Thursday, April 25, 2019

Your Life is Forfeit

In my recent post about types of resources, I had an especial bone to pick with light sources and darkness. Even more recently, Rise Up Comus followed up on my complaint.

The two main points of my complaint were that (a) I don't know how to run a game session where the characters are truly trapped in the dark, and that as a consequence (b) it seems like if you run out of torches, you should just die.

Here's what I actually said:

"Darkness, like death, is narratively interesting as a looming threat, as something the judge can get all poetic while describing, as something that players take pains to avoid. As a thing that actually happens, it's boring, and I'll say it, darkness is worse than death, because if you get trapped in darkness, you still have to keep playing a game that can no longer possibly be fun for anyone involved, whereas at least when you die you get to start over."

"If torches are supposed to be a resource where if you run out of them, the game's over, well we already have hit points for that. Do we really need a second terminal resource? Do we really want a second terminal resource, especially one where you can buy and carry an unlimited number, unless your asshole GM and their asshole encumbrance rules force you to carry too few just so they can laugh at you when you get stuck in the dark?"

Yeah, take that, vision, first of the five senses! In your eye! I'll have more to say about my various feuds and grudges against the concepts of light and darkness in another post, but what I actually want to talk about today are terminal resources.

I defined terminal resources when I was talking about hit points. I said a terminal resource is one "where, if your character runs out of them, you stop having that character anymore."

If I may though, I think I might like to define that a bit differently now. I think I might like to say that a terminal resource is one where, if you run out of it, your life is forfeit. You might not die, but you have given up your right to remain alive.

I also think there are 3 terminal resources that we encounter routinely. Hit points, of course, are one. Player time is a second. And I think there might be some movement toward making torches, and light sources more generally, the third.

If you run out of hit points, or run out of time to play the game while your character is still in the dungeon, or you run out of light, your life is forfeit, and you have given up your right to remain alive.

Thinking about it this way points to a possible solution to the darkness problem. It's a solution that's already pretty popular for hit points, and that at least one blogger pretty famously applied to player time. It's a solution I considered, but didn't write, at the time of my earlier post, and that a couple of others have now proposed in response to my complaint.

I don't mean to sound mysterious, or to sacrifice clarity for the sake of suspense. I'm talking about death & dismemberment style tables, but reimagined to apply to running out of time, or running out of light.
Time's up, Mario! Your life is forfeit!
Also, it's true, everything really
does sound scarier in German.
So I was talking on Discord with the author of All Dead Generations, and he helped me feel a bit vindicated on point (a) that I made at the very beginning, that I don't know how to run a game where the characters really can't see anything because they're in total darkness. He said: "One of the interesting things that I noted is that while I assumed OD&D and AD&D 1E had fairly serious rules for light sources and their lack/exhaustion ... they don't. Even by AD&D and 1981 B/X infravision, glowing magic weapons and continual light is assumed to be on hand for every party, and both simplify equipment encumbrance. Strangely even as no mechanics for being lost in the dark without a light exist, light sources are touted as central to play - a necessity to the party.  5E has fairly extensive rules for various types of darkvision and the combat effects of light conditions - but like most of its rules they're tailored to encounter design, not exploration.  Still I don't actually think 'classic' games had much of a way of handling a loss of light sources either. The rules are sort of there - but from OD&D - 5E the rules for blindness are used. In B/X this means 'a blinded creature cannot attack' and in AD&D etc it's a -4 to all rolls. Not great rules really."

Rise Up Comus recently said something similar on his blog: "In the games that I run, light sources are really important. In the last few sessions, the players decided to haul back to the surface because they were running low on light. But if they had actually run out of torches in the Underworld, I wouldn't have known how to handle it. It would be tedious ad nauseum to narrate an experience without light."

Like I said, I find it vindicating to see others echoing my experiences. (Nothing fights Impostor Syndrome like people you respect agreeing with you.) So there's a consensus, kind of, among people who want darkness to be an important factor in their games, on two points. First, that in darkness, the traditional rules of D&D fail us, and second, that traditional narrative techniques fail us too. I've noted before that many of the original versions D&D rules only work if you have the patience of a saint and the inexhaustible pedantry of a wargamer living in the pre-digital age, back when no one could ever ask "why have we written rules that force us to play an inferior version of a dungeoncrawler video game?" 

