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Author Topic: No-Death and Trollbabe  (Read 4860 times)
b_bankhead
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Posts: 259


« on: November 14, 2003, 01:55:36 PM »

After I finish my present series of threads on Call of Cthulhu, The next hobbyhorse I intend to ride is the subject of character mortality.  Is it really necessary? Trollbabe has a rule that a character can't be killed without permission and I wonder how (if at all) this changes play , whether from the standpoint of GM or player.  Does it help resolve issues such as 'my guy' behaviour?  Does it allow the player to take creative risks they otherwise wouldn't?  Enquiring minds want to know.....
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GreatWolf
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« Reply #1 on: November 14, 2003, 03:08:53 PM »

I have not played Trollbabe, so I can't speak to that game specifically.  However, my game Legends of Alyria has a similar rule, and it is my experience that it allows (at least) two effects:

1)  It does free players to take certain creative risks.  Character death usually equals loss of play time (for lack of a better term).  The player has to sit out for a certain time period and also loses the character Effectiveness that has been earned as a result of invested play time.  Since this disincentive is removed, the players tend to feel free to fail at actions.  They may not care for the results, but their invested play time is safe.

2)  It emphasizes the effect of a character's death.  If I (the player) choose to have my character die, I am saying "Hey!  It's important that my character dies now!"

I'm out of time, so I can't develop these thoughts further.  Hopefully they will assist in the developing conversation.

Seth Ben-Ezra
Great Wolf
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Seth Ben-Ezra
Dark Omen Games
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Brian Leybourne
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Posts: 1793


« Reply #2 on: November 14, 2003, 03:43:50 PM »

"No character death" was one of the first items on the social contract for my groups current TROS campaign. We have done it in a number of games before as well.

The biggest benefit is that it allows the player to actually play the character. The caveat is that a character can die, but only when the player agrees to it (and you would be surprised how reasonable most players are about it, many take it as a point of pride because their character died in a horoic, meaningful or cool way). What the no death thing does do, is let them get on with roleplaying and doing neat things without having to worry that one poor roll means they'll fall off the roof and die, or that a single botched roll in combat can spell curtains (which is otherwise always a possibility in TROS) etc. Because they know they can't die from a poor roll or poor decision, it frees them up to make decisions baced on what they actually want to do, and not what's safest. Everyone wins.

Brian.
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Brian Leybourne
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RPG Books: Of Beasts and Men, The Flower of Battle, The TROS Companion
greyorm
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My name is Raven.


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« Reply #3 on: November 14, 2003, 05:15:00 PM »

I'm going to post an opposing experience to the "no character death" option: this was an implicit understanding during my D&D campaigns early on. Unfortunately, it had very frustrating and eventually game-destroying results.

Why? D&D being what it is meant that players with characters who can not die will behave in ways not suitable to the game being played. As an example, I had players talking back to ancient, evil dragons because they knew (or guessed strongly) that the DM would not kill their characters, though by all rights, that is exactly and precisely what should have occurred (evil dragons being what they are).

These events led to my explicit revocation of that right when we attempted to resume the game a year or so later, and also lost me a few players (and notably the worst offenders of previous campaigns). Regardless, I run a strongly Narrativist campaign, though it competes with Gamism at times due to the system and the mood of the evening.

However, this isn't a dig at any game's removal of the shackles of character death. Rather, it led to a better understading of the dynamics of game systems and actual-at-the-table-play events: if character death is going to be removed from play, except at the player's option, players need something of equal value to gain or lose in place of their character's life, and the system must support this as the point of play.

Trollbabe, for example, does this via the Stakes, which are not even a matter of winning-or-losing, but rather play hinges on the outcome thereof and its effects. One might say that the results of the Stakes are what the players are most interested in, and those results according with group desire to achieve a compelling or interesting narrative, are what is gained or lost.

The interesting part there is that the GM is not the opposition in such a case, as he is in D&D where it is explicit that he is the force behind the player's loss of character and thus their in-game priority, but in this case is an associate to achieving the same goal. The group, by working together, either wins or loses...either achieves or fails to achieve that narrative.

