RPG Ramblings: Death and Games

What follows is a random train of thought, so don’t come to this expecting a meaningful conclusion: it’s a ramble, nothing more. I hope that you’ll add your thoughts and experiences at the end.

Whether you’re designing an adventure or writing a novel, death is a tricky thing. If the players know that there’s no threat of death, then many things lose their bite. What’s the point of a fight scene if I know I can’t lose? Why don’t we skip all the dice rolls and just cut to the chase?

On the other hand, random death can be an even greater disappointment. I’ve developed this fascinating character. He’s the heir to a lost throne, and he’s got to follow this cryptic note from his mother to discover what happened to his vanished kingdom, and he–Oh, wait, he just got killed by an orc bandit on the road. Never mind.

In between these you have the typical MMORPG, in which death is essentially a speed bump; you lose a little experience or time, and then you’re back on your feet again. It’s a compromise that serves the needs of the game – it’s POSSIBLE to lose a fight, and there’s some consequences, but you don’t lose the character you’ve invested hundreds of hours in. On the other hand, it’s a necessary evil; again, if I’ve invested a hundred dollars and a hundred hours in this character, I’d be furious if I ended up losing it to some random unbalanced monster. But it certainly changes the story – and it’s not something I like in a pen and paper RPG. In my personal work on Eberron, I’ve tried to reduce the role of institutional resurrection. In Sharn: City of Towers, I added the following section (page 20):

In particular, raise dead is rarely used on Khorvaire, and it is highly unusual to find a cleric or adept who has the spell prepared. Followers of the Silver Flame believe that warriors who die in holy service join the Flame after death, while the Valenar elves believe their dead join with the spirits of their ancestors. Even among the followers of the Sovereign Host, using raise dead is viewed as a challenge to the will and wisdom of the gods. This does not mean that there is no hope for heroes who fall in battle—but it is not just a matter of tossing 5,450 gp at the local priest.

In City of Stormreach, I took things in another direction:

Strange events sometimes accompany the use of powerful necromancy in Stormreach. In a handful of cases, foreign spirits have seized the bodies of those being raised. When Jorasco sought to resurrect the Storm Lord Delera Omaren, the risen warrior cried out in the tongue of the giants and killed dozens with lightning before she was returned to the grave. Another time, a pack of marut inevitables appeared after a member of the Wayfinder Foundation (page 130) was raised. The outsiders slew the adventurer and devastated the enclave before vanishing. Today, Jorasco healers use augury before performing major necromancy. But divinations can fail, and at the DM’s discretion, resurrection might bring surprises.

These paragraphs were influenced by two things. First, Eberron is a world that seeks to explore the logical impact of magic. Institutionalized resurrection would have tremendous social impact – and Eberron isn’t designed with that in place. So I want reasons why, if the magic exists, it hasn’t become a part of everyday life. Beyond that, I want death to feel significant. You CAN be resurrected, but that should be a story in its own right and there should be consequences. In one adventure I ran, someone was killed in the monstrous city of Graywall and the group sought assistance from a priestess of the Shadow. She DID raise the victim… but he came back without a shadow. His shadow now belonged to the Shadow – and had the campaign continued, some very interesting things would have happened with it.

These three approaches – no death, trivial death, let-the-dice-fall-as-they-may random death – are just that, three approaches. There’s many other paths to generate tension even if the players aren’t personally worried about death. You can threaten allies or intangibles (reputation, rank, etc). Perhaps the danger isn’t THEIR death, but rather the broader impact of the failure of a mission. In one adventure I played in, our party was killed in battle & then resurrected by a traveling cleric – a perfect example of the MMO trivial resurrection style. But one of the PCs was pregnant, and it was an ongoing source of tension as to whether the battle had affected the child. I’ll note that sex and pregnancy in RPGs is an entire topic in its own right – “Life in RPGs”, if you will. I’ll simply say that in THIS campaign, it was a natural extension of a relationship that had developed organically and that it ended up being the driving story of the campaign, as opposed to some random DM caprice. As in this situation, where a threat to the child was a sufficient source of tension that it didn’t matter if WE weren’t going to die.