But even if the rules were on our side, language itself is not. Because of the prominence of vision in our sensorial experience of the world, we simply have a much better vocabulary for describing how things look, rather than how they feel. It's one thing to read The Pit and the Pendulum, it's quite another to try to ad-lib it in real time. No one wants to play "Ouch I Stepped On A Lego Brick In The Living Room Because Its Dark At Night: The Game." (OISOALBITLRBIDAN:TG is not affiliated with WOTC or any of its subsidiaries.)

If the rules fail you, then you need a new rule. But if language itself fails you, then either you need a new language, or you need a way out of the situation without having to describe it. And it's that latter solution that a new consensus is emerging around: write a new rule that lets you end the scene and skip ahead to something new. If you can't describe it, then don't. Just stop, use some method other than narrative description to decide what happens next, and then start again after "what's next" happens.

And as I said earlier, that new rule that lets us skip ahead is death & dismemberment, repurposed. This is where the consensus is at right now. It's not necessarily the only way or even the right way to handle the situation, but it is a way, and I can't think an other way, let alone a better way. I actually like this solution, it's what I think I would like to use myself. But if you don't like it, you're going to have to think of the alternative yourself, because I don't see many others kicking around. (Of course, the ultimate alternative is always available to you - just ignore it. Stipulate that there's always enough light available that the characters are never blinded by the darkness, and get on with your game using existing rules and existing language that will continue to work just fine.)
This image will make sense in a minute, I promise.
So what happens when your character runs out of terminal resources? What happens when they run out of the resources that prevent bad things from happening to them? The answer is obvious. Bad things happen.

So as their name implies, death & dismemberment tables are lists of bad things that might happen. They're also the au currant way of dealing with terminal resources. Despite their name though, they're not really about killing your character; they're about allowing your character to live.

No More Hit Points

The original death & dismemberment tables were a way to let your character survive falling to 0 hit points. The earliest, easiest mechanic for reaching 0 hp is to just die immediately. So the point of death & dismemberment is, maybe you don't die, even though your life is forfeit. Maybe bad things happen, maybe it gets worse, but you stay alive. And that's the point of these tables, to maybe stay alive.

In that regard, they're actually pretty forgiving. Consider 5e's "death saves" or DCC's "rolling over the body" mechanic for seeing if a character who falls to 0 hit points lives or dies. Unless you have access to clerical healing or some other kind of aid, 5e gives you a 50% chance to survive. It's a coin toss in slow motion. DCC uses a "Luck check" where you try to roll under your current Luck score. Considering that your starting Luck is determined by a 3d6 roll that averages 10-11, that you can earn more Luck by doing cool things, but that you also routinely spend Luck to improve other rolls ... I'm inclined to say that your chances of survival in DCC are probably usually less than half.

In contrast, look at the original d&d table. Look at Trollsmyth's really famous one. Hell, look at the one I wrote. There are lots and lots of these - they're a very popular houserule for handling what happens at 0 hp, they've even been baked directly into the rules of several retroclones. What they all have in common is that they put your chances of survival much higher than the base 50% of a death save. Every one of those tables gives you a 80-95% survival rate as a starting point. Of cooourse ... at the same time that you're trying to roll high, you're also supposed to subtract the damage from the killing blow from your roll, which worsens the odds somewhat. It's hard to say what "typical" lethal damage is going to be, but my guess is that most of the time, these hardcore, hardass, tear-your-arm-off-and-beat-you-with-it death & dismemberment tables are actually going to be slightly more forgiving than 5e or DCC.

No More Time

In a certain kind of game, running out of player time isn't really a problem per say. If the same, or mostly the same, group of players is meeting on a routine schedule, then when you run out of time, you can just ... stop playing. Wherever your characters are, whatever they're doing, you can just hit the pause button and pick up exactly where you left off next session.

