Wednesday, June 03, 2009

The Ever-Present Threat of Death

Despite grim warnings to the contrary, we haven't yet lost a player character or an NPC henchman on the field of battle in Trollsmyth's game. There've been a couple of close calls, and one roll on the table of death and dismemberment, but so far all the traps we've triggered have rolled low on damage or been of the incapacitating variety, the wandering monster rolls have been fairly favorable, and the foes we have faced we've managed to trick, run away from, or defeat.

We've been lucky, and I'm aware that luck won't hold. The game feels very, very dangerous. Monsters do (at least) 1d6 points of damage, and at least one of the NPCs has just 6 hit points. Even my character, with 10, is just a couple of bad rolls away from death herself. And while I know Trollsmyth isn't going out of his way to try to kill us, that's usually because he's up to something worse.

Which is awesome. I've played in (and run) enough games where I was never afraid that a character would die to know that it completely changes the tenor of the game, and as far as I'm concerned, it's much better this way.

For one, I'm never bored in combat. I tend to lose interest in games where you're mostly just trying to figure out how you take down that monster, especially when it goes on for a while. In Labyrinth Lord, combat is ten minutes of terror. Most especially in that moment when I see that the monster has hit and done some serious damage, and I flip over to the table to see just what might be about to happen to my character, or to that cleric who I've gotten rather attached to over the past couple of months.

Secondly, it gets my brain going. It's not enough to set up what my character can do in combat and then wonder about what I'm going to do on my turn. I have to be thinking all the time. Where are the monsters and traps likely to be? Is there any way I can avoid running into them? Can I talk my way out of this fight? Is there any way I can distract a couple of them, maybe even the odds? What else is around that I could use rather than go head-to-head with this monster? And, above all else: when should I decide to run?

Sometimes, there's no way around it. I'm stuck in a room with two animated statues and not much else, and if there's a way to avoid crossing blows I'm just not seeing it. But even then, there's things I can do to make a messy death somewhat less probable. Having had the forethought to hire some help goes a long way, and occasionally I can think up some kind of stunt or trick to help during combat. At the very least, keeping out of fights when I can means I'm better able to handle the fights I can't avoid.

And that threat of deadliness means that I don't just think about the game when I'm not playing. I worry. I worry about whether or not my character's going to make it through the next session, about what might be around that next door that I haven't explored yet, and particularly about if and when I'm going to get those NPC henchmen killed. Now, partly that's just the kind of player I am (and that's definitely the reason that I think worrying about imaginary people is fun) but the ever-present threat of death (and doom) does increase the tension involved in that kind of investment, and makes it significantly more engaging.

Despite the occasional nerve that it wracks, I like knowing that if and when I slip up, or my luck finally runs out, bad things will happen. It's fun to work out ways to keep them from happening, and rewarding when I do. (And when I don't, well, dealing with that will be fun too.) It's got me thinking about ways to put a little of that sense into my own games. I've always felt vaguely that I pulled my punches too much when it came to character death, and now I've got some concrete reasons why that sense of danger can be a good thing.


  1. "In Labrynth Lord, combat is ten minutes of terror." Awesome.

  2. Glad you liked that. I thought the moment was appropriate for a bit of pithy aphorism.