Monday, June 21, 2010

One-Shots, Campaign Play, Newbies, Death Rate

So how dangerous should an adventure be? When should you turn it up? And when should you turn it down?

Should there be a difference in deadliness in Campaign Play vs One-Shots?

Should there be a difference in danger when you're running for new players vs experienced players?

Not that I'm an expert in one-shots (my "short adventures" take like 10 hours of play... anyone want to write a good one-shot or better yet "convention-slot length" LotFP adventure? :D), but I would think that campaign play can afford to be deadlier overall.

My thinking is, that while death may break individual character continuity in campaign play, the true concern is long-term continuity. Whether a character dies in the first half hour of a session or five minutes before a session ends doesn't matter when the game as a whole will be measured in months or years. In a one-shot or a convention (barring scenarios like the Tower of Gygax or something where cycling through characters/players is expected), these kinds of deaths can seriously impact play. There is no "long-term" pacing, no long-term planning around dangerous areas, there is just this one adventure and a disastrous encounter can ruin the whole darn session. So there should be more defined, pacing-appropriate "death points" to keep these games going.

And then there are newbies versus experienced players. New players should really be creating first level characters. And first level characters are entirely disposable. Not that there should be the intent of slaughtering all the characters, just that the punches shouldn't be pulled.

I see the arguments stating that newbies should be helped along and basically treated like children. (if the new players are children, perhaps this advice doesn't apply) Like if they "lose" the first time they play they'll just hate it and hate it and hate it. (does any other type of game suffer from this viewpoint? "Shit, Joey lost at darts, he'll never play that game again! I better let him beat me at checkers or he'll go off of that too!")

Look, these "old school" games are frickin deadly and unforgiving in a lot of ways. Save-or-die poison, rust monsters laying waste to equipment, energy drain, etc. Characters die. They're supposed to.

Are these challenges only worthy of those who have put the time in with training wheels?

To me, the quintessential low-level module is Keep on the Borderlands. Always was, always will be. All of us publishing low level modules ain't shit compared to what Gygax did there. It was included in so many Basic sets, it's got so much advice for those that presumably have no clue what they're supposed to be doing, that it was obviously intended as a starter module for people who had never played before.

And what does it feature?

Death. Death is everywhere for a first level party. Let's say you have eight players, each with a character. There may be Sleep spells amongst them, but there may not be.

Are you telling me this party is going to tackle that lizard man lair with no casualties? You telling me those giant spiders don't have an excellent chance of killing someone? 12 bandits? That hermit that can turn invisible? These are possible first encounters for a brand new party.

And the actual Caves, forget about it. Even in the Kobold cave are encounters like 18 giant rats, and a room with 16 kobolds. How many Sleep spells are a completely inexperienced party (with inexperienced players) likely to have, and what are the chances a bunch of new players are going to know when to retreat? This first cave is more than capable of a TPK.

And remember that this novice party can wander into the Ogre lair, the Minotaur cave, or the Chaos Temple without going anywhere else first.

Yet I don't think Keep on the Borderlands is any type of screwjob module, and I don't think it is inappropriate for beginning characters or players.

Danger and death are a part of the traditional fantasy role-playing experience. I don't see what anybody has to gain by dialing it down for new players. Anyone that's upset about their new guy dying when they have no idea what they're doing isn't going to be any happier when their 3rd level guy dies once you've decided they don't need the kid gloves anymore. But most people aren't such ninnies and I find that this ultra-sensitive "you can't kill my character! It's not fair!" type is created by gamers through reinforcement and not anything that exists in someone off the street. Stop fearing that internet horror stories are going to come to your table and for Pete's sake don't create one yourself.

Treat the players with respect. Give them the whole game, right from the start.


  1. "I see the arguments stating that newbies should be helped along and basically treated like children. (if the new players are children, perhaps this advice doesn't apply) Like if they "lose" the first time they play they'll just hate it and hate it and hate it. (does any other type of game suffer from this viewpoint?"

    The answer is yes, and plenty of them. If you're a tabletop war-gamer and are looking to bring new blood into your gaming circle, one of the most important things you must do is to let the newbies win. You don't have to cheat to do this, just write a very unbalanced scenario, but it is important that the new player feels a little of the elation of success first time out. This applies equally to children and adults, and to all types of game : without a positive first experience of a game, not many people will hang around for a second session.

    Arguments to artistic integrity or respect for players are all very well, I dare say, but you'll catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.

    The problem is, though, that while it's very simple to do this a miniatures game, it becomes decidedly tricky to give a new player that positive first experience of a game when they're joining a pre-existing adventuring party. So, while I'm in favour in theory, the practice may be a little more tricky. Perhaps the best idea is to try a little solo introductory scenario for the new player, but that misses out a lot of the social experience of a tabletop RPG.

