Category: Planet Mercenary

Being Dead Sucks III: Better Ways to Die and Stay Dead


So, having been dead for a week and come back, none the worse for wear, I’ve come to a conclusion. In the end, we want our PCs to mean something. We want to remember the moments that we turned a general into a pacifist, that we blew up a troll during the first round of combat, flirted with an icon and lived to cherish the memory, saved our friend from something that by all accounts should have put her down to stay or that we moved on from that thing that had been holding us back (and ate him). We want our PC’s lives to mean something and if they die . . . well . . . there are deaths and deaths and deaths. Deaths that make the story, deaths that ruin the story and plenty of deaths that mean nothing at all. We want our death to be one that makes the story, that we remember fondly in 15 years– not a speedbump on the way to level 20.

Thing is, to do that, we need a system that supports it. Take a look at these:

Dungeon World

Move: Last Breath

“When you’re dying you catch a glimpse of what lies beyond the Black Gates of Death’s Kingdom (the GM will describe it).  Then roll (just roll, +nothing– yeah, Death doesn’t care how tough or cool you are).

*On a 10+, you’ve cheated Death – you’re in a bad spot but you’re still alive.  *On a 7-9, Death himself will offer you a bargain.  Take it and stabilize or refuse and pass beyond the Black Gates into whatever fate awaits you.  *6-, your fate is sealed.  You’re marked as Death’s own and you’ll cross the threshold soon.  The GM will tell you when.”

I like it for multiple reasons. Hitting the threshold doesn’t mean you’re dead and that’s the end. Hitting the threshold leads to *10+ gaming on, but hurting *7-9 choices, choices and more choices! *6- death . . . but . . . not just now. You play on but you’re on borrowed time. At a thematic point you die thematically. Your death can have meaning as you save the day on the way out.

Planet Mercenary

“If your character suffers enough damage, they can die. It doesn’t even take an action!
All damage that you suffer lowers your Health, and when your Health drops to zero or below, you immediately fall unconscious. The next attack that hits you will kill you. 31st-century medicine is amazing, but there’s a point at which it runs up against “meat salad” and moves on.
You also die if you ever sustain damage equal to or greater than double your maximum Health (see “meat salad,” above). This may mean you die instantly without falling unconscious first. Yes, that’s harsh, but if you suffered that much damage you probably did something pretty reckless, right? Right?
Unlike actual combat, dying in the game doesn’t mean you stop playing. Battlefield promotion of NPC grunts as full player characters is quick and easy. You’ll be building these characters during every mission and perhaps even eyeing them with interest. The death of your current character is a chance to seize control of your favorite fire team member and start a whole new adventure.”

This is okay by me for multiple reasons. Planet Mercenary makes no bones about your PC’s being expected to die. This game isn’t about individual heroism. It’s dark comedy about a mercenary company. Your mercenary company has a name and identity every bit as important as your PC’s identity– moreso even. Sort of like my attachment to my kingdom in Kingmaker, the game encourages you to invest emotionally in your company, your ship, your AI and your grunts. In effect, you’re playing a little bit of you and a little bit of everything else but your fellow PC’s and the enemy. You might be risking your life day in and day out. There’s no retirement plan. But the company? The company doesn’t die.

You can generally have someone take the bullet, beam, or whatnot for you. If you take damage that drops you, your friends have an awfully good chance of saving you. Lastly, you’ve already got a backup PC on hand, in a company, with a ship and an AI that you’re heavily invested in. So instead of punishing you for dying by hurting your Kingdom, Planet Mercenary offers the bereaved a new life in the same place.

Add to that, once you’ve reached a certain level of success, your company can afford something akin to resurrection for dead PC’s. So if you’ve play long enough with your PC, they get harder to kill so that they stay killed.

13th Age:

