The Sage Welcomes You

So, here you find a blog about life in general, but with a focus on family, games, books and creativity. Other "stuff" will creep in from timt to time.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Quick Review: New Podcast with a focus on Glorantha

Glorantha luminary Jeff Richards and long time creative force in Glorantha and RuneQuest, Michael O'Brien (who goes by MOB) have joined with "Rob the Producer" to create:

Mythic Tales

Tales of Mythic Adventure Podcast

Now, there has been a terrible lack of podcasts focusing on the amazing fantasy world of Glorantha, and having Jeff and MOB involved means that two extremely knowledgeable and personable folks are going to be broadcasting on a (somewhat?) regular basis, and that is all good.
If you know nothing about Glorantha, then you can go here, here, here, here and here and learn a lot.  It began in the imagination of one man, Greg Stafford, as far back as 1966, but grew to be an imagined world of magic and myth contributed to by many creative people and that has played host to fiction, board games, and role playing games. 
So, it is very worh knowing about, especially since it is having a resurgence of products related to it released, including the recently issued Guide to Glorantha, the novel: King of Sartar, and the RPG supplement Heroquest Glorantha.  Also forthcoming are 13th Age in Glorantha and Adventures in Glorantha (for RuneQuest 6), as well as a slew of other fiction and game related products from Moon Design (the owners of the Glorantha intellectual property rights) (as noted in this episode of the Iconic Podcast).
So, how was Episode 1 of Tales of Mythic Adventure?
Uh, yeah, it was a bit of a mess.  Jeff and MOB have a great time swapping stories and digressing on one thing and another.  They lay the groundwork, but they don't show a lot of discipline or rigor as far as talking about their topic, or even having a defined topic of conversation.  It was fun to listen to, but you mostly need to be on the inside of Glorantha and RuneQuest fandom of the last 20 years (or more) to get what they are talking about.
It was entertaining, but the first episode is a little forgettable as far as reaching an audience outside of folks that already like to listen to stories of the old days, who perhaps frequent current Glorantha themed conventions.
So, I still think this can and will be an important podcase, because Glorantha as a world and a place in which to play games is still extremely important to me (I probably began my readings of Glorantha material and playing Second Edition RuneQuest in about 1982 or 1983).
What has to happen?
These two smart guys need to get serious about having a show about the big ideas and interesting aspects (which are just about everything) about Glorantha.  While this can be a show for the fans, it is even more vital to be a show to bring in new explorers of all things Glorantha.
Also, while they are going to be able to bring on some of the amazing past creators who have been and are involved in Glorantha, it should not be a show that dwells on nostalgia.  It needs to be about how alive and amazing Glorantha is.
I really have high hopes for this podcast, and both Jeff and MOB can help be voices to pull in new people to enjoy all that Glorantha has to offer.  However, to do this, I think they need to take after someone like The Tolkien Professor.  Corey Olsen, is a professor with a passion for translating Tolkien Scholarship into exciting discussions and lectures that bring people closer to Tolkien's literary works, explain Tolkien's process, and deepen people's understanding of Tolkien's place in literature, in genre fiction, and as an imaginary world builder.  He brings a kind of magic to what could be a dry discussion, and makes people excited about learning and about ideas.
There are a ton of ideas, of issues and cultures, stories and mythology that make up the last almost 50 years of Glorantha.  If this podcast can discipline itself to organize the episodes to appeal to a broad audience and bring those old fans in to a community where they are also creating new fans, well it will be a powerful tool.
If it remains a place for old time reminiscing and insider discussions, then it will be an interesting novelty, but for most people, it won't be important.
I have cautious hope that these three guys can pull it together.  So, I'll be listening, and I think everyone else who likes role playing, imaginary worlds, or mythology, should be listening too.

Game Masters’ Roundtable of Doom #5 – Your GM Big Picture Fu is Weak

The Game Masters’ Roundtable of Doom is a meeting of the minds of tabletop RPG bloggers and GMs. We endeavor to transcend a particular system or game and discuss topics that are relevant to GMs and players of all roleplaying games.


