Following my earlier post on being Games Master and my past ruminations about running campaigns, there are a couple of additional things that I have come to understand about the older way to play Classic Fantasy. This post is an aide-memoir to help me codify these lessons from my earlier experience, although I hope it’ll be useful to someone else too.
The two things are quite simple ideas with far-reaching ramifications for play-style:
- The quality of player’s play is up to them.
- There MUST be some final death.
Player’s Play Is Their Business
It’s NOT the role of the Games Master to tell players how to approach their play of the game. Their play is their business and they should reap the rewards they earn for the choices they make.
An example might help: a couple of weeks back I ran one of the many introductory Classic Fantasy games that I’ve been offering to people, young and old, using the Lost Tomb of the Dragon Knights adventure. During the game, the players were reckless and ran into a nasty trap. It was my job, as Games Master, to adjudicate the situation using the rules of the game; while I had hoped that the players would detect and avoid the trap before it was sprung, they didn’t. It wasn’t my role to warn them, to soften the blow, or to save them… because doing so would take away from their play.
The worst thing a Games Master can do is take away the player’s freedom to play the game. Some folk call it “player agency” but I just see it as the freedom to make choices. It doesn’t matter if I believe the player’s choices are stupid, reckless, or weird – it’s their choice.
Do the players want their adventurers to storm the Orc-infested castle in an ill-advised frontal assault? Even if I am convinced that this course of action will lead to a Total Party Kill, it’s not my role to say, “No”; neither is it my place to fudge the dice to make such recklessness more successful; nor to weaken the planned defence; or to try to avert disaster by any effort that goes against the will of the players. It’s their choice… and they are the ones who can always roll up new heroes when they are defeated. It’s THEIR choice.
Don’t like the outcomes you’re getting in one of my game sessions? Here’s a tip, players: change tactics, play smarter, and use everyone in the party. That’s your choice, any time. It’s your contribution to the game.
Gygax wrote it first:
“There MUST be some final death or immortality will take over and again the game will become boring…” (Dungeon Masters Guide, 1st Edition, 1979, page 110).
Gygax was correct. I’ve learned this the hard way – running games where I fudge the dice, give easy routes to recovery after poor play led to fatal injuries, and feeling sorry for players after they make poor choices. Enough.
I broke this rule just the other day: I let a reckless player get away with seeking out violence but allowed him an easy reprieve from what should have been death. All I did was encourage more poor quality play – mindless aggression for the sake of it – without delivering the natural consequence of that poor play. The odds were against the player and they chose to ignore those odds… instead of feeling sorry for them when the monsters felled their hero, I needed to let the dice fall where they may.
Yes, adventurers will die. Players will have to roll up new heroes. Some players will get frustrated and choose to play elsewhere. Yet, just because some players don’t like the idea of a final death for “heroes”, it’s not enough of a reason to risk the whole game becoming boring.
What Gygax wanted to see, and what I really enjoy watching, is good clever play… and you only get that when there is a final death. Without this risk, the rewards are meaningless. Treasure is not worth much if it comes easy and victory is hollow without sacrifice. Classic Fantasy is a game about making choices… and those choices are meaningless if you can’t die.