Saturday, August 17, 2013

Immunity to Death in Solo or Duo Games

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?


  1. Haven't encountered it, I'm afraid. Only thing I've played where anyone actually died was Fiasco. I suppose I aim for a sort of Schroedinger's death situation, where players understand that I'm unlikely to kill them off provided they don't create a situation where I'm obliged to reveal whether I would.

    I suppose one option, even in Masks, would be to do something similar - give them plot immortality rather than mechanical immortality, providing they don't push it. So perhaps when overpowered by cultists they get captured, stripped of possessions and locked up somewhere, but manage to escape; they're in a worse position (beaten and unarmed) and maybe lost an ally or resource, but they're still alive and have a chance to repair matters. Maybe bystanders or the police do actually intervene, which is very rare in RPGs; the cultists are chased off, but now the PC's stuck in long police interviews while the cultists are getting out of town and disposing of evidence.

    I've always liked Shamus Young's takes on this stuff, though.

    1. Yeah, plot immortality is often the most interesting type to provide and often encourages creativity in the Storyteller as well. It often also allows that old trope: "It just got worse...."

    2. Hi Shannon,

      Death in RPGs is a really interesting subject. If you ever need a topic, I would like to hear more on your, and hopefully some of the reader's opinion on it. How often do players die in your games?

      I read a HP Lovecraft book years ago, but it was perhaps a solo adventure with multiple characters... It started out with the first character exploring his past and an old family property, the second was his friend (or relative) who came looking for him, and the third was a psychologist. Perhaps they were all the same player, the new one taking off where the last one left off?

      I like a very ground based game where if things can break, at times they will. I started playing D+D with the blue box edition, and in those days 0hp was death. I still have the original character sheet (we put all 7 characters on one sheet) and 3 of them died in the very first dungeon we went into.

      In solo player Call of the Cthulhu it seems tough to be hard lined though...

      David S.

    3. Shimmin,

      Only one time in your rpg playing has someone died?!

      David S.

    4. This comment has been removed by the author.

    5. PCs, yeah, I think so (though that game left two out of four dead). Why so surprised?

  2. I haven't had many more, to be honest.

  3. I think Cthulhu needs slowly replenishing PC Fate Points, NPC redshirts to maintain the death count at a reasonable level and to slowly grind the player characters down with insanity instead - unless they insist on doing something dangerous when they have no Fate Points or redshirts.

    In Cthulhu players need to be slowly trained to run.

    1. Run and hide, or be slammed by pain! Certainly works well for a purist model. I'm amazed by how many folks manage to play pulp with the standard rules.

  4. I've ran multiple Cthulhu games where all the players died. I don't see how they can be run realistically without a high body count or didn't until i had the idea for Fate Points and Redshirts and telling the players to run when they didn't have any. Players are used to other games where the monsters are set to the player's level but I think that spoils Cthulhu. If i had the time i'd prep six Cthulhu adventures at a time from easy to insanely difficult and then roll randomly for which one the players get first. As long as their skills etc go up a little even from failing they get stronger and they can come back to it later.

    1. Aww, I love the idea of the random difficulty levels on the adventures. A random combination could work quite nicely to make the players really worry before every adventure. Like Russian roulette with each new adventure that wasn't "so bad" they will grow more and more nervous. Especially if you chain the adventures into a campaign so that the same PCs are involved in each (presuming they still live).

  5. Yeah, as long as players can run and are *trained* to run when they don't have any Fate Points or Redshirts then it should work. My problem was players assuming that the combat difficulty was set to the player's so when i said they ought to run they thought i was just trying to be atmospheric.


    "Especially if you chain the adventures into a campaign"

    Yes, got me thinking now, 7 adventures, difficulty 1-7 with each of 1-6 having 1/6 of the clue to number 7 and the first clue the players get being randomly chosen from any of 1-6. Each of adventures 1-6 would have a main investigative trail and a sub-trail leading to a clue to one of the other adventures (randomly rolled also).

    So for example the DM rolls and the first clue the players get is to adventure 6. They get their butt kicked following the main trail (gaining some skills in the process) but complete the sub-trail getting a clue to another adventure (which the GM rolls for and gets 3). So they follow the trail for adventure 3 and get their butt kicked again but adventure 3's sub-trail is easy enough and leads to another adventure clue and this time the GM rolls a 1 and they finally get to beat something!

    (Adventure 1 would also have a sub-trail with only the clues to adventures 2, 4 and 5 left to find.)

    Not knowing what they were heading into the players would clutch very tight onto their Fate Points :)

    1. I like that, and yes, you know you're doing survival horror right when players get clingy with their resources.