What I am now wondering is if unwanted character death is exclusive to a game's priority, overshadowing or diluting it, or if it can reasonably share the spotlight with other priorities?
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Rev. Ravenscrye Grey Daegmorgan
Wild Hunt Studio
Ron Edwards
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« Reply #4 on: November 14, 2003, 10:14:00 PM »

Hello,

One of the features of the potential death of the character in Trollbabe, is to consider the alternative. It's a pretty specific instance of the rules, it's not just any ol' time during play. The choice only appears when the character is already established to be incapacitated, and the GM wins the final re-roll over who gets to narrate the end of the conflict.

If the player chooses to have her live, he or she is also empowering the GM to dictate the circumstances of the character, in full. What happens to her in this scene, how she gets to the next scene, and what's happening to her there - all suddenly, fully, in the hands of the GM.

That's actually a pretty serious choice. Although the role of the GM is not especially adversarial toward the player, that role is extremely adversity-oriented toward the character. I have employed this rule in several ways: at a light, fun con game, the character woke up in chains in a temple; in other, grimmer (more majestic?) games, the range of badness that might happen to the characters in particular scenes that would horrify you. Way bad, especially because the character would live. Don't ask.

In these circumstances, the player may choose character death in preference to the possibility of "a fate worse than."

So I think the Trollbabe rules are a bit different from those in (say) Prince Valiant or Castle Falkenstein, which are the first games I remember with explicit "no character death" rules.

Best,
Ron
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Andrew Martin
Member

Posts: 785


« Reply #5 on: November 15, 2003, 02:17:11 PM »

Quote from: b_bankhead
...character mortality.  Is it really necessary?


I think it really depends upon the style of game the group is playing.

With gamist play, there's the gamble, risking one's investment in the character in order to win big. Character death (and injury) in this case is loosing the gamble.

With simulationist play, characters die because in the "real" world, sometimes bad things happen. Which is why there is usually rolls for fumbles and avoiding contracting disease in simulationist games.

With narrative play, character death should be the choice of the player controlling the character, because character death is matter of choice of the author, not the will of the character's enemies, or the impersonal whims of fate, disease or accident.

I've found it relatively easy to categorise a game system by reference to how most PCs die. If it's player choice, it's usually narrativist; accident, simulationist; lost an encounter, gamist.
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Andrew Martin
Brian Leybourne
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Posts: 1793


« Reply #6 on: November 15, 2003, 02:20:41 PM »

Quote from: greyorm
As an example, I had players talking back to ancient, evil dragons because they knew (or guessed strongly) that the DM would not kill their characters, though by all rights, that is exactly and precisely what should have occurred (evil dragons being what they are).


Hmm.. fair comment. However, IMC if that kind of thing went on, the players would find that the no-death thing went out the window, and would expect it to.

"No Death" is meant to protect the characters from dying "pointlessly" i.e. through poor rolls or bad luck etc. If a character intentionally put himself in a situation where no reasonable person would expect him to survive (backtalking an evil dragon) then he's telling me as GM that he's happy to die. "No death" will never be allowed as a crutch for intentional stupidity.

Of course, YVVM.

Brian.
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Brian Leybourne
bleybourne@gmail.com

RPG Books: Of Beasts and Men, The Flower of Battle, The TROS Companion
Andrew Martin
Member

Posts: 785


« Reply #7 on: November 15, 2003, 02:32:34 PM »

Quote from: greyorm
Why? D&D being what it is meant that players with characters who can not die will behave in ways not suitable to the game being played. As an example, I had players talking back to ancient, evil dragons because they knew (or guessed strongly) that the DM would not kill their characters, though by all rights, that is exactly and precisely what should have occurred (evil dragons being what they are).
...
What I am now wondering is if unwanted character death is exclusive to a game's priority, overshadowing or diluting it, or if it can reasonably share the spotlight with other priorities?


One of the indicators of disfunctional game groups is that players and their characters do actions that are silly. Usually the players are behaving in a gamist way, while the GM is playing in narrativist way. The GM doesn't kill off the characters because they're important to the plot and PCs are important. The gamist players can take advantage of this, by talking back to ancient dragons, gaining a sense of "winning" the encounter, because the ancient dragon is obviously loosing the encounter as it hasn't killed all the PCs yet.

