Monday, May 10, 2010

The Art of Auto-Kill

No, we’re not talking about vehicular homicide or Car Wars.

One of the great things about the Tom Moldvay edited Basic set is the many wonderful examples present throughout the text. Like Pat over at O2BD, I find these examples entertaining reading, as well as illustrative of game play. I wish I had more room in my B/X Companion to include similar examples, perhaps even re-visiting the characters (Morgan, Silver Leaf, Sister Rebecca) introduced in Moldvay’s game.

As a young lad teaching himself to play (no mentor for me), these examples helped shape my views on how the game should go. And one thing in the text that seems fairly different from later edition examples is the frequency and regularity of player character death. Not henchmen, not nameless torch bearers, but the death of actual PLAYER characters. In two solid examples (one of combat, one of dungeon exploration) we have an equal number of PCs dying through misadventure (one during combat, another from a poison trap).

I believe these examples were fairly influential to my “gaming development” as a youngster. Later, I would get my own copy of the AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide (a tome written earlier than Moldvay’s) which provides even more gruesome examples on the mortality of player characters (the party on party combat is deadly enough, but then the “snacking ghouls?” yowza!).

Put these examples together and perhaps you’ll see why I didn’t feel inclined to give much mercy to the player characters in my games.

Oh, that’s not to say there may not have been “fudging” with dice on occasion (though I can’t seem to recall any off-hand…maybe that didn’t begin till later with the far more “wiggly” Marvel Superheroes RPG) for some dramatic imperative or other, but mostly we let the chips (and dice) fall as they did. After all, a character could always be raised or wished back to life, right?

As far as I was concerned, my job as DM was to challenge the players as hard as possible while still being “fair and balanced.” Monsters/NPCs were to be played to the best of their ability and PCs were richly rewarded…if they survived.

‘Course, if they DO survive the whole job of “challenging” the players (i.e. attempting to kill them off in a fair and balanced manner) can become desperately hard.

[yes, if this smacks of the text in Hackmaster, that’s a fair assessment of how we played the game back in the day...probably one of the reasons I find so much humor in the HM texts. Of course, I wasn’t nearly as stingy with the treasure as a true “Hackmaster certified” GM should be]

It didn’t help that early on we were calculating hit points wrong. High level characters are just damn tough to kill anyway…they already have obscene armor classes and hitting power thanks to their magical accoutrements. Then add onto that their excellent saving throws and few have anything to fear from giant scorpions or the gaze of a medusa. Remember that early (pre-3rd) editions of D&D are NOT “scalable;” target numbers (for attacks and saves) don’t rise along with player level. Once something becomes easy, it remains easy, which can make the job of a “Killer DM” (like me) extremely tough. At least, if one is playing “fair.”

Which is why modules like S1: Tomb of Horrors were such a boon…so many traps and tricks that “broke” the normal rules of the game…and yet did so in an “official capacity” (with TSR stamped right on the cover). This wasn’t some random DM making an “impossibly hard” dungeon; this was official licensed product, certainly tested rigorously in the field!

However, the number of modules we ran was small in comparison to the number of adventures we created. After all, you could only “solve” a module once, after which it was “forever cleaned out”…at least in our on-going, continuous campaign world.

SO…since I would have felt like I was acting un-fair to create killer traps like the ones in Tomb of Horrors, I strove to find ways of offing my players’ characters in-game using only the “proper” methods open to me…i.e. the stuff in the books. And the best method of doing that is including auto-kill items in the game.

By “auto-kill” I really mean “auto-effect:” effects that occur (in general) without saving throw. This is to avoid the frustration of trying to poison or hex a character that (in addition to being high level) is sporting cloaks of protection and periapts of proof against poison and rings of spell turning.

The archetypal example of an “auto-kill” weapon is the vorpal sword. If the enemy rolls high enough, the opponent/victim is decapitated (dead-dead-dead) with no saving throw, and regardless of hit points.

