The Prophet of Permadeath

1562308-1-gravestone-in-highgate-cemeteryI’ve wanted to write an article on that old hoary chestnut of MMO discussions, permadeath, for quite some time, but I didn’t want to bog down in same-old, same-old coverage.  I don’t really care about the heated arguments that people get in over this subject — face it: some like it, some hate it (Richard Bartle oddly put it at IMGDC in 2007, “Do you want permadeath or pedophilia? Both seem equally attractive to most players.”), and nobody’s going to budge from either position.

But it’s a fascinating topic to me, because I’ve always viewed permadeath as the antithesis of how I play MMOs.  Even though I know the game itself or my interest in it will end at some point, I operate under the illusion that it will continue on indefinitely, and that my characters will never die.  Permadeath takes the opposing view as it says, “Your characters are going to die.  The only question is, when.”

My negative reaction to it as a MMORPG gamer has grown a knee-jerk reaction against exploring the dark underbelly of permadeath, at least until I became gradually aware that DDO has a small but strong subcommunity of gamers that have not only embraced the permadeath spirit from the pen-and-paper game, but altered their gaming experience to replicate the “one character, one life” motto.

It takes a special breed of player to look at a game as complex and challenging as DDO and go, “You know what?  This needs to be harder.”   But with slow content additions from Turbine and a love of the PnP permadeath system, DDOers have taken it upon themselves to create a subculture in the game based around  permadeath — and the crazy thing is, it’s thrived in that environment.

It’s all  an “honor system” type of thing — you create a character in a permadeath guild, and if that character ever dies and is not resurrected by another character, then the player is honor-bound to delete that character (after, presumably, mailing that character’s items and gold to the next one).  Permadeath characters quest  together, keeping each other honest, and carefully crawling through dungeons while using tactics and teamwork.

I spent some time reading the FAQ on one of the major permadeath guilds, Mortal Voyage, and grew fascinated by their approach to the game.  They explain why they this game works with that system:

“DDO is uniquely suited to Permadeath play for several reasons. All adventure areas are instanced, isolating PD players from those that are not. In DDO, there are practically infinite character progression possibilities. That makes rolling a new character interesting even if that character does the same quests as the last. Most importantly, many DDO players are ex or current Dungeons and Dragons players. Those players are familiar with the challenge of potential character loss.”

The rules were pretty straight-forward: you join the guild with a newly-created level 1 character, and if that character dies at any point, you have to delete it, or else leave the guild.  The only exception is that if one of your current co-dungeoneers can resurrect you with a spell.  One item may be passed down to your next character, and any current groupmates may select an item from what’s left on your corpse.  You only party within the guild, and refrain from using the auction house and brokers to upgrade your character beyond what you find in dungeons.

It was while reading these rules that a crazy idea popped into my head: what if I embraced the dark side, if only for a month or so, and tried the permadeath lifestyle?  After all, I pushed myself out of my comfort zone by partaking in Warhammer’s PvP, even though I’m far more of a PvE guy at heart.  Could I commit to playing within this ruleset?

In other words, could I make a character that I knew was going to die?

I wrestled with a lot of common sense issues — I have only a limited amount of gaming time these days, and I wasn’t sure if this was the best way to spend it.  I worried that I’d lose interest in a character that I saw had no hope for any significant future.  And I knew that the longer the character survived, it would be that much more agonizing when he bit the dust.

I haven’t quite made the leap, but the idea continues to tickle the back of my mind.  Maybe.  Someday.

28 thoughts on “The Prophet of Permadeath

  1. Andrew September 25, 2009 / 8:00 am

    Great post Syp – more like this please!

    I’ve played an awful lot of Roguelike games in the past, and they ALWAYS feature permadeath…. so I don’t really mind the concept at all.

    I find it fascinating that DDO has a sub-community that plays the game like this, and I’m almost tempted to play the game in that manner… it would be almost cathartic after the godlike immortality bestowed on everyone by all MMOs.

  2. Xapur September 25, 2009 / 8:11 am

    I discovered the permadeath way of playing when I began DDO, I didn’t ever think of it. When I think that in some games players are angry when they loose some percent of experience, how could these people react in a permadeath game ? Let’s imagine one minute it’s not a way of playing, but that the game is built this way… scary, isnt’it ? 🙂
    At first I thought the permaplayers were crazy, after thinking at it I now believe it’s another style of roleplaying, maybe an “extreme” or more “realistic” on (wathever “realistic” may mean in MMORPG^^). Interisting thing… but not for me 🙂

  3. mbp September 25, 2009 / 8:11 am

    The availability of resurrection dilutes the hard core aspect of this somewhat. Does it not ultimately mean that you ever ever go adventuring without a rezzer, or two rezzers in fact lest one get killed?

