When Is Death On the Line?

image from ArtBreeder

filed under game design on 14 Nov 2018
tagged dungeon world, world of dungeons, wodu, heartbreaker, osr, megadungeon, and stonehell

There’s been a bit of discussion lately about fairness and lethality, in your preferred flavor of playing pretend, so I thought I’d discuss my thoughts on it.

First, a handy-dandy reference chart.

Lethality Spectrum
please don't quibble; this is just to be a basic starting point

So most of the people I know who play OSR are over there, on the left. Call it 1 to 3.

Folks in 1 don’t care if they’re playing dwarf fighter number 1 or 18, or if his name is Mugwump Thistlebutt. Someday, one of these collections of 3d6 rolled in order is going to hit third level, and the triumph will be all the sweeter for the corpses that came before.

This is not my preferred playstyle. Nothing wrong with it, but not what I want at the table.

3 is where I always picture the game. If you say to me, “D&D lethality” I’m going to respond with “bad choices and bad rolls could lead to character death”. That said, I’ve never really played that way.

I, like many, grew up playing firmly around 4. For me, it was more 4a – what I think is called illusionism. We started out with second edition, hovering between 3 and 4, and went straight on to 4a with 3.5.

Of course, every campaign started with a firm, passionate declaration that this time we were playing in 3 territory, but it always drifted right back firmly into 4a.

In large part, I think it’s due to extended character creation. When you put hours into the perfect build, and then months into building towards it, you’re not going to be happy if that character kicks it to a lucky goblin.

Context, as I define it, can also lead to that same attachment to a character. When you play Sir Gawain through thirty sessions of Dungeon World, and he has friends, and lovers, and a sacred duty, and he really needs to go rescue his best friend from durance vile now… well, you get attached.

You want a solid narrative end to that story, one that won’t be derailed by a left instead of a right in some moldy hallway in some dungeon somewhere.

My personal preference right now, and the one I’m building into my version of WoDu, is smack on 5. I am not playing to win a battle of wits with the players. I am on their team. It’s my job to describe the world accurately, and narrate what the world does in response to their actions (constrained by the dice), and to forge them. Into what, well, that’s up to the player and the dice.

From my World of Dungeons hack:

When a character reaches 0 HP, they must make a risky roll. The risk is dying. On a 10+, they are awake with 1 HP. On a 7-9, they are unconscious with 1HP. On a miss, you choose if they die outright or suffer a horrendous, permanent injury (think mangled arm, missing eye, lycanthropy, owe a huge debt to a demon, or similar) of the GMʼs devising. On a crit, tell everyone how it wasnʼt as bad as it looked and regain a d6 in HP.

Now, obviously this isn’t polished yet, but the gist is there. You can’t die unless you choose to, but as the GM, I can change your character in horrible ways if you mismanage your resources, roll poorly, or walk into a dart trap without looking.

That, to me, is a lot more satisfying than just “you lose all your HP, roll up a new guy”.