Friday, December 28, 2012

Disposable Heroes & Running Away

Do your players have their characters run away from fights?

If so, why?

If the PCs are essentially disposable, not-special, not-beautiful-and-unique-snowflake playing pieces, and the fodder by which GMs prove their willingness to play tough, why flee?

I read somewhere someone saying that OSR stood for "Oh shit, run!" - but does it? Why run? Especially at lower levels, you can just make up a new guy. At higher levels, you can get your guy fixed from anything short of "irrevocable death" and wishes will make that negotiable.

I think there are two opposing strains of thought here. One is the idea that the PCs are disposable. The other idea is that you should flee from tough encounters.

Maybe when players ram their hapless heroes into brutal fights just to see if they can pull it off, they aren't being tactically dense or foolish or playing the game incorrectly. They're showing a real understanding of what "your PC is disposable" means.

Running way shows you value the PC. You have your guy run away to live and fight another day. You have him tough it out and die a terrible death for the amusement of yourself and your friends at the table because you value the entertainment more than the PC. And isn't that what you're saying is the point in a high-lethality game?

I'm beginning to think the guys who have their imaginary guy fight to the death, or quaff that unknown potion, or push the big red button, have a good reason for it. The fun is the point, and if the PCs are disposable, they're just the means to the fun. Greg Costikyan's Paranoia RPG classically makes this the whole point of the game. But there is a reason that resonates - it's the logical extreme of a disposable hero game. Fleeing to fight another day is a good idea if you want to preserve your guy but it's not the message that character funnels, high-lethality play, unbalanced encounters, and TPK-as-common-event play sends.

If running has value, then PCs have value. They have to be "special" in some way to make it worth running away. If they're replaceable or easily fixable, then what is there to run from?

So yeah, maybe the guys who don't want to run have a point.

(Editing Later: I wrote a followup here: More on Disposable Heroes)


  1. I don't think the two strains of thought are opposed. When faced with high-lethality gaming, there are two responses, both aiming toward entertainment:

    1) Have your guy stay in the fight for the entertainment value, and be entertained either by him dying or by him winning against the odds.

    2) Have your guy run away and live to fight another day, usually to come back to this encounter later and win.

    The first, you have treated above. The second derives enjoyment from bucking the odds in a different way, namely continuing to survive in a dangerous environment. One is the enjoyment of spectacle and gambling, whereas the other is the enjoyment of cunning.

    They're both valid ways to play that fulfill the main criterion of playing a game (enjoying yourself). The former gets a bad rap for a couple reasons, though:

    1) It looks like bad roleplaying, because we're biased into thinking that people want to stay alive, since we live in the modern West. However, compare what a viking might think was good roleplay (or at least a viking as portrayed for us by REH) - he'd charge in and go out in a blaze of glory, because naturally that's what his guy would do; that's what guys do!

    2) When it pays off, it bucks the expectations of the GM. This can either be really cool, a minor nuisance, or a serious disappointment, depending on the timbre of the GM.

    3) Wild generalization: most GMs tend more toward the clever guy rather than the spectacle, at least with their GM hats on, so they personally value the second approach more.

    1. Those are really good points. I just feel like, if you tell people their playing pieces are disposable, it shouldn't be a surprise that they treat them that way instead of resources to be protected.

  2. None of my players have ever treated their guys as risk-prone or disposable, perhaps because it's always campaign play, and you get attached quickly; but when they do die, it's really easy to make a new person and keep going. However, replaceable PC's does free the DM's thinking to make challenges that are tough (but fair). Fairness means sufficient warning, the opportunity for player choice, and yes - the opportunity to run or otherwise cut losses. I also believe in a degree of logical consistency - like a 10th level monster doesn't lurk on the 1st level of the dungeon.

    1. I totally agree on how freeing it is. And they do mourn the guys when they die, but you really send a message when you say "high lethality, low cost of replacement."

      I like providing challenges without knowing the solution:

      . . . and in a sandboxy game with disposable heroes, and disposable monsters, it really cuts down on my prep time:

  3. My dungeons usually have Elder Things so this means that the PCs had better use cunning and guile to solve the dungeon instead of being a hero, that is if they want to survive. There are plenty of regular monsters to fight but when the geometry is not right the PCs must use extreme caution or they will have to make a new PC.

    1. Yeah, with monsters of sufficient lethality running may be the only logical choice - if you care about the PC, that is.

  4. When I ran Keep on the Borderlands last year with Moldvay Basic, I realized that the players would eventually win as long as they kept rolling up new characters and going back. (While the individual characters are all-too-brittle, the party is effectively immortal.) In fact... risky behavior has a side effect of concentrating all the XP into a smaller number of characters.

    Any character with zero XP is completely disposable. It's the guys that are just on the verge of leveling up that are unique and precious.

    1. Yeah, I can see that happening.

      And doing insanely risking stuff is often more in-character than out of character. Not everyone who goes into a dungeon to fight monsters is a careful risk-minimizer. GURPS especially sees this, with a disadvantage system that offers you a more powerful character in return for these types of flaws. In D&D, like you said, it concentrates XP since you only divvy it up amongst the survivors at the end.

