The Alexandrian

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Once you start skipping empty time it becomes necessary to frame the scene you’re skipping to: The continuous and relatively steady flow of events experienced in a classic dungeoncrawl is replaced with something inconsistent, noncontiguous, and possibly even non-sequential.

In HeroQuest, Robin D. Laws defines three different types of “time” in a roleplaying game – abstract time, now time, and slow time. These can be useful ways to think about the pacing of your session and to them I’ll also add the concept of a sharp cut.

HeroQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha - Robin D. Laws and Greg StaffordSLOW TIME: According to Laws, this is where critical events and extended contests happen. It’s the place where people want to fine-tune their intentions and their actions, and as a result it’s a place where either more rules or more attention (or both) gets applied. The narration of events in slow time generally takes more time to resolve in real time than it does for the characters to experience it. (The D&D combat system is an example of slow time.)

NOW TIME: We could also refer to this as being “in the scene”. This is typically where the majority of our playing time is spent: The players are making every decision for their characters and there isn’t any empty time being skipped over.

ABSTRACT TIME: Abstract time is a soft method of moving over empty time. It generally takes the form of what I think of as “eliding narration”: “Several days pass as you cross the Great Plain…” or “You leave the Docks and head across town…” (This is the method I most often use for moving between scenes, largely because it never fully disengages from the players: With practice it becomes easy to read a table’s reaction to eliding narration and “know” when you need to drop out of it and back into a scene. I also find it very conducive for the sort of non-linear scenario structures I use, because it allows the players to continue providing input even as we move rapidly through the game world’s clock.)

SHARP CUT: Finally we have the sharp cut. Here we jump directly from the end of one action to the beginning of a different action without explaining the transition or relationship between them. For example:

Player: Okay. I head to bed.

GM: You fall asleep as soon as your head hits the pillow. And we cut to – the sharp pain of the goblin’s sword biting through your chain and deep into your arm.

Obviously a lot of scene transitions are going to take the form of either sharp cuts or the eliding narration of abstract time. But even if there’s a relative consistency of “now time” between sequences, you may still find it useful to conceptually break the action into scenes and use scene-framing techniques to structure them.

Whatever the case may be, however, you will need an understanding of both how to open a scene and how to close a scene.

THE AGENDA

Flipping the pages of a diary. Fast-fowarding through a video. Cutting sharply to a fresh moment. How do we decide when to stop flipping? Or push the play button? Or what to cut to? How do we decide when a new a scene begins?

There are several ways that you can think about what it means to “open” a scene, but I generally think of it in terms of rapidly establishing the moment (the who, what, where, and when) and then applying a sharp impetus which creates action.

(I say “rapidly” because if the entire idea is to skip the empty time between meaningful decisions, then you should be trying to eliminate as much of that empty time — to cut as close to the next meaningful choice — as possible. You also generally can’t go too far wrong by keeping the focus on your players; by engaging them constantly in the process of making meaningful choices.)

First, identify the agenda of the scene. Why are we here? Why is this moment important? Agendas don’t have to be portentous, but if you’re cutting into a scene there must have been a reason why you’re doing it.

(Let’s take a moment to imagine a scene without an agenda. Remember that sequence from Vampire: The Masquerade where a PC decides to drive downtown? Okay. The GM cuts away from the house and decides to open the next scene.

GM: You’re sitting at a red light on the corner of Chicago and Franklin. What are you doing?

Player: I wait for the light to turn green.

GM: The light turns green. You continue driving downtown.

End of scene. Without an agenda – without some reason for focusing on the events at Chicago and Franklin – that was clearly a pointless waste of time. Fortunately, this GM at least had the common sense to cut the scene off and move on. Sometimes you’ll see neophyte GMs continue to linger in these sorts of pointless exchanges for painfully long periods of time.)

The types of agendas that are prioritized, the methods used to select them, and the way they’re presented is another place where the motivations and techniques of an individual GM are strongly expressed. But, in general, I find it useful to think of the agenda in terms of the question which is being answered by the scene. Another way to think of this is in terms of the scene’s stakes. (Literally, what’s at stake in the scene.)