And even in a campaign where there’s no casual death, there’s always the opportunity for a GOOD death. I was a soft touch back in the day and would rarely kill players… but every now and then a situation comes up where a character SHOULD die: a heroic sacrifice, a shocking event that establishes the nature of the major threat, the successful completion of a character arc that really leaves no other story you want to tell. In such situations, it can be better to have the character die and move on than to live at the expense of the story. This is a strange thing about Fiasco. In most RPGs, we play characters we like or who we’d want to be, if we could. In many sessions of Fiasco, the point is to make a story about bad people making stupid decisions – and often these characters SHOULD come to a bad end. If you play your character as a hero and try to push him to a triumphant do-the-right-thing ending, you may well derail the story. It’s a game ABOUT exploring dark places and unpleasant consequences, and it can be a transition for people used to being the victorious good guys.

Another game with a different approach to death is Dread. In Dread, conflict resolution is done by pulling pieces from a jenga tower. If the tower falls, you die. First off, this means that at some point in the course of the game, you can be pretty darn sure someone will die. It doesn’t even leave the suspense in the hands of the gamemaster; the fate of your character rests solely in that tower. One way it does empower the player is offering the chance for a heroic sacrifice; any time you want, you can choose to knock down the tower, sacrificing yourself in place of another player having to make a pull. You don’t have complete control over your life, but you can always choose to die heroically

All this ties into my current project, Phoenix. In Phoenix, you are a unit of elite soldiers thrown into terrible situations. You may be in over your head, and there’s an excellent chance you won’t make it through your mission… and if you survive this one, the next one’s likely to be even worse. Luckily, you’re a Phoenix. When you die, you come back stronger than before; death is, in fact, the main method of character improvement. But you don’t come back right away… and you only get to come back eight times. This has two consequences: first, you can fail. Most missions are time sensitive. If your entire unit dies, the mission will fail. You’ll all come back – but the objective is lost and you’ll have to deal with the consequences. Second, while you CAN die and return, there is a clear end to the road. Your first death is no big thing… but by your sixth death, you need to start being careful. And without going into too much detail, the circumstances of your death affect your next life. What this means is that rather than working to avoid death at all costs, or ignoring death as meaningless or trivial, death becomes a critical part of the story. You are going to die, eventually – but can you make that death mean something? What lessons will you learn from it? Can you make it matter?

There’s a lot more to say about Phoenix, both the game itself and the other people working on it. It’s not an approach that would work for every campaign – but it’s ideally suited to the world we’re creating, and it creates an interesting and different sort of story. But more of that in the next few weeks. Meanwhile, I’d love to hear your thoughts. How do you handle death in your games? What do you do to raise the tension?

Fantasy Roundtable: Travel by Montage

In today’s adventure, the intrepid band of heroes has a long trek to reach their destination. The vast forest is infamous as a haven for bandits and ruffians, shunned by the wise… but it’s the only path to the ruined temple of the Holy MacGuffin. The fact of the matter is that the adventurers are far too skilled and accomplished for a typical band of brigands to pose any sort of threat. Having a random battle would simply waste time without adding any real tension, and compared to the story you have in mind, fighting bandits is a pretty dull story. You could take the red line approach, just cutting from point A to point B with a few sentences of description, explaining just how creepy the forest is and that the bandits are smart enough to avoid the party. But at the same time, the forest is really creepy, and the presence of the bandits is a well established part of the setting; you want them to feel like they’ve taken a significant journey. What do you do?

It’s possible for the journey to be the adventure. The Hobbit is a story about a group of adventurers delving into a dragon’s lair… but the bulk of the story is about the journey to the dungeon. Mechanically, bandits can’t pose a threat to the adventurers. Well, what if they can? What if they come back to life whenever they are killed—and the only way to stop them is to find and destroy the artifact or power source that’s empowering them? Or perhaps it’s a moral dilemma: the “bandits” are actually Robin Hood-style heroes robbing from the rich to raise money for some vital cause, like buying medicine to bring an end to a local plague? The adventurers are, in fact, incredibly rich by local standards; are they willing to help in some way, or do they slaughter the last, best hope of the stricken locals?

