Do ttRPGs Need to Define Death? Fire? … Steam?

More than one ttRPG has made its players giggle when they realize there are no rules about what a character being dead means. Sure, there are rules that tell you when you die and (sometimes) how to come back, but nothing that says, for example, “A dead character can not take any actions.”

So, the argument goes, the Rules-As-Written game lets your dead character keep running around and doing things, right?

Okay, so that’s a silly example (though it DOES come up in some game groups). And a common counter-argument is, that’s only a problem if a game actually defines TOO much, so the GM and players expect everything to be defined. We all know what dead means, right?

Well… maybe. Like, if a spell can only affect and object, and not a creature, which is a corpse? Surely I can’t use Charm Creature on a corpse, so it must be an object? So can I use Fix Object to make a mangled corpse pristine?

Similarly, some games go into fair detail about different kinds of damage, for example tagging things that do fire damage with a [Fire] keyword. But we all know what fire is, right?

So if a Squirming Rat Mound takes double damage from fire, the players and GM all know that burning oil, a lit torch, and a firecube spell all do that double damage. But what about a cone of embers? Steambolt? Superheated frying pan? Jalapenos?

Now, yes, as long as the GM and players can all agree on how things ought to work, it doesn’t matter – But there are three good counter-arguments to that position.

First, if a GM and their players feel things should work differently, but it’s not obvious they have different opinions, that can cause during-the-game unpleasant surprises and debate. If a fire elemental is immune to fire damage (and maybe they shouldn’t be), and the players focus a blast of superheated steam at it, what happens? The GM may declare that since fire resistance is heat resistance and thus prevents damage from steam, and the elemental is immune to fire, it is immune to steam. The players might argue that steam is water, and water puts out fire, so the elemental should not just take damage, but take double damage like it does from a water elemental’s wet fish slap power, or Biggly’s Aquatic Hand spell.

Second, even fit the GM perfectly well can make all these rulings, many GMs don’t want to have to do any more mental work than absolutely necessary. If everything that does fire damage has a little [Fire] tag, that makes things easier for those GMs. Of course, there’s a limit to that. Like, do [Acid] and [Base] attacks have different tags? Can you counter an [Acid] attack with a [Base] attack? Are there strong [Acids] and weak [Acids]? Is the level of complexity being kept where it belongs?

Third, scenario assumptions can be built off these rules. Even ignoring the complex question of special cases such as Organized Play efforts for different groups to have the same experience when running the same encounter with different GMs, a scenario may have been built assuming a specific set of rule interactions. If an encounter with fire elementals in a sewer assumes that the steam pipes running alongside the pipe can be used to easily defeat the elementals, so there are twice as many present as normal, a GM that rules those don’t hurt the elementals is altering the adventure design plans without even knowing it.

I’m not claiming their is an objectively correct answer here. I tend to lean toward defining things that are going to come up a lot, trying to give some broad general rules and guidance, and then leave it t the GM to adjudicate rarer interactions… but that’s based on my gaming preferences.

What are yours?

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About okcstephens

Owen K.C. Stephens Owen Kirker Clifford Stephens is the Starfinder Design Lead for Paizo Publishing, the Freeport and Pathfinder RPG developer for Green Ronin, a developer for Rite Publishing, and the publisher and lead genius of Rogue Genius Games. Owen has written game material for numerous other companies, including Wizards of the Coast, Kobold Press, White Wolf, Steve Jackson Games and Upper Deck. He also consults, freelances, and in the off season, sleeps.

Posted on May 28, 2021, in Adventure Design, Game Design, Musings and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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