For example, if we’re dealing with a standard dungeon crawl we might think of each room as a separate scene. Let’s say that one of these rooms contains an ogre. We might say that the agenda of this scene is to answer the question, “Can the PCs kill the ogre?” (At stake are the lives of the PCs and the life of the ogre.) But you could also radically alter the character of this scene by asking a different question: “How are the PCs going to get past the ogre?” makes the scene more open-ended. “Can the ogre convince the PCs to help him fight the goblins?”, on the other hand, would change the scene entirely.

Non-dungeon examples might include things like: Will Billy take the heroin? Can Sherlock find the bloody handprint? Will Gunther betray the Jewish family living in his secret attic? And so forth.

(If you’re railroading, then you may have already predetermined the answers to these questions, but the questions are still being asked. If you’re not railroading, then it’s very likely that you’ll find the agenda of a scene changing after it’s begun. But there’ll still have been some initial or intended agenda that made you frame the scene in the first place, and that’s what we’re interested in at the moment.)

THE BANG

Now that you’ve framed the agenda, you need to actually start the scene by zooming in or refocusing or painting a verbal sketch (or whatever other procedural descriptor seems most appropriate to you).

What you’re looking for here is the bang.

The bang is the thing which forces the PCs to make one or more meaningful choices (or at least provokes them with the opportunity to do so). It’s the explosive force which launches the scene and propels it forward.

Let’s keep it simple for the moment by looking back at our dungeon scene with the ogre. Assume the PCs have failed their Stealth check. Does the scene start when the ogre jumps out and snarls in their face? Or does it start when they’re still approaching its chamber and they can hear the crunching of bones? Or when they see a goblin strung up on a rack with its intestines hanging around its ankles… and then the deep thudding of heavy footsteps fills the corridor behind them as the ogre returns for its meal?

Each of these is a different bang, and you can see how changing the bang can dramatically shift the nature of the ensuing scene (even if all the other elements of that scene remain the same). Choosing the “right” bang is usually more art than science.

Outside of the dungeon, bangs might look like this:

“Cut to Thursday afternoon. You’re cleaning your son’s room. You’re shifting around a couple of his well-read comic books when you find a syringe. A used syringe.”

“You’re only about halfway back to town when the full moon fully crests the Blue Hills. Sharp lances of pain dance down your limbs and arc across your back as fur erupts from your skin.”

“The cop hauls himself out of the patrol car. He’s wearing a food-stained sheriff’s uniform. He’s got a ring on a chain around his neck. You recognize your wife’s wedding band.”

You’ll often find that bangs require contextualization. (In other words, you might need to start a scene a little before the bang in order to properly set up the information necessary to understand the bang.) You may also find it useful to multiply or escalate the stakes of a scene by using a sequence of multiple bangs.

Texas State Highway 222 - Leaflet (CC License at Link)

For example, consider the scene featuring the “wedding band” bang above. You might open that scene by saying something like:

“You’ve been on the road to San Antonio for the better part of four hours. Heat is glimmering off the endless stretch of tar in front of you and the air conditioner is straining to keep up with it. Your gas gauge has dipped below a quarter tank now and you’re keeping a sharp outlook for any sort of service station to top it back up.”

(This is all context. Or exposition. It’s establishing some key facts about the scene that’s about to happen: The character is in the middle of nowhere. They’re low on gas. Et cetera.)

“You’re pulling past the long-faded billboard for a bait shop when the red-and-whites of some country cop blossom like a cherry tree behind you.”

(This is the first bang of the scene: Bam! There’s a cop. Do you pull over? Or do you try to outrun him? If the PC has nothing to hide from the cops this is probably a pretty weak bang. But if there’s a body hidden in the trunk, for example, then it’s got some potential.)

In this case we’ll assume that the PC decides to pull over. And that’s when we deliver the second bang (featuring the wedding band) which escalates the scene.

In conclusion, it’s time for a personal value judgment on my part: Generally speaking, the shorter the contextualization and the larger the number of interesting choices that can be made in response to a bang the better the bang is.

You don’t always need rich, complicated scenes, of course. Sometimes you want the short, brutal simplicity of someone swinging an axe at James Bond’s head. (That sort of change-up with a clear-cut choice can be vitally refreshing in a campaign mired with complex dilemmas.) But nine times out of ten, you’ll make your campaign richer and more rewarding if you make your bangs more evocative.