“Traditional d20 games have characters fall unconscious at 0 hp, with that character’s player rolling checks to avoid losing more hp each turn. We’d rather give you a chance of making a dramatic comeback while still risking death if your allies haven’t found a
way to get you on your feet.
Down at 0 hp: When you drop to 0 hp or below, you fall unconscious and can’t take any actions. But you do get to make death saves (see below).
Dead at negative half: Keep track of how far below 0 hp you go. You also die when you reach negative hit points equal to half your maximum hit points.
Healing while you’re down: If you’re able to use one of your recoveries (or otherwise get healed) while you are dying, ignore your current negative hit points. Start from 0 and add the hit points you’ve regained.
Make death saves while down: At the start of your turn, roll a death save on a d20. Death saves are hard saves (16+).
If you roll 16+, use a recovery to return to consciousness and heal up to the number of hit points you rolled with your recovery. Tell everyone what form of courage, willpower, stubbornness, or quest brought you back from the brink. But that is all you can do
on your turn.
If you roll 15 or less, you take one step toward the grave.
After the fourth failed death save in a single battle, you die.
If you roll a natural 20, you get to take actions normally that turn after telling everyone what inspired or caused your heroic return.
Stabilizing an unconscious character: If one of your allies is unconscious and you don’t have magic to heal them, you can still stabilize them and keep them from dying. Get to their side and make a DC 10 healing skill check using Wisdom as a standard action to stabilize your ally. Failure wastes your standard action, but at least it doesn’t hurt your friend. Success stabilizes your ally. If your stabilization check is 25+, you treat their wounds so quickly that it only takes a quick action; you can use your standard action normally that turn.
A character that has been stabilized isn’t safe yet, nor are they up. A stabilized character is still unconscious, rolling death saves on their turn, but failed death saves no longer take them a step closer to death. Ignore failed death saves while stabilized.
Healing potions are great: Feeding a dying character a healing potion always takes a standard action. It also always lets the downed character use a recovery and gets them on their feet . . . but the character feeding the potion doesn’t have any chance of rolling high and getting away with only burning a quick action on their turn.”

Granted I’ve only gotten to run this game, not play it. This game is about being a hero. I feel like this game is what I wanted Pathfinder to be. The death rules reflect that by trying pretty hard not to kill you . . . but there’s always a chance.

FATE: The Dresden Files Roleplaying Game

This one has a player-faced method of mitigating defeat. If loss seems inevitable, before the roll that takes you out “You can offer a concession instead of continuing the conflict.

A concession is basically a special form of being taken out– you lose the conflict, but you get to decide your character’s fate on your own terms instead of your opponent’s.

A concession has to pass muster with the rest of the group before it’s accepted– the conditions of the loss still have to represent a clear and decisive disadvantage for your character.”

Things like consequences, which affect your character sheet and the storyline are typical during a concession situation. The game sets up situations whereby doing what can make the most sense in a tough spot can both save the day and all of your friends . . . and turn your PC into an NPC, someone who made the choice that took them over the edge of their own humanity. Often, but not always, these NPC’s are evil and become villains in the story. But at the time, making this choice, this sacrifice, meant enough to the player that they were willing to do it.

Choice is always key, in life and death. Agency is key.

I know there are more out there, but these are the ones on my mind recently. If you have another (or just want to share your most awesome PC death) I’d love to hear about it.


Planet Mercenary: The Damaxuri Deception


Last week I got to run Howard Tayler and Alan Bahr’s Planet Mercenary for a group of 3, 2 of whom are fans of the online comic space opera Schlock Mercenary.

The first snag I hit was that I was expecting to be able to download pre-generated characters at the last moment. Yeah, that didn’t happen. I couldn’t find pregens anywhere, which seemed way weird. I’ve never looked for pregens that weren’t to be had.

That meant the the group got to roll their own pcs which is a surprisingly involved process. It was fun though– at least it was for both Schlock fans and myself. The 4th member of our party was so bored by the process he went to sleep.

Interestingly, while the book wants you to pick your Command Package, Background and Sophont type in that order, all of my players picked their sophont type first and went from there. They also picked the sophont types of their fireteams and named each grunt. Personally, I love that naming conventions have a chapter in the book which contains long lists of sample names.

We ended up with a Tausennigan Kss’thrata Captain with a crime lord background, an Esspererin Engineer with a driver background, a Kreely Doctor with a medical professional background, all appropriately named. Here came a snag that I missed til later. Endurance and Inspiration are both very important skills. One affects HP and the other dictates the usefulness of your fireteam. Because I missed that, and then failed to inform my players, 2 were fragile from the get-go and only 1 (the Captain) put points in Inspiration, meaning he was the only one who got real use from his team.

Then came gear shopping. The adventure I was running had given them a ship already, though I bumped up the AI rating to fit with the suggested starting company statistics from the creation portion of the book. I subtracted the appropriate resources but they still seemed to have plenty to shop with. Here was another snag. The Captain paid for a fancy gun  and eschewed armor. This made him almost impossible to miss in a firefight. But it gave his fireteam a chance to shine!

Howard Tayler has been working on Schlock Mercenary for 18 years and 18 books. The depth of his universe is easy to see and appreciate with a read through the Planet Mercenary core book which spends plenty of time on locations and characters and not much time on the rules. This works well because the rules of the game are pretty light. Fast and fun is what they were going for.