This sort of thing can be a lot of fun. The En Route series from Atlas Games presents a host of little scenarios designed to fit into the spaces between the major parts of an adventure—challenges that aren’t simply combat encounters, but interesting stories on their own. However, playing through such a scene takes time, and if the core adventure has a strong story, you may not want to water it down with a side scene. So you don’t have time to make a bandit encounter actually interesting; you don’t want to waste time on a pointless fight; but you also don’t want to just gloss over the journey. What do you do?

What I’ve been doing lately is using a travel montage. Come up with a few interesting things that could happen on the journey and put one of these situations in the hands of each player, giving each character their own spotlight moment. So if I’ve got an elf wizard, a dwarf fighter, a halfling thief, and a human priest, I might say:

  • Halfling thief: “Tell me how you help the group avoid a bandit attack on the first day.”
  • Elf wizard: “There are constant storms in this region. By the second day your clothes are drenched, and the bridge across the local river has been washed away. How does your magic help the party get across the river?”
  • Dwarf fighter: “This forest is older than human civilization. You’re sure you hear the howls of ghosts on the wind, and see things moving in the shadows. You’re a brave man… what’s the one thing that actually scares you on the journey?”
  • Human priest: “Tell me about the dream you have on the last night.”

The point of this approach is to give each character a chance to be in the spotlight for a moment, and to encourage the players to think about what makes the journey interesting for them. Sure, any of the characters could figure out how to cross a river, but this time, it was the wizard who figured it out… now tell me how. Depending what the players come up with, you could incorporate their answers into the later adventure. Perhaps the priest’s dream will turn out to be prophetic, or the thing that frightened the dwarf will return in some way. Perhaps the thief avoided the bandits because he actually knew the bandit leader from his first guild… in which case, that character could turn up again later in a more interesting role. Alternately, the players might just make jokes out of the scenarios; the one thing that actually scares the dwarf is watching the halfling eat, or the snores of the priest. There’s nothing wrong with this. The whole point is to let the players have a chance to tell the story they want; if they want to laugh, this is a great opportunity for that.

What’s your favorite approach for making travel interesting when it’s not a central part of the adventure? What’s worked well for you?

Fantasy Roundtable: Family Ties

The holidays are a time when families come together. The presence of my relatives got me thinking about games, and how RPG characters often exist in isolation. After all, if my goal is to make the most efficient dungeon delver ever, what practical benefit is there to having a kid sister or an aging mother? Sheer mechanics aside, how will it make the game experience more fun for me?

In general, exploring family is a way to add depth to a character. Where have they come from? What are their roots? Is the fighter carrying on a proud tradition, or is he a black sheep whose adventuring career is an embarrassment to his noble family? Is there a town he calls home, or are his kinfolk spread across the land?

Here’s a few of my ideas on the subject. Some of these I’ve used in the past; others I might try in the future. I’d love to hear what you’ve done with families in your games!


You want to be a lone wolf with no ties to the world? Nothing wrong with that. But if you don’t have any family, WHY don’t you have any family? A few scenarios:

  • Graven’s family were massacred by the Karrns in the Last War. This fuels his long-standing hatred of all things Karrnathi and general dislike of the undead. If he’s mainly a dungeon crawler, this might be as far as it goes. In a more intrigue-oriented campaign he might eventually learn that the attack was actually carried out by the Emerald Claw on behalf of Erandis Vol; his family held some secret that posed a threat to her. Can he uncover this and avenge the fallen? Alternately, some of his relatives could still be held in undead servitude. Can he lay them to rest?
  • Junius lost everyone and everything he knew in the Mourning (or Spellplague, or similar vast disaster). While it’s not a goal that drives him at the start, he might jump at the chance to uncover the mystery of the disaster that destroyed his loved ones. Another adventure might involve exploring the ruins of his family estate, salvaging family treasures still hidden there.
  • Sera has never known her family; she was raised in an orphanage/by wolves/by mercenaries. She’s never stayed in one place long enough to be friends. On the surface, this leaves the character with no story at all; however, it also means that there’s no facts in the way of making up a story, as when it is suddenly revealed that Sera is the long-lost last heir of the throne of Elf-dom, spirited away and hidden by a loyal retainer when her family was being hunted down by their rivals.

