Game Over, Man. Game Over!
TPKs and the SEG system
©2011 - Randal Snyder
As a Game Master (GM) and player I have been the victim of several Total Party Kills (TPKs). I say victim because it really is criminal! What I mean is that we spend all this time and effort to get a game going, to get our characters made and get comfortable with them and the GM spends his time getting the plot and setting all together and we spend literally HOURS of our lives preparing for a game and then it happens! Due to bad rolls, bad planning, or whatever the case may be, every member of the party dies. Game over!
How many times have you seen this at your game table? I’m betting the answer is “too often”. It’s tough for a GM to come up with a story that is both challenging and fun and yet gets the player’s hearts racing at the risk of virtual death for their character. But sooner or later fate will seal the deal and you are faced with the prospect of killing off your entire party or breaking the rules and looking “soft” by allowing the characters to survive.
If you think about it in pure economics, you printed out character sheets, bought the rule sets, spent hours preparing the back story, researching, and planning. Then you got your friends over for what was supposed to be long term campaign of fun and mayhem and now all that work is dashed. You might have spent money on a published module and done everything “right”, but now your plans for the next several weeks are ruined and your game, like the PCs, is dead.
Then there’s the intangible costs – feelings. How are you going to pick it up again? Will the group even stick around to wait for your next fiasco that leaves their much-loved characters rotting corpses on the field of battle? Gaming is as much about the story as it is about trust. Will your players trust you to run another game?
While there are some games out there that make character survival a low priority, and even try to make character death nearly inevitable, they are the minority. Most players want their characters to survive, to discover the secrets of the adventure and to reap the rewards.
This isn’t to say that we gamers don’t want a challenge. Far from it! If it looks like our GM is giving us a walk through Candy Land when what we wanted was something ripped from a Stephen King novel, we will likely revolt and cut down the Gum Drop Forrest and wreak horrors on the Candy Land villages out of shier spite!
But at the same time, we don’t want our characters – our alter egos and pieces of our own beings – to be killed in some meaningless death at the hands of some no-name mook. If I’m going to invest the kind of time and effort that is required of most RPGs, then my character’s death had better mean something!
I’ve had a few people ask me about how the Sundered Epoch: Generations differs from most other RPGs. One of my answers is survivability. When I explain to people that SEG’s default combat rules do not allow a character to die from combat, it breaks people. What? Then where is the challenge? Why would you remove death as an outcome of combat?
This is where I have to draw the line and explain the idea of the TPK and how it ends the game. Likewise, even without a TPK, if your character is dead then so is his story. Only a masochist would want to be subjected to that kind of disappointment time and time again.
So to ensure that there is a significant chance of survival we removed death as the default effect of damage and replaced it with unconsciousness.
Before I get ahead of myself, I should explain how SEG deals with injury and damage. Just like nearly every RPG out there, SEG tracks wound points. If a character is injured by an attack it causes X amount of damage. These wounds are treated like Hit Points are in any other game – Except that when the character is injured they must make a Stun Check, a saving throw of sorts vs. the amount of damage that they have received. If they fail by a little, then the character is only stunned. But if they fail by a lot, then the character is knocked unconscious and is helpless.
At this point a helpless character is in danger of instant death. All that is required is a reason to kill. But as we all know from the movies, the bad guys NEVER kill the hero! No, instead they capture him, tie him up in some elaborate contraption or set up a scheme that will eventually kill the character – BUT, there is a chance that the hero escapes!
So let’s go back to the TPK. Your group just raided the enemy stronghold and through a series of unfortunate rolls your last survivor is taken down! In a traditional RPG, the party is dead, game over! But using the SEG system there is a chance that they survive. Maybe the bad guys tie you up, take your stuff and interrogate you. “Who hired you? Why did you attack us? Talk or we kill you!”
But you are alive, the story continues and the game is NOT over. And now you have a chance to escape and rewrite the destiny that seemed so deathly clear only moments before.
But maybe you’ve made an enemy that wants you dead? You killed his father, and you should prepare to die! You count your moments on your six fingers as he walks over and takes his revenge. But that was only one member of your group. What about the others? What reason does he have to kill everyone? Maybe you can negotiate? Maybe you can bribe him? It’s worth a try right?
What we’ve found is that the SEG damage system allows us to reproduce movie-like combat, full of dramatic wins and losses, and still keep the story going – which we find superior to more traditional game systems. It provides the survivability that is needed in a long-term campaign yet allows for story elements that are often missing in other systems.
But what about massive damage? How is a character supposed to survive a cannon blast to the chest? And what if Godzilla steps on your character? That’s what the optional rules are for!
Recognizing that not everyone is trying to run a Hollywood movie where the heroes always survive, we have rules for things like instant death, crippling and amputation, massive damage, maximum damage and all those scenarios that make sense for more deadly games. And they’re easy to add.
Defeat is where so many games end. In the Sundered Epoch, defeat is only the beginning of another chapter. Bottom line, it comes down to personal preference. I just prefer for my game – and my character’s story – to continue.