The “follow the dice” discussion from the now horribly mangled comment section of the Undead Dwarves & Healing post.

The “follow the dice” discussion from the now horribly mangled comment section of the Undead Dwarves & Healing post.

The “follow the dice” discussion from the now horribly mangled comment section of the Undead Dwarves & Healing post. Link at the bottom.

First of all, let’s set a few things straight.

– This is not an attack on anyone’s way of enjoying Dungeon World.

– I’m sincerely sorry if what I said was offensive in any way. I did not mean to offend anyone.

So, to recap, the discussion was about whether or not Ben Wray made a good move with letting the Dwarf go undead instead of dead-dead. Tim Franzke argued, and I agreed, that it sounded more like an “7-9 bargain” without the actual bargain, only the bad stuff. The discussion then went into whether or not the GM was ignoring the roll of the dice.

There seemed to be two “sides” in this discussion; The few us that said he did, and the rest who was more like “meh, who cares?” Finally the question was asked, and rightfully so, by David Guyll: “What is the big deal?” I’ll try to answer this here.

To begin, I think this topic is tremendously important. I like to “play by the rules”, because the rules of the game is all about setting expectations for the game.

Expectations are the single most important preliminary for any game. The rules are what we agree upon before play, and as such it is the collective agreement on both the purpose and scope of the game, and even more simply put; how stuff just work in the game.

When we begin to tinker with the rules mid-game (screw before the game, that stuff is house rules and just as legitimate as any other rule. Of course, you might add) you risk disappointment. There’s a strong probability that there will sit one guy around the table who doesn’t like the sudden (and maybe to him totally unnecessary) overruling of a pretty well-established rule.

The disappointment often come because such a thing is arbitrary. We agree on the rules when we begin, even if we don’t talk about them. If we don’t the rules we agree to play by are the actual printed rules. Whenever someone willfully ignores the rules, be it the GM or any other player, someone else might get offended by that.

If the GM “saves” one character from death, even though the rules clearly states that he should have died, then what happens if he doesn’t save another? Would that be “fair”? No, it wouldn’t. Some people claimed that killing a player in the first session isn’t “being a fan of that character.”

My claim is the opposite, because it isn’t the GM that actually kills the character. It is the dice, and the players are themselves way more responsible for bringing out the dice than the GM is in my experience.

When a player goes into a fight with Great Abyss Lord Tentacula, then he knows that he might take enough damage to get his character killed. If he doesn’t, there has gone something entirely wrong with communication.

As such, not killing the character when he drops to 0 hp and misses his Last Breath roll deprives that player of making meaningful choices. Every fight is a risk, albeit a small one. They choose to take that risk. Removing the risk makes the choice illusory, a non-choice. It is, and I can not stress how much I really just mean this, railroading. You deprive the player of meaningful choice. It becomes an illusion of choice.

“Choice” is a funny word here that I use a lot, because I really honestly believe that when boiled down, role-playing games are purely about choices. “What do you do?” is all about presenting a player with a choice.

When the player chooses the dangerous route, honor that and let the consequences be what he was promised. Otherwise, he chose blindly.

I would much rather make a new character than be saved (yet again) by some deus ex machina. Others might not agree with this, but hey, this is my thread now, and I’ll sing if I want to.

So. That’s my thoughts, but they are surely not the only set of them. What do you have to say about all this?

30 thoughts on “The “follow the dice” discussion from the now horribly mangled comment section of the Undead Dwarves & Healing post.”

  1. Nothing stops a character from retreating (having no means to do so could be argued as not being their fan), generally speaking, so it’s a fair statement to say the player had a choice beyond the outcome of a roll.

    With games like D&D this is a real issue for DMs who are not skilled at recognizing early in combat that the encounter is too hard and finding ways to level the field. In other words, unskilled DMs often find a character is killed (even if, there too, the character could retreat) by an overpowered enemy and will make exceptions as a result. It is so common a problem that 4e uses multiple saving throws before death (you must fail three to die).