So in answer to the question, if I were the GM, I'd have the ancient dragon eat all the party! :) Because of three reasons:
Gamist: The PCs were foolish and deserve to loose their "bets" or lives.
Simulationist: Ancient dragons eat people, here's some people,... yum!
Narrativist: Ancient dragons are evil, so to show it to the players, I'll have this one eat the PCs!

:)
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Andrew Martin
Ron Edwards
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« Reply #8 on: November 15, 2003, 02:42:50 PM »

Careful, Andrew, Raven has lots of emotional scars from this instance of play. Do a Forge search on "red dragon" with him specified as author for some threads. We're talking pain.*

So, uh, Raven, if you could hold off from recounting the details of that particular event, maybe get a backrub or something, that'd be good.

This discussion has become abstract, and there are many good discussions about character death at the Forge, mainly in RPG theory. To keep this one from merely recapitulating the stages of those earlier discussions, let's focus on the Trollbabe issue.

Brian, you've played Trollbabe, right? Andrew too?

What??

Ah geez. Well, check out my earlier post, everyone, and tell me what you think about its particular features and issues.

Best,
Ron

* Found it! Stupid player tricks - great discussion, but holeeee shit.
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Andrew Martin
Member

Posts: 785


« Reply #9 on: November 15, 2003, 04:00:05 PM »

First, I apologise to Raven. I didn't intend to open any emotional scars. Please forgive me.


Quote from: Ron Edwards
So I think the Trollbabe rules are a bit different from those in (say) Prince Valiant or Castle Falkenstein, which are the first games I remember with explicit "no character death" rules.


One of the associated problems with character death is that the player can no longer play until the next session, and then the character is demonstratably weaker than the other PCs and the player is less effective in the game. That's because an "experienced" character in gamist RPGs have a considerable investment in time and effort expended in them which is lost and can't be restored. That's why players go "turtle" and do "nothing", because to do anything but talk is foolish and one risks loosing one's "bet" or character life.

(Please note this is from my own experience in playing and GMing AD&D, RuneQuest III and other simulationist/gamist systems and watching my friends play and GM these and other simulationist/gamist systems, and from my learning of GNS and Ron's other works.)

In a well designed narrativist game like Trollbabe, generating a new character is mechanically very easy, and so it's easy to get back into play again, with no loss in character/player effectiveness. So the game system doesn't punish a player having their character die.

IIRC, there was one game which sort-of rewarded a character's death by choice: "Bushido", where new PCs got a substantial fraction of the player's former PC's experience. That was to encourage players and the PCs to act in simulation of Samurai and commit suicide when required. Unfortunately, it didn't really go far enough, as the intended reward was really a lesser punishment than complete loss of accumulated experience in AD&D.

Castle Falkenstein's No Death rule encouraged players in our group to do silly things, and it was one of the first rules that were ignored in our play.

The other disfunctional behaviour I've observed in gamist/simulationisht play in our group is for players that have frequently dying characters, is to roll on background tables that offer large amounts of reward in magic items and other property, and then have the other PCs loot the new arrival's corpse! :)

Our records for longest PC generation time and shortest PC life span is around 1-2 weeks and five seconds in game. IIIC, the new character opened his mouth and spoke in character, "I'm a ninja..." and was promptly cut in two by the PC samurai in the party!
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Andrew Martin
rafial
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Posts: 594


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« Reply #10 on: November 15, 2003, 09:46:09 PM »

Quote from: Ron Edwards

In these circumstances, the player may choose character death in preference to the possibility of "a fate worse than."


I think there is even more to it than Ron is letting on here.

A key dynamic I have come to learn and appreciate in the play of Trollbabe, is that the GM can never place the character in harms way, unless the player chooses to allow it by emotionally investing in the scene being played out.  In specific -- no matter what the situation facing the character, if she rolls a failure and simply accepts it, she may be thwarted in her goals, but is not harmed...  Only by pushing for a particular outcome (making rerolls), and thus investing in the scene is there any potential of harm.