But there's another kind of campaign. Call it "open table," call it West Marches style, if you like. In this style of campaign, there's no set group of players, they vary from game to game. There might not even be a set schedule, although that part's not, in my opinion, definitive of the style. If the players change from game to game, then each game session has to be self-contained, episodic. And that means that running out of time at the end of the episode IS a problem in an open-table game. Leaving off mid-adventure isn't really an option, or at least, not a good one, because you WON'T be able to pick up where you left off. So in a game like this, player time becomes a terminal resource, not just because the session ends when you run out of time, but because when you run out of time, you run out of your right to keep your character alive. You either end the session at a good stopping point, or bad things happen. Your life is forfeit.

It was Jeff of Jeff's Gameblog who had the really brilliant idea to apply the death & dismemberment table as a model to solve the running out of time in the dungeon problem. He came up with a relatively simple table called The Triple Secret Dungeon Fate Chart of Very Probable Doom. The idea here is that you actually start by making a kind of death save, with a flat 50% chance to make it out alive and unscathed. If your character level is higher than the dungeon level, you get a bonus; if you went in too deep, you take a penalty. If you fail that death save, your life is forfeit, and you roll on the Fate Chart, to find out which of 20 possible bad things happen to you. Mostly you just die, but there are a few options where your treasure and equipment can be recovered, and a few options where you're captured and could be rescued.

Like I said out running out of light above, running out of player time is a situation where narrative description fails as a resolution mechanic. In this case, it fails because you run out of time to say the words, rather than because you run out knowledge about how to speak correctly about the situation, but the solution is the same one I proposed above. If you can't narrate, then don't. Use a different resolution mechanic - rolling dice on a special table - and then later, start narrating again at a point where you're able to do so.

The uncharitable interpretation of this is that your characters are like Sims. Without the benevolent hand of a loving player to guide them, their default behavior is to walk around in circles, drenched in their own urine, until they starve to death - unless they have the misfortune to encounter a swimming pool or water fountain, which, they're SO stupid, they'll probably manage to set on fire, like in that picture I promised would make sense soon. I believe that Sim stepped on a pumpkin, which then caught on fire, and set her on fire. Left on NPC autopilot, your characters are idiots, and will probably die.

The charitable interpretation is that when you run out of player time, your characters run out of the will to adventure and just go into survival mode. All they want to do is get out of the dungeon, as quickly as possible, whatever may happen to them along the way. But the dungeon is dangerous, and so bad things happen.

D&D doesn't have any formal rules for PC morale. Monsters can roll morale and lose their will to fight, NPCs can roll morale and tear off in a blind panic, but aside from a few magical / supernatural fear effects, the players generally get to decide when to fight and when to run away. I've seen hit points described as being analogous to player morale - your character's hit point total is a measure of how willing you, the player, are going to be to continue putting them in harm's way. In the same way, player time might represent character morale. Your character only has the will to adventure when you're there to guide them. The rest of the time on the surface, they're content to live whatever hardscrabble lifestyle your downtime rules have in store for them. When you're not there in the dungeon, all they want to do is get back to the surface.

The alternatives to a table like this - in a West Marches style game, anyway - are either to just assume all the characters make it back to the surface safely, or assume that their lives are forfeit, and they all die in the dungeon automatically. The purpose of the table is to avoid making either of those assumptions, just as the purpose of the classic death & dismemberment tables is to avoid making the assumption of automatic death at 0 hp. Which brings us, finally, to the topic I started with, what to do about darkness.

No More Light

To be clear, when I say "no more light," I'm talking about total darkness, the kind you really do get inside caves, and that really is possible inside large buildings that don't have electricity. If you can still kind of see, then there's not really a problem. If you're in total darkness though, if you can't see at all, then I contend that is a problem for a game that consists, in large part, of the GM telling the players what they see. If the naive or default alternative is to switch over to telling the players what they feel, I also contend that won't really work.