Go to Part 3: Filling the Frame

(A final note: The term “bang” was coined by Ron Edwards with a very narrow definition that applied it only to Edwards’ preferred style of “narrativism”. I’m very deliberately genericizing the term so that it applies to any style.)

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20 Responses to “The Art of Pacing – Part 2: Scene-Framing”

  1. Neal says:

    @Justin,

    I like the fact you’re expanding terms of theory beyond “narrativism,” which is a style of unrealistic play I strongly don’t care for.

    There was a post with some similar elements to your ideas presented here on Ravencrowking’s nest blog, “C is for Choices, Context, and Consequence, 6/1/11.

    You’ve added choosing the right bangs to scenes, which is something he doesn’t address. Raven emphasizes a sandbox with preset encounters that blatantly present themselves, so you can make ‘meaningful choices,’ by choosing to avoid them, or go for the conflict and the greater treasure it usually has. He also gives an example of an ogre, too!

    In Raven’s case, the ogre has just moved into the forest, and you have a choice of two paths. The ogre strings up ropes of human skulls for some reason, to telegraph whether you want that level of danger/reward, as well as the nature of that threat (an ogre). You want to avoid this NPC, then you take the other path, or the blue pill, or what have you.

    That approach works on a game level, since it provides ‘meaningful choice,’ but bothers me on the realism level. His ogres heavily identify themselves as obvious threats because a sandbox doesn’t allow them to have their own reality and motivations, beyond their value as a ‘conflict’ for the PCs to overcome. Hunters that rely on remaining undetected until they ambush/shoot/catch their prey end up starving to death. This goes equally for humans, ogres, packs of wolves, or house cats quietly and patiently stalking a bird before the pounce, or a mouse hole for hours in a semi-trance.

    Many probably don’t worry about any of this, but I find its an immersion issue, and have tried various methods of giving choices, without being too blatantly obvious that the world doesn’t actually follow real logic. Usually, you have to give more subtle clues, or rely on having deeper dungeon levels, or going further into a dangerous wilderness, as an indicator of increasing risks and rewards. Any thoughts on this?

  2. OtspIII says:

    @Neal

    I think this deals with one of the fundamental paradoxes of RPGs (of which there are a few). Every part of the game-world exists purely to further the enjoyment of the players. Not a single NPC, location, dungeon room, or item exists for any reason but to make the game more fun/enjoyable/enriching/whatever–no part of a RPG has any sort of a life to itself beyond what it can contribute to the fun of a game.

    That said, one of the fastest ways to make a game boring is to make it clear that every element of it is there for no reason but to make the players feel good about themselves–even if an ogre is short-term unfun (he murders a beloved PC) he creates net fun by creating a more fun setting (one in which the decision to fight an ogre or not actually has meaningful consequences, rather than just being a hoop you need to jump through to get to the next stop on the railroad).

    I think NPCs/monsters should have just a smidge more realism/agency than the players can easily account for–enough to make their actions imperfectly predictable. If the PCs are capable of anticipating ambush ogres and taking countermeasures against them, then by all means ditch the skulls and make ogres cunning bastards. If the PCs aren’t operating on that level, though, unnecessary amounts of realism just create a baffling and unintuitive world–the exact opposite effect from what realism is generally invoked to create (a common grounds for all players/gms to interact with and be able to have predictable/meaningful effects upon).

  3. gaynorvader says:

    You’re assuming the ogre is in the cave adorned with human skulls and that it’s not just his place of worship! 😉

  4. Neal says:

    @ otspIII,

    “If the PCs are capable of anticipating ambush ogres and taking countermeasures against them, then by all means ditch the skulls and make ogres cunning bastards. If the PCs aren’t operating on that level, though, unnecessary amounts of realism just create a baffling and unintuitive world–the exact opposite effect from what realism is generally invoked to create (a common grounds for all players/gms to interact with and be able to have predictable/meaningful effects upon).”

    That’s a very good point. If you are refereeing for newbies, or a hack-n-slash group, then you’re probably right that too much realism behind the scenes just creates baffling unintuitivism, which pretty much wrecks immersion for that group.

