A thoughtful and personal exploration of games

Posts tagged “Dungeons & Dragons

Gaming Inside of my Comfort Zone

I was going back and forth yesterday on Twitter with a friend of mine and the concept of playing outside of one’s comfort zone came up. That said, I want to talk about playing INSIDE the comfort zone first, so I’ll get to the outside part next time.

There are a lot of games out there. The ones I feel most comfortable playing are the ones I can pick up and just run with without a second thought. When I sat down to play Dragon Age: Origins, for example, it was like pulling on a new pair of shoes that looked and felt extremely similar to my last pair. I still needed to break them in, but I was already familiar with the process and it was pretty quick since I wound up doing a lot of walking in a very short period of time.

So there are games that are, in and of themselves, within the comfort zone. For me, it’s a space flight simulator, a turn-based strategy game, a Baldur’s Gate derivative. These are the kinds of games I grew up playing.

Well, what about the games that don’t fit inside the comfort zone automatically? I can still be in my comfort zone even then, given the right opportunities.

For example, I love playing self-sufficient characters. My favorite D&D character was a Psychic Warrior who, with proper power choices, I was able to fight effectively, defend myself against a myriad of potential harms, and heal myself. To this day, I still play that way where I can. My Captain in Lord of the Rings Online is one such character. When I played Star Wars: The Old Republic as the Smuggler, I chose to be the Scoundrel and went straight down the healing tree. I did the same thing as a Mercenary Bounty Hunter and a Commando Trooper.

If I don’t have just one character, I believe distinctly in the balanced party. While Dragons Age is wholly within my comfort zone, I maintained a solid party of a rogue (for lockpicking primarily), a mage (for healing), a warrior (for tanking), and anyone else (for DPS). Yes, that restricted my play a bit, but it made decisions really easy when I went to make party choices. In XCOM: Enemy Unknown, I always had the four types of soldiers represented and then the two extra soldier spots would be where that particular playthrough was different from earlier ones. I’ve had those two spare slots taken up by a heavy and a support and an assault and a support before and that allowed me some considerable latitude in play style.

In Civilization IV, I set up the environment if I can so that my civilization is totally contained and secure before spreading out and taking new lands. I focus on infrastructure so that I can develop a powerful military at the drop of a hat and a few turns. In Star Trek Online, I chose a ship type that can take a lot of damage, then I proceeded to make it deal a lot of damage and be able to handle every situation that could come up. A long time ago when I played the Yu-Gi-Oh! card game, I built a deck that was affectionately referred to as “Whatever you do, I stop and make you regret it” or something like that. Essentially it was a balanced deck that countered many things the other player could do and then could crack them on the knuckles for doing it.

For me, it’s all about the balanced approach. Mixed arms and combined tactics to provide a well rounded and quality experience. I suppose I’m the kind of guy who likes to dip into every style to ensure an approach that can respond to every issue that might arise. In some games it’s just the simple “just shoot them” strategy. In others it’s more nuanced. My particular comfort zone playstyle is a kind of go-with-the-flow thing and it totally works for me.

The real trick for me is finding that comfort zone in each new game I pick up. Sometimes I’m lucky, like with Borderlands 2 where I started playing the Mechromancer and was pleasantly surprised how it flowed with my playstyle. Other times I’m not so lucky, like with Neverwinter where I played a long time as a Cleric before realizing that the Guardian Fighter was where it’s at for me.

An odd little thing: the Mass Effect series started in, I think, 2007 (yup). When that game came out, I played it for a week straight and loved it. Truly loved it. Turns out, I’d played its predecessor, a little game from 1986 called Starflight. Now, it’s quite a stretch to go from Starflight to Mass Effect, but the ship shape was kind of similar, the ground vehicle was (aside from armaments) was remarkably similar, and the stories I developed for my Starflight crew in my head was rivaled neatly by the stories developed for the crew of the Normandy. Look it up. Starflight inspired Mass Effect. Mass Effect has essentially been in my comfort zone since I was 4 years old. How about that, huh? Oh, I beat ME2 and ME3 each in a week as well. I’m that kind of gamer, just can’t put a good game/book down.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with finding and playing inside your comfort zone. It allows you to kick back, relax, and just play.

Until next time!

