Monday, June 1, 2015

First-Level Failures

First-level D&D characters are fragile. At best they start out with d8+Con bonus for HP, and a general weapon does d6 points of damage. At worst, you're playing a mage (or B/X thief) with d4 on the hit die, and maybe even a Con penalty.

Adventurer, Erol Otus, B/X Basic Rules. 
Some games in the OSR family try to mitigate the fragility of 1st-level characters, either with boosted initial level, max HP at first level, or even HP kickers like Hackmaster. And some games (OK, just DCC) embrace the idea of having a bunch of schlubs enter the dungeon, and toss players a 4-pack of characters, with the expectation that some of these lunkheads are, by definition, going to die screaming.

But with most of the games as written, the rules mean that you're probably going to see a lot of low-level PC death. Some have remarked on the enhanced characterization that this gives the survivors, and there have been oodles of posts about why PC death-as-stakes (or just death) is interesting and intriguing.

I just saw an article on NPR discussing the intersection of (video) gaming and learning, where author Greg Toppo touches upon the utility of repeated failures in engagement and learning (bolds mine):

I guess I look at myself as a learner and see value not much in the ability to fail but what happens next. That is, you do something, you fail at it and you are able to try again with essentially no comment on it. A good game doesn't say, "That's the 34th time you're trying. You really sure about this?" Nothing transpires except your next chance. For me the most vivid experience of this is playing a motorcycle racing game once. I was so bad at it. I kept hitting the reset button again and again and again. And at one point I went back and looked how many times I'd restarted this level and it was something like 1,800 times! So it's not so much failure but the lack of comment around the failure and what you do afterwards.

This sounds remarkably like the experience that roguelikes and Dark Souls tap into: progress, but a lack of comment on failure and an encouragement to keep trying, generates significant engagement with the material.

In some videogames, like Mario or the motorcycle racing game that Toppo mentions, the engagement and learning generates a familiarity with the map and the level progression ("OK, I have to hit jump HERE to make it past this pit, and then there's an invisible block THERE that lets me get up high..."). In roguelikes, there's more of a focus on learning how to play -- while obviously you learn about Mario's speed and jump capability and can gauge things better in the fixed-level games, the roguelikes keep hitting you with a fresh new environment each time.

Again with the Great Heap, guys?
You don't wanna check out some of
the other caves...?
What strikes me as interesting about D&D is that it offers a combination of the two - if an adventurer dies in the Slumbering Ursine Dunes (capitalism, ho!), their party is likely to still be in the region, and the adventurer's death provides information about the site and its inhabitants, AND affords the player more insight into what they can and cannot likely get away with. It's a return to a dynamic, rather than static, version of the environment. (Perhaps this is why Jeff was so tolerant of all of us bumbling around in the same parts of Wessex forever!)

The other component of Toppo's statement I found interesting is the idea that it's a lack of comment around the failure that fosters continued experimentation. This bit has been touched upon by other folks elsewhere (noting the difference in character generation times between earlier and later editions of D&D, serving as a strong disincentive for risky / exploratory play, since the tedium in generating a new character serves as an implicit 'comment').


  1. Excellent post! I want to add that there are certain tricks games use with failure that I think help with the learning process. A common structure in games is to have you go back to the last checkpoint when you die, and after so many deaths you go back even further, to the beginning of the level or world and usually with a score reset. Lose all your continues and you're back to the beginning of the game. Now, this is somewhat of a comment on your failure, but it's recognizing that there's something wrong. If you die, it could've been a simple mistake, so no biggie. If you use up a continue, it could mean you're missing some important skill and should go back a bit to improve, while a game over means you need to get back to basics. Done right, I think this can actually speed up the learning process

    1. Thanks! Perhaps the analogy here is with the D&D TPK: an individual death is not unexpected, but the complete TPK might indicate something more. There's still less of a comment on failure in either of these, though, because the game doesn't reset in the same way that Mario or Dark Souls or whatever does; the dead stay dead, on both sides.

  2. I've been giving this post a lot of thought since the beginning of the month, especially with regards to the way I as a player handle character death and how others, especially my wife, handle character death. It's sort of an unintentional commentary on the way I sometimes GM.