Monday, September 24, 2012

Death and the PC

So, this reminded me about the concept of death in games.

Death is, like turn-based combat, a relic. It's inherited from the wargame era, just like turn-based combat. Everything is simple when it boils down to death: if you die, you have lost. Otherwise, you've won.

Obviously, we've gotten more nuanced and complex. Nowadays, most combats in a game are not threatening death. They're threatening resource damage. You get fewer rewards, or have fewer hit points, or use up some of your spells, or whatever. Typically, only bosses and other major combats threaten death these days, and even then many GMs will bend over backwards to avoid it. Video games similarly reduce death to a bare slap on the wrist - death as a major punishment just doesn't happen much any more.

Some people say that this is because games and GMs aren't "hardcore" enough. I say it's because death in combat is a stupid concept. It's a binary pass/fail. There are certainly games where death should be a problem, but most games would benefit from carefully considering whether death is even something that should pop up, let alone as a primary threat that pops up multiple times a session.

Not every game has to be about death. In fact, not even combat-heavy adventure games have to be centered around avoiding death. There are many alternatives that allow you to play completely different kinds of games that carry completely different messages within their mechanics and allow completely different stories to emerge.

For example, the article I linked up top is about a wacky game. By saying that you can't die, and instead things just get worse, they allow for the players to do crazy stupid stuff instead of sticking to sensible actions. And I think that's great. It's one example of how you can do a game where win/loss is not so... binary. After all, the point of challenges in a role playing game isn't simply to win, but to play a role while facing the challenge. If you "lose" because that's what your character would have done, isn't that a win?

I think the concept of turns and death are both things deeply rooted in wargaming culture, where victory is statistical. One of the most interesting things you can do when designing a game is try to throw them away. You don't have to center your games around combat, either: there are plenty of interesting games hidden in the less testosterony parts of our lives.

For example, you could make a game about high school friendships, romances, and coming-of-age issues. You could do a lot of fun, complex rules and build deep, interesting narratives... even though combat and death are unlikely to be mechanical threats.

Fundamentally, you can create a role playing game around any sort of situation where people are being people and there is some kind of conflict. You could make a game about small businesses striving to resurrect a local community. You could make a game about adding content to an on-line video game. You could make a game about dance-offs. Or cooking. Or being weather gods. Or fashion.

The complex mechanics of combat serve primarily as a scaffold to make players comfortable at playing their roles within the game. Traversing the scaffold builds investment, interconnections, memories... it helps to create the character, and to make the player comfortable in being that character.

But any scaffold of similar complexity can do that, and noncombat scaffolds can lead to radically different stories emerging.

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