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A Side Note on Taking Characters Out

Since my early days in the hobby, I've always wondered what a roleplaying game where eliminating a player's character sheet wasn't a possibility would be like. See, while most RPGs claim to be avenues for telling stories and freeing your imagination, their rules are often still quite tied to the hobby's wargaming roots, devoted to the challenge of "kill the other guy before he kills you" - possibly because games about action and combat are easier to grasp (and sell to young boys) than games about, well, stories. Naturally, suboptimal tactical decisions aren't good, which is a pain if you want to play out an interesting, compelling character; optimal dramatic decisions, ones that feed into more interesting story, are often suboptimal tactical decisions.

A perfect example can be found in the Dungeons & Dragons podcast of October the 9th, 2009. As an aside, I'd just like to recommend this particular series of D&D podcasts, which feature Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins of the Penny Arcade webcomic, Scott Kurtz of the PVP web comic and Wil Wheaton (yes, Stand By Me and Star Trek: The Next Generation Wil Wheaton) play D&D 4th Edition with one of Wizards of the Coast's staff dungeon masters. They are hilarious, truly. If you don't have iTunes or another client for downloading and managing podcasts, you can always listen to them on the D&D site.

Getting back on track, though, this particular podcast and the one following it detail how Wil Wheaton decides that his eladrin avenger is going to break away from the rest of the party in the middle of an encounter to chase down an opponent his character has a history of emnity with. This act is in keeping with the personality and back-story Wil created for Aeofel. One of the other player characters urges him on. It could lead to all sorts of character moments, both immediately when he catches up with his enemy and in the future when the rest of the party confront him about his reckless behaviour.

But as decades-old D&D grognard wisdom holds, splitting the party is a suboptimal tactical decision. Never split the party.

Wil split the party and Aeofel is taken permanently out of play in one fell swoop by a freaking acid pit trap, in part because no one can get to him in time to pull him out.

Was dungeon master Chris Perkins being cruel or unfair? No. Was he punishing Wil? No. Perkins was running a straight session of D&D as written, with dice in full view. The trap wasn't conjured out of thin air; it had placed in its location on the encounter map before the session began. I'm pretty sure Wil got to make a perception check and failed.

There has been some offhand talk about bringing Aeofel back as some sort of revenant. But subsequent opportunities for character moments aside, such an option needs new rules through either a) some house-ruling, requiring time and effort to ensure "play balance", or b) another supplement, which would cost a regular D&D group money and would still concentrate on making such a concept tactically interesting. As it stands, all of Wil's work in making his character an interesting protagonist in a story has been rendered useless.

I will state that this is a particularly harsh example, and I believe that the Dungeon Master's Guide for D&D does include rules for non-combat challenges. But as I said in my own play report, D&D 4th Edition is at its very entertaining best when it's played as a skirmish wargame, and part of D&D 4th Edition is the risk that any given combat encounter will permanently eliminate your character from play. The "roleplaying" aspect, in the "compelling character" sense, is ultimately an extra spice that makes the tactical game a bit more fun, and if you try to give it any higher priority in a D&D 4th Edition game, you're going to be disappointed and frustrated.

And while I'm happy to play D&D with a bunch of mates, I have always been and still am interested in the concept often bandied about in RPG texts for years but jettisoned as soon as rules design commences, the RPG where the gamey aspects serve to enhance, add flavour to and perhaps even ease the process by which several people collaborate on a story that entertains them all.

Sheesh! Where did all that come from? You know, this was originally going to be a single paragraph in a post about multiregional cultural zones in FreeMarket but it just sort of ballooned when I started writing! I must've been brewing on that subject for a while. I'll return you to your usual programming in a second.

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Hey Rob, I know this is a late comment but I was wondering if you have caught The Guild online yet? Wil Wheaton has a recurring role in season 3, and it stars Felicia Day of Dr. Horrible. www.watchtheguild.com if you haven't seen it. It's about MMO players but I think there is a little something in it for everyone, especially RPGers.

No worries, Seth, I'm cool with legit comments no matter when. I'm not an avid fan of the Guild, but I did watch all of Season 3 'cos Wil was in it. Loved the cliffhanger ending!

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