  4. onlines September 25, 2009 / 8:23 am

    Permadeath turns me off, but I’ve always been fascinated by those that can incorporate an aspect of real-life into an online game, i.e.: death.

    However, instead of hearing, “SNAKE… SNAKE.. SNAAAAKKKKKEE” after every death, only to know that, “dammit… oh well, time to roll another guy” a new character is simply a click away. I’d like it if companies introduced heavier death penalties into games.

    Games like, Square’s FF11 (and presumably, FF14) Sony’s EQ, and EA’s Ultima, had some heavy restrictions. Death meant loss of EXP, gold, or whatever the case may be. NCSoft’s Aion is bring that back — to a certain degree, with a heavy tax in Kinah — but, the true aspect of restrictions, in the psychological sense, has disappeared.

    Death today, is merely a heal click away or a shrug, “darn”, event.

    Good post though.

  5. mbp September 25, 2009 / 8:31 am

    Hm… I have read Mortal Voyage’s rules and it seems they discourage the use of resurrection skills. I guess that answers my questions above. These guys really are serious about dying.

  6. ZenoZTankof September 25, 2009 / 8:41 am

    I too have toyed with the idea of doing something similar in WoW. As close as I got to this was leveling a Warrior to about 45 without dieing. Once I died I was absolutely crushed and really didn’t want to play the character anymore anyway. My goal was a little different though, at the time the cap was 70 and I was simply trying to make it to the cap without dieing. I never deleted the toon but I believe he still lies where he died (Felwood).

  7. Pete S September 25, 2009 / 9:08 am

    Kind of a tangent, but I always wondered why more “We want permadeath” characters didn’t just do it this way. Why require developers to code something when you can just opt to delete a character that dies?

    I’ve done the permadeath thing in Diablo… it’s fun for a while and a nice way to ‘extend’ a game after I feel like I’ve seen everything already.

    It definitely adds tension to playing!

    You should give it a try. If you don’t like it, just quit and go back to your ‘normal’ characters!

  8. Scott September 25, 2009 / 9:23 am

    I’ve been debating it for over a year now. My former DDO guild leader is in Mortal Voyage, but one of the other PD guilds, Sublime, is on my home server of Thelanis. I’ve spoken to people from Sublime. I’m welcome in the guild. I have a PD character on standby. I just haven’t yet garnered up the courage to join and start adventuring, knowing full well at some point I would lose the character.

    On the other hand, it would probably be a more memorable — and possibly more meaningful — experience with that level of risk at stake and knowing the group was successful, rather than knowing “death” is just a minor inconvenience.

  9. Malfi September 25, 2009 / 10:00 am

    Wowza! This idea is REALLY appealing to me. I haven’t jumped into DDO yet, even though is has gone FTP, basically because I don’t have the time. But this extra twist on it just might get me to dip my toes into the pool. I REALLY like the idea for some reason… Hrm….

  10. Pangoria Fallstar September 25, 2009 / 10:06 am

    Question is, what game would you try this on?

    I’m currently not playing any MMO that I would be willing to do this on, maybe if I start up DDO, but the reason perma-death works in pen-and-paper games is because when you’re close to dying a GM can spare you, or when you re-roll the new guy, they can let you start at a higher level, or run some quick games to get you caught up.

    Most D&D gamers don’t even make it past level 10, which I’d compare a level 10 character to a level 60 in WoW.

    All I’m saying is, that MMOs as they are now, are not designed to be played with permadeath in mind.

  11. Ryver September 25, 2009 / 10:18 am

    I too have thought about this with DDO. The DDO Cast crew talked about it a few weeks ago. It sounds intriguing, but I want to get use to the game before playing in such an environment.

    It actually reminds me of playing Angband from years ago. For those that don’t know, Angband is a text-based rogue-like dungeon crawler. Or Nethack 😉

  12. Sven September 25, 2009 / 11:42 am

    “I worried that I’d lose interest in a character that I saw had no hope for any significant future.”

    It’s hard because your character has a value to you. It is the culmination of all the time and effort you put into it. Which is perfectly fine and unavoidable on some level, you wouldn’t play a character you didn’t value. The trick to PD is that you have to focus on deriving your enjoyment on the journey. It’s the teamwork and strategy that you employ in staying alive during the quest that is valuable. Whether your character lives or dies, that isn’t taken away. Self-preservation and leveling allows you some bragging rights, but mainly it serves as access to more varied content.

    Is it the acquisition of a max level character what you enjoy about MMOs, or is it the fun you have while questing/leveling?

    At least that’s how I feel about it, I’m sure other people who play PD have thier own way of thinking about it.

  13. Tesh September 25, 2009 / 11:57 am

    Nels Anderson has a great series up over at the Above 49 blog about permadeath in Far Cry 2. This is the capstone of the series:

    http://www.above49.ca/2009/06/far-cry-2-memento-mori.html

    I don’t care much for permadeath, but it does change the gaming experience, sometimes for the better. I think the key is that it has to be optional. Devs can and probably should support it, but they shouldn’t force it.