– Elorfin

P.S. There are no quotes I could find quickly about the benefits of staying in your comfort zone because everyone’s trying to be all inspirational on the internet and encourage people to do stuff that’s new and “outside your comfort zone”. I maintain that you need to be aware of what your comfort zone is prior to stepping outside of it, hence why I started with this piece instead of the next one. If you know your comfort zone and you stray from it, you always know where it is for when you need to get back to it for whatever reason.

Discussion – Pathfinding for an Oracle

So, I’m currently playing an Oracle with the Life mystery in my weekly Pathfinder game. We’re getting very close to level 4 so that has me thinking about which feat to take at level 5. Allow me to detail the choices I’m looking into:

1) Mobility: You get a +4 dodge bonus to Armor Class against attacks of opportunity caused when you move out of or within a threatened area. A condition that makes you lose your Dexterity bonus to Armor Class (if any) also makes you lose dodge bonuses.

2) Improved Channel: Add 2 to the DC of saving throws made to resist the effects of your channel energy ability.

3) Extra Channel: You can channel energy two additional times per day.

4) Cooperative Crafting: You can assist another character in crafting mundane and magical items. You must both possess the relevant Craft skill or item creation feat, but either one of you can fulfill any other prerequisites for crafting the item. You provide a +2 circumstance bonus on any Craft or Spellcraft checks related to making an item, and your assistance doubles the gp value of items that can be crafted each day.

5) Improved Initiative: You get a +4 bonus on initiative checks.

My explanations for these choices below:

1) I’m the party healer. Being able to move through a combat zone without worrying about getting hit just for passing by is a great thing. This will allow me to be a lot harder to hit while moving through enemy controlled terrain so I can do my job for the fighter, the paladin, the rogue, and the wizard in my party. Admittedly, there hasn’t been a lot of need lately for me to move through threatened areas. I think it’s happened once in the last three or four sessions.

2) I’m not a fan of my channel energy being resisted by the undead we’ve been fighting. This will make my channel positive energy to deal damage to undead harder for them to resist. Admittedly, we’re nearly done with this part of the campaign and I can’t speak to the amount of undead we’ll be fighting in the future.

3) I don’t just use my channel positive energy for damaging undead, I can also use it to heal my party. Two extra uses a day would be very nice.

4) Our party wizard is a crafter. By taking this feat, I can actually halve the time it takes for him to make equipment for our party. Admittedly, I’d have to throw a skill point here and there at the relevant crafting skills to help him out, but I only have to throw one point at each craft skill necessary for the job at hand. Not a big deal for a human who gets a spare skill point every level anyways.

5) This feat is always good to take. It’s a nice fallback feat.

Anyways, I currently have the feats Dodge (a +1 dodge bonus to my armor class is very nice and it’s a prerequisite for Mobility, detailed above), Extra Revelation (which gave me the ability to channel positive energy), and Selective Channeling (so I can avoid our half-vampire party member when I damage undead with my channel positive energy).

Further, these choices may be narrowed down in the very near future thanks to needing to gain a whole other level in the interim. Maybe by the time I have to make the decision on which feat I want, the choice will be much clearer.

Until next time!

– Elorfin

P.S. “However much men may honestly endeavour to limit the exercise of their discretion by definite rule, there must always be room for idiosyncracy; and idiosyncracy, as the word expresses, varies with the man.” Lord Coleridge, C.J., Reg. v. Labouchere (1884), 15 Cox, C. C. 425.

Discussion – What’s in a name?

The hardest part of creating a new character for a game (new or old) is the name. Seriously. In the 10 or so years I’ve been playing Dungeons & Dragons, the name is the last thing I think of and it usually takes the longest to come up with. It’s really no different with MMOs and so forth.

Occasionally I get really lucky. I was walking through the store not too long ago with my friend and I was reading the labels off of things as I walked past (something I love to do). There was some packaged gouda cheese and it had a single word or phrase describing the flavor. So I saw “Gouda: Intense” and turned to my friend and went “Intense Gouda?” At this time, I was trying out Champions Online to see if I really liked it or not, so I was looking anywhere for a superhero name. We kept on going on about Intense Gouda until I finally said, “You know, that’s a great superhero name!” Thus, Intense Gouda was born on the Champions Online servers.

I have a pile of names I go to whenever I really need something in a game… I pull from books no one really reads any more (Enchanted Forest Chronicles anyone?) and I tap a couple of names I’ve been using for the last 10 years. When these fail me, I do my best to pull stuff together (Saxolfyr my Dwarf Guardian in LOTRO was one such name).

