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Tales From the Tomb: Character Mortality

When I first began writing Transylvanian Adventures, it was at an awkward nexus of playing the fourth edition of the World's Most Popular Roleplaying Game and, by comparison, my favorite edition(s) of said game -- Basic, OD&D, AD&D -- as well as numerous independent games I'd played the decade plus prior to the Fourth's release.

It didn't take a statistician to gauge where some things had gone right and other things had gone wrong. And still more things had been kicked off the boat needlessly, even thoughtlessly.

Most of my musings circled, like a hungry vulture, over the topic of Character Mortality.

It's Important To Be Able To Die

One of the recent trends I've noticed is the exclusion of one of the key NPCs in a roleplaying game: the Angel of Death. I've read many roleplaying games where death is eliminated from the game altogether. Here is what I found.

Removal of the threat of death did not lead to more risk-taking among players. It did not lead to more heroism. Even when heroic acts were genre appropriate.

The reason for this appeared to be that nothing was at risk for players. Survival was a given. Defeating vile monstrosities was an exercise in accounting. DPR (damage per round) was the real focus. It was like fantasy football, with elves.

I will never forget sitting there, as a player, begging a GM to let my character sacrifice himself to save the party. It was a comical loophole in the rules of that game. Because not only could my character not die. But even if I were to have stayed behind, I could've taken on hordes and hordes of opponents with only a 5% chance of dying. The sacrifice was superfluous. Even disallowed.

Boromir takes dozens of arrows to the chest and still fights off the orc horde anyway.

I never forgot that feeling of cognitive dissonance towards Character Mortality and vowed to give death a feature role in Transylvanian Adventures. The threat of character death is why the Accountants, Circus Performers, and Chronologists in TATG seem so badass. They're like salmon swimming upstream. If they can get past that big nasty Grim Reaper, they will create a better world.

But the Grim Reaper has to be real for it to mean anything. And in Transylvanian Adventures it is.

Most Players Do Less With More And Vice-Versa

As we'll discover with the continuation of the Paper Hero series, characters in Transylvanian Adventures are about as super-powered as an AD&D Thief, Ranger, or Cavalier. They aren't the Justice League or anything.

So why do players engage in cathartic action-hero stunts with these characters?

One thing I noticed from playing and running games with heavily codified rules is that players don't do a whole lot in them. And I think I get it.

Players aren't likely to play reckless with a character that takes two hours to create. There's no return on investment. Especially when the safe path is the one that is best supported in the rules.

Second, complex rules inspire people to work within the rules. This means players will explore the options at their disposal, as opposed to trying to improvise a solution that meets the situation. Many times, I've seen rules disempower characters who want to try something awesome. This requires the Judge to improvise rulings to empower the players, often with no support in the ruleset.

That's not what I wanted Transylvanian Adventures to be.

To inspire players to do courageous, even reckless, things, I endeavored to work within a system that encourages those actions. DCC RPG does this spectacularly. I wanted to keep character generation to a minimum, in effect giving the player less investment in a character, while finding a way to make that "less" something "more".

Characters in other games are given things to fight with. Characters in Transylvanian Adventures are supplied with things to fight for. And with the "less" in terms of rules, I've found that players do more. Punching sharks. Jumping onto the backs of dinosaurs and stabbing them in the eyes. Dropkicking velociraptors. Wrestling a werewolf with their bare hands.

Crazy, awesome heroic deeds that are remembered long after the dice hit the table, given all the more gravity because a bad die roll could mean that the character bites the big one.

The engine that powers all of this in Transylvanian Adventures is made of Mighty Deeds, Ruin, Luck, and character class abilities that empower players.


  1. Couldn't agree more -- for me, the basic idea behind RPG rules has been: They're framework to determine the level of success for any given action a player might come up with in a given situation. The rules shouldn't be the game -- playing the game should be the game.


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