It hasn't been nearly long enough since the last time I read a post that seems to have been written by a hand-wringing, pearl-clutching, overly protective mom who thinks that elf-games are very serious business.
I guess it shakes things up by not being about female gamers and how they need, no, deserve special treatment at the table, making sure your table is somehow diverse enough to get a pass from perpetually offended virtue-signalers, or using the meaningless X-card.
So let's go through it bit-by-bit.
“Your sword is gone.”
“WHAT?!?! What do you mean??”
“It doesn’t exist anymore. You have no sword.”
“But that was my +5 family heirloom sword! It cost me 50,000 GP and we spent four months in real time on a side quest to get it!!”
“...and you put it in an annihilation portal trap. Tough.”
“Don’t I get a saving throw?!? Or something??”
Okay, I’ve got a few questions.
First, what’s an "annihilation portal trap"? I'm guessing you mean a sphere of annihilation, which is an actual thing in Dungeons & Dragons. I'm also guessing you mean the infamous green face thing from Tomb of Horrors, which I've heard players mistake for a kind of portal that goes somewhere, but just instantly kills anyone that goes inside, no save.
Second, and more importantly, are you or your players normally in the habit of experimenting with strange phenomena using rare/valuable items like top-tier magic swords? Before doing other "no duh" things like using detect magic to try and get even a rough idea as to what it might do? Before using cheap, easily replaceable dungeon gear that they really should have on hand?
Because I've played with some really stupid players, and when we actually ran across a modified sphere of annihilation—as opposed to an apocryphal anecdote in which an imaginary player loses their imaginary magic item to whatever an annihilation portal trap is, so someone can fail to make a point—we tried sticks, coins, rocks, even a leather pouch filled with coins (which revealed to us that it didn't affect metal and stone).
At no point did we risk very rare and valuable magic items. That said...
...is “family heirloom” some obscure or homebrewed 3rd Edition magic weapon quality (because you can't by default just go around buying +5 weapons in 2nd Edition)? If you’re referring to a +5 magical sword that is also a family heirloom, then...
...why did you have to spend 50,000 gp and four months “in real time” to buy a magical family heirloom?
WARNING! All of the mechanics I mention below are risky. This does not mean any of them are forbidden, nor even bad.
Warning: You’re about to contradict yourself a bunch of times!
Some of them are actually quite common.
No, they aren’t. Unless maybe if you only play certain editions of Dungeons & Dragons (namely 2nd and 3rd, maybe 1st).
They are risky in the sense that they threaten to take the fun out of the game for some players.
Only if you’re a whiny, entitled millennial that hates losing certain things. You also just said above that these "aren't even bad".
I wrote an article about some rewards that role-playing gamers want to get from their games, then another about some of the games that do a good job of providing these rewards. Now it’s time to talk about the games that will ruin your fun by taking these rewards away.
If by games you mean Marvel Super Heroes and certain editions of Dungeons & Dragons, because those are the only two games you mention in your blog post. Again, you just said they "aren't even bad".
Taking away or delaying game rewards means consequences for in-game actions start to affect the player as well as their character.
Aww, poor babies.
Players often invest a lot of time and effort to get their characters to a particular stage, and these mechanics tend to negate that time and effort.
Again, poor babies. Really, it only "negates" things if you only care about levels and loot, both of which you can get back by, well, continuing to play.
In the case of loot, you can actually get better loot by continuing to play. Or, do you guys still piss and moan about the loss of some random +1 weapon even after you find a +2 weapon?
To be fair, there is definitely an appropriate time to have your heirloom sword permanently removed, or for your character to die.
I'd ask when, but you'll eventually get around to saying that it's only appropriate when the players are completely on board with it. Like, yeah, you "can" destroy their weapon, but only when they sign their consent forms: can't be throwing any curve balls at your players, don't wanna trigger them!
Gamemasters and players often want to play a high-stakes game.
I agree, and many other actual gamers agree, but the way you tell it GMs and players only want "high stakes" when they're both expecting it and give the okay.
Before you decide to apply a mechanic that could potentially undo or complicate the real-life work that players have put into the game you should talk about the risks, and decide as a group if having high-tension drama is worth suffering player-affecting consequences.
I love how you describe playing a fucking game as "real-life" work. GMs put work into their adventures and campaigns: players show up and enjoy the ride. As the guy that runs almost every game I play in, it's great being able to just kick back and see what the GM has in store.
But, I'm curious, what do you do when you watch a movie/read a book/play a video game with a shitty ending? What do you do if you're playing a game, die, and gotta reload to do a part over (possibly even multiple times)? What about losing at a board game with a lengthy setup/play time? What do you do when you're doing anything, actually put in time and maybe effort, and that time is essentially wasted?
Have you written an article whining about how you shouldn't be able to lose at board and video games, unless you give consent first? Seriously asking.