    (And then there’s the generational tangent that Psychochild, Wiqd and I have bandied about before…)

  14. Infinite Zen September 25, 2009 / 4:45 pm

    Though I can see the attraction of this kind of rule-set to those people looking to further blur the line between their real life and MMO-life to me it’s extremely counter-intuitive to what makes an MMO fun, namely, variation, socialization, and risk-taking.

    My guess would be that a guild like Mortal Voyage actually penalizes it’s members if they are risk takers, players who try to push the bounds of what their class or party can do. Instead each party must be playing by the safest, most tried and true routines for getting content done. I’d hate that! I believe in the creative problem solving, and tactic changes afforded by picking my defeated body up, brushing of the dust, and trying it “one more time”. Some of my greatest moments of in-game joy have come when after a boss has killed me over and over I finally find a way to defeat him.

    This idea that they are playing it more “hardcore” to me is laughable, what they actually must do is “play it safe”. They have to learn all the tricks and methods discovered by the true “hardcore” players so that when they go to attempt something they know they will more than likely succeed, one raid wipe and they have to delete the entire guild.

  15. We Fly Spitfires September 25, 2009 / 4:47 pm

    I wrote about my ideas for making a Zombie MMORPG and in that game, I wanted to have permadeath and using the number of days “survived” as an indicator of strength. I think the key would be making sure death was actually recoverable quickly enough and getting people in the frame of mind that death isn’t the end of the world and that starting a new character is part of the life cycle.

  16. Dblade September 25, 2009 / 7:05 pm

    It would seem to me to be pointless. You’d be just grinding newbie content over and over as each character eventually gets deleted because you misjudge one encounter, lag some entering an instance, get a critical hit at the wrong time, or just die learning how a character works.

    I think I died around 3,000 times in 4 years of playing FFXI (every year the moogles tell you your stats, from battles won to GM calls.) Could you honestly see yourself dying 100 times in a permadeath one?

  17. parvo September 26, 2009 / 1:09 am

    Hi I’m parvo, leader of Mortal Voyage Permadeath Guild of DDO. Someone was nice enough to bring this article to my attention. I think it’s great to get someone perspective from the outside like this. Thanks for the great read. If you’re interested, stop by and visit and see our video:

    http://www.mortalvoyage.com

  18. Eldervamp September 26, 2009 / 8:23 am

    Greetings…

    To get another look at Peram-Death log into Beckett’s Massive Online Gamer website.

    They have two articles about PD, both are Q&A’s about PD. One is with Parvo, the guild leader of Mortal Voyage. The next is Lessah (DDOcast contributor), with the Sublime guild view.

    It will show you that both guilds like PD, but come to it in different ways.

    link: http://www.massiveonlinegamer.com

  19. dominp September 26, 2009 / 1:06 pm

    Infinite Zen –
    “My guess would be that a guild like Mortal Voyage actually penalizes it’s members if they are risk takers, players who try to push the bounds of what their class or party can do.”

    Actually MV encourages and almost requires risk takers. If you read through our rules you will see that we are only allowed to enter a quest on the hardest setting available. That means that we always skip solo and normal settings and only do hard if nobody else in the group has done the quest. This means that almost all quests we go into are on elite. We also do not allow farming a quest over and over, once done on elite we dont run it again. This prevents farming of certain items (muck banes, black widow bracers, etc).

    Infinite Zen –
    “This idea that they are playing it more “hardcore” to me is laughable, what they actually must do is “play it safe”. ”

    Although I dont consider it “hardcore” it is by no means “play it safe”. Most pug groups out there in ddo play alot safer then we do since their main objective is loot and xp they just want to make a quick run and get out fast so they usually choose a non challenging adventure. With MV we only allow adventures into quests that are equal to or higher then the highest member of the group, this ensures a challenging and rewarding adventure.

  20. parvo September 26, 2009 / 1:59 pm

    Great read. Very interesting viewpoint from an outside perspective.

    I’m parvo, leader of Mortal Voyage. I’ll try not going on about why permadeath is great fun. I’ll simply remind you of your own commandments 5 and 6.

    5.Relationships and memories are the only things that you will take away from a MMO when you stop playing it — and you will stop playing it, sooner or later.

    6.If it’s work, then it’s not play. If it’s not play, then why am I paying for this experience?

    There’s simply no greater memories than those of permadeath play. That has a far greater value than farming for +1. There’s a reason why “normal” players have vernacular like “working on a character” and “farming”. Neither of which sound much like play.

    Stay Hard,
    –parvo

  21. dominp September 26, 2009 / 2:09 pm

    Infinite Zen –
    “one raid wipe and they have to delete the entire guild.”