If you’d like to submit a topic for our future discussions, or if you’re a blogger who’d like to participate in the Game Master’s Roundtable of Doom, send an email to Lex Starwalker at

This month's topic comes to us courtesy of Marc Plourde:

There are many different skills that come together to make up a GM. The ability to think on the fly, knowledge of the rules, plotting, etc. What skill do you think is your weakest? What have you done to try and improve that skill? What advice do you have to offer others trying to improve that skill set?

Being able to reflect on one’s weaknesses as a Game Master, as with any other part of your life, if no easy thing.  We like to know, and do, what we are good at.  Things where we kinda suck are not easy to dwell on.

The challenge with Marc’s question is, for me, that I find a lot to criticize myself about.  It is just the way I am.  I worry about making each thing work in a game, I silently berate myself as I trip over rules, I worry about making sure that each person around the table is involved as much as possible, and, while I am not solely responsible for each person’s fun, I am supposed to be, as it were, the captain of fun at the table.

However, despite these foibles and anxieties, none of my moment to moment mistakes with rules, player involvement, or improvisation are a key downfall.

I really have trouble connecting a big picture with the here and now action.  I find that some very rewarding forms of storytelling, the kinds of things to which I aspire, have this kind of linkage.  It does not have to pervade every little bit, but it should be helping to run things in the background.

I have a terrible time doing it.

This is really a campaign failing.  I want to give my players a meaningful campaign, with distinct story arcs, and larger meaning in events and action.

That turns out to be hard.  I really became aware of this kind of storytelling explicitly, from television, and specifically Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  Each season had a defined arc, a villain, larger plot and metaplot elements, and supporting characters that helped move them along to the exciting or tragic or apocalyptic conclusion.  Buffy as a show certainly didn’t originate this, but it is the show where I became aware of this kind of master planning, which is distinct from the purely episodic nature of an older show like the original Star Trek.  One planet one week, some starbase the next, each episode almost always self-contained.  Like a series of, at best, loosely connected one-shot adventures that happened to include most of the same core characters.

Since before I became conscious of the modern showrunner style of television, I have wanted to have all the little stories add up to a big story.  I usually could come up with the big story, the ultimate goal at which to point the players.

However, this big goal was generally too lofty and remote, and I rarely could keep a campaign going to connect all the dots to get there, let alone provide the recurring NPCs, atmosphere and foreshadowing that might drive along one adventure after another to get to the mighty MacGuffin, the Big Bad, the Final Conflict.  My imagination just seems to exceed the grasp of my plotting ability, not to mention my ability to budget time and manage players through a coherent set of stories.

What to do?

In some ways, you have to learn to manage your expectations and also to murder your darlings.  Better yet, I have to learn that.

So, here are some coping mechanisms.  Dreaming big is fine, but two things are important to keep in mind when launching your campaign ideas.  First, you need to keep your mind open to all the ideas.  You can just catalog them in your Mind Palace (if you happen to be Sherlock), or otherwise, keep notebooks, journals, or, my favorite, random scraps of paper with your evolving ideas noted down.  In most cases, don’t spend a lot of time developing them.  Just keep them as a kind of fermenting yeast out of which something great may or may not come out.  This is because of the second thing.  Secondly, you have to factor in the players.  You may have the greatest ideas every (I know I do), but, since role playing is a cooperative and collaborative activity, it does no good to set your ultimate goals if what your players want out of the game experience is something different. 

Believe it or not, sometimes what players want is old traditional episodic television.  This week they are in a dungeon, next week they are in a town, the week after that, they are on a mountain.  Nothing much connects all of this, except that the characters are all together, and they are probably getting some loot and killing some bad guys.  If that is your group (and sometimes for me it is), then you can’t squash them into your sandbox setting, where they will explore through many adventures, meet dozens of NPCs with secret motivations, finally to win their place in the community and vanquish an ancient evil that has been pulling strings behind the scenes SINCE THE FIRST ADVENTURE.

It may turn out that nobody cares.

Big dreams have to be shared dreams.  Sometimes those big dreams come together organically, by working together with players and adding some elements from your imagination soup.  That may not be as seemingly coherent or satisfying as plotting out a series of story arcs, with specific beats and some clever triggered events, but what you and your players build together will be stronger than anything you can just come up with on your own.