  2. I'd say it absolutely depends on the player and the group dynamic. Some newbies would be fine with rolling up a new character halfway though the first session; others would not be. Some DMs and some groups can make even a TPK into a fun time; others (in no way inferior, just different), can't.

  3. beginning adventures should feature less deadly combat (and traps).

    simply cause beginning players need time to learn. if you die and the only mistake was walking into the wrong room you don't learn shit. and having character after character die will cause frustration, which in turn will rarely spark the wish to keep playing.

    dying doens't make you a better player. playing does.

    a module designed for beginner players that features several "go there and die"- or "save or die"-scenarios is severely flawed. simple as that.

    if you play hardball with a party of complete newbies nobody will have fun.

    while most what herb said is very true, i think you don't actually need to let the newbie win, but he needs at least a few small victories during the game. winning an important combat, killing the opposing general or something similar. what he needs is a sense of achievement. and you need to give advice during the game. a lot.

    not too much though... i tend to lose games against beginners (especially bloodbowl) because i give too much advice and then end up losing against myself. :)

  4. I help the newbie players by asking leading questions. For example, I don't just ask, "What do you do?" I say, "You just learned the wizards tower is full of treasures because no one has ever returned alive. [Restate what they already learned] If you try for it, I will do everything in my power to make sure YOU don't make it back. [Say what is at stake] Now what do you do to ensure the wizard's tower doesn't make you another sad tale?" Framed that way, most people (newbies and veterans) are engaged. In my experience, they also don't resent dying. However, I don't hold back the experience of the game.

    But most people aren't such ninnies and I find that this ultra-sensitive "you can't kill my character! It's not fair!" type is created by gamers through reinforcement and not anything that exists in someone off the street.
    ... is right on!

  5. I agree with much of what has been said already. That is, I don't think a newbie needs to be treated with kid gloves. She might need some extra advice once in a while, and that's OK, but the lethality of the dungeon should not be toned down. Challenge Ratings and Encounter Levels are bullshit, pure and simple.

    Just make sure that when (not if) you kill a newbie's first character, you make it entertaining and fun for the player. I've played RPG's for 25 years, and I still get a kick out of a cool death scene.

  6. You don't throw a newb into The Tomb of Horrors or even Death Frost Doom without making some adjustments. If the newb doesn't have fun, he won't be back.

    A good DM can pull off fun and still kill the newb, but the avg DM will leave a sour taste with early newb death.

    You only have one shot to capture a new gamer's long term attention. That first game must be fun before anything else.

  7. My experience is that this whole character death issue is often more about the GM than the game: if you can't yourself accept and embrace death, then it's no wonder if the player can't do it, either. If you can't look him straight in the eye and laugh about it - not laughing at him, either, but with him - then it's not going to work. If death cannot be a fun part of your game, then using it is not a good idea.

    The above has nothing to do with new players vs. old players. If the game you play is so detached from human experience that players need to be house-trained, I have to ask whether the game itself should be changed.

    Consequent to the above philosophy, my handling of new players is almost the same as old hands. The only difference is that I communicate more with new players: I explain what I'm doing when I'm doing it, I show my own reactions to their activities more clearly, I point out nuances in the choices they face and so on. All this is not so much an issue of new roleplayers than absolutely normal social technique - when interacting with new people or in a new context, you should communicate more fully and make sure that everybody's on the same page and appreciating and understanding each other's actions. If the game I'm playing makes sense in the first place, then the only thing I need to provide the new player is increased explanations and context that enables him to see the game through my eyes - what I'm finding interesting about it. Either this speaks to him or not. Staging a win so the player gets a taste of victory would do nothing to advance this agenda of understanding.

  8. There is no one way to do it. If the focus is upon narrative-building, protagonization, and ego, then let them eat cake. Death of random guys is not compatible. But, deaths that are meaningful like a Sturm Brightblade are really compelling, and are great after 700 pages of prose.

    If it is about the setting itself with danger, ultimate challenge, the feel of horror, well, that can be great.

    My first Cthulu game was essentially a TPK save for one fellow left on a respirator, who then was the point of contact and entry for our next set of characters... awesome.

    But, no novel is that way - R.A. Salvatore didn't nix Drizzt page one.
    But a short story is. "To Build a Fire", the dude dies at the end. Awesome.

    So, it depends.

    Suppose I have the Santa Maria, the boat that discovered America. I replace one piece of it yearly to age until centuries later, none of the original ship is left.

    Question is, is it the same ship?