GM: You feel rough cobblestones under your feet.
PC: I extend my hands and inch forward. What do I feel?
GM: Nothing.
PC: I inch forward again.
GM: Nothing.
PC: I inch forward again.
GM: Still nothing.
PC: I inch forward again.
GM: Nothi- no, wait! How long are your arms?
PC: I dunno, I'm like 6 feet tall, so maybe 2 ½ feet long?
GM: No, still nothing.

In a video game, this isn't a problem, because in a video game, you can move your character even if you don't know where they are, and the computer running the game knows when you bump into something. But in a tabletop game, I think it is a problem. It's not just that the GM has few good ways to communicate what the PCs experience to the players, it's also that there are few or no good ways for the players to communicate their characters' locations to the GM. Usually it doesn't matter exactly where you are within the fictional space of the game. If you're in a room for example, you can see the whole room no matter where you are within it. Further, if the GM asks you where you are, you can tell them your location by referencing other objects in the room that you can see. Perhaps you can tell where this is going ...

If you switch the game over to operating by feel, then suddenly it does really matter where you are, because you can only feel what you can touch, and you can only touch what's immediately next to you. Since you don't know what's next to you unless the GM tells you, and the GM only knows where you are by you telling them what you're next to ... the whole system breaks down. As I said, we don't really have the language for it. It's not just the judges who need a special language to talk about darkness, it's the players too. And even if the referee feels competent to extemporaneously describe the feel and texture of every space in the dungeon, the players still have no good way to communicate their movements within the fictional space.

So I don't really know what people do with darkness. You can ignore the possibility by making all dungeons at least dimly lit. You can ensure that the characters always have at least one magical or mundane light source, or that every party has a character with some kind of darkvision. You can try playing "Oops I Tripped Over The Ottoman And Landed Face First In The Dog's Water Dish Because I Can't See Where I'm Going: The Game", but I bet you'd only be willing to play it once. (OIOTOALF2ITDWDBICSWIG:TG is not affiliated with WOTC or any of its subsidiaries.) 

The options at your disposal are some kind of restriction on the information available to the players, or some kind of restriction or penalty to the abilities of the characters, or a death & dismemberment style table, or some combination of the above. I think I personally favor the table option, because as I think I've made it pretty clear, this is a situation I want a way out of as quickly as possible.

In our personal communication, All Dead Generations offered up his solution to exploring in total darkness: "My own current take is that when PCs are without light resources (and I limit continual light) they can continue exploring mapless. Movement takes twice as long (e.g. two turns to move through a keyed location) and if the exploration die comes up with torch exhaustion they become lost. Once lost the party members individually roll a D10 on a 2 - 20 table with a +1 for every room distant from the entrance. Things get worse the higher up the table you go. At 10 + there's death involved."

This approach actually combines all three methods. The players aren't allowed to map, so there's some restriction on the information available to them. The characters' movement rate is cut in half, so there's a penalty to their abilities. And then, once some other conditions are met, there's a d&d-style table. At a minimum, this table offers a 10% chance of death, but depending on how far you are from the entrance, it could be much higher, even automatic if you're more than 10 rooms deep.

Rise Up Comus proposes a d&d-style table gives a a 50% chance of death or forced retirement, a 25% chance of escape to the surface, and a 25% chance of capture, allowing for the possibility that a future character can recover the captured one.

And like I said, I agree that this is the right approach. If you want light and darkness to be important, make them important. Make running out of light as deadly as running out of hit points. Treat torches as a terminal resource, and after letting the players sweat while watching their last few matches burn out and go black, tell them their lives are forfeit, end the scene, roll on a table to find out which bad things happen to them, and resume the game with the survivors already back on the surface.


  1. Have you ever played Awful Green Things from Outer Space? (You should; it's wonderful!) There's a series of tables to roll on should some of the Znutar crew make it home if they get to the life boat. With many other, worse fates. Could really be a heartbreaking coda to the game.

    1. I haven't, but that sounds interesting.

      Looking at Torchbearer, for example, makes me wonder if D&D should use MORE tables (I know, right?) for things like camping, shopping, and other downtime activities.

