Friday, June 29, 2012

The Coin, and its sides

One of my oldest friends said something the other day that stuck with me. He was talking about how its interesting to be surprised by the course of events of in older styles of RPGs; the fact that you are not really assumed to be victorious. The words he said went something like this: "It's good. But the other side of the coin is, you can die a horrific death for no reason." That's true. Those are the two sides of the AD&D coin, and I, for one, think its worth the risk of ignominious death to have the chance of strange and glorious victory.

For what victory can there be if the chance of destruction does not loom? Death in AD&D (and many older games) is a Sword of Damocles that hangs uneasily above the necks of the players. Every action may result in it, every NPC may be capable of dealing it. Wariness and caution are watchwords, but they do not dominate every encounter, particularly as the characters grow in level.

Death, meaningless, horrific, and vile, awaits us all. Unless you are a legitimate romantic and you think that your own death will forward some kind of theme or be important in some kind of cause, you already know that. Death is always senseless, death is always unkind, and death is usually unwanted. Decrying that death in an RPG is too harsh, too senseless, is the same as decrying that in life. Of course, now the legions of "but games are games and life is life" fans will crawl out of the woodwork to complain that they play pen and paper roleplaying games to escape the inevitability of death and its implications, to which I say: Go forth and prosper, just don't do it at my table.

I particularly like this image of the coin, who's face represents glorious but unexpected developments and who's obverse represents complete and utter failure. Of course almost no plans in AD&D work out exactly one way or the other (short of the party being slaughtered by golems or something) but that is the underlying structure, the very essence of risk/reward, that elevates older games above mere wish-fulfillment.

So, my advice to you? Flip that coin, and pray your side comes up.

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