For this week’s installment, I want to talk a bit about how danger plays into your game world, how balancing the risks your players take add to the fun of the world, and some of the way the mechanics of the system are involved with that. While some of the previous discussions have dealt primarily with probabilities just with die rolls, this one is going to look more at a wider discussion on what those successes or failures mean, particularly with character death. I am going to keep picking on d20 a bit here (it does make up a major share of the market, so it’s only fair), but this time around I’m also going to bring in another player for the other end of the spectrum and look at the mechanic behind Call of Cthulhu.
For those who don’t know about CoC’s mechanic, it’s based off of percentile dice (remember that extra d10 with the 0’s that’s included in your standard dice set?). Your skills are given in percentages from 0 to 99, and to make your tests, you roll a percentile and a standard d10 to get your result; so say you roll a 20 on the percentile and 5 on the standard d10, your result is 25. You succeed at your roll by rolling lower than what your current percentage is in that skill, so that as you increase your skills you widen the chance of success. There are a few other mechanics for critical successes and some other tweaks with later editions that put a bit more of a twist on it, but that’s the basic gist. It’s still a close-ended system like d20, but with a much wider range of possibilities than just 1-20, and given how the game’s progression works, it remains viable in scale. There really is no leveling progression; your characters just improve upon their skills as they use them (the tagging mechanic that CoC uses for skill improvement is actually what originally inspired how we tag skills for advancement in 1879).
The mechanic works well for this system, because of the theme it is built upon; regular, puny human beings being pitted against ancient forces with powers well beyond their comprehension, obscured from plain view with layers of deception that must be dug through in order to uncover the hidden truth that was probably better off staying unseen in the first place. It’s dark, gritty, and, critical to the discussion here, by design it is deadly. This is definitely a game for people who enjoy character creation, because if you play for an extended time, you’re likely going to end up making multiple characters (or in the case of one player in the tale of Old Man Henderson, you may end up making several in one session).
By contrast, it has been frequently commented that in d20 games (particularly later versions), it can often be hard to kill off a character under normal circumstances (read: unless you have a GM who is out for blood and/or players making very stupid choices). Aside from the prevalence of healing items, healing spells, regeneration, healing surges in later editions, there’s also resurrection items and spells available that, while cost prohibitive at lower levels, become a lot easier to obtain once you get into the middle and high end of play. Just the fact that the game lets you go into negative hit points before you start dying lends itself to a focus on keeping characters alive. Of course, things can happen through the normal course of play that just result in bad luck, but on the whole, once you reach the mid and higher levels, death becomes more of an inconvenience than a major consequence.
So what does this mean for the game? Recall as I’ve gone over before, playing a role-playing game means telling a story. Stories are driven by conflict, and eventually overcoming that conflict. All the struggles, trials, and tribulations that lead up to that eventual outcome are what make up the details of the story. Thus, the more epic the conflict, the more epic the story. Like almost everything in a game, however, this becomes a balancing act. A conflict that continues on endlessly may have a lot of epic moments to it, but if that conflict never reaches a resolution, it will become stale and boring. It becomes a scale between something too easy where there’s no challenge or suspense, and an endless struggle that never comes to an end. Where you end up on that scale determines a large part of your theme, and what sort of ideas your mechanic needs to enforce.
With a more simple and action oriented system like d20, the scale is tipped more on the easy end; you sacrifice some of the high stakes suspense in order to keep each event quick, rolling from one to the next without as much focus on story. Your characters don’t die as often, but that’s fine in this type of system, as character generation is slow and you want to keep in perpetual motion. With the sort of dark and gritty system you have in CoC, the conflicts are intentionally difficult. The heroes are fighting odds that are incredibly stacked against them, with chances of victory remaining very slim. Thus, when they do find a way to win, it makes for a very rich story, even if you end up with characters dying quite frequently.
With 1879, our focus is more in the middle. It is a game of pulp adventure and exploration of a highly detailed game world. We want there to be epic struggles for characters to overcome, but we want them to be challenges that the heroes are at least somewhat likely to survive, so that we can continue to see them in further adventures. If a character dies, it should make for a fantastic story, a valiant struggle against difficult odds, and actions that made some sort of difference in the end. The use of the Core Step system in the game is well geared toward that end. Player characters are a higher powered than just your average citizens, though in this settings that’s mostly due to experience and career focus (by contrast, with Earthdawn, the main separating factor between player characters and the general population is adept magic). Open-ended dice allow for the possibility of incredible success even in the most dire of circumstances (albeit with decreasing likelihood as the difference between the challenge and the characters increases), and if you end up getting a run of bad luck and fall unconscious, you have a chance to come back out of it before death between recovery tests and healing aids (and Last Chance salves if you do slip all the way over into death, but you have someone around that can get to you fast enough). At the same time, because your tests are always relevant, there’s always the chance that something could go wrong, which means your conflicts stay interesting, and if you’ve lost all your final chances at avoiding death, it remains a very real consequence (even in Earthdawn where the magic level is higher, trying to reverse death is an extraordinarily risky prospect at any level).
Whatever point of the spectrum your game comes down to, one thing remains consistent to have a good story: failure, just like success, must remain an option. If it’s a foregone conclusion on what is going to happen to your characters, win or lose, then there’s little point in actually playing through to find out what happens. You want a game where success is possible, but not an easy or straight forward path. Risk is a good thing for the story, and the less predictable your game, the better.
This of course means that the more you make failure a possibility, the more likely you will have to deal with the consequences of it. It is on that note that I’m going to leave off for this week, leading into the topic for the next post.