Therefore, by the time the game mechanics get to the point that character death is even an option, the player has evidenced alot of investment in a desire to influence the outcome.  Thus its not surprising that trading character death for some remaining control can become a tempting option.

Anyway, I think this only goes further to support the point that the "no death" mechanic in Trollbabe is saying something quite different from the typical "well the protaginists are too important to ever get killed".

An interesting comparison would between Trollbabe's handling of this concept, and Dust Devils.  In Dust Devils, it is possible for a one-two punch of complications to take a character down without the player being able to do anything about it.  However, the character still isn't "dead" unless that is what the player narrates: the character *is* out of the story, but may exit the story in some other way than boots first.

Whereas in contrast, Trollbabe is quite explicit -- if the player takes the final narration option after losing the roll, the character is dead, no ifs ands or buts.
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #11 on: November 16, 2003, 07:40:21 AM »

Hi there,

Hey Andrew, I was kidding about the scarring - I'm sure Raven laughed at my post (um, right, Rave ol' buddy?).

Those are some good points about the kind of role-playing that's most widely taught and expressed through texts. You might be interested to know that The Riddle of Steel has a rule very much like Bushido's, but the rule in TROS is far more "toothy" - it sets up for extremely enjoyable character death in a way that's (surprisingly) more like Trollbabe than anything else.

Wilhelm (rafial), I agree with you. That is a very good point, especially the comparison with Dust Devils. One thing I was trying to get at with the game design for Trollbabe came from my observations of first-time female role-players, many of whom were sitting in after months of pleading from boyfriends. Inevitably, they would whiff a roll in the first scene, and the GM would (especially back in the 80s) enjoy showing how the rules elaborately hosed the character.

As he more and more enthusiastically described the fumble in the in-game-world, and the subsequent goony incompetence being now embedded in the character concept, I could see the woman's face getting stonier and stonier, and even sort-of-hear the "snap" of her decision that she'd tried this RPG thing, and come to her conclusion about it. And this was a repeated phenomenon.

The same thing would happen with new male players, but usually these guys were so desperate to be accepted by anyone, for any social purpose, that they embraced the imaginative "my guy is a dork" events without protest. The women players (or almost-players, rather) tended very much not to do this, and quite understandably, (a) generated various excuses not to continue playing and (b) applied the famous vaginal pressure technique to lead the boyfriend, eventually, to do (a) as well.

Leaving behind, of course, a group full of guys with no girlfriends who desperately wanted to be accepted by someone, anyone, for any social activity at all. This would be the classic Rolemaster or GURPS situation.

[Alternate result: the group cancels out "the system" (by which they mean, whiffs and meaninglessly extreme outcomes from simply get-it-done moments of play) and goes to the System Doesn't Matter fire, from their frying pan.]

Anyway, I'm starting to get carried away about the large-scale implications of this simple game/people/rules relationship, but I'll rope myself back to Trollbabe. As you point out, the extremity of the possible outcome on the trollbabe herself is directly proportional to the character's investment in the outcome going her way. I built the game so that the opposite is not the case: you don't have to accept risk simply in order to try to do something important; after all, you may succeed right off the top. But if you don't, then the risk factor kicks in if you want to keep trying. The point that, at least in the first two or three rolls, the system includes a graceful exit ("OK, I lose") from the conflict, is related to this same idea.

It's risk-assessment, but it's not a Gamist's game, because you could, conceivably, simply succeed your way through a scenario and come out smelling like roses. This in fact did happen in one (1) game I've played. That lack of necessary risk in order to achieve exactly what you (and your character, if you're all Actor Stancey) want, yet with substantial risk arising a certain percent of the time (and subject to modulation through player choice), is what I was after.

Best,
Ron
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greyorm
Member

Posts: 2233

My name is Raven.


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« Reply #12 on: November 16, 2003, 09:39:42 AM »

Quote from: Andrew Martin
First, I apologise to Raven. I didn't intend to open any emotional scars. Please forgive me.

It's OK, I had sex so I feel much better.