However, I almost NEVER included vorpal weapons in the game. They were fairly useless for my purpose, being extremely random in action (high level characters having a good enough AC that the sword would only hit on a 19 or 20) and difficult to justify in-game (I wasn’t simply stocking the dungeons with random, high-level fighters!). Not to mention, giving a monster/NPC a vorpal weapon meant giving the party a vorpal weapon as there would undoubtedly be some survivors that would claim the blade. Also, when stocking dungeons I generally rolled treasure randomly (“more fair”)…in all the years I played D&D I can only ever remember one PC ever owning a vorpal blade, and that was one of mine!

A better example (for my purposes) would be the garrote from the Unearthed Arcana. Why have a thief backstab someone for a measly x3 or x4 damage when you could auto-kill ‘em in a couple rounds, no saving throw? Simple and effective.

Similarly, why include a sphere of annihilation (releasing a powerful item into the game), when you could give characters a deck of many things to play with instead? There were monsters that fit the bill for this kind of thing (it seems to me jermalain fit the bill, as did rot grub and mind flayers) as well as some high level spells (imprisonment, irresistable dance) but most of them escape my memory right now…it’s been years since I combed through books looking for proper “secret weapons” to unload on my players.

After all, I’m not a killer DM anymore.

[by the way, artifacts and relics might SEEM like a way to auto-kill…or auto-screw…players, but they didn’t work for my purposes. As I said, I tried to be FAIR, using only those things already in the game, and CHOOSING terrible, awful malevolent effects would have been akin to CHEATING…besides which most of my players would have felt that the negative side effects out-weighed any potential benefit of artifacts and relics anyway. That’s a subject for a whole different post, really]

No, I don’t attempt to off my players anymore. My “challenge dials” for RPGs are turned WAY down these days (except, perhaps, as a player). After all, I’m grown up and mature these days…I’m smart enough to recognize that the field is already tilted in the DM’s favor, and the REAL challenge is moderating the difficulty so that your players can have fun without A) getting overly slaughtered, or B) the DM being forced to “fudge” or call “do-overs.”

[come to think of it, I really find this a little sad, and to me it again raises the question, “why would anyone want to be a DM?”]

That being said, I still have an appreciation for auto-kill effects when I see ‘em, both as a DM and as a player (hammer of thunderbolts anyone?). And in reading through The Compleat Adventurer for more potential B/X classes, I see that there are a total of FOUR classes that have auto-kill abilities. They are:

- The Scout
- The Spy
- The Swordsman
- The Harlequin (!!)

Three of the four DO provide a saving throw of sorts…a roll under the Constitution of the victim prevents the auto-kill effect from occurring. However, as Con does not increase over time like true saving throws (in fact it DECREASES in AD&D…with every resurrection!) there are fairly good odds that even a low level NPC can take out a high level PC with one of these special attacks.

The last one of the four (the spy’s improved Waylay attack) does NOT have a save of any sort associated with it, but is instead represented by a percentage chance of success. However, since the success chance is based solely on the spy’s level (not the victim’s!) it’s a particularly mean effect.

Anyway, I have an increased respect for saving throws these days (and the ability of players to blow their rolls), so any B/X write-ups of new character classes will probably carry regular “save versus death” stipulations. Probably.

[by the way, I do NOT think there’s anything inherently “un-fair” about non-savable effects…whether we’re talking energy drain, Power Word Kill, or a rust monster attack. I think that D&D from its inception was full of certain irregular/unique obstacles ON PURPOSE that make the game both more challenging and less mechanical. “Dumbing down” everything to scalable dice rolls…whether attack versus armor, save versus effect, or skill versus difficulty…just turns the game into an exercise in rolling dice. And if I wanted to throw craps, I would. RPGs can be MORE than that, and the occasional “uh-oh! THAT’s outside the box!” helps to break that dice-throwing, probability-crunching boredom. At least for me]

: )


  1. JB, you always have been and will always be one hardass of a DM! This is, however, and excellent post. And full of great ideas. For both players and DM's. "Tomb of Horrors" has always been the deadliest adventure. How true! That piece of *%$@# has killed me so many times, the mere mention of playing it halts my breath for a second and makes my eyes roll. (Gee, maybe if I had a trusty Vorpal Blade???) I think not! A Cube of Force, perhaps? IDK.

    Keep 'em comin', JB!

  2. Aw, Doc...I was always nice to YOUR characters...
    : )