When a game chooses names for me… well, it’s almost a vacation. I don’t bother to change Shepard’s first name in Mass Effect, I keep the baseline names in Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI, and I kick back and enjoy the show.

On a side note (now that I’ve mentioned Mass Effect 2) I think I want to replay Mass Effect 2. Here’s why: I was shown the weapons from the Firepower Pack DLC and dear lord, I want to use them! Unfortunately, I beat the game very soundly (including the Arrival DLC) and I’ve got nothing left to do in the game! Maybe this play through I can finally grab those pesky side missions that require you to scan the planet.

Until next time!

– Elorfin

P.S. “For those lucky enough to be baptised with a middle name, they don’t ever have to wonder what it would be like to be without one.” – Franklin P. Jones.

P.P.S. “Bending is my middle name. My full name is Bender Bending Rodriguez.” – Bender

Discussion – My role as a Rules Lawyer

Hi, I’m Elorfin and I’m a rules lawyer. (Admission is the first step to a cure, right?)

I’ve been playing Dungeons & Dragons and similarly constructed tabletop role playing games for the last 11 years or so and I’ve become a bit of what we call a “rules lawyer”. Let me explain a bit here… a rules lawyer is someone who argues the case for the “rules as written” without, necessarily, an eye towards the spirit of the rules or even, possibly, the flow of the game. I’m not the only rules lawyer in my group (there’s three of us actually and one of us is usually the Dungeon Master depending on the game or the campaign). Now, with this said, allow me to set the stage for you.

The party has just entered a lighthouse. There is a door. The Barbarian goes to the door and opens it, discovering two enemies on the other side. One enemy approaches the Barbarian immediately and they are both blocking anyone from getting by. As a Fighter with a penchant for rapid fire crossbows, I am behind the Barbarian and I am attempting to shoot the enemies on the other side of her. The other enemy (the one not in the doorway fighting the Barbarian) is throwing javelins from behind his comrade at me and the Barbarian. These are the relevant players in their positions for this situation.

There is a mechanic in the game called “cover”. This is something I believe everyone is familiar with, but I’m going to discuss it a bit first. Cover is available in stages (well, sort of) and they are as follows: Partial Cover, Cover, Improved Cover, and Total Cover. There are also two other TYPES of cover: low cover and soft cover. Cover tends to give a bonus to the defenses (Armor Class or AC) of the creature being targeted. Here are the rules as written in the Pathfinder SRD that determine cover.

To determine whether your target has cover from your ranged attack, choose a corner of your square. If any line from this corner to any corner of the target’s square passes through a square or border that blocks line of effect or provides cover, or through a square occupied by a creature, the target has cover (+4 to AC).

When making a melee attack against an adjacent target, your target has cover if any line from any corner of your square to the target’s square goes through a wall (including a low wall). When making a melee attack against a target that isn’t adjacent to you (such as with a reach weapon), use the rules for determining cover from ranged attacks.

For our purposes, we’re going to ignore cover from melee attacks and focus on cover from ranged attacks (I was playing a crossbowman after all). Here’s the rules for soft cover (seeing as I was shooting through my Barbarian friend and the enemy was throwing javelins through his friend):

Creatures, even your enemies, can provide you with cover against ranged attacks, giving you a +4 bonus to AC. However, such soft cover provides no bonus on Reflex saves, nor does soft cover allow you to make a Stealth check.

With the rules I have presented, basically, the enemy the Barbarian is fighting has soft cover with regards to my attacks and the Barbarian has soft cover with regards to the javelin thrower’s attacks. Now, there is another rule that concerns the shooting or throwing of weapons into a melee:

If you shoot or throw a ranged weapon at a target engaged in melee with a friendly character, you take a –4 penalty on your attack roll. Two characters are engaged in melee if they are enemies of each other and either threatens the other. (An unconscious or otherwise immobilized character is not considered engaged unless he is actually being attacked.)

If your target (or the part of your target you’re aiming at, if it’s a big target) is at least 10 feet away from the nearest friendly character, you can avoid the –4 penalty, even if the creature you’re aiming at is engaged in melee with a friendly character.

If your target is two size categories larger than the friendly characters it is engaged with, this penalty is reduced to –2. There is no penalty for firing at a creature that is three size categories larger than the friendly characters it is engaged with.