In popular fiction, Kvothe from The Name of the Wind is an orphan. Many of his adventures have nothing to do with this, but his desire to avenge his parents is an underlying theme that drives his long-term goals.


The Lord of the Rings and The Order of the Stick are both driven by quests handed down from previous generations. OotS’s Roy Greenhilt is bound to fulfill his father’s blood oath, while Frodo is given the task of carrying his uncle’s ring to Mordor. The heroes are also equipped by their elders; Roy wields his grandfather’s sword, while Frodo receives the sword Sting and a coat of mithral chainmail from Bilbo. By contrast, Thorin Oakenshield of The Hobbit has no special sword or armor, but he receives a map and a quest to reclaim his ancestral home. In all three cases, the inherited quest is the end goal of a campaign arc; all three have a host of adventures on the way to carrying out their heirloom quests.

This sort of story is easily adapted to a roleplaying game; it simply requires cooperation between the players and the GM when it comes to planning out the campaign arc. In terms of providing a character with an heirloom treasure, there are a number of ways to handle this. Each character could receive a treasure, so everyone is on even footing. It could be that only one character receives an heirloom, and this is balanced by increased responsibility or danger; the character is the subject of a vendetta and will invariably be the focus of enemy attacks. On the other hand, it may be that the heirloom drives the story but has no mechanical value. Thorin simply receives a map. And while Roy carries his grandfather’s sword, it only becomes a powerful magic item once he has it reforged. In this, there’s some similarity to Aragorn in Lord of the Rings; he has the pieces of a powerful sword from the very beginning of the “campaign”, but he is only able to reforge the sword after a series of trials and triumphs. In both cases, the sword has a personal meaning to the hero who carries it; it’s not just some random treasure plucked from a monster’s hoard. They effectively acquire the weapons through adventure – but the weapons have personal significance due to their family history.


Perhaps you are following a family tradition… in which case, other members of your family might be more advanced in your chosen field than you are. The wizard’s mother might be the Master Diviner at the Mage’s Guild. The father of the rogue could be a Boromar underboss who with a sizeable territory in Sharn. The fighter might be the son of a general in the army or the captain of the city watch.

This sort of connection raises a host of possibilities. The first is the question of the relationship between the player character and successful relative. Is the PC following in the footsteps of the parent? Does he expect to fill his forebear’s shoes, or is he following a different path? If the relationship is a good one, the relative could serve as a patron for the party… either directly supplying them with missions or simply cutting them a break on services they might not otherwise be able to obtain. Diviner Mom can help the party identify magic items, and she occasionally provides them with a free augury… but a time may come when they need to help mom overthrow the corrupt guildmaster, or exorcise the quori that has managed to weasel its way into her mind. If the family member does provide some sort of concrete benefit to the party—whether missions or services—it will make storylines that threaten her have that much more impact.

One question is whether or not you are aware of your family’s business at the start of your adventuring career. It could be that your ancestors are a secret order of demon-hunters, but your parents have kept the truth hidden from you because you weren’t ready to take on the responsibility/the stars weren’t right/your sister was the Chosen One. Now that the demons are rising/you found the sword of angels/your sister is dead/you’ve reached level ten, your ancient purpose is revealed… which might be just the thing to explain your new paragon path/prestige class.

