Friday, October 22, 2010

Lethality of Campaigns

Something that I've been thinking about since our last session of Pendragon (I run a monthly campaign for my wife and two of our friends) is just how deadly do most GM's make their campaigns? I basically gutted the County of Salisbury this last session (Year 508 for those of you keeping score), but the player characters all made it through. It actually worked out pretty well, since it raised them all to the level of Banneret. One session where the PC's didn't survive, though, was after the Battle of St. Alban's in Year 495. Of course, knowing that this event would be coming, at the start of the campaign, each player rolled up 3 brothers to play. The eldest of these earned a place in the Hall, where the majority of the Logres (King Uther's Kingdom) were killed by poison, including Uther himself. What I found out later was that Greg Stafford himself, creator of the system, never killed a PC at that event. In any case, Pendragon is meant to be deadly. Damage builds up quick and healing is painfully slow.
Other systems, on the other hand, tend to be more forgiving in their healing, even at low levels, but those can be deadly as well. We recently had a session in our AD&D (1st Edition) campaign where the cleric failed on a "Save or Die" roll. Not fun, but it was right there in the rules. Now, I have been known to fudge a roll or two to make sure the PC's don't completely bite it. I even saved one of the aforementioned Pendragon characters, who got nailed with a massive critical, by having Merlin show up and heal him. I don't make a habit of it, but I'll do it now and then.
So, my massive readership, I want to hear your thoughts. How deadly do you make your campaigns and/or how much fudging do you do to keep the PC's alive?


  1. Well, speaking as the DM of the afore-mentioned AD&D game, I tend to let the dice do the talking. I will rarely fudge a die roll, and if the players have knowingly gotten themselves into a bad situation (whether through recklessness, ignoring obvious cues, etc.), I'm not going to be inclined to bail them out.

    Sometimes, though, the players have done everything right, made smart decisions and inferences based on the information available to them, and still the fates go against them. I'm a little more maleable in those sorts of situations, but even then sometimes the lesson needs to be "life kicks you in the ass sometimes, and the game is no different".

  2. I'm running Pendragon GPC right now as well and had three player knight deaths last session (497.) We went the first 8 years without a death and then have had six player knight deaths between 493 and 497.

    Last session I did fudge some dice. After three player knights died and I rolled a crit on an enemy passion, I ignored the crit and made it a normal +10 instead of +20. Next enemy up to bat, critted their passion as well and made it a normal success. Otherwise we would have had 5 dead player knights last session.

  3. Joe: Noted. Especially since we're playing again tonight. ;)

    Eric: Wow, the dice just wanted character death, didn't they? Sounds like very few of the original characters will ever make it to 510.

  4. There are still two more player knights alive from 485. We'll see.

  5. Actually, my view on it has always been very similar to Joe's take on it. If players are being wantonly stupid, greedy, or oblivious to clues or danger then, well, they should learn that it can and will get them very dead very quickly.

    If a player has played well, with smart choices and smart plans and appropriate motives I have been known to give story leeway on occasions. If I were to label what I do as a dice roll, it's perhaps broadly equivalent to giving them a 50/50 "save" if they've already met with my fairly strict guidelines already. I don't hide away from fatal monsters, and there's always a good share of encounters that are meant to tell PCs that there's almost always going to be something higher up on the totem pole of ass-kicking than they are, no matter how much gear they can hoard.

    A very wise DM once told me one thing about playing D&D. He said that while the dice can and should control the outcome, the DM should control the game itself and, thusly, decide what those outcomes actually are in the first place.

  6. I've GM'd Pendragon a few times and have handled potential PC knight death in a few different ways:
    1. After a knight in a brave (but foolhardy) charge to save some innocents got totally squashed by receiving a lance critical I passed him a note offering an option towards keeping the knight alive or not. He actually opted for the glorious death and extra 1000 glory along with switching to the available backup knight as his primary character.

    2. I set up a scenario that ran the PCs to a few different locations before their final confrontation with the evil mastermind (a mage) and his minions at his tower hidden in a swamp. Group was understrength that night and I actually pulled off a total party kill, with the PCs switching to playing their squires to finish out the assault. With I think two squires walking out with a lot of bodies lashed to horse behind them while the mage's tower collapsed behind them. Long story short, the entire attack took place against a large glamour.

    So I actually think Pendragon gives some very good options to handle the situation in. The generational aspect has you expecting character succession to take place - so there can be some variation in when it does. And the occasional use of magic can allow miracle cures.

    And the lethality of the system also opens up other opportunities. If your knights get pounded in a fight and will be healing/need chirgury for 6-7 weeks then there can be a time jump - or possibly an adventure at the location they are staying that tests their non-combat skills; or possibly a romance with the young woman nursing your knight back to health.

  7. All very true. I had each player draw up three characters in the beginning for just this reason. Now that the kids are coming "online", I think we'll have more ways around it.