Precise Shot: If you have the Precise Shot feat, you don’t take this penalty.

So, essentially, if I were to attack the enemy the Barbarian is fighting, this enemy would have a +4 bonus to his armor class (making him harder to hit due to the soft cover) and I would have a -4 to my attack (because I’m shooting into a melee) and these issues would be the same with regards to the javelin thrower attacking my Barbarian ally.

There’s a way to avoid the -4 penalty for shooting/throwing into a melee and it’s called the Precise Shot feat. I have this special ability. Therefore, for me to attack the enemy in front of the Barbarian, he’s only harder to hit due to the soft cover.

Okay, that’s the whole situation. What brought this all up was the Barbarian got hit by the javelin thrower for 10 damage. I mentioned “Hey, what about soft cover? Doesn’t that make her harder to hit? Does the javelin thrower have Precise Shot?” The Dungeon Master (hereafter the DM) stated that because of the Precise Shot ability, soft cover doesn’t matter, but then I had to go and open my big mouth and state that soft cover is a different mechanic from the penalty associated with shooting or throwing into a melee. This immediately earned me a dark look from the DM who then declared that we rarely (if at all) have used such things as soft cover whereupon I stated that I didn’t believe him. Mind, we have been playing D&D together for over 10 years now (not just Pathfinder D&D, but D&D 3rd Edition, D&D 3.5, D&D 4th Edition, Star Wars Role Playing Game, Star Wars Revised Role Playing Game, and the Star Wars Saga Edition Role Playing Game) and therefore soft cover HAS been a mechanic that has been discussed and used. Admittedly, we have rarely had a lot of ranged combat via projectiles in our games (it features prominently in Star Wars and therefore soft cover is an important mechanic to be aware of there… hell, there are entire abilities and feats that exist for the sole reason of dealing with soft cover in some form). Therefore, the soft cover ruling does not often arise in our D&D game, but so blatantly saying that we just don’t use it and it never comes up? I think it really irked me at that moment and I fear I felt I had to stand up for myself somehow (I’m not entirely sure what was going on, but I went with my gut on this).

The DM invoked Rule Zero (“The DM is always right”) and attempted to end the argument right there, but for some reason he still gave me the stink eye until I felt compelled to cite rulings from the book. After such readings and more (heated) discussion, another player piped up (the Rogue, and coincidentally, the DM’s wife though I have faith this did not impact her perspective in any way here) mentioning that not having Precise Shot (which most characters will not have unless they intend to attack by range a lot of the time) and dealing with soft cover at the same time is crippling to ranged attacks and she wanted nothing to do with it if she could help it. This led to the DM making the executive decision of eventually creating this house rule: if you wish to take advantage of soft cover, you must announce that you are using your enemy for soft cover (this applies to enemies as well). Internally, I’m still dissatisfied with this because I believe that this ruling defeats the spirit of soft cover, but as the DM has mentioned, he thinks that essentially giving someone a -8 to hit someone in combat just because the target is in melee and on the other side of a friend or an enemy is stupid. I let the argument end and the game continued with no further incident.

I mean, really in this fight and in all the fights thereon, soft cover really would’ve only applied to me and when our Alchemist was throwing bombs on people in combat (seeing as he’s a ranged combatant as well, he really should have precise shot if he doesn’t already and as he deals in touch attacks a +4 to the enemy’s defense isn’t going to harm him at all). On the RARE occasion that the Rogue or the Oracle or the Barbarian was throwing objects into a melee where soft cover applied, it makes perfect sense that such a task would be difficult to accomplish. Plus, if the Barbarian is throwing into a melee, where the hell is the Barbarian that she feels she needs to THROW SOMETHING? A similar yet lesser argument applies to the Rogue and the Oracle (our oracle can only see 60 feet, so he really shouldn’t be dealing in ranged combat that often). Plus, my character (and the Alchemist) is a specialized ranged fighter. I’m SUPPOSED to be BETTER at ranged combat than my compatriots. If it were easy, there wouldn’t be stacking penalties associated with things like cover (which typically only applies to strange melee circumstances and ranged attacks) and shooting or throwing into a melee. Hell, in the Star Wars Saga Edition RPG, they have a feat called “Sniper” which literally allows the player to ignore the enemy’s defensive bonuses related to soft cover and you can’t get this benefit normally unless you AIM (which is a special mechanic that allows you to spend part of your turn to aim in order to negate all of a target’s cover bonus).