    You could look at it as deleting an entire guild…or as getting alot of new members 🙂

  22. Permadead September 26, 2009 / 2:27 pm

    I’ve played only PD for over a year now and couldn’t go back. Infinite Zen ‘guessed’ that MV penalizes players for taking risks and ends up laughing at the whole concept. Ok, your guess was dead wrong. We push the boundaries very hard, routinely running quests 2 or 3 levels above the highest group member…TR with level 3/4 groups, Gwylan’s with level 4/5, STK once with an all level 2 group (needed an opener for the last part), etc…and usually succeed with no casualties.

    ‘Stay Hard’ is the motto of our guildleader, Parvo. We don’t run quests under level, we don’t grind explorer areas, and we’re encouraged to challenge ourselves by doing quests we are terrified of. The game is way too easy in its normal form. Our goal is not to have our characters survive, it’s to push our abilities, to complete quests that have significant danger.

    We definitely don’t ‘blur the lines between our real life and MMO life’, it’s the opposite. We’re not overly attached to characters, we’re overly attached to increasing our skill and challenging ourselves. We’ve decided to voluntarily put something on the line to encourage us to play with our full attention.

    The skill level is very high by necessity. We’re always pushing the envelope of what we can do. We’re trying hard to stay alive because, unlike regular players, we have something very valuable to lose. I’ve found far more skilled players in MV than anywhere else and I’ve been playing steadily since beta. I’ve learned many tricks that never come up in regular play because non-PD play is almost always an exercise in brute force…keep running at the boss until you get lucky one time…how does that encourage innovation? I’ve tried going back a few times but the mind-numbing nature of non-PD play is just empty time-killing.

    Someone mentioned that resurrection dilutes PD play and why would we ever adventure without a rezzer or 2. Well, we may currently have a cleric that can resurrect, not sure, but it’s an extreme challenge to get a toon to 9th level in the first place and more than 99.9% of our runs are done without a rezzer…and if there was one, he’d have to survive to do his thing.

  23. Movan September 27, 2009 / 4:47 am

    Interesting read. I’ve been playing DDO for three years and permadeath style for two years. And I can’t tell you how many characters I’ve deleted over the past two years. Some of them are very memorable, like the level 12 bard/ranger Twocoins who died while duo’ing with Sandros in Raid The Vulkorim. But many others are forgettable.

    I CAN tell you how many non-PD characters I have. One. Once you’ve done the “normal” style of play and have seen all the raids and quests and have all the gear you could ever want, what else is there left to do?

    Permadeath play is about Questing with a capital Q. How far can this character get? What loot, what treasure, what glory can she earn? What skills can be developed and how much of his greatest potential can he realize?

    As good as the blog was, so much was left out. Because we don’t repeat quests at any difficulty (except elite difficulty if someone else in the party needs it), PD play lacks the grind of “normal” play. Those players run quest A so that they can get loot items B and C, and if they don’t find them after running it, rinse and repeat ABC.

    PD characters have a sense of STORY in them. While death is always POSSIBLY around the corner, it hasn’t come yet, and I would never say it’s inevitable.

    Yes, yes, yes. I know that a small MINORITY of quests (especially high level raids end-game content) seem to require death as a kind of trail-and-error process for players to figure out the solution the quest poses.

    But there are PD characters who run the 95% of those quests that don’t require preknowlege, and just stay out of the dragon, demon queen, titan, and other quests.

    In my guild on Khyber, we go without using shrines to complete quests. There are many reasons for this (not because we consider ourselves “uber”), but one of them is that it makes no sense to have an extended rest while in a hostile dungeon or area. Complete the quest, then rest. And in our guild we have level two level 12 characters and several just below that. So we complete the Necropolis 2nd tier quests and do difficult stuff without ever using shrines to refuel. It’s a blast. And the characters who survive take on a life of their own.

  24. Takea September 27, 2009 / 8:18 am

    Hehe, this permadeath thing put and idea into my head- I must try out DDo and this permadeath stuff 🙂 . It seams so great to me and maybe the best thing in this is that guilds like MV are created wich make great comunity and brings sooooo much joy to permadeath because someone actually cares if you die.
    As new gamer I didnt joined any permadeath guild because I want to learn basics of game, but damn it I cant wait form me be ready to go play with those mates. Thouth I try to get used to this thing by playing solo and trying not to die ( so far lucky me, day one went with no deaths and I actually funished crypts dungeon on hard 😀 ), I dont deny that I could drop this soon.

  25. Adam September 27, 2009 / 9:26 am

    I joined MV shortly after starting DDO, and promptly died and got two other characters toon killed with me. It was on the island but I felt so bad I decided I needed to learn the game more before I did it anymore. But I will say this: even in just the two or three quests I did, the TONE was totally different. If you are thinking about trying it, then just try it.

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