An Idea I Don’t Get

There’s an idea that I see from time to time in setting design which I don’t entirely get the appeal of, and that is the idea of the lethal setting.  That is, there is some element of the setting which will kill or incapacitate characters unless they always do something arbitrarily dictated by the setting.

I’m not talking about merely dangerous settings, like the classic Dark Sun.  I completely understand the appeal of that (dangerous environments are an escalation on existing tensions).   Similarly, I don’t mean frequent threats, like radiation in Gamma World. Those have their place, and it’s obvious to me.

Rather, I’m thinking about ambient, ever-present dooms, like in the Red Steel setting, or some of the later (or maybe middle) Thoma Covenant books.  The details don’t matter a lot, as the underlying idea is the same.  Something inescapable (like sunset or the air) will DO SOMETHING HORRIBLE to you unless you [MACGUFFIN].

The exact details of the macguffin don’t really matter.  It might be behavioral (like, you must stay out of the light, or must stand on rocks when the sun rises) or a resource (you must carry a piece of magic rock with you), but whatever the deal, if you break the taboo, the price is basically death.  And, importantly, the macguffin is the only option – there is no way for a character to be clever or tough enough to get around this threat.

I can sort of faintly see why a setting designer might structure things this way.  It provides a constant threat, if a bad one[1] and it nominally introduces another thing to track and threaten (like fuel in a spaceship game), so you can introduce race the clock elements into play by occasionally taking away the macguffin and forcing players to run for it.  

That’s all well and good, but what I’m missing is the fun.

I don’t ask this in a snarky way – this idea is not a rare one by any stretch, so there’s something that that clearly resonates with some people, and I’m curious to know what it is.  Any thoughts?

1 – It’s a bad threat the same way the threat of an instakill is bad. Threatening player fun is a poor way to enforce fiction. Plus, any constant threat gets dull with repetition, and such threats are predicated on their predictability.

12 thoughts on “An Idea I Don’t Get

  1. Jason Pitre

    I think it’s because it drastically alters the setting based on exclusion of some real-world activity/behaviour. The reasoning is as follows.

    A) I wonder what would happen to civilization if we were still nomadic.
    B) Why would be stay nomadic rather than take up agrarianism?
    C) Because digging in the ground will attract terror-worms.
    D) Interesting setting ensues, as you try to survive without attracting terror worms.

    Sometimes they do have ways to bypass the universal constant that has been imposed. See Wheel of Time for a good example. It’s just extraordinarily difficult and that Current Issue has teeth.

    1. Rob Donoghue

      It’d be comparable if everyone was a vampire, I suppose. But even in those, the line is rarely bright (har har) but rather all about how you can take steps to function in the day.

  2. Fred Hicks

    I find it interesting as a *component* of the problems a character must solve. Because [easy path] isn’t possible due to [incredibly lethal mcguffin situation], the hero must instead try [harder thing].

  3. nat

    Can you give more-detailed examples? I haven’t read Thomas Covenant, and my understanding of Red Steel was that your options were eat the poison rocks and get superpowers, or don’t eat the poison rocks and be normal–so either I misunderstand your point, or I misremember the setting.

    I’m trying to suss out how what you’re talking about is different than, say, the desert lethality of Dark Sun, vacuum of many space games, or needing to avoid sunlight (and a doze other things) in V:tM. Because it’s an interesting point, but I can’t off the top of my head think of any actual examples of it. Well, maybe Curse the Darkness–I haven’t finished reading that, so I’m not sure if it is what you’re talking about.

    1. Rob Donoghue

      Vacuum of space might actually be comparable, but its role in scifi tends to be kind fo handwavey, so it ends up different in practice.

      If I were to narrow it down to one question, it would be “can you engage the setting without engaging the spring loaded bear trap?” and for merely dangerous settings, the answer is usually yes. The dangerous environment or burning sunlight are threats, but there are plenty of contexts where they are not immediate. The ambient threat is *always* on the table.

      (The red steel bit I was remembering was that you needed to keep some cinnaabr on you or things would go bad. I may have to dig up the books to remember the details. There’s a Savage World setting that has a similar “ambient light will drive you insane” kind of thing)

  4. Declan Feeney

    Interestingly the very first thing I thought about when reading this blog was Burning Wheel’s Intsincts, which appear to be the antithesis of the phenomena you describe. I may have this wrong – its a long time since I read or played Burning Wheel, but I recall Instincts as something your character always does in response to some arbitrary event in the fiction:

    Eg ‘When I travel in the wilderness I always carry a pouch of wolfsbane’.

    In a settings where arbitrary death rules existed, as a GM I’d assume everyone had the arbitrary Instinct which opposed it. Hence it would seldom be a real threat.

    The only real use I can see for the lethal setting would be to constrain the players and force them to face something else.

    “You wake up at the foot of a tower, in the center of the plateau of wolves. Someone has stolen your wolfsbane. The tower is you safest choice”

    But it feels like railroading…players should always be presented with a choice.

  5. Cam_Banks

    How does this relate to things like the Test of High Sorcery (failure could mean death) or the Broken Pattern in Amber (ditto)? If you want to be a member of a certain iconic group, you face in-game death.

    1. Neftali Rivera

      “How does this relate to things like the Test of High Sorcery (failure could mean death)”

      Your character chooses to engage in the potentially lethal activity, in order to gain entrance to the group, and access to the benefits. If the test on the tower had to be taken by everyone, or ELSE they immediately died, then it would fit the template criticized by this article.

  6. Craig Maloney

    It’s an easy way to manipulate the characters in drastic ways. It’s no different than a character that has lycanthropy needing to be somehow subdued during the transformation, otherwise the wolf-beast will wantonly do things the character doesn’t want to normally occur.

    I don’t buy the whole absolute notion; I think there’s more interesting ways to play out the “you have failed, and must now find redemption before it’s too late”, but I think you’re looking more at the extremes of this. I don’t have an easy answer why it’s prevalent.

  7. Carrollesque

    I’d like to point out a difference between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ instakills.

    A ‘soft’ instakill is an instakill that is avoidable by multiple means. For example, in any space setting, sucking vacuum is usually a death sentence. But you can use spaceships, breathing masks, helmets, space-suits, etc to get around the danger. Quick thinking and lucky rolls can get your character out of danger.

    Same deal with sunlight and Vampire games. You can find ways to do stuff / get things done during daylight if need be; and most of the action takes place at the same time.

    A ‘hard’ instakill is what you describe here, I think. “Do X or die” isn’t an interesting mechanic, and I don’t really see it as showing up that often. It just sounds like bad design.


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