    It seems so damn appealing to describe yourself as a hard-nosed GM who lets the chips fall where they may. Player agency means something, and everything is dangerous and final! I like that idea, but I’m torn. If the players decide to take the dangerous path, then they may find an opponent beyond their abilities and some/all of them may die. Total party kills strike me as particularly, ‘unfun.’

    Maybe there’s something wrong with my previous perspective on having players start all over with new characters, often after they may have played with them for months or years. In my old group, the players very heavily identified with their main characters, and you’d get lynched if you enforced a death against that alter ego. “Pick a new group to GM for, or explain the rules before you let them get attached,” you’ll no doubt say… I’m considering all the options.

    It may smack of cheating, but maybe the GM can decide the party is in over its head and ‘hobble’ the ogre in some way? “He’s had a bad chest cold and is down to 3/4 hit points, poor thing. And he has a limp. Maybe even polio. It’s going around these days, I hear.” Maybe, that limp is from a recent encounter with a giant elk that gored his leg, so the ogre may get a semi-ambush on one PC, but won’t have good combat follow-through, and the party can step back and then reconfront him on more equal terms?

    In previous years, I just fudged the dice rolls in the players favor, but gave them a chance to run/limp out of a failing scenario. But that seems a lot less appealing these years later. Any ideas?

  5. Neal says:

    @ gaynorvader,

    Maybe it’s the Ogrish version of halloween jack-o-lanterns, and he’s just being festive? “Ah, so your religion strings up masses of human skulls on a rope, as a cheery form of ornamentation. How unusual. Not that there’s anything wrong with that…”

  6. nottheone says:

    Was the choice to name the character “Billy” a reference to a song or just coincidence? Anyway, great write up. Wish I could find DMs (and players) who would buy into this.

  7. OtspIII says:

    I don’t like the retroactive “well, you were going to lose, so I made you not lose” thing, just because if I notice it being used on me I lose a lot of the engagement and tension I had with the game. That said, I’m not sure how easily almost any campaign could survive a TPK with characters that have been around for more than a few months. Getting reset to zero is seriously painful.

    If I’m running a dungeon crawl type game I just try to encourage my players to have multiple characters active in the game world, and then I just treat time as a resource–maybe you can get a discount on that Raise Dead if the party cleric agrees to help out at the temple for two weeks and their player just plays their B-character for two session. It means that even if you lose a character you’re never reset to zero.

    To deal with TPKs, though, part of it depends on the players being willing to cut their losses and run and part of it can be dealt with by changing the results of losing the fight. Maybe if the ogre gets a TPK he just takes anyone not outright killed prisoner, releases one, and forces them to bring him a certain amount of treasure in order to release each of the others. Maybe if you TPK against wolves they just drag one or two party members off to eat and the rest wake up beat to hell but alive. If you remove the consequence to losing by making losing impossible the game becomes much less game and much more story-telling, but that doesn’t mean that the consequences can’t be way more interesting than ‘you lost the fight, so I guess you’re all dead now’.

  8. gaynorvader says:

    @Neal, my rule of thumb (and my players know it) is if they behave stupidly or jump into an encounter without scouting/gathering information/scrying/etc, the gloves are off and I *will* kill them. Otherwise I generally fudge the dice to some extent if I’m rolling particularly well and getting too many crits.

    Recently actually I was playing with a new group and a kobold got 2 confirmed criticals in a row, knocking the swashbuckler unconscious and making the barbarian a little wary of kobolds in the future. If the swashbuckler had been on low health so that the crit would have killed him, I would have arbitrarily reduced the damage or nullified the crit so that he was merely unconscious (~-8 hp, so the cleric had a couple of rounds to try heal him). If the swashbuckler had split from the group and gone charging into a group of kobolds solo however, I would have let the killing blow stand as he made an obviously stupid action.

    Similarly if the PCs leave one of their own behind to die, he will. I won’t intervene to save him (though if it’s unjustified, I might let them roll up some backstory appropriate character to try and get revenge on the party). That’s only happened once though, when I was first DMing in school and the party got into some argument about who’s character was best resulting in the fighter and paladin throwing down and the rest of the party leaving them to it. I think the fighter ended up re-rolling a new fighter, which he didn’t mind too much as his stats weren’t fantastic.