I'm just kidding, my wife was just in surgery, so no sex for me. But I am quite happy with my current gaming and see no reason to remain upset about resolved events of the past -- an obstacle already overcome needs not be viewed with trepidation as of an obstacle not yet challenged. In other words, yes, I chuckled at Ron's comments.

But I do agree with you that such situations were indicative of group breakdown. It was shortly after the dragon incident, no more than a few short sessions, that the campaign died.

I disagree that I was playing Narrativist by avoiding their deaths as protagonists -- I don't believe that's indicative of Narrativism at all. I was playing to a heavy Simulationist (Exploration of Character) style while trying to run Exploration of Situation (the world events I had constructed for the players to sightsee and take part in).
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Rev. Ravenscrye Grey Daegmorgan
Wild Hunt Studio
rafial
Member

Posts: 594


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« Reply #13 on: November 16, 2003, 02:36:30 PM »

This post begins a bit off topic, but tries to find its way by the end...

Quote from: Ron Edwards
Inevitably, they would whiff a roll in the first scene, and the GM would (especially back in the 80s) enjoy showing how the rules elaborately hosed the character.


If you enjoy having a little frisson of horror run up and down your spine, I share this posting made just yesterday on the Seattle Gamers Assemble list:

Quote

From:  ---
Date:  Sat Nov 15, 2003  3:08 pm
Subject:  Sharing fun moments
   
My group is walking down a path doing nothing special, and I'm rolling my
dice as sort of a nervous habit. I roll a critical failure, and I say "Thank
god I'm not doing anything at the moment and that didn't count."

The GM responds "You fall flat on your face and break your nose."

I critically failed my walking roll. Now that's sad.


Ack.

Quote
It's risk-assessment, but it's not a Gamist's game, because you could, conceivably, simply succeed your way through a scenario and come out smelling like roses.


I must disagree on this as an indicator.  It's possible in any fortune based system for the character to simply "succeed their way through".  In fact, in my own Trollbabe play, my perception is that I've taken a somewhat gamist attitude toward it, in that I treat my supply of rerolls as a resource to be husbanded, and choose carefully where I want to spend them and step up to risk based on the influence I'm trying to have on the story.  Certainly, there aren't as many "crunchy bits" as one might typically associate with gamism, but that doesn't mean the agenda can't be there.  I'm reminded of your conversations with Mike Holmes vis-a-vis MLwM where he claims a gamist approach to play in that system.

Now back to the original topic of this thread, which was "is character mortality necessary" and the developed discussion of looking at "no death" mechanics and their effects on play.  Two more examples spring to mind, and they share a similarity in that rather than denying death, the postpone it.

1) MLwM of course.  Now I haven't played it yet, so correct me if I'm talking through my headgear, but in MLwM, while a Minion may eventually die, that death is always part of the endgame.  i.e. even if you fulfill the conditions that will lead to your death, you get to keep playing just as long as everybody else did.  So the dramatic possiblities of character mortality are available, but the player is not punished by being forced to "sit out."

2) Paranoia.  Characters die like flies, but another identical one pops in a scene later.  This has exactly the effect mention earlier of players completely abandoning "sensible" play and wandering around sassing the genre equivalent of red dragons.  Theoretically there is a seven clone limit, but I've never experienced Paranoia play where that became an issue.  In some ways, it's like an accelerated version of that stage in D&D campaigns were the party had a resurrection slinging priest on retainer back at the temple.  In Paranoia, you don't even have to exit the dungeon to get a reset.  In my experience such play can be entertaining and freeing in the short term, but doesn't really deliver gut satisfaction in the long term.

Here's an insight to try on for size: does satisfying play require that something of value to the player be on the table and subject to the possibility of loss?  That thing can be, (but doesn't have to be) character mortality.  It could also be influence over the story, or something else...
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b_bankhead
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« Reply #14 on: November 16, 2003, 06:24:39 PM »

Actually I haven't but I intend to try running it online as I am working on a variant ( my oft metioned 'Cthulhubabe") anbody running it right now? I'd like to see the game from the standpoint of a player)
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