    I fully understand the attachment to characters. This goes along with the “over 10th level” argument – just as some players really don’t want their character’s development and story to end after 10th level, so too do they not want their character to die, ESPECIALLY when the combat is less meaningful (not against the ultimate campaign villain). However, the truth is that there are legitimate ways around it. For instance, it really isn’t hard to keep playing a character past 10th level with CCs and whatnot. As for death on a 6-, assuming escape/retreat just wasn’t an option, this is a direct quote from the Last Breath move:

    “On a miss, death is inevitable. The most obvious approach is to say “Death takes you across the threshold, into his bleak kingdom.” and move on. However, sometimes Death comes slowly. You might say “you have a week to live” or “you can feel the cold hand of Death on you ” and leave it at that, for now. The player may want to give in and accept death at this point—that’s okay. Let them create a new character as normal. The key thing to remember is that a brush with death, succeed or fail, is a significant moment that should always lead to change.”

    So, I interpret that to mean that the character may well die later, or they may not, but they will not be the same in any case. My personal two cents is to carry out their death soon if not now, but I’m playing devil’s advocate by saying that the book alludes to the idea that death may not be so black and white.

  2. Kasper, this is one of those posts that should be pinned up somewhere and go viral. 

    I think the base line is this: ” I like to “play by the rules”, because the rules of the game is all about setting expectations for the game.”

    Of course what you say about “choices” fits right in with every book on game design I have ever read. 

    That said, I confessed on another thread that I sometimes “cheat” as far as the HP of monsters are concerned, since I mostly make them up on the spur of the moment. (Please don’t tell my players that…), and I do it mostly as a way to balance the encounter on the fly. I got some flak for that!

    My final remark? If death is not a threat there is no game. NO GAME. That said, death should not happen often. But it should happen sometimes! Almost dead or even mostly dead should happen at least once a session. That will keep your players coming back for more.

    And that is a very important skill for a GM: To balance encounters finely to that point, without “breaking the rules”.

  3. Wynand Louw Yeah, the “encounter balance” problematic from games like D&D is a pretty big deal.

    Unfortunately it has carried to DW for me, as I tend to use the “slow grind” paradigm of D&D 4th edition, where I unconsciously try to turn a fight into a resource tax.

    I should really just throw more enemies at people. 😀

  4. David Guyll I totally understand your mindset as I shared it for many years. My view on the topic has just changed a lot the last one or two years.

    I’m not saying that Ben did anything malicious. I don’t want people to think that. I fully understand why he made the choice. I just think that such an approach will backfire in the long run.

    I never suspected that you guys would do it “every time”. That was actually one of my main arguments why it was a bad idea; because the next one that isn’t saved by some sort of GM intervention might feel cheated.

    The problem with breaking expectations is that you create “silent minorities”. One or two players think something is wrong or not fun in some way, but everyone else seems to have fun, so they keep quiet about it. As you might guess, it is even more hurtful to these players’ engagement in the game if the next character to die is one of theirs, and the character just isn’t miraculously saved.

    The consent of the loud majority isn’t always the only thing to look for. And sometimes, the silent minority will hide their true feelings about something in fear of destroying the game for someone else.

    I’m not saying you are wrong to do what Ben did, I’m just saying that it is a fine line to tread. I try to my best ability to avoid the balance act.

    As a side-note on “removing” player death from the game:

    One of my own ideas for this was to alter the death rules in 4e D&D, so that either the party died, or the “dead” party members weren’t really dead, they just woke up with a niggling injury that could only be removed with rest, like broken bones, not standardized “cure light wounds”. I think that could have been a great house rule, as resurrection spells tend to be a “unlucky player tax”.

    You could do something similar in Dungeon World. Last breath is only rolled when a TPK happens or the party flees, leaving some zero hp buddy behind. The people with 0 hp then rolls.

  5. David Guyll Also, I thought I was pretty clear on the fact that I’m not out for Ben Wray personally, and that I don’t think you are wrong or having badwrongfun or anything like that. I said it time and time again.

    I merely supported Tim Franzke’s view on this matter, and I just joined the discussion. As I said, I didn’t mean to offend anybody, so please stop being so offended. Or at least point out what you are so offended about. You can call me ignorant, but I really can’t see why get so defensive.

    Yes, it was a hilarious situation, and I’m sorry that the post got thread-jacked. This is why I started a new one. Not to bash on people in full public.

    I think this topic is an important one, because there seem to be a “the rules are only guidelines” school of thought that permeates the RPG community. While it is technically correct, I sincerely feel that the propagators of this point of view severely lack an understanding of how rules set expectations.

