Dealing with single character death like in Heroes of Hammerwatch

There was a meandering conversation on discord which touched upon character deaths in roleplaying games, and Undead Bob said this:

I do get that, but from a GM point of view, while an interesting and timely death of a PC might be perfectly in keeping with the style of play, single character death is often a functional game problem. If it happens near the end of a session, not so big of a deal, especially if the Party can then regroup offscreen between sessions elsewhere and pick up a new PC. In a very real way, a Total Party Kill is less annoying on the GM end than a single character death mid-session and away from some sort of recruiting site.

Undead Bob (emphasis mine)

Essentially, one player is eliminated from the game and that’s annoying. (Many classic board games also have this problem: Monopoly, Cluedo and Risk all have the potential for a bored player at the table who’s out of the action.)

I have a suggestion on how to deal with this, although it’s a niche one.

Soul-linking in Heroes of Hammerwatch

Heroes of Hammerwatch is a roguelike hack-and-slash where you delve through the dungeon.

When a player’s character dies they can be brought back to life by a different player, but when this happens the two characters become ‘soul-linked’. Now if either of them die, they both die.

If they were both to die, then another character could come and resurrect them, but then all three have their souls linked, so now if one of them dies, all three die.

So if you have five character’s in the dungeon, this gives 4 respawns. On the fifth death, everyone goes down.

How to add soul-linking into games.

It can give combat a sort of death-spiral, as if the fighter has already soul-linked the wizard and then the wizard dies again, the fighter also dies.

There is a ramping tension as more and more party members become part of the soul-link. Knowing that if one of your allies goes down then all of them go down makes your thoughts wander much more toward potential escape routes.

I imagine that groups of cut-throat adventurers might be reluctant to use this mechanism, whereas groups of heroes are more likely to be willing to take on the risk to themselves to save an ally.

I would make soul-linking about a minute long – long enough that you can’t easily do it in combat but not so long that it weighs into other time considerations the party has.

I’d also make it nigh-impossible to reset soul-links whilst out on an adventure – maybe it takes a week-long ritual to undo or it can only be undone by a priest at a temple.

Alternatively, soul-linking can come from a specific magic item which is either unique or uncommon enough that it’s not a big worldbuilding concern.

There’d have to be a reason why peasants aren’t constantly soul-linking to recover from sudden accidental deaths or illnesses (actually there doesn’t have to be, but it’s less disruptive to the setting if the peasants aren’t doing this). I’d suggest that the ritual is done to a deity (saint/god/demon) whose domain specifically covers adventuring.

You could also have rival adventuring groups use this ritual. It actually gives a higher incentive for groups to de-escalate and bargain mid-combat. It also gives a greater incentive to not let that one enemy get away – they could come back and resurrect the whole group. Similarly hiding corpses and securing side-passages in dungeons (so that you don’t get flanked and have that whole lizardfolk guardroom you cleared out storm you from behind) become more important.

So soul-linking: it’s an interesting and quite workable solution to Undead Bob’s problem. However, there are campaign/setting implications so it’s hard to just drop it in thoughtlessly. A niche solution, and perhaps one worth orienting a campaign around.

This is part 2 in a loose series I’m awkwardly calling ‘like in’ where I take some trick from video games and apply it to tabletop games. Part 1 is about Truncating the Calendar Year like in Stardew Valley.

Truncating the Calendar Year like in Stardew Valley

I want my game to be epic, spanning many years, with the potential for characters to grow old; for new generations to come to the fore and take up the mantle; and for nations to rise and fall.

Problem: Even with a game/system which is well designed for that kind of long-term view, everything takes about 2 to 4 times longer than I expected to play out.

Untested potential solution I have not seen touted before: Truncate the calendar year down to 112 days. (This could also serve as a worldbuilding spark.)

Stardew Valley

Stardew Valley is a Harvest Moon-like video game where you have run cute, artisanal farm. As its a farming game it wants the seasons to change so crops can rotate and you can experience the bountiful summer and fallow winter. However, it doesn’t want you to have to play out about 90 in-game days for the season to shift. That would be tedious.

Instead it uses a 28-day season. Four weeks of 7 days makes up a season. There are four seasons – Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter.

If my fantasy game is in a secondary world (not Earth), then I could truncate the world to have 4 seasons of 28 days – a 112 day year.

This would roughly third the number of days in the year, which is convenient since games take about 3 times longer than intended to play out.

Stardew Valley’s calendar, Winter edition

How to manage a truncated year

We need to change the durations of everything in the setting to fit our new 112 day year.

  • Events on the day-scale should still take roughly the same number of days as usual
    • Cows can be milked once per day
    • You eat three meals a day
    • You can walk about 3 miles per hour for about 8 hours without exhausting yourself (though you will still be tired)
    • Chickens lay eggs every couple of days
  • Events on the year-scale should take roughly the same fraction of a year as usual
    • Human pregnancies last for about 3/4 of a year (roughly 3 seasons or 84 days)
    • Humans legally become adults after 18 years
    • Lambs are born in the Spring

There are some events whose new durations will have to be chosen by you (as a game-master or as a table of players). Everything in your game is levers, and you need to decide which setting these levers are on.

  • Does health and illnesses resolve on the day or year scale?
    • Year-scale means quicker healing but quicker deterioration times when unwell or injured.
  • Do weather phenomena change on the day or year scale?
    • Year-scale means volatile sudden rains and storms. However, day-scale means a dry spell or cold-snap could have a massive destabilising effect on the crop growth of that year, as there is a smaller band of days to plant and harvest within.
  • Are settlements 3 times closer together than normal?
    • A 30 day round trip takes a whole season now (rather than a third of a season).
    • Closer settlements facilitates better trade and a more in-contact world, with closer cultural ties. It also increases the ability for centres of power to project their influence (though tax collectors and military patrols)
  • Does learning occur at the day-scale or year-scale?
    • Year-scale means skills and knowledge will match our expectations for the age of a character. However it will mean that learners progress more quickly day-to-day, probably though improved memory/retention or through increased rates of comprehension.
    • Day-scale means that everyone learns at the same rate, but it takes longer to build up a knowledge base.

There are so many areas to consider that you would probably have to discuss them a the table as they arose.

A rule of thumb is that day-scale results in a grittier game and year-scale in a more epic game.

What’s the use of this?

  • A thought experiment to help you think about how parts of your game are connected to time (and each other)
  • A worldbuilding spark (ask yourself “if this is true, what else is true?”)
  • A sci-fi world (take this idea and stick it in your traveller/star trek game).
  • A design principle. Just as DMs have talked about attacking every part of the character sheet, worldbuilders and game designers should challenge every assumption of the setting.

This is part 1 in a loose series I’m awkwardly calling ‘like in’ where I take some trick from video games and apply it to tabletop games. Part 1 is about Dealing with single character death like in Heroes of Hammerwatch