Do players want challenging games, with a real chance of death?

Pedantic

Legend
Someone always makes this claim in threads like this and it never rings true to me in the slightest.

[...]

So no, they are directly connected. You can't pretend "Oh you sacrificed the life of your nephew and now you are conflicted" is in any way a game state failure that is proportional to death unless "Conflicted" is such a steep penalty on the character that they are effectively in game maimed and unable to function as a playing piece. "Oh noes the orphanage burned down!" is not a failure state for a game compared to, "My playing piece been removed permanently from the game." Pretending that you can substitute one for the other and it's equivalent failure is just pretending. "Oh noes the orphanage burned down" is only a failure state in that more serious stakes were taken off the table so it's what you have left. This is "I prefer all the harsh consequences of my failure to fall on someone else." mode of gameplay.
I largely agree with this, with two notable caveats:

1. I'm not sure death ought to be privileged as a failure state, if you're allowed to immediately select a new playing piece. Most players bring in a new character after death, and modern gaming norms usually mean a character at the same level, with comparable equipment. The loss is entirely of the intangible things you're talking about that are suffered by someone else, all of the character's personality traits, connections and accumulated story to do so far. Clearly, those things must matter in some way if death is still meaningful, because there isn't otherwise any real penalty.

2. I jumped into this thread largely to take down the inverse of the point you take to task here: characters dying regularly doesn't necessarily have a lot to say about the underlying difficulty. Death is often pretty casual and random in games, and in those cases a high death rate doesn't actually tell you anything about the challenge the game presents.
 

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Someone always makes this claim in threads like this and it never rings true to me in the slightest.

Wow, I'm staggered by how different our experiences of role-playing games have been. It sounds like we play entirely different games!

I contend that the only forms of failure that count as failure from their perspective are things that stop them from playing their pawn which is ultimately either death or a few typically rarer and more unlikely things that are congruent to death...

While I have definitely played in this sort of game, usually we all have more pawns that we can drop into play in exactly the same spot as our old pawn and continue playing. The failure can be poignant. But often it's just a blip. I've regularly heard people hoping that their first character dies because one of their backups seems more exciting.

I've never had a chance to test this but my suspicion is that in a mixed group of players where you had those stakes, in the long run any player that regular chose death as their failure state for some story reason or other aesthetic would gradually become dissatisfied with the game...

I've had plenty of opportunity to disprove this thesis with a wide variety of players. My longest campaign lasted more than a decade. Overall, very low mortality. Two players, however, liked dramatic death scenes, and sacrificed multiple characters. They were committed players for the entire arc of the campaign.

"Oh noes the orphanage burned down" is only a failure state in that more serious stakes were taken off the table so it's what you have left. This is "I prefer all the harsh consequences of my failure to fall on someone else." mode of gameplay.
I'm flabbergasted by your total confidence in this assertion. Though, I suppose I'm equally confident that it's a bunch of malarkey. (I mean that in a friendly, "wow, two people can be so different!" way.) I've rarely (never?) seen a mature player in tears over the death of their character. I've regularly seen adults in tears when their plans unraveled and the villains achieved their dastardly aims. When my old-guard players reminisce about powerful scenes from old games, it's almost invariably about in-fiction losses: death of beloved NPCs, political defeats, betrayals, loss of reputation, etc. Memorable PC deaths do, occasionally, come up, but that's the exception rather than the rule.
 

My game (InterStellar Mercenary) is difficult. Trying to complete a mission while being hunted down by bounty hunters, deadly creatures, the enemy empire, and your fellow mercenary means there is a high chance of death. In a campaign (10 missions) I probably average about 50% die. Whilst my players hate when they die, even get emotional, when they survive it feels like a real accomplishment. I find combat is also more meaningful when life hangs in the balance. To counter this I provide big rewards and pay offs, characters level fast - but one hit kills are always possible, mainly through a poor strategic decision.

So the question is: do other players want to be challenged? Or do they just want to go through motions and level up? What do other GMs and players think?

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I mean, it's a false dichotomy to make it either-or, flatly.

So you're starting off on a bad basis there.

Realistically most players want something between those extremes. Almost no players want what you describe, or different games would be much more popular. It's as simple as that. There are absolutely tons and tons of TT RPGs like that, and most of them are broadly unpopular. Further, it's clear TT RPGs evolved away from that, rather than towards it.
 

aramis erak

Legend
I mean, it's a false dichotomy to make it either-or, flatly.

So you're starting off on a bad basis there.

Realistically most players want something between those extremes. Almost no players want what you describe, or different games would be much more popular. It's as simple as that. There are absolutely tons and tons of TT RPGs like that, and most of them are broadly unpopular. Further, it's clear TT RPGs evolved away from that, rather than towards it.
It is worth noting that the OP has been told of this on another forum as well. (RPGGeek.com).
It's well within their rights to try; it may or may not go over well, but this feels like Heartbreaker syndrome.
 

Thomas Shey

Legend
So no, they are directly connected. You can't pretend "Oh you sacrificed the life of your nephew and now you are conflicted" is in any way a game state failure that is proportional to death unless "Conflicted" is such a steep penalty on the character that they are effectively in game maimed and unable to function as a playing piece. "Oh noes the orphanage burned down!" is not a failure state for a game compared to, "My playing piece been removed permanently from the game." Pretending that you can substitute one for the other and it's equivalent failure is just pretending. "Oh noes the orphanage burned down" is only a failure state in that more serious stakes were taken off the table so it's what you have left. This is "I prefer all the harsh consequences of my failure to fall on someone else." mode of gameplay.