    And if there’s something that’s important when playing RPG’s, then it is expectations.

  6. And just not to be that guy that ignores arguments; yes, Adam Koebel did say that he played by the rules, but I am as of yet unsure whether or not that the GM means for that character to die “soon”, as the move says:

    On 6-, your fate is sealed. You’re marked as Death’s own and you’ll cross the threshold soon.

    And I’m unsure whether Adam Koebel thinks that “crossing the threshold” is meant to be taken literally or figuratively.

    I take this quite literally (as you might have guessed), and there’s really no problem (at least by the rules) if the player knows that the character will die soon.

  7. Hey Kaspar, thanks for starting this topic. In the other thread I tried to get to the deeper question as you state it, rather than asking about Ben’s specific case. I should have started a new thread at that point.

    So, how far can the players (including GM) go in re-interpreting or ignoring the rules? Before this discussion, I would have answered “as far as they like!” But thanks to your clear explanation, I can see how if one person ignores a roll, they risk violating the expectations of the other players. Including expectations that death is a real possibility, etc.

    I had the assumption that if one person comes up with a good idea for the story, everyone would agree. Everyone wants a better story, right? But as you point out, the only way to know that this idea is “better” for everyone is to ask everyone first. By having the rules written out, everyone is effectively agreeing to stick with that kind of story.

    Example time: I played in a game once where the GM was going pretty hard on our characters. One of the players had some experience with the game, and called the GM out, saying they were making a lot of GM moves without letting us respond. I thought, “I don’t care if they make a lot of moves, it makes a more interesting story with more problems for us to overcome! Why are you stopping it?” But obviously the other player was thinking, “this is way too hard, this isn’t what I signed up for!”

    So basically, if the group is cool with an on-the-fly change, it’s all good. But the key step is making sure everyone is cool with it! Even if it messes up the flow at the table, it avoids a lot of problems (like one person disagreeing silently, etc).

  8. Aaron Feild You actually put it quite elegantly:

    So basically, if the group is cool with an on-the-fly change, it’s all good. But the key step is making sure everyone is cool with it!

    It is impossible to be a 100% sure that everyone is unboard with it.

    It is not wrong to change things on the fly, it’s just risky.

  9. I’m super curious about death in my campaigns and treat it as another thing to be explored (in fact, I’m writing a module that will help GMs and players do just that!) I see the failed last breath as the potential start of a new adventure beyond the black gates. But mostly death is death.

    I think such a move for a 6- on last breath could be valid, if it can make sense in the fiction. It raises a lot of interesting questions about death in the world and I enjoyed how bens group explored that with the question about healing magic affecting undead.

  10. Tony Stark failed a Last Breath roll outright near the beginning of Iron Man. Big old fail. The GM said “you are a dead man. if you want, you can keep playing your corpse of a character, but I will fuck with you constantly because of it”. And then we got three movies plus the Avengers out of the deal.

  11. There is a bargain, on a 7-9, between the character and death. The player has agency built into the move. On a miss, the GM can just say “too bad you are fucked” as they like or they can do whatever else. They make GM moves as they see fit. Tony’s GM gave him an opportunity with a cost. They didn’t have to.

  12. The reason I state that death must be part of the game is because it is the one most powerful creator of suspense. The idea of a persistent character that the player has an emotional investment in is the one thing that sets RPG’s apart from all other games. And the fact that that character could die. Of course there are other motive forces of suspense that can work, but I simply cannot think of any as strong as the threat of death. Embrace it. Your game will be better for it.

  13. David Guyll This is my opinion. It is also my experience. People come back to a game when they experience the exhilaration of surviving another day against a very real threat of death.  

    Any publisher will tell you what sells books. Yet not every bestseller will appeal to every reader. In the same way I believe the combination of persistent characters (that players get emotionally attached to) with the threat of death sells RPG’s, because it creates suspense. But of course  it does not appeal to every player.

    And really, I wasn’t talking about you!   🙂 I was talking about principles in general, as Kasper tried to do when he started this thread.

  14. The difference is that on the 7-9, death makes an offer and the player can choose to accept or decline. On the 6- the GM just said what bad stuff happened and now you gotta deal with it. Death stopped his heart, maybe he lost his soul or he’s on borrowed time, but the GM made as hard a move as he liked.