  2. I recently ran part of a session where a single PC run by a single player was locked in a cell in a dungeon in pitch black. There were no guards, and I knew help was coming, but he didn't. Based purely on description, he managed to salvage some bits of metal from a drain, pry out the bars on the window of the door, reach through with one arm and pick the lock. Fortunately he wasn't far from the exit and managed to not go in exactly the wrong direction.

    The amazing thin is we usually play on a virtual tabletop, so he is used to not having to rely on descriptions - but on the other hand, I was very depending in tracking his exact position on the grid in order to give accurate descriptions.

    It was interesting because it was short, and because I only had to manage one player, but it would have become tedious if it had gone on much longer. Had he strayed too far in the wrong direction I would have cut it off and narrated the likely results of getting lost.

    I also note that for most parties in most editions at least one party member will have infravision/darksight, so it isn't necessarily a death sentence.

    1. Beoric, it sounds cool that you pulled that off, but it also sounds like a little goes a long way, and that it wouldn't scale well. If you'd had more players, or needed to spend more of the session that way, or even if you hadn't had the computer map as a visual aid, it seems like it would have been much harder to run, and been less enjoyable for everyone. I'm glad it worked out well though!

  3. Are you familiar with veins of the earth? In this game, the characters are stuck underground and light is so precious that it's a currency - the lume. 1 gp = 1 hour of light = 1 ration (food is also scarce underground).

    I must admit I'm not 100% familiar with it, but there is a "what if the players run out of light" rule.

    As Beoric noted, infravision/darvision usually avoids this, or light cantrips etc, make the light resource become unlimited (Clerics aren't just about healing, they are about logistics! light, create food and water...). So of course, in that game light spells are very rare.

    1. I'm aware of VotE, and definitely need to look more into it. Patrick is definitely trying to put his own take on the classic resource management game by emphasizing not just light, but also rations, encumbrance, and climbing.

      In the upcoming post where I'll talk about classic RM play, I want to discuss Torchbearer, VotE, All Dead Generations, and Hack & Slash's "Megadungeon" zine. They're all looking for ways to make that classic RM play-style work without having to use Gygax's original, unwieldy rules for it.

      The thing that's sort of funny about darkvision and light spell cantrips, is that people will talk about how important and vital light sources are, but then you ask how they'd handle it if their players ran out, and they bring up "well, we have darkvision and light cantrips, so they can't REALLY run out." And I feel like then I just wonder "well then what's the point of claiming it's so important?"

  4. My very simple rules for no light sources:
    -take away the players' map
    -amp up the purple prose and tension-inducing hints
    -describe what they feel, hear, and smell
    -have the players navigate by memory
    In practice, this doesn't tend to result in massacres unless the players run into a random encounter, but it can easily lead to the party getting lost or split up, especially if they find a secret door they didn't notice while they had a light source.

    1. I like taking away the map as a "reduction of information" technique. It certainly drives the point home!

      And you're right, you should describe all the other senses, not just feel. It would seem a little weird if they get MORE information in the dark though, right?

      I have a question about navigating by memory though. I get that they have to navigate without looking at the map. But do they like, know they're in a room? Do they know when they've done through a door?

      How do your players talk you through what they're doing if they don't know what direction they're facing, how far they've traveled, or where they're going? Do they sort of stay within arm's reach of one wall and just follow that?

    2. They get more info in the dark, but unlike when the lights are on the info is often irrelevant and misleading. :D
      They know they're in a room (they didn't lose their minds), but the room's dimensions, etc, need to come from memory. They can feel along for doors and features and use those as landmarks. They say things like "we feel around the wall counter-clockwise looking for that door on the south side" etc.

    3. Yeah, I don't know why I imagine people starting out in the middle of a large cave when the lights go out.

      If they're close enough to a wall, I suppose they CAN in fact follow the wall pretty easily.

      If they WERE in the middle of a room, I guess you could also just roll 1d4 to decide which wall they end up wandering over to.

      It's possible I let my frustration with the concept get the better for my ability to think through solutions for it.