A spin-off of this is the noble heir who starts off as a free-spirited adventurer, but who is eventually called upon to carry out the duties of his office. When King Bob is assassinated, it’s up to the fighter to take up his crown; he must deal with the problems facing the tiny kingdom. The party’s cleric must serve as his spiritual adviser, and the rogue is the spymaster. The little kingdom is caught between two greater powers; the PC King could escape much of this responsibility by swearing allegiance to the empire to the north, but will he surrender his kingdom’s independence so easily? Such a plotline is an interesting way to switch from a heroic arc to a higher level campaign. The PCs have honed their skills crawling through dungeons and fighting monsters; now they must deal with spies, assassins, and armies.

Another take on this is having the entire party be drawn from a single family. Looking to the Boromar crime family, you could easily have characters with different classes all pitching in to help the family business in different ways.


A family rival could be a friendly rivalry within your own family… the fighter’s sister is a sorceress, and has always been determined to prove magic superior to the sword. She has her own band of adventurers. Sometimes they help you; sometimes they beat you to something you were searching for; sometimes you only find out about an interesting dungeon because they got their first. This gives a possibility for cavalry to arrive when you bite off more than you can chew… but you might also end up having to bail your sibling out of trouble when they take on too much, and end up imprisoned/possessed/petrified/what-have-you.

Alternatively, you could be dealing with a rivalry between families. Capulets and Montagues, Hatfields and McCoys, Bagginses and Sackville-Bagginses. This could be primarily a political rivalry that has little direct affect on your adventures, and mainly comes out in the reactions of certain NPCs who either support or oppose your family. On the other hand, it could be simmering on the edge of violence, with a constant threat of assassins or attacks; between poking around in dungeons, you might raid the estate of an enemy family, or be sent as envoys to win the favor of a neutral family.


Epic level getting you down? Do you long for the simple days when a dire rat was a challenge? Perhaps it’s time to jump forward a few decades and start a new campaign based on the descendants of your current party. This works especially well if some sort of interparty romance has already formed over the course of the campaign; if the fighter and the wizard already hooked up, there’s a solid family that can be the backbone of the next generation. It’s possible for every player to play a descendant of their original character, but you shouldn’t feel tied to this; the core descendants will surely have friends and acquaintances from distant places. Likewise, use your imagination when asking where are they now for your original PCs. They could be happily married & running the local inn/wizard’s guild/kingdom. But perhaps the sorcerer vanished a decade ago, and no one knows what became of him. Maybe the rogue and fighter quarreled, and the rogue is now a legendary assassin whose name is spoken in whispers. The paladin has fallen and rules a dark kingdom with an iron fist. Perhaps the warlock’s child has inherited a problem from the original PC; it turns out that part of the warlock’s pact concerned the soul of his firstborn child, and it’s up to the next-gen PC to pay the price for her father’s lust for power.

These are just a handful of ideas; there’s many other ways that family could play a role in a campaign. An entire campaign could be based around dynastic conflict. Your kid sister is determined to be an adventurer and has followed you into danger… can you keep her alive? Your brother is getting married to the Inspired ambassador… do you trust her? What do you get as a wedding gift? Will you go to the destination wedding in Sarlona? Quests for vengeance, ancestral curses, the spell your great-grandfather never quite finished… delving into family can provide all sorts of interesting flavor and inspiration for good NPCs.

This is just a starting point. What have YOU done with family in your games? What would you like to do in games to come?

RPGs: Established Settings vs Homebrew Campaigns

The following question came up at one of my panels at PAX. I didn’t have time to address it there, but it’s a great topic and I’d like to hear all of your thoughts on the matter. But hey, as it’s my name on the website, I’ll start with my own…

Do you have any thoughts on the pros and cons of running a game in an established setting versus creating your own setting?

I’ve never actually run a game in any of the established D&D settings aside from Eberron. However, I’ve participated in those settings in other ways. I’ve read books set in the Forgotten Realms, and played Pools of Radiance and Baldur’s GatePlanescape: Torment may be my favorite CRPG, though I didn’t much care for the Blood Wars CCG. I read the initial Dragonlance novels and modules, and experienced Birthright through the strange lens of The Gorgon’s Alliance.