  9. Leland J. Tankersley says:

    > Total party kills strike me as particularly, ‘unfun.’

    Sometimes, but then again, sometimes not. A few years ago I was playing in a game where we were exploring some ancient dwarven ruin filled with undead dwarves. In the final battle there were some dwarf wights. The battle see-sawed for quite a while. A few PCs were killed, we killed all but one wight, then the dead PCs rose as wights… we felt we had a chance right up until the end, when everyone died except my PC (I was a wizard or maybe a sorcerer, and I was winchester spells at that point). So I just ran: Exit, pursued by wights. There was a fairly deep pit in the hall leading away; I rolled my Jump check and just failed to clear it. Surprisingly the fall didn’t kill me, so I tried to climb up as the wights were approaching, but eventually I fell and died of the second fall.

    It was a TPK, but it was *fun* — we still talk about the events of that evening.

  10. Neal says:

    All very interesting insights and techniques! Its interesting to pick other people’s minds to see how they’ve dealt with the standard problems in gaming realism vs. gamability/survivability.

    @ otspIII,

    *** “I don’t like the retroactive “well, you were going to lose, so I made you not lose” thing, just because if I notice it being used on me I lose a lot of the engagement and tension I had with the game. That said, I’m not sure how easily almost any campaign could survive a TPK with characters that have been around for more than a few months. Getting reset to zero is seriously painful.”

    I know exactly what you’re saying about losing a sense of involvement because you get the idea “it doesn’t matter too much what the dice say, the GM won’t let us die, so it’s not really ever very… seriously dangerous.” It’s a balancing act of some kind, maybe there is or isn’t a really good answer. Its obvious that a GM is fudging dice rolls, usually, because the situation is so overwhelming, but your characters still manage to miraculously barely win, or escape. Maybe if the GM states that a really bad situation will allow for some escape with just about fully lost hit points, and you try another day.

    *** “If I’m running a dungeon crawl type game I just try to encourage my players to have multiple characters active in the game world, and then I just treat time as a resource–maybe you can get a discount on that Raise Dead if the party cleric agrees to help out at the temple for two weeks and their player just plays their B-character for two session. It means that even if you lose a character you’re never reset to zero.”

    A “B” character is an interesting idea. At low levels you probably can’t afford to pay for a raise dead, anyways, so those dead PCs are probably just that.

    *** “Maybe if the ogre gets a TPK he just takes anyone not outright killed prisoner, releases one, and forces them to bring him a certain amount of treasure in order to release each of the others. Maybe if you TPK against wolves they just drag one or two party members off to eat and the rest wake up beat to hell but alive. If you remove the consequence to losing by making losing impossible the game becomes much less game and much more story-telling, but that doesn’t mean that the consequences can’t be way more interesting than ‘you lost the fight, so I guess you’re all dead now’.”

    Ransoming the PCs is another approach. I think Runequest is big on that approach. Lose all your equipment down to a loin cloth, and you are in debt to a local guild on top of it, etc. If it’s a pack of wolves, let them just eat a few PCs, and the others wake up. Maybe have the players draw lots to see who gets eaten?

  11. Neal says:

    @gaynorvader,

    *** “…my rule of thumb (and my players know it) is if they behave stupidly or jump into an encounter without scouting/gathering information/scrying/etc, the gloves are off and I *will* kill them.”

    That sounds a lot like how I’d GM. Let the players know from the start that if they insist on stupid or suicidal behavior, the consequences will be brutal and swift. If they exercise basic caution, common-sense and cleverness, then the game is rewarding for everyone participating (GM as well as players). So far, I’ve always been willing to let real harshness slide if they are at least “trying” to take the game and my efforts as a GM seriously.

    *** “Similarly if the PCs leave one of their own behind to die, he will. I won’t intervene to save him (though if it’s unjustified, I might let them roll up some backstory appropriate character to try and get revenge on the party).”

    That’s a good way to do it. As long as the GM explains how his/her world works from the start, and that at least some actions have dire consequences, it enhances realism and immersion. Hopefully you have a group of friends that don’t screw each other over every chance they get (I’ve played in groups like that, and didn’t enjoy them for more than a one-shot). I tell them that they probably won’t survive very well if they don’t act as a team, like it was a military patrol. Most players grab onto that idea pretty well. If they decide to take reasonable risks, I’ll let them drag their fallen comrades away from danger. If they want to abandon each other, then I tend to just let the world be as brutal as the dice say it is.