    4. Old Games Workshop made a "scatter dice" with arrows on it, so I use that for random diretion-finding. It's in the "bonus" dice bag, which also includes a d10 commandments, some dice with words on the faces, and one where the four is replace with a pirate hook for some unknowable reason.

  5. Another good post man. Thanks for the shout out!

    Mildly related: Have you ever read _The Tombs of Atuan_? Most of it takes place in the lightless underground tunnels dedicated to the nameless Lovecraftian old ones, where it is verboten to bring lamp or candle. As such, it's descriptive passages eschew vision for much of the book.

    Extremely tedious to play at the table (total agreement)--unless your GM is Ursula LeGuin, I guess. It's at least one example I can think of where the situation _might_ be interesting.

    1. I haven't read "Tombs," but it sounds interesting. It's funny, but even dark world fantasies like "Nightland" and "Dark Eden" mostly focus on the points of light. There's a brief passage in Johnathan Lethem's "As She Climbed Across the Table" where someone's navigating in a completely sightless setting, and yeah, it's fascinating as literature.

      I think even if your GM is Ursula LeGuin, or Patrick Stuart (who seems to have given more thought to how describe darkness than anyone else) I think I'd almost rather play an experimental, completely sightless game with a few other people who were up for the literary challenge, and were willing to commit to it for a whole session. I'd rather do that - and acknowledge the difficulty of the task - than try to ad lib it for the last half-hour of a supposedly ordinary session.

  6. I like it. And I love the entire RM series.

    What I've done in the past, though never strictly codified, was to contrive some reason to refresh the players' light -- usually by introducing a punishing random encounter.


    I wonder if there is a way to get the players active in the choice.

    - There is a table for escaping the dungeon, used when the players run out of light or time to play.
    - When the players run out of light, the players can escape now -or- push on but deal with penalties on the escape roll when they eventually need to leave without light.

    Though I think that only really works if your light resource is abstracted and you can introduce the choice when the players still have light but know it won't last.

    1. I like that idea. Roll on the escape table now, while your torches are still dimly smoldering, and it's a longer distance, but I won't hit you with the darkness penalty yet.

      Or spend some time exploring in the dark - but know that you'll get the full darkness penalty, and your explorations might have sent you deeper in rather than closer to the entrance.

      If you had a Black Hack style usage dice, or a Dungeon World style countdown, you COULD offer the choice when they're one "tick of the clock" away from running out of light for good.

  7. This one might go down in history. "Look how well you're doing," to quote Serena on Gossip Girl. This is so great. My first thought was that this is the start of segmenting the game condition of death into its components and then tracking them separately. When you're DEAD, you can't interact with the physical world, which includes moving the body. Maybe you can't perceive the physical world either.

    When you're DARK, you can still nudge around at a reduced movement rate. You just don't know where you're going and it's hard to reconstruct where you've been (minimal "mapping") so it's a random crawl unless other senses provide good enough cues. We can actually model all the random crawls from any given location and derive a single probability that tells us how likely any movement rate will find the exit before the clock runs down and you are out of TIME.

    Blind people start the adventure with zero LIGHT. Old people start a campaign with reduced TIME. While unlikely, a blind character could get stuck in a convenience store and die before the next shift arrives or an old character could trigger the "death by old age" limit with plenty of torches to spare.

    There might be other secondary traits of DEATH that can be explored. Maybe this is the seed of another new kind of plane game!

    1. Of course to a properly badass blind character the deepest dungeon is no more daunting than a trip to that convenience store and back. We don't need your stinking "torches." Probably already discussed elsewhere to DEATH but new to me.

    2. I guess the benefit of having multiple terminal resources is that it really pushes you to trade one to protect another. Whichever resource you're furthest from running out of becomes the currency you use to pay to protect your supply of the others.

      If your character experiences time dilation, they might age so rapidly they COULD die of old age mid-adventure. Or they could take so long on their quest that they run out of something else - a home to go back to.

      In fiction, it's exciting when one character can see in the dark and no one else can, but I don't know how to make that excitement translate into a multiplayer tabletop game. I sometimes wonder if half the problems with RPGs come from trying and failing to reproduce an experience that can only be enjoyed another way.