Friday, April 21, 2017

Death, Trauma, and Retirement: I'm Gettin' Too Old For This Shit

So, with my current group, I'm trying something new.
Let me tell you why I'm doing these things.

by Jose Segrelles
click it


PC retirement is a replacement for PC death, not an additional risk.  I'm making death less likely in order to make retirement more likely.  Retired characters are more interesting and more useful than dead ones.  (And a lot less demoralizing.)

For example, ". . . and then he bought a turnip farm and swore never to leave it" is more satisfying end to a character's story than ". . . and then he died in a filthy hole, and the rats nibbled his eyes until he was quite dead".

And of course, forcibly retiring a character still accomplishes the primary punitive aspect of dying: you lose the opportunity to play your character.

So here's my first draft:

Whenever you have a near-death experience (roll higher than a 10 on the Death and Dismemberment Table) and survive, you gain a point of Trauma and put a question mark next to it (if a question mark isn't there already).

Whenever you return to place where your character could conceivably retire, erase the question mark and roll a d20.  If you roll equal-or-less than your Trauma score, your character decides to retire.  You cannot stop them.

The player can dictate the conditions of the retirement.  They are free to give away their magic items if they wish; they will have no need of them in their new life as a turnip farmer.  They are also free to retire penniless if they desire; surely a beggar will have a longer life than those fools venturing back down into the maw of the earth.  (But see Retirement, below.)

Give them a bonus to this roll if they are on an Epic Quest and are deeply invested in it.  They're more than just a mere murderhobo.

Give them a penalty to this roll if the retirement is especially tempting.  If a grateful king offers the hobbit a bucolic tobacco plantation, for example.


I started writing up a big set of rules for how to adjudicate this, but now I think it's probably just best for the DM to rule on an ad-hoc basis.  

So here's my first draft:

Retirement is just retirement from adventuring.  It can be literally anything they way, as long as it's not adventuring and they do not continue on as a player character.  They become a friendly NPC instead.  If they retire with enough loot, they can become a friendly and powerful NPC.  You can retire at any time, not just when Trauma forces them.

Inform the players about everything in the last paragraph.  This rule needs to be mostly transparent.

1. When a player retires, ask them what sort of retirement they intend, and how much wealth they are retiring with.

2. Multiply the wealth by the character's level, and look up the result on the table below.  Adjudicate the details of the new NPC using your vast prowess, using the numbers below as a guide.

Level x Wealth = Retirement Points (RP)

Less than 100 RP
Probably going to die in a nearby gutter.

100 RP
A chance at a normal life.  Apartment, job, loans, loyal dog, relationship problems, taxes.  Just a citizen.

1000 RP
Comfortable retirement in position where they can give modest assistance.  A bartender who gives you free drinks and rumors.  A rancher who gives away horses and rations.

10,000 RP
Excellent retirement in position where they can give major assistance.  A tavern keeper who can give you secure lodging and introductions all over the city.  A master assassin who will do a couple of jobs for free.  The captain of the guard who lies under oath in order to get your case dismissed.

100,000 RP
Go wild, bro.

A Softer Death Table

My most recent groups have been getting less hardcore and more casual.  More beer and cheese, less blood and grit.  Which is fine--we have a lot of fun.  But I'm getting the impression that they don't like how easily their characters die.  It's true; I put death on a low shelf.

Luckily, death rules are very easy to tweak, since they usually don't interact with the rest of the game at all.  So I'm rewriting my Death and Dismemberment Table (for the fifth fucking time lolololololol).  I'll probably post it once it's been playtested a bit maybe?

From a game design standpoint, the purpose of a Death and Dismemberment Table is two-fold.  
  • When players start Losing The Game, the Death Table delivers the most final punishment the game offers: death and all its lesser cousins.  It answers the question of "what happens if we lose?"
  • It introduces complications and that should drive the type of gameplay that you want.  This is a complicated question, and I've spent a lot of time thinking about best tweak it so it can drive the game towards its intended gameplay.
But here are some design goals for the rewrite:

1. Lingering injuries aren't that much fun.  They're fun to give out, but they're a pain in the ass to track, and it creates a need for a lot of downtime, which doesn't always mesh with the player's goals.  Also, it requires a lot of mandatory downtime in town while player's rest, and although my Downtime Event tables produce interesting results/plots, they usually aren't as much fun as the rest of the well-prepped dungeon shit.