    Some would say that I was taking sides and interfering with Player Agency, by not enforcing consequences to their coldhearted maximum. I’m still not sure what the answer is, but it seems that almost every GM except the ‘dick DMs’ fudges dice rolls or consequences to at least some degree. There are exceptions to that rule, but how many long term campaigns can you run that way, without the PCs dying before 5th level? Having your PC constantly dying gets pretty damn old and non-immersive, too….

  12. Neal says:

    @ Leland J. Tankersley,

    That sounds like a very intense session! Its probably which group of players you have, whether they’d be ok with the TPK. It makes for great stories to tell everyone else, though. Maybe that’s the angle you can tell your players. “Look, you guys may all bite it at any time, and there’s no point in tracking experience points. But you can tell everyone what a great experience it was, having my zombies eat your legs off? Ok, who wants to go into my latest Underground Unsurvivable Ubomination Udventure? C’mon guys, where’s everyone going? At least leave the dip and bag of blue corn chips!”

  13. Justin Alexander says:

    Doing a drive-by on the comments here. Some quick thoughts on TPK / player death:

    First, as Leland points out, there are circumstances in which a TPK can be much more memorable and fun than the alternative.

    Second, however, there’s also the issue of maximizing fun in the long-term. For example, if the players know that the GM won’t pull punches or help them win, that can greatly increase the satisfaction they feel when they achieve their own victories.

    Enforcing consequences for bad decisions can also train the players out of bad habits. For example, I often see GMs asking for advice because their players won’t run away from overwhelming odds. Hard-coding a structure for handling retreats can help with this, but usually it boils down to a simpler truth: If you want your players to run away from overwhelming odds, then you need to let them die when they don’t. (This is a fast lesson. You generally only need to do it once and then you’ll generally never have to deal with that problem again.)

    But you’ll see all kinds of bad behavior by the players get enabled by GMs who hate it but nevertheless go out of their way to make it work. (Another good example: Banning PC-vs-PC conflict in order to avoid disruptive behavior. But the root of this problem is actually being enabled by the insistence that the PCs all have to stay together: Let the other PCs leave the troublemaker behind (or kill them) and force the player to roll up a new character.)

  14. Neal says:

    I like a lot of the above observations.

    It seems a good approach is to just start off with players that don’t have pre-existing characters they’ve over-identified with from another campaign. Or, at least know the player’s personalities, and that they can cope with character death.

    Before you begin GMing that group, let the players know your basic rules of what you will accept and what kinds of consequences they’ll face if they don’t respect your reality’s causes-and-effects. “If you guys go blundering around, or ignore growling noises of large-sounding creatures on the right side passageway… expect you may get into a situation that is over your heads, and … lose them.”

    I already employ a system for strategic retreats, so that’s in place. But letting the players know you expect them to behave intelligently, and ‘live to fight another day, means they should strongly consider retreating when they’re getting low on hit points, cause the GM will let lethal dice rolls stand if they ignore that option to retreat.’

    Some GMs who blog, have mentioned doing open dice rolls (Smolensk, I think, does this), and that sounds like an appealing approach. Many fewer arguments when the dice are clearly lethal and its unarguably right in front of the players. It also maintains immersion, since nobody doubts the legitimacy of the GM’s dice rolls done right in front of them.

    Some blogs mention having henchmen 2 levels below each of the PCs, as a kind of intern that each PC trains, controls, and has as a backup character, should their primary character die. The problem I see with that, is you end up with a party that’s huge, noisy, and slow to process all the dice rolling for balanced combats the double size party now gets into. I prefer parties of about 6 PCs. Maybe, instead, you can have a lower level sibling/cousin back home that gets activated if your PC dies. You’d just have to accept the new character has starting experience at a level that is above 1st, for the sake of convenience to keep up with challenges appropriate to the rest of the party.