With some additional research, soft cover is tackled by a couple of more items in the Pathfinder rules:

Low Profile (Combat)

Your small stature helps you avoid ranged attacks.

Prerequisites: Dex 13, Small size or smaller.

Benefit: You gain a +1 dodge bonus to AC against ranged attacks. In addition, you do not provide soft cover to creatures when ranged attacks pass through your square.


Trick Shot (Ex): As a standard action, the Ranger can make a ranged attack that ignores concealment (but not total concealment), soft cover, and partial cover.

These specific citations actually originate in the Advanced Player’s Guide and therefore are not a part of the CORE rules, but seeing as we are using things in the APG, these are also valid. Essentially, the house rule changing the circumstances of soft cover changes the meanings of these abilities a bit.

Again, allow me to reiterate that I’m pretty much the main guy who gets screwed by the use of soft cover, but I have countering abilities to the addition of this mechanic:

1) I’m a Fighter (this means I have a typically easy time of hitting things)

2) I have a high dexterity score (which helps me hit things at range)

3) I have abilities that increase my ranged attack rating

4) Typically the Barbarian does not need ranged assistance while in melee combat. My job is to keep other targets from swamping the party by picking them off at range and the Rogue and Barbarian’s jobs are to handle them in melee combat. In rare circumstance will I need to deal with soft cover (like fighting in doorways or narrow halls where such a mechanic is designed to apply).

It’s an odd feeling to earn the ire of your DM. Seriously, I think he took it as a personal affront to his ability to run the game that I managed to cite a ruling or something. That was not my intent. My intention every time I sit down to play a tabletop RPG is to use the rules as completely and as honestly as possible. If I am the player, I certainly want the rules to benefit me and my party, but that is not always possible (I’m always scrabbling to find another +1 or +2 to my attack or my armor class to hit or deny a hit at the last second and my DM does the same thing when he is the player, trust me on that one). If I am the DM, I do not stop my players from bringing these things up and I do not chastise them in the attempt. Typically if such things are brought up, I mention how it might slow the game down if it really will, but hey, we’re all playing the same game and we’re all there to keep each other honest with regards to the rules. I expect my players to keep me honest and I expect my DM to tell me when I can’t do something.

I will not apologize for my abilities (flaws?) as a rules lawyer. How was I supposed to know that we weren’t playing with soft cover rules if it never came up? I still feel like I was wronged in being yelled at for bringing the mechanic up, but I’m over it. If I didn’t ask the question, we would’ve been none the wiser and with this opportunity for research, introspection, and thoughtful consideration I can only be grateful.

Until next time, try not to give your DM a hard time (well, if you can help it).

– Elorfin

P.S. “As a lawyer I am before and above all things for the supremacy of law.” – Lord Coleridge, C.J., The Queen v. Bishop of London (1889), L. R. 23 Q. B. 452.

P.P.S. “There is no jewel in the world comparable to learning; no learning so excellent as knowledge of laws.” – Edward Coke

New goals

Aloha everyone!

My intention for February is to post at least once a week on Mondays. So, expect to see something on the 7th, 14th, 21st, and 28th.

In fact, this month I’m intending on doing a vlog-every-day kind of thing. This will force me to learn how to best use my camera and editing software and should get me in the habit of talking to my camera (which doesn’t seem TOO unhealthy). I won’t be talking about JUST games on the vlog, but expect a fair amount. I’m intending to post a video every day even if it’s about mostly nothing.

Further, I’ve set a few personal goals for the month (a little bit of working out mostly) for just health and comfort reasons. I still have my Saturday D&D game (the 5th is when we get back to playing) and my every-other-Sunday D&D game (we played this past Sunday and it was rather fun).

Speaking of D&D… we’ve been playing the Pathfinder system and it’s working out really well. We’ve got a couple of games going to accommodate attendance issues, so I’ve got a Summoner, a Fighter (heavy repeating crossbow), a Fighter (two-handed sword), and… that’s it. With the recent release of Psionics into the Pathfinder system, I’m intending on remaking my favorite 3.5 character, Juan Moore (Psychic Warrior). Further, I’m interested in trying out a gunslinger/rifleman when it gets out of playtesting and I’d like to try a healing Oracle (life mystery).