Plus, players never keep track of negative conditions (they only remember bonuses) and so it's up to me to remember that their skin is all burned off and they can't wear armor for 9 more days.

So no more "Broken Leg: half speed for 75 days", despite that injury being both accurate and metal.

Injuries will last for minutes, 1 day, or 1 week.  I think I'm going to try to do away with permanent mutilations, because I think the 

2. Less instant death.  It's still going to be on the table (because dragons need to be able to bite people in half), but I no longer think it should be something that has a chance of happening when I goblin bites your hand.

And anyway, it's more tactically interesting to have to choose between stabilizing a dying friend or stabbing the owlbear that just spit him out.

3. No permanent mutilations.  In my Willows game, I'm pretty sure we had 3 players lose a leg across 6 months of gameplay.  That's a lot.

And anyway, I think the forced retirement thing (see below) will help drive them away from adventuring without gimping them towards the end.

Because one of the reasons why I liked the idea of players losing arms and legs, is because it would (a) motivate them to go find a cool new hand, or (b) encourage them to retire their character and roll up a new one.  In practice however, I find that players tend to just drive their characters until they fall apart like an unlubricated Corolla.

So why not create a mechanic that takes a straight path route to that goal, and forces characters to retire directly?


  1. this has very nice sid meier's pirates! vibe. i applaud.

  2. Very intriguing. And I have a few players whose characters have suffered permanent injury. I wonder if they would take the retirement option, if offered, or if they'd rather just go out in a blaze of cripple glory. Or not-glory. Just a blaze.

  3. I offered some thoughts in the G+ stream. I think the way you could really get some player buy-in on this is if you threw in a Blaze of Glory Rider where you can opt to make one super Limit Break attack then fall over dead instead of retiring to Turnip Town if that's not the life you envisaged for your character.

    Also if I ever play in one of your games should I come with like 4-5 backup characters ready to go? Would that be thoughtful or like woah, too much bro?

  4. This is an excellent idea that I'm definitely going to steal. Instead of all this business about trauma points and question marks, though, I think I'll bake it as an option directly into my drop tables: some moderate entries in between "'Twas but a flesh wound!" and "You ded," along the lines of "You've sustained a debilitating injury. Continue adventuring with permanent penalty X, or retire the character to NPC status." (It may help that I have separate tables for physical injury and mental strain.)

  5. Then it's up to you to make lingering injuries fun.

  6. Going soft on us, are you? Neat! I'm actually against most instant death during a game myself. So much more interesting when it happens as a result of bad tactics and poor decisions and/or priorities in the dungeon.

    I am totally going to steal the idea of retirement as replacement for character death. As for lingering injuries, I think I'd stick for a 'until a good night of rest' limit. Just for bookkeeping purposes. I have fooled around with a scar system where a near-death experience (0 HP equivalent but didn't die) adds a very minor penalty to a character, along with a cool scar the player gets to determine.

    Question about the blog post itself:
    (Injuries will last for minutes, 1 day, or 1 week. I think I'm going to try to do away with permanent mutilations, because I think the )

    Is this missing an end, or was it a clever way to segue into the next item on the list?

  7. Retirement is a great alternative to killing everyone off (that gets old fast). Keeping people around as NPCs is neat, though I'd be tempted to let them pass on some experience points as well... But this could definitely see use in my current game

  8. Would you consider a permanent level loss as a short-of-death penalty? Permanent as in a lvl 5 character becomes lvl 4 and no curative spell, not even a wish, can restore the lost level. Of course the character can reach lvl 5 again the normal way by gaining more XP.

    The justification, if one is desired, is that the level loss is equivalent to a bad concussion, shaken confidence, etc. that translates to a meaningful setback in skills. Much like a boxer who suffers his first severe KO and whose chin and confidence is not the same until he puts together several more wins...

  9. I like this along with your concept of pain points that you discussed earlier. (when does the paladin pull his weewee out of the pain box)

    I wish that players would have the depth to treat their PC's like actual people, but until that time comes when they stop being aggravatingly meta, this is a good way to remind them of the wear and tear humanoid psyches suffer in the course of adventuring.

  10. Great stuff Arnold.

    It makes me think of having each "character" be a familial line. Each time your character gets too​ messed up their kid steps in to take over so pops can hobble around the estate in his peg leg. Would work well with a long form knight game like Joseph Manola has briefly talked about.