Tell people in a superhero game that their character's death would be worse than losing a city to a villain's nuclear blackmail given I've seen people sacrifice their characters more than once over the years in comparable circumstances. I'll wait until they're done laughing.

I frankly think the idea you're presenting only matters in very character-centric games, and ones where advancement is so steep that a new character is both expected to start at a serious disadvantage to extent ones. Neither of those are even vaguely givens outside the D&D sphere.

If you want to present the comparison to being functionally crippled for the rest of the campaign, you may have an argument. But it isn't even vaguely a given that's what death will do. Heck, it wasn't even a given back in the OD&D days.
 

Thomas Shey

Legend
Secondly, the other thing I take from Tomas' post is that there can be games that have plenty of death but little challenge (mostly due to lack of agency granted to the players).

I was thinking of games that have death, but where, honestly, the combat and other systems are so buffered it just doesn't happen much. But its still the combat failure state.
 

Excellent, I hope there are enough out there that do. I'm going to start advertising my game soon and I am concerned that talking about it's challenging nature might be viewed as a negative. Interstellar Mercenary is tough!

Mod Edit: Advertising link removed. ~Umbran
I am working on an oddly similar game about spellblade mercenaries sent to different worlds, both planets and planes. If the combat is fun, the difficulty is fine.
 

Celebrim

Legend
I've rarely (never?) seen a mature player in tears over the death of their character.

I mean it's been a few years since I've seen actual tears but the death of a character hits many players like the death of a pet. The sheer sentimental value of a character that you've kept alive for years of real time and hundreds of hours of play, when you lose that permanently is crushing. It's like having a treasured possession. Sure, you can replace it but it won't be the same. Losing a character hurts, and I'd be totally sympathetic to a player mature or not shedding a few tears the way a guy who had restored an old automobile and then wrecked would. Totally understandable.

I've regularly seen adults in tears when their plans unraveled and the villains achieved their dastardly aims.

And interestingly, I have never seen this at all from any player mature or otherwise. I'm struggling to even understand what the motivation behind the tears would be. This would be like crying that you lost a game of Monopoly? The thing is that no matter how good an NPC is characterized, you never have as much of a relationship with an NPC as you have with your own PC. Sure, I've seen players get attached to NPCS, even seen players get crushes on NPCs, and I've seen players highly motivated to protect or avenge NPCs. But I've never seen the loss of an NPC get a player as invested as the loss of a PC. The closest I've come to that was a player whose PC got pregnant from a relationship who retired her PC because she thought that is what our PC would do, but even that isn't actual tears much less regular tears.

Regular tears? I mean how many novelists regularly achieve tears from their readers? If that's the case, then you're doing some amazing writing. I know more players that would refuse to engage with a game because it was trying to be a tearjerker and manipulate their emotions than I do ones that would be moved to tears by the death or betrayal of an NPC. When I have NPC's surprising betray the party, the players emotion is more like, "That's so cool. I should have seen that coming. Now let's kill the SOB."

When my old-guard players reminisce about powerful scenes from old games, it's almost invariably about in-fiction losses: death of beloved NPCs, political defeats, betrayals, loss of reputation, etc. Memorable PC deaths do, occasionally, come up, but that's the exception rather than the rule.

When my players reminisce about scenes from old games it's generally about one of two things - amazing victories they pulled off against all odds or else times that they got in over their head and multiple party members died.

Later on another poster talks about the two pre-conditions that he thought must be true for my perspective and that was "new characters are at some disadvantage compared to old characters" and the other was "character driven games". The former is interesting because the "sentimental value" of characters IME means that whether or not new characters are at a significant disadvantage, the loss still hurts. But the second surprised me not because I don't think it was true, but because my assumption was that the further away you get from pawn stance the more important character is for driving the game. One of the reasons loss of character hurts so much more than betrayal or recoverable setbacks like political defeats, loss of reputation, loss of friendship, etc. is that losing all the character's story that you wanted to tell hurts far more than just losing the particular story you had in mind. If the story of your PC twists in a way you didn't expect or even want, well there is at least a story and a least a path forward even if it's not your first choice. But if you lose your PC in some permanent way - death, disfigurement, maiming, etc. - well then that story is over, and that hurts more than going down path B instead of path A.

I will say this. If that's not remotely true of your game, then I'd love to sit in on it and see how you manage it.
 

Celebrim

Legend
Tell people in a superhero game that their character's death...the idea you're presenting only matters in very character-centric game

I'm struggling to understand the concept of a superhero game that isn't very character-centric. I mean if your character gets a Tony Stark death, then great. But that was after Tony Stark had completed an amazing character arc and been in a bunch of amazing stories and it was in the finale. But the MCU is nothing if not character driven, either from the vantage of the protagonists or the antagonists. That's what made it work.

The game you describe makes characters seem more interchangeable than OD&D dungeon crawls.
 

Thomas Shey

Legend
I'm struggling to understand the concept of a superhero game that isn't very character-centric. I mean if your character gets a Tony Stark death, then great. But that was after Tony Stark had completed an amazing character arc and been in a bunch of amazing stories and it was in the finale. But the MCU is nothing if not character driven, either from the vantage of the protagonists or the antagonists. That's what made it work.

The game you describe makes characters seem more interchangeable than OD&D dungeon crawls.

People often have more character ideas than time in superheroes.

And the point is in a superhero games its not about the character--its about being a hero.

The point is they don't die very often. And when they do its virtually always important specifically because its so difficult. And dying well isn't a great punishment, even if it happens early.

On the other hand, failure, especially big failures, will follow a superhero around forever. Its far more punishing than death.
 

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