Also on the D&D front, when I was at my friend’s house where we play our Sunday game, I noticed a book lying amongst a pile of things he’d gotten from an acquaintance. This book was entitled Volo’s Guide to the Dalelands and was released in 1996 as a supplement to AD&D Forgotten Realms by Ed Greenwood. I snatched it up and borrowed it (with permission, duh) and started reading it. It’s a literal travelogue and it’s fascinating. Like most travel guides, it makes you want to go there and I do remember occasionally visiting the Dales in my extensive travels, but my party and I were never truly there for long enough to experience all the things that Volo is talking about. Oh, by the way, Volothamp Geddarm is someone I’ve run into in the past courtesy of the original Baldur’s Gate game. Last I recall, he was hanging out in the bar in the mining town of Nashkel… at least, that’s where I physically ran into him.

This book makes me think about my times playing Baldur’s Gate. I’m pondering going back and playing through the original Baldur’s Gate and then playing Baldur’s Gate II all the way through (for once). Maybe this month, along with all the other things… maybe.

Anyways… until next time!

– Elorfin

P.S. “Here are the Dales as you have never seen them before — Volo’s Dalelands. (Elminster: Nor are likely to again, unless someone else as given to exaggeration, misrepresentation, and flights of fancy happens along.)”

I’ve been away for a bit – Let’s Play Catch Up!

Hey folks, I know I haven’t written anything of late here, but I have good reasons!

Let me just say that Assassin’s Creed II (I played it via Steam) is hands down an improvement over the first installment in the series. That said, Brotherhood plays even better (can’t wait for the PC version to come out… I prefer the controls on the computer!). In the spirit of beating games, I dug out my copy of Mr. Robot and whipped that in a couple of days. I also picked up Recettear on Steam and beat that in a couple of days (much fun!).

Star Trek Online did a big environmental update that changed the Sector Space portion of the game into a more graphically pleasing and “natural” environment. Further, they upgraded their crafting system so that the players can build another 400 or so items. End result? My ship, the U.S.S. Iowa-B now has souped up weapons! I spent a lot of time crafting those Phasers and Photon Torpedo Launchers, and they were SO worth it!

If I may, here’s my usual gaming schedule (always subject to changes):

  • Monday Night – Lord of the Rings Online with a friend
  • Tuesday Night – Hanging out with a friend at his place, playing the flavor of the week
  • Wednesday Night – D&D Online with friends
  • Friday Night – Star Trek Online with friends
  • Saturday Night – D&D 4th Edition at a friend’s place
  • Every other Sunday – D&D 3.5 at another friend’s place

Hey, it keeps me busy!

Until next time! Keep on playing!

– Elorfin

P.S. My ship that you see above is named for the U.S.S. Iowa BB-61, the last lead ship of any class of United States battleships. My grandfather commissioned her in 1943 and served on her during World War II. “The Big Stick” is a source of pride in my family and my grandfather was quite tickled that I named my ship for the Iowa. If you look above, I even got the BB-61 on her somewhere.

P.P.S. “All you need to know is this. There are two kinds of games: games that I stop playing because I’ve been bored or frustrated into a state approaching rigor mortis, and games that I stop playing because I’ve just noticed I should have had dinner two hours ago.” – Zero Punctuation

P.P.P.S. I’m using Wikipedia links for my references because in the linked articles, there are links to other relevant sources for whatever I’m referencing. This makes things way easier on me and on you, the reader. Enjoy!

EDIT: December 24th, 1:45 AM – I just got off playing some Star Trek Online and the U.S.S. Iowa-B is looking spiffy with the addition of some cool new equipment. My friend and I refer to it as “Tronning out”. Enjoy!

She looks so awesome! Until  next time!

Discussion: Death Penalties in Games

Okay class, today’s discussion is covering the penalty associated with getting whacked, slain, or otherwise killed in games. Dying or death is an issue in a majority of games and a great deal of mechanics center on preventing it from happening. There are a lot of games where there’s no character that dies, so there’s a moment of defeat that the player has to struggle to stay away from like in Tetris or Bejeweled or any number of today’s “casual” games. I’m mostly going to talk about games that have a character that can be killed or subjected to some kind of incapacitation in this discussion.