I have definitely found that the story elements that games like 13th Age bring to the table provide tools for that dialog between player and Game Master.  A character creation process that helps show what is special about a character (13th Age’s One Unique Thing comes to mind), what motivates the character, and what that character’s story has been up until now, provides the fertile ground in which to plant my big ideas.  Add to that drawing links between the characters (one approach I like is the “guest starring” index cards used during team creation in Evil Hat’s Spirit of the Century; but Dungeon World’s Bonds also work, as does the fascinating process here,  here and here employed by RPG and GM innovator Rob Donoghue), and you get some wide open possibilities for your big story.

Now, everyone’s experience is going to be different.  Some GMs may be able to showrun their campaigns very satisfactorily.  But this is about my weakness.

And I am still working on it.  I have a bunch of big stories towards which my current game might move along, but for now, I am finding the connections between our different adventures where I can, and always looking to incorporate my ideas, the ideas of the players, and do a reveal here and there to make it look like I planned things all along, even though I mostly made it up as I went.

Thanks to Marc for this month’s topic!

Here are some other folks that participate in our Round Table, and where I’ve been able to, the links to the responses to this specific topic.

Heroes of the 13th Age: Part 13: Darkness, despair and the light of heaven

On April 12, 2015, we picked up our game in the middle of a giant (pun intended) combat, continuing it from right where we left off last time.

The characters continued to be:
Cerise, the Spirit-Touched Cleric
Zip (as always, the name changes), the Half-Elf Rogue
Froodo, the Halfling Monk
Hey Watchit, the Half-Orc Fighter
Lief, the Human Bard
Delthen Eversoar, the Human Paladin, and