    2. Speaking of which, the role of XP system as motivator can be interesting.

      SJ's old game The Fantasy Trip: In the Labyrinth had the experience system that encouraged the most aggressive dungeon play I'd ever seen. While it was possible to get XP for various things, two elements stood out:

      = you got XP on the fly equal to the amount of damage your character, individually, dished out to the monster.

      = you got an extra XP bonus (based on the monster's DX stat) if you landed the killing blow.

      = you got free XP awards based on the REAL TIME you spent playing on an hourly basis.

      As you might imagine this caused, at least back in 1980 or so, (a) a scramble for slaughter and (b) players to want to play all night if they could.

  5. This isn't just a DF issue. Some players will do this in any game. Some won't. Since I cannot stand to run a game where death simply is not a possibility (and often a likelihood if luck and planning fail), some players have characters die. Sure, I'll give them every chance to live. But once those chances are expended, it's dirtnap time.

    So what's wrong with quaffing the mystery potion, charging blindly into a potentially trapped room where you KNOW there's likely to be tough opposition, etc.? Well, nothing. But your characters' lifespans won't be long, and the party might not like having a string of quasi-suicidal companions, as such actions tend to blow back on the rest of the PCs.

    But I'd rather have a player like this in a group than a group of players who will not proceed until they've exercised every caution at every turn. Eventually that just turns into a series of "random monster encounters" and/or failed missions. And frustration for me.

    Still, there *IS* something unique about any character that you haven't essentially carbon copied. Or just rolled up as a low level type in DnD (the older the more generic at lower levels). And the longer you have a character, the more unique they become. I've never had a player -- even an almost pathologically overconfident one -- who didn't mourn the death of a character. It's just that the mourning period would end just about the time the new character concept appeared, which was generally within 5 minutes.

    1. Oh sure, and I discussed that before.

      And I'm really enjoying the risks my players take with their PCs! I'm just saying, I think it's got something to do with how replaceable those PCs are. The same guys I play with once play risk-averse characters and play ultra-cautious Diablo hardcore guys, yet will take crazy risks at my DF game. Because, why not? This guy dies, it's sad, but you can make another. The only real loss was the loss of getting to play that guy, you still get to play.

  6. I think that this is the product of the way that things get argued over the internet (or in any large forum, really - see "Congress"). An idea comes along, and is argued persuasively. It becomes "common wisdom", but the next day along comes someone who has seen some flaws with the common wisdom. He argues the position, but because nuance is difficult to convey to large groups he does so (as did the first person, actually) using a slightly exaggerated form of the argument, and also by parodying the first argument. Later, someone sees flaws in the second position, and argues with a slightly exaggerated form of a new argument, plus parodies of the second position's exaggerations and parodies, and so on, and so on.

    Right now, we are at a point where the argument against the common wisdom was slightly exaggerated to "PCs are disposable". In fact, that's not entirely accurate, since a new PC has no advancement and a goal of the game is to advance the PC. However, should a PC get removed from the game irrevocably, it should be easy enough to generate a new one as not to interfere with the game appreciably.

    There was once an article I read that posited two primary modes of playing any game: Romantic and Classical. The Romantic player took risks in exchange for enhanced reward, while the Classical player minimized risks in exchange for steady improvement of game position. An example was a space game in which a spaceship could be moved further by taking an increasing risk of elimination. The Romantic player would use this to make sudden blitzkrieg attacks on his opponent, while the Classical player would prefer to move slower and with more deep support between pieces. Of course, the article noted, no player is a Platonic Ideal Form of one or the other mode, and even the most swashbuckling Romantic player might compare the statistical probabilities inherent in the increased movement, while the most stolid Classical player might find a particular situation of risk-to-benefit analysis acceptable. And, of course, many players take on more of one or the other depending on the particular game.

    So, the Romantic players go ahead and quaff the potion, trusting to blind luck that their character will make it through, while the Classical players wait until they can pay for an alchemist to let them know what it is for sure. Romantic players rush in to fight, trusting to the dice to bring them through, while Classical players run away. And they might switch roles if they are playing Dungeon Fantasy as opposed to classic Fantasy, or (because of the rhetoric surrounding it) might tend more toward Romantic play in general.

    1. That's a good point about how stuff gets conveyed on the net.

      I'm basically speaking from my own experience with my own players. That C/R divide makes some sense, although I'm sure like any other model some people just don't fit in it particularly well. It's not a bad model for thinking about approaches to play you'll need to be ready for.

  7. In my most recent game of OSR D&D (using a derivative of the D&D Cyclopedia) with one group we were just going for the nostalgia fun, and no one was really attached. Indeed, I gleefully used my "splatterpunk" method of describing all injuries in gory detail.

    In a serious long-running campaign, we might have had a different attitude.

    With GURPS, my players did not retreat unless absolutely necessary (i.e., one or more PCs to negative HP and hanging on by the skin, no FP left for healing or the healer is down). But this was partly because as GM I would not casually kill player characters who entertained me, and with GURPS using low-tech weapons or monster bites, unless I had someone go for the head or vitals, I was likely to leave you at negative HP but not dead.
    So they generally felt up to being heroes, knowing that they had a good chance of making it, even if badly hurt. I had a long tradition of rewarding players who acted like adventurers, and having bad stuff fall upon those who bored me...


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