane

is the ruler of the largest empire on Sentali. Ensconced the north of the Desolates in Mo’zanbaal, her eyes and agents are focused southward pursuing the stability of Grand Empire.

The First Born

is a presence that forms foul cults dedicated to those beyond the wall of time.  None know who or what the First Born is, but daemons answer the call of its faithful.

The Grasp of Vengeance – Hystal

is more than just the first among equals in the hierarchy of the Cult of Shadow’s Reach.  The priest is rabid in his devotion to the goddess Ganagal, Mistress of Vengeance and will use whatever power, born within this world and without, to assure his mistress’ dominion of Ta’nar.

The Guild of Falling Leaves

is ostentatiously a trading guild with routes that spread like a web through Sentali.  However, the Guild also trades in contraband products and deeds, guided by the enigmatic Father of Acquired Gain.

The Hosts – The Pantheons of Sentali

contain a myriad of Immortals, Celestials, and Empyreals. Many worship the whole of a pantheon or focus their efforts towards the cult of a single god.

The Lord of Undeath – Demoloth

is a name still feared in Sentali.  A Daemon Lord from a previous age, its touch was never truly scrubbed clean from the surface of Ta’nar, and its presence lingers in the dead places of the world and within the bodies of the Pale Elves.

The Keeper of the Sands – Ullia Stonehoof

watches over the independent town of Wildcove.  More than that, the Auxeness has formed a bond with the lands of the Desolates, and seeks to preserve its identity in the face of those who would claim it.

The Magistier – Berilond the Wise

ruler of the High Elf sky city of Innoril, Berilond is heir to a legacy of Elven magics that stretch back to the dawn of time.  He is consumed by the desire to see the High Elves reclaim their relevance in the 7th Age.

The Possessed King – KurNokThal

is blessed or cursed by the near constant presence of Dwharven god, Mogondral.  The heir to the lost throne of Draggnaul, the Dwharven god-prince serves as banner and warning to his kin in the Desolates.

The Spellqueen of Estaliin – Shajell Jaluth

rules the hidden refuge of the Wood Elves.  Aware of all that occurs within her demesne, the Spellqueen senses the encroachment of ancient powers that seek to consume her people in chaos and fire, and plots to end them.

The Wanderer

crops up in the myths and legends of Sentali.  It is his lawful guidance that keeps the world from falling into darkness.
For this post, I am just shared the overviews of the icons.  In October, I plan on posting the full page write-ups. Let me know what you think.

Dealing With Death – Part 3 – Balance

GMs view death in a game in a multitude of ways. You may be a GM that shies away from death in campaigns at all costs, due to the shattering impact it would have on the group’s story.  You may also be a GM that slashes through characters with a Plot Sword of Character Slaying +5 on a weekly basis. But, I suspect that for the majority of us, the reality is somewhere between those two extremes.

Finding Your Death Balance

Trying to strike the right balance of death in you game can be tricky. If you include too much, your players are rolling up new characters every session.  This can lead to a grind-fest where players cannot connect to a character or to the story. The players are not invested enough to worry about the consequences of their actions.  If you have too little, your players could become convinced that their characters are immortal. This can lead to a game where the players are shocked and hurt when their characters do die or games where the absurd becomes commonplace.

The first step in finding this balance is to recognize that inclusion of death in your games doesn’t mean you are hunting for it. Just because you want to make it a possibility in your games, you don’t have to suddenly plan elaborate death traps and triple strength encounters. Or that you have to cut them out for that matter. Remember, you are looking for a balance.

The second step is to take some time for a self-assessment.  You want to take a good look at your game and your style of GMing.  Look for places you have been avoiding or searching for (consciously or sub-consciously) character death. Here are some things to look for.  Do you fudge die rolls in a fight? Do you consistently plan encounters that are at extreme ends of the Challenge Rating? Do you routinely make choices in combats to give your players or the monsters the edge?

If so, take a step back and consider the opposite side of the spectrum. Harder encounters do have the potential for more death.  But they can also be more engaging. Surviving them can be more satisfying.  I also find that I learn more about the system, both as a player and a GM, from the tough fights. On the flip side, easier encounters provide an immediate sense of accomplishment. They are a great way to give players, and GMs, a way to learn new abilities or system content.