    There is now a constant fictional trigger built into that dwarf character to inspire all sorts of GM moves. It’s a monkey on his back, a doom hanging over his head. Every time he acts he had to wonder if this is when the hammer will drop. Will the hammer drop if he does nothing?

    The GM has so many dangerous directions he could go in because who knows what happens after death, who knows why the dwarf is still walking around. Is this an isolated incident, or has everybody stopped dying all of a sudden?

    It’s not a common move to make in that circumstance, but it’s a valid one, and it could lead to some very tense, exciting, fun play.

  15. In fairness, as a member of that party, I can tell you that in this instance the guy playing the dwarf had done nothing wrong other than be the one on whom the GM rolled max damage. Once. At full HP. Since that brought him to 0, he rolled for it. This being about 1/3 of the way into what was probably going to be a one-shot, it seemed unnecessarily dickish to let this character who was about an hour old die permanently and force the player, whose first time it was playing a story game, to twiddle his thumbs while the other four of us got to make a cool story together.

    It was the right call in that instance, regardless of what you or anyone else would have done.

  16. I don’t know why this hasn’t come through yet, I guess I was being very unspecific.

    I do not have any personal investment in what other people do in other groups. I thought the topic was interesting and that was why I posted this thread here, to actually give my opinion on the act of making at-the-moment rules exceptions and why I think that it is generally a bad idea.

    If it made the game more enjoyable at the table, more power to you all. Personally (as you might have figured out) I wouldn’t make the same ruling, but I probably wouldn’t make players fight so powerful adversaries so early in a first session in the games I run. So that probably makes all the difference in the world with regard to how I deal with the rules.

    I don’t even want to discuss whether or not he “broke the rules”, I wanted to discuss general at-the-moment rules changes and ignoring dice rolls. I merely used Ben’s post as an example. I can understand now that this wasn’t clear.

    So let’s please move on from away this point because I really do not want to discuss whether or not Ben Wray is a good GM or not or whether or not it made for a better session. I wanted to discuss if it was acceptable to ignore dice rolls and rules at a whim and give my view on why I think it isn’t.

  17. To get back to Adam Koebel here. I really feel that there’s a disparity between your intentions with the move and what is actually written. If you roll a miss, the move says

    On a miss, your fate is sealed. You’re marked as Death’s own and you’ll cross the threshold soon. The GM will tell you when.

    I read this, especially because of the context it is written in, as you will die in the near future, it can’t be prevented, and the GM will immediately give you a rough estimate of how long you have left to live.

    Reading it any other way would never occur to me, and from my discussion with Tim Franzke about it, he can’t see the other interpretation neither.

    To me, “soon” is of cause relative, as the word “soon” isn’t well-defined in terms of time, but I still think you would be hard pressed to find people who will interpret this as “years” or “rest of life”, as it seems you meant was appropriate.

    Either there’s something I’m not getting, or the “cross the threshold” is deliberately meant to mean whatever you want it to.

  18. I do agree that when doing something similar with the move, I’d want to make it clear that time is short. They may be able to make it a few hours, a few weeks, a few months… But they’re going soon so use the time left wisely. This is a reprieve of their fate, not a dismissal of it!

    I’d play such a move that way not just because it follows the move, but also because of the incredible tension it creates (which is why I suspect the move has been worded so carefully.) the question of “will they complete their quest/goal before Death comes?” Is such a tense and interesting one, and can give the player some power to let their character go out like a hero instead of a chump.

    I still think Ben’s interpretation (or disregard) of the rules can fictionally work. I’m not sure how their group played it, but this is how I would go with it.

    “Your heart stops, but you continue moving. But you’re not the only one. Corpses and long-dead bones and spirits rise up from the ground, and they are pissed!” (The dead around them constantly animate, and they’re not to happy about being woken from eternal slumber.)

    “Your heart stops, but you continue moving. But something feels… Wrong. All the colour has bled out of the world, your mouth is filled with the taste of ashes and tears, sounds are dull. You feel cold no matter how close to heat you huddle. The world holds no beauty, no comfort, no warmth for one with no soul.” (Death took your soul, and now everything sucks!)

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