But I’ve never run a game in one of these worlds. I’ve always created my own campaign worlds. Well, unless you count the times I’ve run Call of Cthulhu… or Stormbringer… or the year I spent as a storyteller on a World of Darkness MUSH… or the many campaigns of Over The Edge I’ve run in the default setting of Al Amarja.

Whether you look at the worlds I’ve run in or the ones I’ve simply participated in, for me the preceding paragraphs address one of the biggest draws of an established setting… the ability to participate in it on multiple levels. I’ve never run a game in the Forgotten Realms. But because of the novels I’ve read and the computer games I’ve played, I could sit down with you and have an interesting conversation about the impact of the Time of Troubles or the Spellplague. We can play Lords of Waterdeep together, and even if we’ve never played a game of D&D together, we can both recognize the people and places referenced in the game. A friend of mine told me that his favorite thing about RPGs is that they create a personal mythology shared by a group of friends… a set of stories that bind that group together. When we utilize an established setting, we are sharing that mythology with thousands of tens of thousands of other people. We can draw on the wealth of material that’s been created by others, be it canon or otherwise. This last point is important because many of us are hard-pressed to find the time to come up with this week’s adventure, let alone to develop five different Cults of the Dragon Below or a glossary of the Goblin language. In the shared setting, these things have already been done for us.

So… advantages of the shared setting include the ease of acquiring material with a minimal investment of time; the potential to engage with the world in different mediums (not all established worlds have novels and computer games!); and the opportunity to draw inspiration from existing material, among others.

And yet, one of my favorite things about roleplaying is the opportunity to create and explore new worlds. I like taking an idea and considering the ramifications of it; developing cosmologies and conspiracies; considering paths of history. And most of all, I love seeing where a group of players go with those ideas. Creating a new setting gives you the opportunity to do things that no one else has thought of yet – to offer your players a chance to experience stories that simply can’t be told in Eberron or the Realms. Ravenloft, Planescape, Spelljammer, and Greyhawk all offer completely different experiences; you can certainly come up with one that’s different from all of them.

Playing in an established setting can also be a problem if the players know too much about the world–if the moment you introduce an NPC one of them says “Oh, he’s actually a spy for Cormyr, isn’t he?” and another says “No, no, he’s really a double agent for the Red Wizards.” Worst of all is if the established setting restricts what you can do – if you end up with a player saying “Didn’t you read novel X or sourcebook Y? That’s not how that works.” Obviously this sort of thing won’t happen in your own private world.

With that said, this sort of of thing never has to happen at all… as long as you view an established setting as a source of inspiration as opposed to canon you must abide by. This was what I enjoyed about Over The Edge, and the reason it’s the established setting I’ve used the most; yes, I’ve used the framework of it, but my Al Amarja and yours are sure to be different in many ways. This same principle carried over into Eberron. From the start, we’ve said that Eberron material should be a source of inspiration, but that you should always feel free to make the world your own. Do the gods exist? What caused the Mourning? Where’s the Tarrasque fit in the world? These questions are intentionally open, but even with the things that are defined in canon material I always encouraged people to change whatever they want. Do you want the Kalashtar to be the true evil fighting the virtuous Inspired? Run with it!

You’ll see this same principle in the new setting I’m developing… and I’ll be talking about that in more detail shortly. In creating the world, I want to give you a fascinating framework for creating stories, and a foundation that you can share with other people playing in the world. But I always want you to feel that this is inspiration rather than limitation – that you have room to explore your own ideas, to overwrite canon when it suits your needs, and to share your ideas with others who may prefer them to mine. A shared world gives us a common language and history, not to mention fiction, art, and other sources of inspiration. But at the end of the day, the individual stories will be created at your own table… and you should do whatever you want to make them your own.

Now, to answer the original question… what I enjoy about using established settings is the easy access to material that can add depth to the world, and the ability for my players to come to the table with a deeper understanding of and investment in the world. What I like about creating new worlds is the ability to do something unique and to give my players an experience they can’t get anywhere else. At the end of the day, what I generally end up doing is both: if I use an established setting, I will still change things to make it my own.

How about all of you?