While the majority of our game play consists of two D&D campaigns -- one 3.5 and the other 4e -- I like to bring in some board game play, playtesting, or one-shot adventures from time to time. Sometimes this corresponds with one of the unwritten rules of our group. For example, when someone new joins the group at some point we will arrange for that player to experience some Moldvay/Cook Basic D&D goodness. It is one of the two gaming rituals our group has.
The first -- much to Steven Schend's dismay -- is that all new members of our group must watch the video that accompanied the TSR Dragon*Strike game. Players who can endure that video and laugh will likely fit in well with our gaming group. If you haven't experienced the 33 minutes that is the Dragon*Strike video, it's kind of like The Gamers only it wasn't trying to be a comedic look at the hobby. As I mentioned earlier, the other is that that player will eventually play in a Moldvay/Cook era adventure.
The first time I ran a Basic D&D adventure for the group, I used the Keep on the Borderlands module. The players prepared themselves for adventure and started off toward the Caves of Chaos. On the way, they encountered a mysterious hermit. Within 5 minutes -- real time -- the entire party had been killed by the hermit and his pet mountain lion.
Last year, I ran another session. This time I used one of the "Black Box" era modules, The Eye of Traldar. I selected the adventure because the black box era modules were more narrative and story oriented than some of the early D&D adventures, and because I thought it would be less lethal than Keep. The player's rolled up their characters, a fighter, a cleric, an elf, and a magic user, and we discussed their character backgrounds. As this was a black box adventure and it took place in Karameikos, I pulled out my Karameikos Gazetteer and we added backgrounds for all the characters and created a back story describing why this band of merry adventurers were adventuring together. This done, we began the first encounter of the adventure and rolled initiative. Within seconds the magic user was dead, and the other characters started to worry. The magic user's player experienced immediate and serious disappointment. He had taken the time -- about half an hour -- to come up with a background, only to see that character killed off in a random fashion.
Needless to say, this was not a very satisfactory experience. It's one of the reasons that, as much as I love the Mystara setting, I don't run a Moldvay/Cook campaign. Character death can come seemingly at random, and that can be a serious downer for some players.
A similar thing happened three weeks ago when I pulled Warhammer Quest off the shelf and set it up for the group. We were down two players, so the four of us made for a perfect WQ party. We set up the game, made our characters, and started our cooperative dungeon crawl. At first, we were having a good time. We were all laughing at some of the absurd encounters and marveling at how hard the game was. We were also experiencing some pretty bad rolls. Then we hit one hallway and the world fell apart. Our wizard rolled a one in the power phase, creating an additional foe, on repeated occasions. We were swarmed by hostiles, and our Elf was brutally murdered. It was a disappointing end to what had been two-hours of enjoyment until that point.
Like The Eye of Traldar and Keep on the Borderlands, Warhammer Quest is an adventure game with a default setting of Hard. In fact, it seems that this is the default setting for many of the games of the early rpg era. No one would say that Call of Cthulhu is a storytelling game of heroic achievement and guaranteed success. Paul, over at blog of holding, has a recent post describing the design philosophy and play philosophy of some designers during that era. To quote him:
In OD&D, there's no guarantee that things are fair. One of Gary's and Rob Kuntz's favorite stories, says Mornard, was Clark Ashton Smith's The Seven Geases, in which (spoilers ahead) the hero survives a horrible death at the hands of seven different monsters only to die meaninglessly slipping from a ledge. That was one of the seminal texts of D&D, said Mornard, and one of the stories it was designed to model. "The story that D&D tells," said Mike, "is the story of the world. Heroes aren't invincible."The thing is, that I don't really like that kind of game. I don't like whimsical and meaningless deaths for player characters. This is especially true for games where character creation is a long process where significant narrative choices have been made. The player quickly becomes attached to the character, and to have that character "meaninglessly slipping from a ledge" is unsatisfactory to most players.
Geoff Engelstein describes why this is true in a recent article on The Dice Tower podcast entitled Colonoscopies and Game Design. In the podcast, Geoff discusses the psychology of pain and how people who experience pain -- say the pain of a colonoscopy -- will evaluate how much pain they felt by taking an average of the most pain they felt and how they feel at the end of an event. If the moment of most intense pain comes at the end of a event, or play of a game, then the experience will be negative. If the end of an experience is pleasant -- even though the moment of highest pain was the same or worse -- the over all experience will be viewed as a positive one. It's funny how the psychology of the mind works isn't it.
What this means for those old games where death comes easy and the default setting is Hard, is that whimsical death's can still occur but that they should occur as part of a process and not as an ending. It also means that if whimsical death is a possibility, one should not be encouraged to come up with detailed backgrounds for characters as those are a part of the playing process too. If 30 minutes of game play are taken up with coming up with a background, and those 30 minutes are followed by 30 seconds in which your character is brutally cut down, then that isn't a very satisfactory experience.
Whatever direction D&D Next goes, I think that it needs to keep in mind this part of human psychology. If death is to be whimsical, then find a way to make death a middle part of the process. Encourage multiple characters like Paranoia or make character creation so quick that new characters can be inserted instantly. You won't get very "narrative" games with rich character development, but you might get some fun ones where players vent out their own secret desires.
Personally, I hope that D&D Next falls somewhere between 3.x and 4e with regard to ease of death. One might add more specific "knock out" rules, or rules for defeat without death, but I would be disappointed to see a return to a game set on Hard. Those already exist, as do games on Easy. I want to see a game set on Normal where death is a possibility, but where it isn't the only or primary signal of a failed endeavor.