Tuesday, 21 June 2011

K is for Killing Fields

Want to throw something “Old School” into your game?  How about a Killing Field?

A Killing Field is a region where the odds are stacked severely against the player characters.  You know it is a Killing Field when characters actually die…and not necessarily by the ones and the twos!  There are several types of Killing Field, but they all serve the same general purpose.  They are areas where the bodies lie thick on the ground – bitten, mangled, burned, and crushed – but the survivors who limp home have a tale to tell.

The most common type of Killing Field is the Deadly Starting Area, which is intended to weed out the hapless and the helpless, leaving the fittest to continue onward in the campaign milieu.  Goodman Games’ Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG revels in this sort of Killing Field.  PCs start out at 0-level, and the survivors (who gain equipment partly from picking over the corpses of their less-fortunate compatriots) become the 1st level adventuring party.  Although I have yet to play the DCC RPG scenario distributed for Free Roleplaying Day, it reads well, and is sure to have its share of fatalities.

A more expansive Killing Field is found in the classic TSR module, The Keep on the Borderlands.  Played as written, the Caves of Chaos and surrounding countryside can chew up and spit out many low-level characters as they deal with the various threats presented.  In the end the Caves may be cleared, but most of the characters that began the process are buried in unmarked graves.  If the other PCs even bother to do so much.

Likewise, in T1, threats emerge that are probably beyond the ability of most newly-minted parties to handle.  And even success has its own perils, for, as with B2, the forces of evil have infiltrated the nearest “safe” community.

Another kind of Killing Field emerges in the mid-game:  the Deadly Testing Ground.  Few have entered this area, and even fewer have returned.  The PCs are now mid-level, somewhere between 5th and 10th, and the players have a vested interest in their survival.  The Deadly Testing Ground offers great riches and glory for the PCs brave and clever enough to wrest its secrets from it.  But the odds are stacked against them, and most PCs will not succeed.  Will perhaps not return.

In a fantasy-novel type game, characters enter some “legendary” region because it is part of the plot.  They are not really overly deadly, because forcing characters into such an area is grossly unfair.  Rather, the Deadly Testing Ground is a place that the characters voluntarily enter, knowingly accepting great risk in order to have a chance at great rewards.

The most famous Deadly Testing Ground is probably the Tomb of Horrors, but there are many others.  In a classic megadungeon, dungeon level roughly corresponds to the level of threats and rewards that are available to characters.  By allowing characters to quickly reach deeper levels, beyond those “appropriate” for their party, the Game Master enables them to enter a Deadly Testing Ground.  And, in most cases, Deadly Testing Grounds are entered for a brief period, after which the party will flee toward easier pickings.

A final type of Killing Field is the Epic Endgame, as discussed in a previous column.

So, why add Killing Fields to your campaign milieu?  Foremost, it allows the players to know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that they are winning on the basis of their own decisions.  Context -> Choice -> Consequence is only as strong as the belief that consequences actually fall from choices, rather than GM fudging.  As soon as a player realizes that the GM is fudging, rendering his choices moot, the context also seems to matter far less.  Why pay attention to the factors needed to make a good decision, if a poor decision results in roughly the same outcome?

Killing Fields also grant a greater agency to players in terms of the risks they are willing to accept.  This assessment of risk, and the resultant decisions of how much risk to undergo, is one of the hallmarks of “Old School” play.  It means that “balance” is not something that the GM alone must worry about.  No.  Each player must strive to access both her own capabilities, and how those capabilities might meet the challenges of the game milieu.  Should she go boldly into the depths?  Should she stay closer to the surface?  Should she go adventuring in the wilds?

Again, look at the setup of B2, where the easiest caves are close to the ravine mouth, with areas being correspondingly more difficult the farther in one goes.  A bold party can try its luck in any of the cave mouths.  With a little luck and clever play, a bold party might even succeed.  There are many different stories about B2.  Each group approached it in their own way.  This ability to choose, to branch out in diverse ways, to surprise the GM as well as the players, and to allow the players to access risk and “game balance” is something that is sorely missing from many modern adventure designs. 

Indeed, there are benefits to having Killing Fields in your game, even if no PC ever goes there.  Simply knowing that they can increases the sense of risk, the sense of adventure, and the sense of each character’s fate being in the hands of the players’ choices.  When this is the case, players pay attention to the context choices are made in, and thus invest more deeply in the campaign milieu.

It should be noted that not all RPGs are as combat-prone as “adventuring” games such as Dungeons & Dragons tend to be.  It is entirely possible to conceive of a game where little or no combat ever takes place.  Imagine a social game, where all interaction is basically arguing.  Let’s call it Forums & Follies.

Nobody ever dies in Forums & Follies, but there can be “Killing Fields” that result in a persona being “Threadbanned” or “Banned From Site” (The F&F version of character death).  Killing Fields in such a game might include participation in particular types of threads, or defending particularly unpopular ideas.  Likewise, in Papers & Paycheques, one could be “Fired”.  In Belles & Ballrooms, a character could become “Socially Ostracized”. 

The important idea is that a player is given the opportunity to take risks that grant exceptional rewards, but remove the character from play (through death, banning, removal from workplace, or being socially disgraced) by making that character no longer capable of making relevant choices in the ongoing narrative of the milieu.

(Papers & Paycheques, of course, refers to the cartoon in the 1st Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide.  So far as I know, both Forums & Follies and Belles & Ballrooms have not yet been produced as the stylish and eminently playable RPGs that we all know they could be! )

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