Over at The Escapist, Marty O’Hale has written an interesting article on death in CRPGs, and how the combination of constant death/constant saving ruins the story and turns CRPGs into something of an arcade game.

He definitely has a point there. Just about every CRPG these days, including Neverwinter Nights, warns you to “save early, save often”. After all, if the main character, or the entire party, dies, it’s “game over, man”. Then you have to go back to your last save, which you hope wasn’t too long ago, to avoid losing much progress.

At the end of the piece – which is certainly worth reading – Marty makes five suggestions on how this cycle can be broken. I have a quarrel with two of those, which I’ll detail later.

The essential problem with every CRPG is that the game is stacked against you from the start. While you can gain experience from completing a quest, the primary form of advancement is experience through combat.

CRPGs have far more fighting than a PnP game, particularly in short periods of time. That’s the nub of it. As Dale said to me once: “You have to win every fight; they have to win just one“.

With that situation, constant saving does become a must. Almost all enemies exist for the sole purpose of providing experience points and what the designers consider a “challenge”.

However, those “challenges” often reduce to “win or restore”. How many times have we been through tough fights – and not necessarily with a “boss” enemy – before succeeding?

In a PnP game, losing a fight might mean death for everyone. But there we have a living DM who can change things on the fly. And really, the DM’s first job is keeping the players alive, not killing them off.

For that matter, the DM has a huge advantage in being able to tailor situations and combats to the party, knowing their abilities as both characters and players.

This is not possible in a CRPG, especially one where the party can be of any mix, and everything is controlled by one player, about whom the designers know little, if anything.

So the save game acts as a stopgap measure, too. Perhaps not the best one, but it serves the purpose of keeping the party, and the game, going.

So we come to Marty’s suggestions, and the first one is to allow saving only on quitting, as in Diablo 2.

I loathed that feature, and having to run back to your body to get your stuff, with the same deadly critters hanging around your corpse. Quitting to bring the body back to town wasn’t fun, either.

This is the sort of thing that makes me look for cheat codes, trainers, or my hex editor. That type of save is very much anti-player, despite his next points.

The second is that “The player should receive significant long-lasting penalties much more frequently than he should die. Small permanent penalties should be frequent and essentially unavoidable (but seldom imposed due to pure chance), to accustom the player to weathering setbacks rather than undoing them”.

Where did he get that idea? Significant? Frequent? Long-lasting? Unavoidable? Does he really think that would work? Would you really want to spend a lot of the game looking for ways – if there are any – of undoing these “penalties”? He doesn’t, by the way, mention what they might be.

No, thank you. I want to run heroic characters, not some also-ran burdened down or crippled by who-knows-what deficits, created by designers who probably wouldn’t know how to handle that properly, given what I’ve seen from developers over the years.

And with only one save position a la Diablo 2, I can see this rapidly becoming frustrating, bringing on either rampant cheating or tossing the game aside as unplayable.

His next three points, however, have merit to them. The third is that the player should not die or be penalized for anything but an elected risk, although he doesn’t define what an “elected risk” is.

That leads to the fourth suggestion: there should be ways of ending combats besides “everyone on one side or the other dies”. Typically, that occurs now only in a “boss” fight, where the enemy, near death, tries to bargain for his or her life.

His final suggestion is: “Failure should create possibilities rather than merely foreclose them”. Alternate paths can be a good thing, although again, we have to know what “failure” means.

Of course, he’s just making these suggestions in a very general way, and leaving it to designers to come up with specifics. In some respects, that’s a terrifying thought.

The trouble here is, he’s trying to simulate PnP elements in a format that can only do so mechanically and with severe limitations. Unlike PnP, there is no DM to make changes, there is no real flexibility.

Here is an example from a chat game I ran years ago, in the GURPS system. The players were on a ship being pursued by enemies who closed in for combat. Neither vessel had any weaponry (catapults, etc.).

When the enemy ship had gotten close, the mage attempted a fireball and rolled a critical failure (that can happen with magic in GURPS). Oops.

In a CRPG, there would be a table to consult, and likely the entire party would have been fried, followed by a game restore. However, with a real DM who certainly didn’t want the players to suffer (too much ;) just from a bad die roll, things were different.

Instead of fire, the spell went off as a brilliant flash of light. Everyone in the party rolled a save; those who failed were temporarily blinded. And being fair, I rolled for the enemies, too, and not all of them made it.

So then we had some rather hectic combat as the enemy closed and some of them jumped over to the players’ ship. It was a very tough fight, and the players just managed to squeak through it, with help from the ship’s sailors.

What they didn’t know, is that I had expected them to take out the enemy with a lot less trouble, and there were reinforcements belowdecks on the other vessel. Since there was no way the players could have handled that, those other enemies just vanished. In a CRPG, they’d have swarmed up and killed the party, and it would be restore time again.

Try coding for that in a game, for more than one instance. The complexity would be horrendous, and games are released buggy enough as it is.

On the other hand, substituting those “frequent and unavoidable” penalities is not the answer. To use a trite but true phrase: “There are fates worse than death”, and who really wants to keep coming across them?

Which brings us to the ultimate question: do we really want to change from save/restore at the player’s discretion? No.

Because save/restore is our last defense against designers who don’t do it right, and that’s something I don’t want to lose. I never trust any developers, however good they may be. They’re only human (well, I think they are ;), and make mistakes, too.

On the other hand, implementing some of those suggestions, such as alternates to the “win or die” combats, could add some interesting situations. Read the article, and see what you think.

Death and CRPGs at The Escapist