The following characters we present, but their players could not make it, so they played a different role in the session . . .
Indigo the Gnome Cleric
Rolen Stillwind, the Wood Elf Sorcerer
We picked up the game mid-combat, at the start of the fourth round.  Because Indigo and Rolen’s players could not make it, at the start of the round both of them collapsed, overcome by some demonic palsy that left them insensible.
Round 4 Escalation Die 4
The lately banished demonic spirit of Tamaich, the barbarian warlord, left his Vizier, a Despoiler Demon behind.  The Demon took it’s initiative to call upon more of Tamaich’s tomb guardians to join the fight.
Hey Watchit, the Half-Orc fighter launched another attack against the last of the wights, who had once been Tamaich’s wives.  He made a massive hit with his tree and crushed the last one.
Then it was the Giant Zombies’ turn to attack.  The first one went after the mysteriously unconscious form of Rolen the High Elf Sorcerer.  The  giant undead kicked him hard, sending him tumbling across the chamber.
The second Giant Zombie struck at Hey, hitting him for 22 points of damage, which he halved by using his Heavy Warrior skill.
Lief the Bard attacked, but missed.  However, he used a Battle Cry to allow Delthen to charge forward.
Delthen then attacked with his smite, and he issued his Paladin’s Challenge to the second Giant Zombie.
Froodo the Halfling Monk launched his opening attack, but missed.
Zip entered her Shadow Walk.
Cerise launched her Javelin of Faith, but missed.
The party now knew the downside of their last round’s tactic of holding initiative to overwhelm Tamaich, now they were all having to go last in the round, except for Hey.
 R5 E5
Four Earth Elementals from another part of the tomb, summoned by the Vizier, dropped from the ceiling and two moved to attack Cerise.  The elementals were not very successful in their attack and landed only one blow.
The Despoiler Demon Vizier then attacked Delthen, the Paladin Inquisitor of the Crusader, with his abyssal whispers, but failed in the attack.
Hey hit one of the Giant Zombies with his tree, then took a moment to quaff a healing potion [n.b. I think I ran potions incorrectly during the fight, and they got off using them as a quick action, when potion drinking usually takes a full action; well, at least I was consistent . . . ]
The first Giant Zombie rolled a miss on Delthen, but because of a special, it still did a large amount of “miss” damage to the Paladin, and an equal amount to itself as well.
The second Giant Zombie missed Hey.
Froodo, finally hitting his stride, attacked with his flow attack and damaged the first Giant Zombie.
Lief cast Bless on members of the party as a quick action, followed by singing a Soundburst, doing 34 points of damage to both of the Giant Zombies.  This also Dazed the Zombies until the end of his next turn.
Zip flowed out of the shadows to strike at the first Giant Zombie, but missed by 1, and did a small amount of miss damage.
Delthen struck again with his Smite attack, and then drank a healing potion.
Cerise drew her short sword and hit for minor damage on one of the Elementals.
R6 E6
All four attacks from the two Earth Elementals that could get to Cerise as she held the passage missed.
The Despoiler Demon rolled a 20 for his Whispers, doing 30 points of damage to Delthen.  This also caused the Paladin to be Confused.
Hey hit the first Giant Zombie again, and rolled a 1 for one of his damage dice.  He invoked his power to reroll 1s, and rolled another 1.  7 points total to the Zombie, which just seems to be built to absorb massive amounts of damage.
The first Giant Zombie then rolled a 20, critical hit on Delthen for 44 points of damage.  However, because of the synergy between Cerise’s Life Domain and Delthen’s Relentless Plate Armor, he was still up and fighting.
The second Giant Zombie then smashed Froodo, and the hit would have taken the Halfling Monk to -1 hit points.  However, the monster was still Dazed, and that made the hit a miss, and Froodo instead took no damage.  It had just been his life flashing before his eyes prematurely.
Delthen, because of his ability to make saves at the start of his turn, saved and was no longer Confused.  He then drank a healing potion [n.b. maybe the friendly unused Icon rolls were allowing the characters to turn drinking potions into quick actions, yeah, that’s the ticket . . .].  Then he attacked with his magic mace for a respectable 16 points of damage against the seemingly unstoppable Zombie.
Zip makes another attack, once again betrayed by her dice, but saved, because the Escalation die was at 6, and so she still hit.  A reasonable 10 point hit, that the Zombie took and kept on going.
Froodo then just managed to hit using his finishing attack in Mantis style, taking the first Giant Zombie down finally.
Lief began to sing his Song of Spilt Blood, and then wove in his Battle Chant attack, damaging the second Giant Zombie.
Cerise disengaged from the Elementals (one got an opportunity attack, but missed), and she cast her mighty Spirits of the Righteous attack, which sadly missed and did nothing to the second Giant Zombie.
R7 E6
The elementals surged forward into the gap left by Cerise’s retreat, and they struck at Lief.  He was hit twice, but also used his magic hood to cause two of the misses by the elementals to turn to fumbles.  The Elementals struck each other as much as him.  Another Elemental engaged Cerise, striking her.
The Despoiler Demon then exercised its will on Delthen, causing the Paladin to suddenly see Froodo as an enemy.  Froodo tried to avoid the attack and forced Delthen to reroll, but to no avail, and Froodo was hit.  The Despoiler then used its Whispers on Zip, but rolled a 1 and took 15 points of psychic feedback damage and itself became Confused.
Hey once again struck the second Giant Zombie, and the Giant Zombie returned the favor, for 22 points of damage.  Hey drank another healing potion.
Froodo took a moment to drink a healing potion.  He then launched two attacks, hitting with both.
Delthen hit the second Giant Zombie for 22 points.
Zip hit the Giant Zombie as well.
Lief concluded his Song of Spilt Blood and spent a recovery, and then he blasted an elemental with his Battle Chant.
Cerise, once again swinging her short sword, did minimal miss damage.
R8 E6
Lief was hit once by an Elemental, and three more attacks against him fumbled.  The Elementals were looking more like Rock’Em Sock’Em Robots.  An Elemental also hit Cerise.
The Confused Despoiler Demon then launched an attack on the last Giant Zombie, destroying it.  The Demon then snapped out of its confusion, but was unable to retreat.
Delthen then rolled a 20, and did 26 damage with his critical hit.
Froodo then jumped forward with a flying kick, and finished off the Demon.
Lief then destroyed one of the Elementals with his Battle Chant.  He also granted a temporary +2 to armor class for Cerise.
Cerise was left with miss damage again on her Elemental.
Zip launched her Flying Blade to hit for some damage.

