This article was inspired by my plans to run Masks of Nyarlathotep with only a single player. Those who know anything about the highly lethal and wonderfully awesome (primarily pulpy) Masks of Nyarlathotep campaign will likely be divided into two camps by the title of this article. One would be scandalised by the very idea of it! Naturally anyone can play the game however they please (Cthulhu players are some of the most tolerant players I've ever seen) but it really doesn't seem like it'd be something they would do. The other group might look longingly at the title - thinking lovingly of now-dead PCs, though they, too, might think it could lose something to have a form of immortality.
The most pragmatic might think: "Well, if it's a solo game, I suppose you might have to. But then, why would you play it as a solo game?"
Well it is hard to get a group of people to play a highly lethal investigative game (at least around these parts) and because I'm crazy. Also because I wanted to play this out a little more as a psychological game and that's easier to do in small numbers.
But firstly I wanted to address a common misconception: Lethality doesn't equate to fear and lack of lethality doesn't equate to a lack of fear.
Sure, it equates to horror. Having to watch numerous characters be crushed like bugs certainly adds to feelings of helplessness and "Glad It's Not Me" vibes that surely fits into a horror genre. Especially if the deaths are well-described and imaginative.
But it doesn't necessarily lend itself well to fear. You see, when a character dies they're ... well ... they're dead. That's it. Depending on their method of death one could almost call them one of the lucky ones. From a pacing perspective, all of the attachment held to the character is destroyed and the build up of tension disperses.
Consider, for a moment, a movie with a really intriguing protagonist. The tension increases, increases, increases ... then the protagonist dies. A new protagonist steps in. The audience goes, "hmm", but they watch and they start becoming invested in their plight and start rooting for them and then ... the new protagonist dies. Perhaps this time by falling off a high wall. The audience starts to raise an eyebrow and shuffle about in their seats. It looks like this is a slasher movie rather than a psychological one and the audience begins to anticipate their demise and wonder how it might happen.
Don't get me wrong. This isn't always what happens but it can happen and it does happen occasionally. Especially when you reach levels of very high lethality.
But what about games with low lethality like Pathfinder or D&D? They're not conducive to horror.
Well, no, they're not. I mean, you can do horror games in them just fine for the first few levels but after awhile it becomes difficult not because of the characters' resistance to death but more because they're flinging fireballs and hacking giant trees in two. The characters lack vulnerability, their options are far less limited, they are geared for running headfirst at their enemies and there's a player expectation for a combat every session that doesn't always leave a lot of space for complex character growth and the slow release of terrible revelations. As always, it can be done but the system just isn't designed for it.
The horror genre that induces fear is all about one thing. It's about identification with the protagonist followed by a fear of what might happen to the protagonist. When the protagonist (in this case, the PC) dies then that identification ends and there's nothing left to work with anymore until the player becomes suitably invested in a new character which both takes time and isn't guaranteed to be as strong.
So what about making the PC immortal? What is there left to fear in that?
Well, immortality isn't invincibility. That is a key difference that can allow a whole range of cruel outcomes.
Describe the pain of injury. If your system allows it, inflict movement penalties as nothing makes a player understand that their character hurts like knowing when their beloved PC is forced to crawl for the exit with a shattered femur.
Provide some sort of incentive to avoid things could kill them. Perhaps, in the case of immortality, it takes them 1d20 hours to come back to life - a lot can happen in 20 hoursup. Perhaps their return to life means that someone they know has their life snuffed out. Perhaps there's no in-game immortality but someone else will always end up taking the bullet like, say, that NPC they've grown to love. It depends on the players.
You can also really ratchet up the terror with situations where death is better. A cultist who might hack off their limbs and leave them drugged in a basement or stuck in a cage qualifies. As does being buried alive. As does insanity. In fact there are plenty of ways to improve buy-in, boost the fear, and even make the character regret their immortality. After all, the PC can be tugged between situations where failure brings an awful situation without release or where failure will lead to something terrible happening to those they love.
In many ways, it's easier to identify with the threat of loss and grief rather than the threat of dying oneself.
Finally be aware that Immunity to Death loses its meaning in large-scale games of three or more players and can throw off your horror for a number of reasons. The players know you can't devote large reams of time to dragging them through threatening realms and while they might wish it otherwise it does have an impact on their character's perceptions of their own jeopardy because of the perfunctory nature of earlier deaths.
Also bear in mind that immortality, either through out of character or in character mechanisms, won't work for every group. Just like some people will be immunised to fear if there's a good chance they'll lose a character once a year, there are other people who won't give a damn unless the scythe is poised above their skull. Different strokes for different folks and all that.
What do you guys think? Can Immunity to Death work - especially in a horror game? What are the problems or benefits of it in regards to your own group of players?