I'm sooo glad I started gaming when I did. I can't imagine having little pre-game powwows where we talk about the imaginary consequences of a rust monster eating my sword, forcing me to, I dunno, tell the DM that I go back to town and buy another (or maybe make an improvised weapon if I can't). There goes five seconds of my life I'll never get back!
Frankly I'm surprised your article doesn't at the least encourage DMs to provide a safe space room stocked with fucking adult coloring books, bubbles, and puppies.
Finally, "player-affecting consequences" reminds me of Dark Dungeons. Like, you're concerned that players might cut or even kill themselves because they lost an imaginary sword.
I mention three joykill mechanics, but there are certainly more pit traps out there. If you think of any that I should have targeted, write them in the comments! I picked these three because they are typical of the worst reward-removing mechanics. Here is the list.
You really only mention two: the whole "bad karma" thing is just spending XP to do things by another name, though I'm sure anyone appreciates the oh so very topical inclusion of a game released in the mid 80's.
2. Dungeoneering Drain - Dungeons and Dragons
“The vampire succeeds on a touch attack. You lose two levels.”
“Noooo! I just got to level twelve! I really wanted to cast sixth-level spells!”
“While you’re standing there, lamenting your fate, the vampire touches you again.”
Has a DM actually ever done that? Hit you with a vampire, and while you’re going “fuck I maybe lost two levels if no one can automatically remove them via magic or I fail to save against them later”, they give the vampire another free turn?
Because that sounds like a dick DM: rules got nothing to do with that.
There are more than three joykills in the grandaddy of all role-playing games (see the opening vignette about a 2nd edition AD&D scenario)...
I love how you refer people to the paragraph they just read, but at least you clear it up that you’re talking about 2nd Edition (except when you aren’t since you mentioned a +5 sword that the players bought), in which case if the PCs are ambushed by a vampire completely out of nowhere, well, them’s the breaks. If you can't handle it, try running away.
Seriously: if you think that you're supposed to be able to just kill everything the GM throws at you, you're retarded.
It's been quite some time, but if the PCs know that a vampire might be about somewhere you've got garlic and/or protection from evil. Garlic has no duration, and the vampire cannot attack anyone wearing garlic. Protection from evil imposes an attack penalty and gives affected PCs a saving throw bonus in case the vampire tries to charm them. There's also the higher level protection circle that affects a much wider radius.
Also, negative plane protection is, what, a 3rd-level cleric spell? Yeah, it only works against one successful attack, and yeah you gotta make a successful save, but by the time clerics can cast 6th-level spells they succeed on death saves with a mere 6 or higher.
...though many of them have been ironed out in subsequent editions. Some of them persist.
In 3rd Edition restoration is a 4th-level cleric spell that removes all negative levels, and even if you failed the save you can still restore them as long as they weren’t lost more than one day ago per cleric level. So, you got some time. You've actually got nearly a few weeks for the cleric to get around to prepping restoration.
4th and 5th Edition don't even have negative levels, so if you want to play an easier D&D without houseruling or not using certain monsters for fear your players will get all butthurt and flee to their safe spaces to whine on Tumblr, you've got a few official options.
Try not to use them without warning the players.
Yep, because it totally won’t kill the suspense or tension to warn the players, “By the way there are vampires around”. I'm sure it'll be fun watching them buy garlic or prepare specific spells despite having no in-character reason for doing so.
Personally I prefer examining the environment, asking around, exploring, figuring it out for myself. In 2nd Edition I remember actually running into a wraith (not as part of some contrived scenario that fails to illustrate a point).
We beat the wraith, and I think one player lost a level from the fight, and a few rooms later in the dungeon we found a restoration scroll (among other things), which the cleric was able to use to fix it. The best part was that even before we found the scroll, the player didn't bitch and moan about the lost level: he took it like a man and kept playing.
But, hey, whatever works for you: be sure to post trigger warnings and hand out permission slips. Wait, why not just run the vampire encounter as-is, level drain and all, but when the characters are of course victorious ask them if they're cool with the lost levels. If not, just say the level drain magically goes away and no one loses anything.
Everyone wins, and the treasure haul can even include participation awards!
Rust Monsters: Given that new gear is one of the rewards that players who like Dungeons and Dragons crave, creating a monster whose sole purpose is to eat gear is risky.
How is “creating” the monster risky? What’s the actual risk to the creator? Do you mean that fighting a rust monster is risky because it can eat your gear if you somehow don't know what a rust monster is by now? Or do you mean it's risky to create a monster because you might end up having to deal with whiny entitled players who will bitch and quit the game over maybe losing some possibly difficult to replace gear?
Frankly that sounds great to me: lets me know which players not to play with!