R9 E6
Lief was hit once by an Earth Elemental, but induced another fumble.
The Earth Elemental attempting to smash Cerise missed due to her temporary higher armor class from Lief’s Battle Cry.  Another elemental managed to land a blow on Froodo.
Hey rolled 20 and critically hit one of the Elementals, destroying it.
Froodo also smashed an Elemental, destroying it.
Zip rolled a 20 for her Flying Blade attack, doing 32 points of damage to an Elemental, killing it.
Cerise stuck an elemental with her Javelin of Faith.
Delthen fired his crossbow, but missed.
R10 E6
One Elemental remained, mindlessly continuing its attack.  It landed two successful strikes on Lief.
Hey took a mighty swing with his tree, but he ended up just barely grazing the Earth Elemental.  It was, however, so damaged that the miss damage alone was enough to take it out.
End of Combat
Delthen made sure to take the skull of the Warlord, Tamaich, as a trophy.

They then carefully explored the tomb tunnels, looted and loaded up the treasure from the tomb, but then discovered two very bad things.
First, the way to climb out of this lowest level had been wrecked by the passage of the two Giant Zombies, so getting back up through the hole, high in the ceiling, was going to be difficult.  Of additional concern, looking up through the hole, there was an army of Zombies, all those cursed dead of the Lorai warriors who had been nailed to the ceiling of the upper tomb had been summoned to take vengeance on those who would try to escape the lower levels.
The solution, the group decided, was to empower a ritual to banish the undead.  The cast about for components.
Delthen offered up his trophy, Tamaich’s skull.
Zip found two purple gemstones that had appeared on her necklace (which is her One Unique Thing), and they placed these gems to help focus the ritual in the eye-sockets of the dead Warlord. 
Froodo used his philosophical understanding of Guardians through his practice of the Dutiful Guardian style to find parts of the three guardian Wights and their regalia to add to the ritual.
Lief sang a dirge of the dead, to help quiet the restless spirits.
Hey danced a mighty dance of transformation and freedom.
Cerise took all the elements and bound them together in her magic and the magic of Priestess, powering the spell with her Turn Undead Spell.
She rolled for the rituals success.
A holy beam of light pierced the tomb, not only bathing all the tomb in purifying light, dismissing the spirits and cleansing all, but also a crystal staircase of light formed, allowing the party to ascend, not only out of the lowest level of the tomb, but to walk all the way up and out the top of the mound where the unholy place had been transformed to a place of the blessed.
Once in the open air, Rolen and Indigo revived, and each member of the group felt deeply and positively his and her connections to their Icons, felt restored in body and spirit and felt empowered to go forward to their destiny.
We concluded play to the receding sound of angelic voices pouring forth from the heavens.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

A couple more things . . . to listen to.

Hi all.

So, a couple more things that I have encountered that are great fun.

First, following a link posted by @13thAge, I was led to The Adventure Zone, and actual play podcast for D&D 5e with a twist.  The GM and players are all family, three brothers and their dad.  All are broadcast and comedic veterans, and they all plainly get along and really enjoy each other's company.  The D&D world is at its gonzo finest, and any trope or trapping is likely to show up, as long as it is fun, and if it gets a laugh so much the better.  I binge listened to everything that is out so far, and it is terrific.  For those with sensitive ears, the banter gets reasonably profane, but never mean spirited.

Not only is this a fun listen, but there have been a dozen laugh out loud moments, and at least one, in a recent episode, where I laughed so hard it was difficult to breath.

No THAT'S entertainment!

Also, I have mentioned Brave New Dungeon before.  However, Big Al has embarked on a new project which is worth highlighting:Storytime.

Big Al is experimenting with his post production work, adding sound effects, background noise, music, all to make a rich listening experience.  He runs a one shot with a randomly generated dungeon crawl from Donjon and a meetup of new and old acquaintances of his online.  The players are really going for it as far as creating memorable and wacky characters for this one shot, and Big Al's post production work really adds to the enjoyment of the listening.

I have already mentioned how much I admire Al in his ability to sit down with a mixed online "table" of strangers and friends and give them all a great game.  Now he is stretching his creative skills even farther to create an immersive experience for his listeners which really impresses.

