Death is on the Table


Expectations for RPGs can be so different for so many people and across so many kinds of games. This needs to be said, because many people assume that there is one right way to play an RPG, or certain technique ruin the fun of RPGs. But the fact is, 1) setting expectations; and 2) using the right techniques in the right combination, is key to getting good RPG play.

When I assembled my Lamentations of the Flame Princess game I sent out an email with the following notes to get everyone on the same page about the kind of game we’d be playing:

Lamentations of the Flame Princess is part of the Old School Renaissance of RPGs. A clean and sleek version of the early Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set, the game focuses on exploration, danger, and weird fantasy. The setting will not be Tolkien-esque, but a warped 17th century Europe where the strange and magical is rare, inexplicable, and invasive.

OSR games in general, and Lamentations of the Flame Princess specifically, work from principles that are different than a lot of game in recent decades. In general…

  • The Referee has environments and situations, not a pre-planned “story” of any kind
  • Players drive things forward with their choices
  • The game is dangerous. The Referee is not there to kill your characters, but neither is he there to protect them. Dice are rolled out in the open. Death is part of the game. (Luckily, new characters are easy to roll up!)
  • The situations you encounter are not “balanced.” You might want to avoid encounters, you might want to flee encounters, and if you choose to engage them you’ll want to have the PCs manipulate the fiction toward your advantage (Short hand: Think of conflicts as asymmetrical warfare, not as engaging in a sport.)
  • In this kind of play the Referee presents the players with an environment that is as solid as possible, that would continue existing if you weren’t there.

Notice how clear and explicit I am about so many things in that email!

We’ve had a death. We’ve had characters trapped in Null Space after fucking around with a magical device. But no rage quits yet.

I think the fact that I was so explicit about the play style is why everyone has LOVED the LotFP modules I’ve been running (Death Frost Doom, God That Crawls, Stranger Storm). They’ve been on their toes, on their guard, cautious, on point, and focused. They’re not there to knock over every applecart but to survive. They know I roll the dice out in the open, and they know I don’t fudge on their behalf.

And in surviving they feel pride… even if they don’t get to every room or play with every widget.

Exploring to see what happens next rather than to get to some point with a specific goal is the name of the game (to tie this back to the OP). And it’s working really well. How?

Well, the Players talk to me. And then I talk back. They know that the minute they have to make an attack roll, an attack roll might be coming back. So they come up with schemes and ideas to get around or avoid the beasts that might kill them. By building fictional details one time after another in the conversation between each other, between them and me, and me with them, we add create the specifics that let them mitigate, when possible, the dangers of a dangerous world.

To be clear then: The game play is not in rolling to hit. The game play is in the decisions and ideas prompted by the fact that the moment you start rolling attack dice, things can go horribly wrong.

Notice that other games are not built this way. Player Character death in Sorcerer is possible, but the conditions by which death occur are very different than those in LotFP. In other styles of play, the Referee will make sure to fudge the dice rolls to make sure Player Characters don’t die because the game is built on those Player Characters completing the journey of the story, or because no one wants the bad vibe of death at the table.

But we’re playing with death at the table in the LotFP game. Here are some of the techniques and rules that help make it work:

  • Player Characters are easy to roll up.
  • Player Characters don’t arrive with elaborate backstories, but are focused on the adventure at hand. (Their backstories are built in the early levels of play!)
  • Experience points gained for combat against monsters pales in comparison for XP offered for collecting treasure, per the rules. This means the Players are not determined to rush into combat in order to level.
  • I’m not concerned with making “balanced” encounters. Because I don’t expect the the PCs to enter combat with strange creatures–because it is wiser for the PCs not to risk death doing something that might not gain much XP–I leave it to the Players to decide if they’ll fight or not fight. There is always risk, never enough information, and they are then forced to come up with excellent plans to tip the combat in their favor, winning without combat if possible. But that’s their business, not mine. I just provide opportunities and obstacles, and sit back and see what they choose to do!

If I get a chance to Referee Classic Traveller, I’ll be playing the exact same way. It’s how the game was built to be played, and I’ve learned a lot from the LotFP to make all the techniques fit together well to make the play successful.

6 thoughts on “Death is on the Table

  1. Reblogged this on Cirsova and commented:
    The subject of character death in DCC and ways to avoid or mitigate it has come up (including possibly introducing mechanics to get around death when the clerics aren’t with us for the session); I thought this a great article to share with the group.

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