“Your sword is gone.”
“WHAT?!?! What do you mean??”
“It doesn’t exist anymore. You have no sword.”
“But that was my +5 family heirloom sword! It cost me 50,000 GP and we spent four months in real time on a side quest to get it!!”
“...and you put it in an annihilation portal trap. Tough.”
“Don’t I get a saving throw?!? Or something??”
WARNING! All of the mechanics I mention below are risky. This does not mean any of them are forbidden, nor even bad. Some of them are actually quite common. They are risky in the sense that they threaten to take the fun out of the game for some players. I wrote an article about some rewards that role-playing gamers want to get from their games, then another about some of the games that do a good job of providing these rewards. Now it’s time to talk about the games that will ruin your fun by taking these rewards away.
Taking away or delaying game rewards means consequences for in-game actions start to affect the player as well as their character. Players often invest a lot of time and effort to get their characters to a particular stage, and these mechanics tend to negate that time and effort. To be fair, there is definitely an appropriate time to have your heirloom sword permanently removed, or for your character to die. Gamemasters and players often want to play a high-stakes game. Before you decide to apply a mechanic that could potentially undo or complicate the real-life work that players have put into the game you should talk about the risks, and decide as a group if having high-tension drama is worth suffering player-affecting consequences.
I mention three joykill mechanics, but there are certainly more pit traps out there. If you think of any that I should have targeted, write them in the comments! I picked these three because they are typical of the worst reward-removing mechanics. Here is the list.
1. Bad Karma - TSR Marvel Super Heroes
I’m really looking forward to playing Cyclops and being able to shoot around corners. Now, if I get karma every session and only spend half of it on having good rolls and don’t accidentally kill anyone or do anything out of character, I should be able to earn that stunt in…. oh, about two years of play time.
The Marvel Super Heroes character advancement mechanic is a joykill. Which is a shame because I love the game! Character development is handled with Karma - save someone, beat the bad guy, or just do something awesome, and you receive Karma. Karma can be used to buy power stunts - cool things that your character can do with his/her powers. Brilliant!
There are two problems with the Karma mechanic, though. The first is that Karma can also be used to buy successes in-game: to karate chop Magneto’s face or narrowly miss being mesmerized by Mysterio, spend Karma. This drains the resource that you would normally use for character advancement.
The second problem; to successfully gain a power stunt, you need to succeed several times at different success levels; really cool, in theory. Unfortunately, in practice, it means that unless you have a prohibitive amount of Karma stored up in case you fail a roll, you could end up having wasted your Karma and starting back at square one.
It’s important to separate character development resources (like Experience Points) and burnable assets in your game, because otherwise players risk burning up their hard work just so they don’t lose their character.
2. Dungeoneering Drain - Dungeons and Dragons
“The vampire succeeds on a touch attack. You lose two levels.”
“Noooo! I just got to level twelve! I really wanted to cast sixth-level spells!”
“While you’re standing there, lamenting your fate, the vampire touches you again.”
There are more than three joykills in the grandaddy of all role-playing games (see the opening vignette about a 2nd edition AD&D scenario), though many of them have been ironed out in subsequent editions. Some of them persist. Try not to use them without warning the players.
Rust Monsters: Given that new gear is one of the rewards that players who like Dungeons and Dragons crave, creating a monster whose sole purpose is to eat gear is risky. Whether gear is bought, found, or quested for, a rust monster can easily remove an irreplaceable reward from play.
Experience Points for Effects: Just like with the bad Karma above, there are some mechanics in Dungeons and Dragons that require a player to spend the points they would normally use for character development to achieve certain effects (usually magical ones). This is done to maintain game balance; the effects that are bought with experience points are usually quite powerful. This is risky, though, because having a mage at 10th level when everyone else is at 12th can get tedious; character advancement is as rewarding as new gear, if not more.
Level Drain: THE WORST!! Again, in a high-stakes game, level-draining creatures (often powerful undead) are specifically designed to hit the player where it hurts the most - in the experience points! Don’t pit yourselves against a vampire unless everyone is on board with the fact that they might lose a couple of levels before it’s all said and done… as if levels were the worst thing to lose. Which brings me to my next point:
3. The Ultimate Joykill - Character Death
“I’m going to run across the rickety bridge that spans the chasm.”
“Okay, roll for it.”
“Oh. Ouch. Um, make a reflex save.”
“Uh… also one.”
“Oh. Uh, I guess you fall screaming to your death.”
“On the first day?”
Something that is nearly invisible because it is assumed in most games, character death is a joykill mechanic. I may be opening myself to criticism, but I think allowing character death to be determined by the random rolling of dice is risky, and leads to a million absurdities from a storytelling perspective. What happens when your character’s goal was to deliver information vital to the success of a world-saving mission, and they get taken out by a couple of bandits who happened to roll really well? No, thank you.
I applaud games like Mutants and Masterminds and Fate that deliberately remove character death from the mechanics. Characters can be ‘taken out:’ knocked out, captured, lost, or forgotten… but that just creates an interesting twist in the story. Fate takes it a step further, and allows players to decide when character death would be appropriate, thereby allowing the players and the GM, in conversation, to decide when to raise the stakes.
It is essential to have conversations about when you are going to use high-stakes mechanics. High-tension drama is vital to role-playing games, and these mechanics can provide that when appropriate. Bust them out at the wrong time, though, and you will kill the fun for the players in your group.
Landrew is a full-time educator, part-time art enthusiast. He applies his background in literature and fine arts to his favourite hobby (role-playing games) because the market for a background in the Fine Arts is very limited. He writes this blog on company time under a pseudonym. Long live the Corporation!
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.