    Or, if you want to maintain both tension and intelligent conduct on the part of your players: you can just tell the players that every time they pull some boner move and kill off a character, that you are charging them for replacements. $50 a pop! “These things aren’t made out of paper, and grow on trees, you know!” “What? You think my dice don’t sustain wear and tear every time you re-roll a NEW character? That these pencils don’t need resharpening?” “I don’t want a check, CASH, bucko. If you left your wallet at home, then you can just leave and come back when you have the money to afford to play with the big boys.”

    We can call it: (AFGM)… ‘Adversarial Financial GMing.’ Jim Ward would be proud.

  15. Mary Ezzell says:

    Another way to have real consequences without grief, is to allow a future game to be a quest to restore the dead character, if the other characters care enough. This could be as simple as their next employer offering a Wish spell as payment, or as custom-designed as a literal trip back into the same dungeon to retrieve his/her body for resurrection etc — or stretched to find where the body (or prisoner) has been taken. There can still be pain and cost, the lost character and/or others may lose levels or abilities, etc.

  16. Neal says:

    @ Mary Ezzell,

    Those are ideas I’ve toyed with, too. The ‘return trip’ to go back for a lost body. A wish spell as payment works well, but pretty much means the party is medium level or higher, since it’s way too expensive for what a low level party could justify as a price for their skills being sold to the wish-granter. Stretching the idea to finding where the body or prisoner has been taken is a neat twist.

    The fact that there is still pain and costs are good, too. Maybe you could have the party trade a year’s service for a wish spell, to a powerful wizard? They’d have to really like that PC, though. Or maybe the PC brought back trades 10 years of 90% of treasure/ or service? It’s a stretch, but it might work. Certainly, I’d make the long dead PC lose levels and/or ability points as a painful consequence of dying.

    By the by, undead stealing life levels, Permanently… strikes me as grossly unfair. If you’re going to lose levels and it’s not temporary, it should be for something like dying. If the argument is “well, we put out the signposts warning you that this hallway had undead, and you still wanted to complete the adventure…” My attitude would be to the GM “don’t bother with any undead that steal life levels, cause we ALWAYS refuse those adventures on principle. If that’s what you’re offering us, we respectfully ask that you give us hooks for something that’s actually fun. Or modify undead to make them… fun.” That kind of experience point replacement is murderously hard and time-consuming to do, in any kind of non-monty haul campaign.

  17. Neal says:

    @ Justin,

    Re: Mary Ezzell’s comments, I seem to recall in one of your previous posts that in your GMed games, (I think it was The Two Deaths of so and so…”) you require reanimated/resurrected bodies to actually still have their… HEADS. And people go around collecting them as trinkets on necklaces…. hahaha. I’m sure I’m getting the details wrong, but if I recall you might have also said that you didn’t like ‘the revolving door of death,’ and didn’t allow for clerics in your world after that, or no resurrection spells after that period? Something like that. How does that work?

    Obviously, at that point, under most circumstances, assassination becomes pointless. Since unless you take the heads with you, or as you scale the sheer castle walls you remember to bring enough 20 gallon carboys of sulfuric acid and lye in a backpack to dissolve the bodies of your targets… anyone rich and powerful enough to justify an assassination, has family/allies with access to wish spells and resurrection to undo the effects of an assassination.

    If combat doesn’t become pretty lethal, then I can only guess it’s because D&D gives huge hit points vs. comparatively static damage from weapons/monster attacks as parties level up, so maybe that changes some things?

  18. Justin Alexander says:

    For the “revolving door of death” stuff you should check out Optional Death and Dying.

    Re: Assassination. Yup, if you want a target dead then you’re going to have to plan your assassination accordingly. Fortunately, D&D gives you a lot of options. Distinegration, for example, is a “you’re not coming back from that” scenario in this sort of world.

    On the flip-side, you would also expect to see violence escalate: If I’m a mob boss and I want to send you a message, I’m not going to send my boys around to rough you up. I’m just going to kill you and let the inconvenience and pain of resurrection/revivification magic teach you a lesson.

    For a good example of this sort of thing in fantasy literature, check out Jhereg by Steven Brust.

  19. Neal says:

    @ Justin,

    How do you turn on italics and such, in these Replies?

    Yes, that is the article I was thinking of: “Optional Death and Dying,” would that it were only so negotiable.

  20. L’Art du Rythme – partie 1 – quefaitesvous says:

    […] Go to Part 2: Scene-Framing […]

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