What I am searching for is a balance that instills my players with the recognition that death is a real and viable possibility, but without it looming over their heads. Like most things in life, striking a balance is difficult but ultimately rewarding. Where do you fall on the Insta-death to Immortal scale?

Next week we wrap up the death articles and I will announce my October focus.

Shadows of Esteren – Book 0

One of my unexpected purchases at Gen Con was a line of RPG books for a game called Shadows of Esteren. I had heard about this game obliquely as its kickstarters were running. While it looked interesting, I had plenty of other kickstarters to be keeping track of. However at Gen Con, I found myself continually looping back to their booth. I was entranced by the miniatures, the art of the covers, and the components of their Black Rose board game. So by Saturday, I had made up my mind to look over their Gen Con specials and walked away with every book they had (physical copies and PDFs), a number of miniatures, the boardgame, and some very cool metal coinage.

It was not until I got home that I discovered that the first book – Prologue – is available free here. And at that price, I have to recommend you check it out.

Book 0 – Prologue Review

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Book 0 is an 83-page PDF. The first thing that stood out to me is the art. It’s amazing. It seems like every page has a piece that made me pause my reading and stare at. The art within Book 0 reminded me a lot of Rackham’s Confrontation line. Unlike Confrontation (or more specifically Cadwallon), Agate RPG (the original publisher of this French RPG) seems to have done a much better job at translation. Some of the passages might require a re-read, but this is due to denseness of the writing and not badly translated sentences.

Book 0 contains everything you need to start a Shadows of Esteren game. And I do mean everything. This book has setting, GM advice, pre-generated characters, a rules overview, and three scenarios.

The setting of Tri-Kazel is Celtic inspired, with a broad gothic influence. It is a land trapped between the forces of tradition, magic, science, and religion. I feel like the setting is embroiled in a conflict that has a very Renaissance bent without moving out of the realm of traditional fantasy. It also contains creatures known as the Feondas, one of the sources of horror within the setting.

The game system is simple and has a slightly different focus than most games. It is focused on psychological attributes instead of physical and mental abstractions. The Ways, which take the place of attributes in most games, are measurements of five different aspects of your character’s personality: Combativeness, Creativity, Empathy, Reason and Conviction. There are multiple interpretations of what strength and weakness in a Way means in the game, like how low ratings can be boons and high ones can be flaws.

The main resolution mechanic is Way + Skill rating + D10 vs a Target Number. If your character’s Way + Skill is equal to or greater than the TN, you succeed without a roll. Combat seems simple and quick, and you can take mental wounds as well as physical ones. The full sanity rules are found in Book 1.

The six pre-generated characters round out the first chapter of the book. All in all, the setting, system, and characters only take up 32 pages of this PDF. The lion’s share of the book is the triptych of adventures. Book 0 gives you some advice on what order to play the scenarios and provides built-in ties to the pre-generated characters. One of the best parts of the Shadows of Esteren adventures is the modular horror of the system. The book breaks down horror into Gore, Suspense, Psychology, and Supernatural. At a variety of different scenes in the adventures, the writers call out how to add or highlight these types of horror for your group. The four types each have a symbol for easy GM recognition. If you group finds gore blasé but is all about psychological horror, ignore the gore, and use every psychology enhancement that you can. The book also highlights GM tips and important information for you as you are running the game. Finally, each scene of the adventures has suggested background music from a variety of soundtracks.

Conclusion

What you get in Book 0 is a free introduction to the system and world of Shadows of Esteren. It acts as a great player’s guide for your group, and the adventures are well written and sure to hook your group. Book 0 is a quick read, and if your group likes George R.R. Martin or fantasy games with a horror twist, check this game-line out! If you like what you see, you can get the rest of the PDFs on Agate’s Drivethru page, or hardcopies through your FLGS. The physical copies are just as gorgeous as their PDFs would suggest. I for one, cannot wait to run this game for my gaming group. Perhaps as a one-shot for Halloween…

Dealing With Death – Part 2 – What is it Good For?

You may be asking, ”Why would I even consider looking at death as an option in my games?” I know that for a while it was something that I actively avoided. It can cause lacunas in the story, hurt feelings, and angry players. I used things like plot immunity, enemies that played a bit dumb, and even captured the PCs when it didn’t make sense to instead of letting them die.

