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Risking it All

In a post completely unrelated to what I’m going to talk about, the dndnext team mentioned:

On the other hand, risk is what drives excitement in the game. Some of the most memorable moments in D&D come about when you clutch that last hit point and pull off a brilliant idea or a ridiculous set of rolls to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

And with that simple sentence something clicked into place that had been wandering around my brain looking for a home:

I absolutely, positively want my character (when I’m playing) and my players’ characters (when I’m GMing) to feel risk: they should know that their actions have consequences, and they should feel pressure to do well, pick wisely, and overcome great odds to achieve the outcome they want and avoid the outcome they fear.

But I almost never want anyone to die.

Death as “defeat” is a lame end to a story, especially for a hero. Moreover, it has the potential to short-circuit any number of ongoing metaplots, relations, and long-term ideas. We invest somewhere between dozens and hundreds of hours finding out who these fake people are and where they fit into the world-spanning, cinematic plots that we come to the gaming table to build together. An unplanned, accidental death for that character is simply a bummer.

Sure, players leaving your group or itching to try something new might work with the GM to engineer a blaze of glory in which to immolate a character, but that’s a different beast entirely: there’s no risk involved there. It’s a part of the larger goal of crafting a story worth telling, where real sacrifices are made to accomplish what had to be done.

I would much rather risk that my family’s homestead was ravaged by the orcish horde, because I can turn that into fodder for my ongoing play. Or maybe the archmage’s contraptions plow through us and escape, making hunting in the woods impossible and imperiling the town, which now hates us. Perhaps the slavers capture us and we’re transported far from home, requiring an epic journey back. In each of those case defeat has real consequences, but it feeds into who the characters are, enriching the story you’re telling.

But more than that, it makes the players feel the defeat in a real, ongoing way. If your character dies this week you as a player are probably back next week with a new character; you’ve risked, but what you lost was the character and their story, which has now come to an end.

But if your character failed the town that was counting on them, you as a player will not only feel terrible about it, you will suffer the consequences every time your have to deal with that town, or anyone who’s heard of your past failings. If your players are hooked up right, their failings will plague them as forced revisions of who their characters are: does the paladin still think his diety is all that powerful? Is the rogue still so certain of his skills? You’ve risked, and though you lost you’ve (to steal 13th Age’s term) failed forward, into a more interesting, complicated story. Risking your reputation and good name is in some ways more important and more grandiose than merely risking your life.

Because ultimately, there are far too many risks in the world to boil them all down to how many hit points I can lose before I hit the floor.