I'm wondering if you know that in 2nd Edition, magic loot has a chance of being completely unaffected by a rust monster's touch, to the tune of 10% per plus, and in 3rd Edition you get to make a Reflex save to negate the effect. 4th Edition lets weapons and armor take I think up to five hits before rusting, but if it eats your magic shit you can harvest residuum from the corpse and just remake them all over again.
Whether gear is bought, found, or quested for, a rust monster can easily remove an irreplaceable reward from play.
Only if you're talking about metal loot, the players/characters somehow fail to realize what a rust monster is (in 3rd Edition a simple Dungeoneering check would at the least indicate its only infamous ability to rust things), and the rust monster happens to rust a coveted magic item first (as opposed to any other non-magical object, such as armor, a shield, the head of a metal arrow or spear, a rogue's dagger, etc).
Though, again, magic items have a chance/saving throw to avoid rusting.
I'm curious: do your games include exactly one of every magic item? Is there only one +1 sword gathering dust in some dungeon, or available for purchase (like that +5 family heirloom weapon)? I mean, assuming that's true I suppose you could still find a +2 or better weapon at some point, so why all the pissing and moaning?
Keep fucking adventuring until you find something better, and the next time you run into rust monsters throw some gold pieces at them and run the fuck away.
Experience Points for Effects: Just like with the bad Karma above, there are some mechanics in Dungeons and Dragons that require a player to spend the points they would normally use for character development to achieve certain effects (usually magical ones).
Oh, so now we’re over to 3rd Edition, because in 2nd Edition a wish ages you 5 years, and a limited wish ages you 1 year/100 years of your normal lifespan. Funny how you focus on XP costs, which can be easily recovered via adventuring, and not loss of years, which cannot be normally reversed!
This is done to maintain game balance; the effects that are bought with experience points are usually quite powerful. This is risky, though, because having a mage at 10th level when everyone else is at 12th can get tedious; character advancement is as rewarding as new gear, if not more.
How is it "risky" when the player has to deliberately choose to cast the spell/do the things that require XP expenditure?
Do you not know what risky means? There is no chance of danger or loss: there is a cost, and the player knows exactly what it is. You don't cast wish and maybe lose 5,000 XP. You don't scribe a 1st-level scroll and maybe spend 1 XP: you must spend that XP, and it's entirely up to you whether it's worth the cost.
Not that the game ever expects or forces you to do these things: every XP-charging thing in 3rd Edition (because it's just 3rd Edition D&D that charges you XP for doing very specific things) must be chosen by you, first. Well, except for Scribe Scroll: wizards get that for free.
Frankly, in 3rd Edition I virtually never bothered to spend XP to craft magic items (and when I did it was backup scrolls for very specific spells), because in long-term campaigns I just didn't think it was worth it. Other players did, and that's fine: even as teenagers they knew the costs, and never bitched about it after the fact.
Also, how is a 10th-level "mage" in a 12th-level party "tedious"?
Level Drain: THE WORST!! Again, in a high-stakes game, level-draining creatures (often powerful undead) are specifically designed to hit the player where it hurts the most - in the experience points!
Only if XP is the most important thing for you, which just goes to show how shallow of a player you are. You'd probably be more comfortable playing something like Diablo 3: you won't lose XP or gear when you die, and you can keep the game on Normal as long as you want, which will probably be forever because we can't have your character losing, now can we?
The game even has an Adventuring mode, so you don't have to trouble yourself with trivial things like NPCs and plot: just endlessly grind loot and levels for-fucking-ever!
Don’t pit yourselves against a vampire unless everyone is on board with the fact that they might lose a couple of levels before it’s all said and done… as if levels were the worst thing to lose.
How do you pit yourselves against a vampire? Do you tell the GM what you want to fight at a given time? Doesn't make any fucking sense at all, but I honestly wouldn't be surprised. Do you also tell the GM what you want the dungeon to look like, and what treasure you'll find?
Also, you just fucking said that “level-draining creatures are specifically designed to hit players where it hurts the most”. Make up your fucking mind: is XP the worst thing to lose or isn't it?
3. The Ultimate Joykill - Character Death
“I’m going to run across the rickety bridge that spans the chasm.”
“Okay, roll for it.”
“Oh. Ouch. Um, make a reflex save.”
“Uh… also one.”
“Oh. Uh, I guess you fall screaming to your death.”
“On the first day?”
If that was your character, and the above actually happened (not that I believe any of the scenario described here actually occurred), I guess sucks you had a dick DM making you roll to run across a rickety bridge that I guess didn't have ropes, or didn't tell you that it was so shaky and rickety and falling apart that running across could result in death. But, if the DM told you that and you tried it anyway that's your fault, and would be the definition of risky.
Now, if you're the DM that did all that shit, and if you didn't even warn the player that there was a good possibility he'd just fly off the bridge and die then you're an asshole and terrible DM.