Game basics:

  • 3D6 system with both targeted and graded checks
  • Mayhem card flips that trigger automatically on certain rolls to introduce . . . MAYHEM
  • Roll Play Points that allow re-rolls, Mayhem negation, and sacrifice of a grunt for “Ablative Meat Shield”

I ran The Damaxuri Deception, the sample adventure contained in the core book. It opens with the pcs attending MercCon, which is being held at the dilapidated space station Highport, in orbit above Damaxuri. There is a surprise announcement of a high-paying bounty on the notorious arms dealer who is conveniently dirtside and the pc’s compete with other mercs to collect.

It’s divided into 5 scenes, each of which has a few goals for the Game Chief, a suggested time frame, a list of notable npcs present and a list of possible outcomes.

The first scene went pretty well. Our captain conned a merchant out of some explosives, while our engineer went straight to petty theft and made an underground contact. I made another mistake here with the contact and gave her the arms dealer instead of the fence as her contact– no one knew, or course. Both players seemed to enjoy themselves, while the 3rd, sleepy, non-fan was obviously bored and outspoken about not wanting to be part of a criminal gang (even though that sort of attitude is frankly unusual for that player’s pcs whose general play style is chaotic nuetral and often bordering on evil.)

The merchant the Captain conned dropped a hint about the upcoming bounty and Engineer’s contact pointed that merchant out as suspicious, I was trying to encourage them to take the tip seriously and look into it, but I didn’t pique their interest enough. Consequently they didn’t get any sort of head start on the upcoming rush.

As they moved to the advertised key-note address they saw a few species specific companies in the crowd– namely a group of Esspererin and a group of Ursumari (both of which I included because of the next scene). When the announcement was made about the bounty they didn’t start moving until they saw other companies move, but then the Engineer went into high gear.

She told the guards that one of the Esspererin crowd stole something from the merchant, effectively blaming her crime on one of them. That tangled them up in red tape and as the pcs moved to their ship they saw more Esspererin nearby wondering where the heck their captain was because they obviously couldn’t leave without her!

Once aboard ship, they became one of many headed to the planet. Again, the Engineer moved to flood local news with tales of a bounty already collected. Then she targeted a nearby ship’s AI, making it skate too close to a 3rd ship which fired a warning shot.

Confusion sown, they had their head start and we were in Scene 2 which is a ship combat/chase. The system is nifty in that all of the players get to take turns with controlling the ship. One thing I didn’t quite grok was the way the ship is powered– but I frankly just skipped over that part and let the pcs use all of their systems.

They’d effectively cut out all but one of the ships in the scene– the Ursumari “Advancing Ice”. The Captain’s Military History roll told him that the Ursumari might fire on them and he tried to hit them first with a very nice roll– and missed. At this point, looking at the stats given, I realized how badly the pcs were outgunned.

Ship combat doesn’t use the pc’s stats because the ship’s AI is doing the fighting. (There are some lovely AI rules that didn’t get utilized.) Even though I bumped up the rating to 3 from 2 on a max roll they’d be hitting with a 21. There are auto fails in the game but not auto successes. The “Advancing Ice” had a basic defense rating of 20 while the pcs had a basic defense rating of 13.

So the adventure says that if the pcs are beaten by another ship they can be stranded in space or they can be marooned in the desert on the planet below, but then it abandons you to the realm of making stuff up as you go along.

So . . . I had the Ursumari captain contact them instead of engaging them. To ensure that they realized they were outgunned, I had the captain eating yogurt and poking fun at them. He suggested that they didn’t want to meet up with him again.

The Captain, meanwhile, told the Ursumari that his illiterate Doctor had been the trigger happy culprit. This ired the Doctor.

Scene 3 consisted of 2 fights when 1 would have done just fine. I opened with them landing on the planet and needing transportation around the city. They went to rent a vehicle, but the only thing available was a limotaxi which was 3 times the price of a regular car. The Captain haggled brilliantly and got it for the same price as car. The Polyflorian behind the desk took a liking to him, to the amusement of all.

A computer hack gave them a destination (with no chance for it to be the right destination) and off they went. Here, I had an issue. The engagement was to take place at a warehouse and the adventure gives zero setting information. Granted this is not a tactical sim. There is no map and mini set up. Still. I could have used some direction! (And this from a gm who does run many theatre of the mind rpgs.)