So far their are two episodes of Storytime out.  They are really worth a listen!

Game on!

Monday, April 6, 2015

Game Masters’ Roundtable of Doom #4 – To be or not to be . . . a Killer GM

Today I am venturing to The Game Masters' Roundtable of Doom.  This is my first foray (though the fourth offering of the Roundtable), so, we shall see how it all goes.  There may be some adjustments made to this post as I get a handle on getting things just right for the Roundtable.

The Game Masters’ Roundtable of Doom is a meeting of the minds of tabletop RPG bloggers and GMs. We endeavor to transcend a particular system or game and discuss topics that are relevant to GMs and players of all roleplaying games.

If you’d like to submit a topic for our future discussions, or if you’re a blogger who’d like to participate in the Game Master’s Roundtable of Doom, send an email to Lex Starwalker at

This month's topic comes to us courtesy of Lex Starwalker.

There is a wide spectrum of lethality in RPGs, and there are GMs who fall on every possible point within it.  These range from GMs who run campaigns where PCs can never die to the other extreme –GMs who delight in killing PCs.  Where do you fall on this spectrum?  How lethal are your games and why?  How do you handle PC death if and when it happens?

This is a great question, and one that I think has an answer that is not just dependent on the Game Master, but also on the players and the game being played.  Know your audience and know your game.  If you run Call of Cthulhu, Dungeons & Dragons, and Star Wars, Edge of the Empire all exactly the “same,” I think you come out with some anomalies.  Of course, if that meets your players expectations, that might be fine.  There is never just one way to be a GM.  I do believe that the rule of fun should prevail.

Here is how I have done things in my present style of being a GM (because, as the poser of this month’s question, Lex Starwalker knows, being a Game Master is a journey of learning and change).  I think the most important thing is to know your players’ expectations (or if you don’t know them, you need to set them).  Fundamentally, I see role playing games as a way to have fun, and as the GM, you are in a leadership role to help create the fun.  If what you do violates the players’ expectations, or you go against the expectations that you set for the players, that conflict is going to reduce the fun. 

Some of the first GM advice I ever got, was from a few pages towards the back of the 1981 game, Stormbringer (from Chaosium).  In the “Hints for the Game Master” section in the first edition of Stormbringer, Ken St. Andre (with Steve Perrin) wrote a subsection entitled “The Deadly Game Master.”

The literary genre of swords & sorcery fiction is a particularly gory branch of heroic fantasy, and that is what this game simulates.  Inevitably, this means that some players are going to get into situations that they can’t get out of, and their characters will have to die.  It is important that they realize this before the game ever starts, and that they know that you bear them no personal animosity.  Then, when the character’s number comes up, kill him without regret.  As a GM it is poor form to become so fond of some character that you let him cheat death when his luck finally runs out.

Today, I agree, up to a point with Ken’s advice.  As you can see, the advice already assumes that you are in a particular genre of game.  It is not general advice for all RPGs, just ones in the “particularly gory branch of heroic fantasy.”  Also, it advises that you at least admonish the table and set expectations.  I think now, the Game Master and the players, at least in any long term game, need to agree on expectations.  Back in the day, I did kill a fair number of Stormbringer characters.  However, even with an agreeable audience and a lethal game, I do today tend to lean towards mercy at a cost, rather than outright kill a character, if that keeps the story and the fun going.

For the way I run things now, I have internalized the lessons of 13th Age (by Pelgrane Press and Fire Opal Media) and Dungeon World (by Sage Kobold Productions).  In 13th Age Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet suggest that player characters should not just die fighting some nameless monster, and instead offer their own (optional) Meaningful Death Rule.  I think I have generally internalized this approach for many games (with some exceptions, see below).  I think the advice in Dungeon World, that you as GM need to be “fan” of the characters is a complementary one this.  As a GM, on the one hand, you have to put up obstacles and provide threats to the safety and wellbeing of the PCs.  On the other hand, you don’t generally want death to be some random occurrence that does nothing to propel your story or motivate the other characters.  If you are a fan of the characters, such random and meaningless events are discouraging.  If a character that you like dies, you want it to be a great and glorious death, within the meaning of the game.