This is sort of the flip side of the coin from making progress in a game. I mean, what would stop you from making progress at all? Yeah, being dead can kind of cause a bit of a problem there. Just a bit. Anyways, games tend to throw a roadblock in front of the player and if the player fails to pass that obstacle, there are penalties like death to deal with. Let’s pick out a few examples of this.

Many platformer games (Sonic the Hedgehog, Super Mario Bros., etc.) have the controlled character with a few hit points and when these two or three run out, you’ve got to restart at your last checkpoint or at the beginning of the stage. Some games had save points (Super Metroid), but those are essentially the same as checkpoints and some games let you have a lot more than two or three hit points (again, Super Metroid is a great example of this), but it’s essentially the same. If you run out of hit points, you are killed or defeated and you either reload or respawn or retreat (depending on the terminology the game is using) to the last safe point you found. The object is to go for as long as you can without being forced back to that checkpoint by death and the game sometimes gives you little items to help stave off this penalty for as long as you can. In Super Metroid (I suppose I’m going to keep using this as an example) you get more energy canisters that increase the overall amount of health you have, you get special suits of armor to help in resisting particular types of damage, you’re given new weapons to help with defeating enemies faster and more efficiently and you’re given new ways to prevent falling down pits or to keep you from getting stuck in certain areas. In a simpler example, in Super Mario Bros., Mario (or Luigi) is given mushrooms to make him large, enabling him to jump higher, break blocks, and take one more hit before falling. If you grab something like a fireflower, you are given the ability to shoot fireballs and you can take another hit before dying.

The above mechanism is constant through a lot of game genres. Essentially, it’s the same for platformers, role playing games, first person shooters, even racing games. Let’s take a look at a Final Fantasy game. Here you have three or four party members, each with their own abilities and so forth. If your party dies, you’re kicked back to the load screen so you can pick which save you’d like to start from. If you die in a Final Fantasy game, you lose time spent towards progressing the storyline and the development of your characters. Overall, the penalty for death in a lot of these games is lost time, lost investment. I recall playing Final Fantasy XII through the Necrohol of Nabudis and I was trying to get to the monster called Chaos (he becomes a summon, but he’s completely optional). So, here I am, entertaining the completionist part of myself, and I spend a long time trying to get to this one point. Mind, the last save point is literally a 20 minute walk away at this point and the bad guys will respawn in the dungeon, so I’d have to fight through them again on my way back after saving. I got killed in the fight with Chaos when I ALMOST had him. I dropped the controller, shut off the game, and didn’t touch it again for a year and a half. Mind, I didn’t play because I got killed in an optional area. Yeah, I’m a sore loser sometimes. I eventually went back and just beat the game, but every now and again I get tempted to play it some more.

With the introduction of online role playing games, death penalties are something of a point of contention amongst players. Here’s a few examples of the differences between games.

In D&D Online, the death penalty consists of 1) damage to all of your equipment that you need to repair for a small cost per item and 2) reduced experience payout for the quest you’re doing. That and you kind of need to catch back up to your party if you accidentally resurrect back at a tavern or something.

In Star Trek Online, there’s  not really much of a death penalty at all. If you’re in space, your ship blows up and you’re forced to respawn back at the nearest respawn point that you flew by (these respawn points are not obvious and are often the beginning of the zone where you entered). If you’re on the ground, you’re knocked out and you can be brought back by a teammate or an NPC crew member if they’re still alive. No tangible penalties unless you increase the difficulty setting for the missions you’re running. Then you need to deal with injuries on your captain and injuries on your ship which can be removed if you have minor/major/critical regenerators or components in your inventory.

In Star Wars Galaxies, they changed the death penalties a bit either when the Combat Upgrade hit or the New Game Enhancement, I forget which. The original death penalty was that your equipment would take damage (you could insure your equipment so instead of taking 5% damage, I think, they took 1% damage) and you had to “clone” (basically respawn) where you had stored your cloning information (saved your character). Also, you had wound points to deal with in each of your three damage taking statistics: health, action, and mind (referred to as HAM). You had to go to a medic or a doctor in a medical facility to heal the health and action wound points and to an entertainer in a cantina to heal the mind wound points. Wound points essentially reduced the maximum amount of health, action, or mind your character could have until they were removed. The more deaths you experienced (and in some cases, the more fighting you did), the more wound points you would have in each category until one hit could probably kill you. They later removed the wound point system, the mind bar, and the deterioration of your equipment. These days if you die you get a 5 minute death penalty status that makes it so you have only a percentage of your maximum health and action (making it really easy to die again). Getting rid of this status is possible in three ways: have an entertainer remove it, pay the medical droid in the cloning facility to remove it, or wait the 5 minutes for the penalty to go away on its own. The cost of paying the medical droid scales with your level, but does not exceed 5000 credits at level 90. It’s mostly a minor inconvenience and many players just ignore it and do what’s called traveling by cloning. Essentially, you can now clone anywhere on a planet regardless of where you saved your cloning information. You can still only go from planet to planet if you’ve saved yourself at a cloning facility on another planet from the one you’re on, but now if you’re at the top of a planet and you want to get to the bottom and there’s a cloning facility there, instead of driving or walking the 12 kilometers, you just die and BAM, you’re there. It works pretty well if you can’t find a place flat enough to call your Instant Travel Vehicle.