I am not saying that any of these techniques are wrong or even worthless.  I still actively employ most of them in the games I run. But to be clear, I am not talking about avoiding death in the final session when everything is on the line. As I have delved into the OSR community and begun looking at a variety of rule sets for this blog, I have begun to see the benefit of including death in my games.  Just like with the other techniques I use, I believe that there is a time and place for system’s death rules to be run rules as written.

Highlights

Deaths in the course of a campaign, as in the course of our own lives, serve as milestones.  They cause moments to be defined in relationship to their occurrence. Campaigns’ memories cling to these markers for players, and campaigns can become defined by what happened before and after the death.  The stories that are retold in my gaming group usually center around the character deaths. In my Exalted game, which took place in 2006, the single moment that is brought up most often is when Loki died to ensure that the Mask of Winters would be destroyed for eternity.  In my D&D games, people still talk about Chris’ heroic deaths, which are usually sacrificial in nature.  In my last 13th Age game, the fight with Marrowbreath, which claimed the lives of two characters, was often referenced during downtime. While your campaign may still be highlighted by other moments, and I assume they are, don’t discount death as potent mile marker.

Motivations

A character death can serve as a powerful expression of party motivation.  It can cause a dramatic shift in a game’s direction. A character who sacrifices himself to ensure a party’s escape is immortalized in canon by the survivors, causing the group to anneal or dedicate itself to the dead character’s ideals.  A minor encounter with a villain that slays a character or two suddenly causes the group to focus the story on a hunt for that villain in the name of vengeance.  In my opinion, there are few mechanical components of a game that have as strong of a narrative impact as the death rules.

Recycling

As in nature, death can lead to renewal.  Players get to experience a wider variety of characters, classes, and role-playing if they embrace character death. Deaths can also introduce story changes that, while unexpected, breathe new life into a campaign.  While I do understand the draw of seeing your PCs cross the finish line intact from the inception of the game, I am beginning to believe that it should be an unexpected bonus and not a forgone conclusion.

Learning

Sometimes character death is a learning experience for players. It reinforces an aspect of the playstyle or game play of a system that they may be unaware of. Perhaps you should not go charging into the room in front of the fighter.  Maybe sleeping in the camp of the recently slain bandits is a bad idea. Maybe you should not lick the walls of strange cave systems…ever. While OSR games tend to treat character lives as cheaply as the paper they are printed on, they do lend themselves to mastery. If an action leads to a character death, you might be back in the game in 10 minutes with a new character, but I bet you won’t take that action again.

Conclusion

These are just a couple of reasons why character deaths, for all the pain they can cause, can have a positive impact on your game. I am looking forward to seeing how these ideas continue to play out in my 13th Age games.

13th Age in Glorantha Kickstarter is LIVE!

I know that today is normally review day. But I am so ridiculously excited about this Kickstarter that I had to celebrate its launch with a post.

Glorantha is a world that has been close to my heart for a long time. I started down the path of table-top gaming by way of mythology. My grade school had a great myth section in the library and my love affair with the stories and cultures of that classical age continued into my gaming days in junior high and high school. Who am I kidding, it continues today. When I discovered Glorantha, it resonated with that wide eyed child who had spent hours enthralled with tales of Hercules, Prometheus, and Troy. It was untouched by the Gygaxian tropes that pervaded the hobby, and yet still felt familiar to me. It was a world that sprung out of a bronze age of glory, and I ate it up. This was the kind of world had I sought when I came to gaming.

But Glorantha also influenced me in ways that I am only now becoming aware of. I have, to my great dismay, never ran a game set in Glorantha. But, if you have played in a game with me or read about my games or about the world of Ta’nar, you have seen echoes of Glorantha. It has permeated my creative side, and so when I look at the games and worlds and stories that I have created, I can see Glorantha shining through.

For those of you who are unaware of 13th Age in Glorantha, you can check out the website here, and the Kickstarter page here (it has already funded, reached its first stretch goal, and is super close to its second). And you can hear me and the other hosts of Iconic interview Ron Heinsoo and ASH LAW about this project here. They are (obviously) excited about 13th Age, and you can hear the love they have for Glorantha.  If you want to learn more about Greg Stafford’s world of myth and legend, go check out the Glorantha website. Iconic is planning on interviewing the guys at Moon Design about this project before the end of the Kickstarter! I am excited about the Kickstarter, as it will marry a system I enjoy to a world I love, and hopefully, finally, allow me to see Glorantha at the table.