Fundamentally, though, my rule is know your audience, know your game (and be a fan of the characters).

So, if I am running Marvel Heroic Role Playing for a bunch of tweens, their expectation is that there is not going to be any player character death, AT ALL.  Sure, Spiderman or Black Widow might get knocked around, there certainly are going to be some narrow escapes and heroic rescues, but none of the player characters is going to get shot through the heart and die, game over.  This is reinforced not only by the audience, but of course by the game play.

On the other hand, if I am playing Call of Cthulhu with college friends, death and madness are expected.  The players know going in that a Call of Cthulhu investigator likely has a short shelf life, and those that manage not to die, slip increasingly into madness and disability.  Still, I have run some long Call of Cthulhu campaigns, and I have followed the advice from the early editions of the game.  If you have a choice of killing a PC or taking out an NPC to establish the danger and the threat, take the NPC every time.  It helps if you have established ties to the NPC and that the character is not just another faceless “redshirt.”  However, to get things started with something that causes likely instant death, you kill the guy next to the PCs, and not one of them.  Once the threat is established, you follow the play of the PCs.  Are they reckless and foolhardy, then they do deserve death “without regret” should it come to them.  On the other hand, if they play their characters and show smart play, as a fan, I am going to hold back on any instant death options, unless it really builds the story and is part of the fun of the game (because sometimes messy, or pathetic or horrific death is the fun of a horror game).  If danger is enough, then, we work with danger; maiming, near death, madness, that’s all on the table, but I don’t tend to allow random death that would inhibit the story.

So, what about something in the middle of the spectrum of Superheroes where no one ever dies (at least permanently) and horror, where everyone dies or goes crazy eventually?  This is where most adventure based RPGs reside: Dungeons & Dragons, RuneQuest, HeroQuest, 13th Age, Numenera, Dungeon World, Dresden Files, The One Ring, and et al and etc.  I have to admit to mostly not killing characters.

Over time, I have certainly seen many player characters in these games die.  However, for the most part, I prefer to see the PCs flee, or get captured, or suffer some kind of loss other than death.  This is, I think, largely because I like to run campaigns.  Campaigns need continuity, and killing characters, and particularly the dreaded Total Party Kill, tends to disrupt what is happening with the story that I have been enjoying building with the players over time.  Where death does occur, the story of overcoming death becomes the next logical plot point (e.g. becoming indebted to the healing temple to return the dead companion to life, etc.).  So, usually, the holodeck safeties are, broadly speaking, on when you step into my campaign.  The optional Meaningful Death Rule is going to be in effect.  Characters face other losses, but death is reserved.  In part, that meets the expectations of my players.  They put time into crafting characters, their histories and motivations, and they grow them at the table.  If some wandering damage is likely to kill them, for little to no reason, that is neither fun nor motivating for the kind of gamer who usually sits at my table.

On the other hand, there is a completely separate and apart kind of play, and that is the one-shot.  This does not mean that I turn into the lethal “save or die” GM just because I am running a single evening game.  After all, it should be fun, and getting to play is what is fun.  If we have four hours of play set up and you die in the first ten minutes, how much fun was that?  If dying means no longer being involved, that rather cuts down on the fun.  You can set expectations that characters are disposable and can be replaced, much like clones in Paranoia, but then you are playing a genre of game that is not going to necessarily have wide appeal. 

You do, however, play a one shot to have a different experience and tell a different kind of story.  Lethality can be very much part of that story, and can really be part of the fun with the right group.  I do not, in general, go in for Deathtrap Dungeons.  I don’t think I run them particularly well, so why do something that does not serve the players?  Still, if you know you are going into a deathtrap, you know that death is part of the fun of the game.  It is exciting to escape the trap, but you know your number is likely to come up eventually, and spectacular death is one of the possible rewards of play.  I will give it to you without regret. 

I don’t mind playing a high character death game as a change of pace, but for me, RPG play and the stories it generates is really about having a significant chronical of events for the player characters.  That might, at times, be punctuated by a death, but that is going to be rare and meaningful.

Individuals and their Blogs Participating in this Discussion (to be updated as necessary; posts will be made for the Roundtable between April 5 and April 11)