The opening salvos of 3 pcs vs 9 henchmen showed up the Captain’s lack of armor. In came Ablative Meat! The Captain’s purp Danskin threw herself into the line of fire for him again and again and again. Each time there was a 50% chance she’d die. Each flip of the coin sealing her fate had 3 of the 4 of us on the edge our seats. The Captain also went down in this fight when he ran out of tokens to pay for Ablative Meat and the Doctor saved him. This was sad, because the Captain’s player was my Maxim Quoting Player! I didn’t want him to run out of RiPP tokens, but it happened.

One rule I did really like, to the point of ripping it for other systems, was that if someone is dead and their team can get to them and heal them that round, they live. It makes death a point of player agency– and not the dead pc’s player,

Also, in came the explosives conned out of the merchant in the first scene and mayhem. The first grenade was a dud due to a mayhem card. Another2 mayhem card later let it go off, ending the fight, which was pretty satisfying. The Engineer used the limotaxi to mow down the opposition and at one point flipped a mayhem card that let her juryrig it to greater lethality to everyone’s amusement.

The adventure then says, “At the end of this engagement, the players will know which location to visit next.” Really? Okay then.

That done, and with little in the way of direction from the adventure, the conned merchant commed the Captain with more direction, which they took and now they were finally trying to figure out what was going on. The Doctor’s player outlined a solid theory as he finally seemed to get invested and then he rolled an Insight check. Insight being a skill which basically lets the Game Chief feed the players information.

Of course, their transportation was trashed, so the Doctor called the rental agency and the Polyflorian with a crush on the Captain came to the rescue. After altering the records and renting the trashed vehicle out to someone else, she picked them up and delivered them to the next scene. Then the Doctor’s player emotionally checked out again.

Again, with very little in the way of scenery to go on, the Engineer took to flight and got an enemy count, the layout of this new warehouse, the possible location of the bomb the merchant told them about and a look at their target who was in some heavy duty armor (think Iron Man). That was nice because, “During the engagement, the characters will
find the bomb.”

She came back to relay the information as the Ursumari arrived. Though less than thrilled with the presence of our pcs Captain Murderbear cheered up considerably when the Engineer gave him some frozen yogurt she’d thought to buy when they first arrived dirtside. He wanted to hire her. And the doctor. And maybe the company’s ship too.

This got the Captain irritated but the Engineer suggested that they all work together to save the day. So this was essentially the same fight but the henchmen had more firepower and there was a bomb and a villain. So maybe it wasn’t the same fight. But it felt similar to me.

The Engineer made short work of the villain by hacking her suit as the Captain and fireteam sniped the muscle and the Doctor was supposed to take care of the bomb. The player let the npcs take care of the bomb instead. Huzzah for engagement.

I required 3 checks (which was how the bomb was supposed to be disarmed) from the Engineer and she made them. Danskin saved the Captain more times– to the point that her survival was making us cheer and the Engineer’s player was begging the Captain’s player to stop risking Danskin’s life. (I will be making people roll dice next time though– I think those coins are weighted.) The Captain went down again and as he plummeted to certain death the Engineer made the suit save him. The npc showed off the bomb and the pcs pointed out that it would have killed Kostavi’s henchmen, which resulted in them surrendering.

It was some fabulous play and I didn’t see it getting better. I was also a bit tired of the adventure fuzziness and the player conflict and the one pc who kept letting it be known that he wasn’t happy with . . . anything. So.

“By now the bomb has either gone off or not gone off — the players have resolved the explosive situation either way. If Kostavi is already dead or captured, then twist the plot by saying you killed her body double.” Then follows a chase scene done in skill checks and the direction, “The players should succeed at getting Kostavi, because the thrill is in the journey here.”

They already had Kostavi. I could run the chase scene. I opted not to. I brought their merchant contact in with the officials and they discovered he was an undercover agent (not the villain they half expected). They collected the bounty and he added a sweetener. The Doctor ran off to get a job in law enforcement and instead of offering to run a second adventure I gave up.

The game has some lovely bits. I’d recommend it to anyone who loves the comic it’s based on. I’d recommend it to anyone who loves comic space opera. To anyone looking for a way to tell a non-gritty scifi story. I’d run it at a con.

It has bumpy bits. I need to reread the bit on space combat. Someone needs to post pre-gens! The adventures, I’d sadly say, are not up to par. They assume too much for my liking and give too little in the way of meat. Very bare bones, but bare bones in a way that kept getting in the way of my fun instead of enabling it. I think this system would do better in a situation where the player’s are directing the story at as leisurely a pace as they wanted.

It was a less than ideal, but educational, situation. Lack of player buy-in is something I’m ultra-sensitive to and I’m not sure I can afford that sensitivity with the addition of a player to our group that refuses buy-in so adamantly.