Like I said up above in the intro, preventing death is what a lot of games focus on. In Star Trek Online, my captain can focus in shield skills that keep his shields regenerating in combat or that allow me to quickly heal my hull as it takes damage. In D&D Online, I can wear armor to help prevent getting hit to begin with or I can carry around healing items that fix the damage that I take from getting hit. In Star Wars Galaxies, every character comes with his own personal healing skill that gets better as they gain levels (Commandos still need Medics to back them up though… 4500 from a heal every once in a while is NOT enough).

I mentioned that this topic is a point of contention amongst players and it really is. I’ve read long forum threads decrying or supporting the use of a death penalty in games and I recall a great deal of complaining being made by crafters in Star Wars Galaxies that the removal of the damage to items from the game has made it harder to sell stuff to players (why buy a new pair of shoes when the old pair never wears out?). It’s definitely changed the economical standpoint in the game, but players are still buying stuff like crazy and even more now because you can have an appearance (essentially an overlay costume) that covers your actual equipment. I can almost guarantee that if you look for it, you might find a forum thread somewhere discussing the merits of harsher or softer death penalties in just about any online game. The fact remains that the players have a skewed perspective: some are there to have a good time and others are there for a challenge. For some, those are both the same thing. It’s up to the developer to determine at what point is the game killing players so frequently that it’s just not fun any more. Case in point, I find the Crystalline Entity in Star Trek Online to be way too hard a fight to be worth fighting. I tried it once and died in a single hit three times in a row and I vowed to never do it again. Some of my friends have come to the same conclusion. It’s not worth the effort and time to attempt to do that fight correctly for us.

Rare is the game with a “hardcore” setting where if you die, you can’t play that character any more. I only know of two games that have that… Diablo II and Hellgate: London. That’s a box I never check. I get kind of attached to my characters.

Ah, speaking of perma-death (that’s the “technical” term for it), the tabletop game of Dungeons & Dragons is really where you grasp the concept that your character, that extension of you and a major investment of your time, could die quite easily. It’s a precarious balance between making sure you can do damage to enemies and keep them from hitting you long enough for your party healer to get to you to fix whatever ails you. We had a game the other day where one of our party was hit all the way down to one hit point and she just shrugged and we were all confused. Apparently, she had armor that could heal her all the way back up to full if she ever dropped below one hit point. She was laughingly upset when the fight ended and she still had one hit point, so we all offered to crack her character upside the head to trigger the heal.

Games tend to trivialize it, but no one wants to have to start all over every time they die. It’s the human condition to wonder about death and those who play games happen to deal with it rather frequently without much thought. It’s a rather morbid topic, but addressed in a wide variety of manners by our games and our religions. I think it would be nice if we had a save and load function in our lives or maybe a few extra coins for continues.

Until next time, don’t forget to save often (if you can) and pay attention to your hit points!

– Elorfin

P.S. “I have no terror of Death. It is the coming of Death that terrifies me.” – Oscar Wilde

P.P.S. I really like this: While on a journey, Chuang Tzu found a skull, dry and parched. With sorrow he questioned and lamented the end to all things. When he finished speaking, he dragged the skull over, and using it as a pillow, lay down to sleep. In the night, the skull came to his dreams and said, “You are a fool to rejoice in the entanglements of life.” Chuang Tzu couldn’t believe this and asked “If I could return you to your life, you would want that, wouldn’t you?” Stunned by Chuang Tzu’s foolishness the skull replied, “How do you know that it is bad to be dead?” – Zhuangzi