 

Dealing with Death – Part One – Acceptance

Chances are, if you have sat on either side of the screen for any length of time, a character has died. It may not have been your character, or it might have been your fault! In every game I have played in, death was a scenario that had a real possibility of occurrence. Yet how often does character death shock or surprise the players at your table?

I am writing these articles for GMs and players who want to understand the impact that character death has when it occurs in games. Some GMs avoid character death like the plague, while others seek it out at every turn. Some players don’t care if their character dies, yet some cry at the merest hint that their beloved character might not make it. Death is a risk and a consequence in gaming, but I don’t believe that it should lurk around every corner. As a GM, you should contemplate character death in your games because how a GM handles death at the table has an immense impact on how it plays out in your games.

Why include it at all? What is a good balance? What should you do if it occurs? These are some of the questions that I will attempt to answer over the next month – starting with acceptance.

Coming to Terms

Characters die, and it is ok. If a character dies, it is not necessarily your fault as the GM. Nor does it make you a bad GM. GASP!! I know a dozen gamers who would take offense to that statement. They want think that character death is solely the fault of the GM – that it is the result of a bad GM at that. This is just not true. In some ways, characters are designed to die. I mean, most of the game systems have rules for death and dying in them. The single stat that most players are invested in are their Hit Points, which is just an abstraction of how close to death they are.

You as a GM have to find the right balance of death for your games. And it is different for every table and every player. You have to accept what character death means to you, and to do this requires you to look at three different pieces of the game play experience: system, consequences, and choices.

What Does the System Say?

The first step in understanding where death fits into your game is to look at your system. Understanding how your system of choice handles character death mechanically will give you an insight into how death will be perceived by your players.

In some systems, like RuneQuest or ACKS, death is a sword-slash away. Your characters are never so far removed from death that you could consider yourself free of that worry. In other games, like DnD 4th ed, death is farther away. It requires a level of investment on the side of the GM to even make the players sweat.

Your players will come to extrapolate from their interaction with the rules, as well as your presentation of said 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 death works in your game.

Consequences

The second part of acceptance is understanding that sometimes players will engage in actions that consequentially lead to their character’s death. Risk is what makes games interesting, and for there to be risk, there has to be consequences. One outcome of fighting a dragon is you might die. I have already talked about consequences in gaming, but it bears repeating here. I have found that having consequences to actions in my games is what keeps people interested in them. It adds verisimilitude to the experience, and a realistic consequence in a game is death. Why? Well think about the lives most characters live: brutal lives of fighting in outnumbered battles, exploring deathtraps left by an age’s most powerful wizards, being embroiled in the game of thrones. Any of these activities have an obscenely high attrition rate. I have seen games play out with no consequences to deadly actions, and they end poorly.

Choices

Remember, heroes are not always rewarded, but heroes always pay the price. Sometimes, in the course of gaming, you will have a player [let’s call him Chris, after the Chris in my gaming group] who will put the needs of the group ahead of his own. Sometimes, when the chips are down and the oni are pouring over the hill, this player will look at you and ask if he can plug the gap, or jump on the grenade, or stall the balor so that the party can flee.  Let’s be honest, Chris knows that his character is not going to make it out alive, but he also knows that the game ends unless someone steps up. So he steps up. The party lives at the expense of one of its members.

The third step in acceptance is understanding that sometimes your players will choose for their character to die, and that denying them of that moment robs that player of their glory.

Interlude

I will let you in on a little secret.  I am not always good at accepting death in my games. Sometimes I negate a sacrifice, either by bringing the character back or torturing the group with its corpse.  Sometimes I avoid a killing blow because I don’t want a player to cry, or because I don’t want to hear the whining. And sometimes I don’t treat a death with the reverence it deserves.  But part of why I am writing this series, despite how hard it actually is for me right now, is that I am trying to figure out where I truly land on the topic of character death, and to figure out how I would like to ideally handle it at my table.

[End Part 1]