I did a post a while back about how to allow players to lose fights without a TPK. That post focused on enemy behaviors and system-arbitrary things you could do as a GM to keep a story rolling even when players lose badly. Today I want to focus on some more systemic ways to achieve the same effect
I wanted to start out with a more well known example. The OSR level zero funnel. Essentially, you begin the campaign with a number of level zero characters, and as you progress on your first session, many of them are expected to die. Your survivor becomes a genuine level one adventurer. Though it’s most pronounced in first sessions, this philosophy carries through, where individuals dying and being replaced is accepted as a conceit of the story. It is essentially a lives system with more emotional stakes, as each life has a name.
I find this system to be very narratively satisfying, but not terribly realistic outside of a horror setting. Decades of grim-dark fiction and nonfiction focused on the worst moments of history have given us an overexaggerated view of pre-modern mortality. For example, in the roman army, they suffered 4% losses during a victorious battle, and 16% during a defeat. [Source] If we want an upper range, let’s take the battle of Stalingrad. Over the course of five and half of the worst months to ever grace one location, deaths were around ~41% of the russian soldiers (It’s hard to find an exact source for the german side, but I believe it was similar). That’s obviously horrifyingly high, but that’s a long stretch of time compared to a dungeon crawl.. Your average OSR funnel dungeon has more in common with the film Saw than with historical wars in terms of grimness.
Of course, realism isn’t exactly a requirement when you’re fighting dragons and brain eating squid monsters, and war isn’t a prefect reference, just the best one we have. I do think a lot of people see grimdark as “gritty realism” though, so I wanted to present the counterpoint.
The Magical Healing Tango
This is a very small mechanic that I think has huge ramifications. In most systems you can be incapacitated but alive. In some systems, if you are healed in this state, you can return to combat. I believe that this counterintuitively raises the chances of a TPK.
First, from a strategic perspective, it makes it correct to do two things: Kill downed enemies, and target medics. Both of these strategies obviously make it more likely for someone to die. As a GM you can just ignore this if you want, though it does lead to some bad guys looking comically inept as players continuously bounce back into the fight.
Second, from a probability standpoint. In most systems, every time you’re “downed” while active, there’s a chance you die. In 5e there’s Massive Damage and Death Saving Throws as two such mechanics. If you’re incapacitated and stable, neither is much of a concern, but every time you get back up those come back in to play.
I think most GMs know this system doesn’t really work, which is why many don’t have monsters take advantage of it. I’ve always been an advocate of house ruling this out (For example, making magical healing work like non magical healing in 5e). It allows for tense moments such as, “Carrying a downed party member away from danger” or “Being forced to make camp in dangerous terrain until they come to”.
Retreat and Surrender
At its core, in order to allow loss without death, you need other fail states. And I believe in giving a lot of power and choice to the players, so I like letting retreat and surrender be major things. I touched on this a bit in my Death and Behavior post, about what different enemies do to retreating and surrendering foes.
First, many players aren’t used to these being options, so you have to show them that it’s allowed. Have enemies do so when they’re losing badly. Have foes offer it genuinely when they’re winning (“Put down your weapons, you’ve already lost” sorta stuff). Crucially, don’t punish players for doing so, reward them instead. This doesn’t mean reward the character necessarily, but have the bad thing that follows be cool and interesting for the players. And of course, mention this all to your players before the game, obviously.
For example, if the players surrender to a foe, they could be “rewarded” with an interesting dungeon escape sequence, new NPCs to meet in jail, opportunities to form bonds or rescue those NPCs, etc. If they retreat, set up an opportunity to take the fight back to their foe, but in a different scenario. You had to flee from an open battle, and lost the Gem of Truth? Well, now the Gem is on a caravan back to Evilton. Do you ambush them while they camp, or attack them in a high speed “train robbery” style scene? The consequences for loss are clear, but they give more interesting choices to the players, not less.
Some subsystems or small house rules can also help.
Retreat. Retreat can be a difficult sell, as pursuers with vaguely similar speeds or ranged attackers make it more dangerous than fighting. That’s realistic, but bad for gameplay. My house rule is to designate “safe zones” at the edge of the battle arena. If you can reach these, you can make a clean break for it and are out of the fight. The exact specifics vary from open fields to cramped dungeons, if you’re hiding in a thicket or barricading a door, but the basic theory remains.
Surrender. For this, my house rule isn’t really a rule at all, but an embracing of comic book time. The idea that a round of dialogue can be fired off in a fight, even when it’s not realistic (Think of Spiderman dropping two whole sentences of quip during a single punch). This allows a party to surrender as a whole group, if they so choose. It’s also fun for lots of other reasons.
As with all things in RPGs, the best way to encourage it is to give XP for it. (Or local equivalent currency). That’s why OSR games give you XP for gold, combat centric games give it for defeating enemies, and narrative games give it for narrative or character milestones. Game design 101, bay-bee.
I think we could give rewards for losing. I think people learn a lot from failure. Also losing, learning, then winning is a pretty clean narrative arc all on its own. Here’s the proposed system.
When you lose, you get scars. These are both a form of XP and a living history of your character. When you lose, you get a scar and record how you got it. They’re not always physical, you get scars for losing fights even if you personally weren’t wounded.
- When you lose a fight, get a Scar.
- When you are wounded irreparably (Losing an eye, or a hand), get a Major Scar. It’s the same as a regular one, but worth three times as much.
- When you die, all of your allies gain a Scar.
Scars could be converted directly into system specific XP, if you’re houserulling this on to an existing system. Then, when you level up, you can link the scars to the level they helped buy and say “After I lost to Big Henry and Moth Knight Mivia’s tragic death, I finally learned how to attack twice in one turn”. I’ve always sympathised with GMs who want you to explain how you learned new skills, and I think this is a clean way to scratch that itch.
You can also use your scars to guide your character to resolve them. Revenge and unfinished business are great plot hooks.