But, really, am I supposed to feel bad that a character died right out of the gate? Roll up a new character and jump back in. If you're butthurt because you wrote up a super elaborate backstory about how you were going to save the world and now you can't do that, maybe don't write up super elaborate backstories before the first session, and don't assume that you're the main character and definitely a hero that CANNOT die except when you give the DM the go ahead.
Something that is nearly invisible because it is assumed in most games, character death is a joykill mechanic.
Only when you're a whiny, entitled shithead that thinks the game must revolve around your super special snowflake character with an elaborate backstory that MUST reach 20th-level and defeat the bad guy.
For normal gamers, character death can suck I guess, but you either get resurrected if you're high enough level (which in 3rd Edition doesn't even need to be that high), can get resurrected as part of a quest or something (we've done it before in 3E when really low level), or roll up another character and get back in the game.
That death and loss? That makes the times you survive and get new shit meaningful, because you know you can die and lose your shit.
When you stop acting like your character is the center of the (imaginary) universe, and must succeed at every quest and never lose anything unless you first give the go-ahead, the game is much more fun. Just roll up a character and see what the GM has in store for you.
I may be opening myself to criticism, but I think allowing character death to be determined by the random rolling of dice is risky, and leads to a million absurdities from a storytelling perspective.
Yeah: you sound like a whiny, entitled shithead that hates to “lose” in a game where coming back to life and finding new/better gear is a thing, as is rolling up a new character. You sound like all the other whiny entitled “gamers” that think that their super special character with a backstory should always win and never lose things.
Which, again, if you always want to win and never lose things that can be easily replaced by continuing to play the game, go play games that just let you win and never lose things (unless of course you give the GM permission).
What happens when your character’s goal was to deliver information vital to the success of a world-saving mission, and they get taken out by a couple of bandits who happened to roll really well?
This, right here. First, I want to point out that all of your imaginary scenarios have been fucking absurd: has a single character’s goal ever been to deliver vital world-saving information? Just the one character? For the entire world?
Sounds pretty retarded to entrust that to one character (and a low-level one at that), and then have them go through dangerous terrain. Sounds like the kind of thing you might want to have more than one person privy to. You could also provide the person with an escort, or have it delivered via a number of magical means.
But, anyway, a normal gamer would be like, “Oh shit I died, whelp I’ll roll up a new character, meet up with the rest of the group, and help deliver the world saving information.” If everyone trying to deliver the vital information died, then world-shaking shit happens and now we get to try and deal with that.
Sounds like a fucking blast to me.
Or maybe the world just ends and we start a new campaign. Point is, it's not fun getting dumped into a campaign where victory is a certainty. Why even bother playing? I'd much rather play a game where I can lose, so if I manage to succeed it's actually satisfying.
I applaud games like Mutants and Masterminds and Fate that deliberately remove character death from the mechanics.
No surprise that a whiny, entitled player loves games where you can’t maybe “lose” via dying. Doesn't water down your "victories" at all, no siree! Go ahead and pat yourself on the back for essentially showing up to the damn "game".
Characters can be ‘taken out:’ knocked out, captured, lost, or forgotten… but that just creates an interesting twist in the story.
Maybe you didn’t know this, but that can happen in any game, D&D included. In fact, I've run games where at the least the PCs get knocked out and awaken later in a prison and have to escape. Even better, since the players aren't expecting it, it's an actual twist, as opposed to an expectation.
Fate takes it a step further, and allows players to decide when character death would be appropriate, thereby allowing the players and the GM, in conversation, to decide when to raise the stakes.
Aww, just for death? What if I don’t think my character should fail a check, or get hurt at all? Why can’t my character just be super awesome and win at everything aaall the time?
It is essential to have conversations about when you are going to use high-stakes mechanics.
No, it’s not.
With all the special snowflake millenials whining about anything and everything I'm not surprised to see this brand of shit online, but people have been happily playing Dungeons & Dragons for over 40 fucking years without forcing their DMs to ask permission to include things that the game is famous (or infamous) for.
Of course, again, there are official editions that remove some of these threats: just play them instead of trying to convince people to neuter their DM so they can pretend that they're legitimately succeeding at, well, anything.
High-tension drama is vital to role-playing games, and these mechanics can provide that when appropriate.
Yes, they can...
Bust them out at the wrong time, though, and you will kill the fun for the players in your group.
...but not when you have to basically ask your group permission to use them. There is no tension when the GM tells you that there will be a vampire or rust monster in this game. There is no challenge when you know you can't die, or the GM has to spare your characters so you can just keep trying over and over until you invariably win.
Just go play a "game" where bad things happen only when you allow the GM to make bad things happen. Me? I'll keep playing games with actual surprises and risks: the victories and rewards are actually satisfying when the GM doesn't just hand them to me.
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