Live free or perma-die… but not so hard.

The idea of perma-death has been around for as long as MMOs have. It’s one of those ‘hot button’ issues that always polarizes fans and leads to long forum threads discussing its merits. This is not a forum, but here are my views on why perma-death could not only be viable, but actually add a huge element to an MMO, if done right.

The first problem with the idea is that people often times try to apply it to current games. They try to imagine WoW or EQ2 with perma-death, and then raise all the issues of why it would not be a good idea. Of course it would not work in those games, they are not designed for it. What fun would it be to re-quest the same area each time you die, or lose all your shiny epics you worked so hard to get. And what fun would it be to re-level the same race/class combo for the 8th time? Perma-death in the games out today would be a very, very bad idea.

But what if you designed a game around perma-death at its core, could it actually ADD anything new to the standard MMO formula? The first thing that would need to go would be leveling, replaced by some form of skill-based advancement. Next each skill itself would be fairly easy to ‘max out’, but the amount of skills, and the time it takes to learn additional skills would have to be vast. For example, say you want to be a warrior style character. You pick sword fighting, plate armor, and parry as your first skills. It would only take you a week or so to max those out. However, you still lack block, axe fighting, evade, etc. In addition, the more skills you learn, the slower the progress, so the order in which you gain skills will also become a factor. Lock picking is a nice skill, but if you get it before stealth, it will greatly delay you being able to stealth and actually get yourself in a position to take advantage of lock picking.

So now we have our skill based system, with its quick rewards but great depth, how exactly does that effect perma-death? Let’s say to kill an above average mob, you need 5 fighting skills maxed, plus some decent gear. If we assume getting to that point takes a month, in a months time anyone will be able to jump in and engage interesting mobs and go on the higher-end quests that offer the top rewards. Of course, it would still be dangerous, and with perma-death, a bad pull or misplaced jump would mean far more than a corpse run or some xp loss. To truly become a great fighter, someone with 10+ skills maxed, you not only need more patience, but also have to be a good judge of danger, and likely have a solid group around you helping you along the way. And even then, at any point, you could still have an ill-fated moment and die. Perma-death adds that degree of danger like no other system can.

But let’s say you do die with your 10+ skills character. If he is gone for good, it would be tough to just say ‘ah well’ and try it again. You put a lot of effort into that character, and now you are left with nothing but memories. Or maybe not. What if instead of having to re-roll from scratch, your next character would be the kin of your former. The father was slain by orcs, and now the son seeks to avenge him. He is younger, so his skills are diminished, but he shares the same goals and qualities of his father. In gameplay terms, this might mean you start with some former maxed skills at 50%, or perhaps former max skills are now gained at an increased rate. In addition, since you are the son, you have access to your fathers vault and estate, allowing you to equip what armor and weapons he left behind, as well as having a nice bank roll to buy yourself some training. In WoW/EQ terms, let’s say instead of level 1, you start with a character around level 25.

But what if, after your death, you decide you want to try being a blacksmith? It’s entirely possible to take your mid skill fighter son and get him started down the path of a blacksmith. It would be a slow process, similar to starting from scratch, but with the benefit of your former characters wealth and experience. Being somewhat skilled with the blade, you are also able to venture out into territory most regular smiths would not have access to, allowing you to gain more valuable ore/gems to further your crafting. It would not be the highest level stuff, as for that you would need someone with the strength of a 10+ skill fighter, but still better than a smith with no fighting skill.

By intertwining perma-death with a kin/family structure, you add depth and a new twist on character creation. Each time one dies, you get to start with a different looking character, one that already has some history to him/her. This ‘kin’ history could be displayed in a bio page for each family tree. This type of system would also allow certain characters, those that have managed to avoid death for long periods of time, to achieve greater and greater power, gaining a high level of admiration from the player community. A legendary smith, an ancient woodworker, or an unstoppable killer. It would also be quite the event any time one of these ‘older’ characters meets death, their lifespan recounted on forums or even in-game news posts.

About SynCaine

Former hardcore raider turned casual gamer.
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7 Responses to Live free or perma-die… but not so hard.

  1. Solf says:


    First of all, I enjoy reading your blog :)

    On the subject of perma-death (or any other harsh penalty for dying) — the problem with that is that it encourages (or even forces) boring “farming” of the mobs that can’t possibly kill your character rather than “having fun” by engaging challenging (risky) content.

    I’ve seen it happen (in games that penalised death heavily that I played with RL friends) — and it isn’t pretty (imo).

    And since people usually want to have fun while playing the game, I expect the majority would gravitate towards easy-death-penalty game so that they can have “fun” rather than a “chore of grinding mobs”. That is unless someone comes up with the idea on how to overcome this problem :)

  2. An additional way you could do this is instead of using the familial route, there could be a sort of reverse training. By this I mean, every character has training of some sort in present day MMO’s, be it skill based or level based. What if when a skill has reached a certain tier, say every 50pts, or a character has reached each level they can train another character.
    The way I would see this working is kind of like the clone in Eve but with interaction between you (the avatar) and a NPC. You choose what you would like to train the NPC to know,it would have to be something your character currently knows, and then this progress is “saved” on this new NPC. When death occurs, the player comes into control of the “apprentice” and a new “apprentice” is available for continuing the process.
    It could be beneficial to die as well. Say you picked up a skill or spent some time on a spell that was really worthless. Do not train the apprentice this skill and therefore when he becomes in your control, you won’t have it.

    If you wanted to maintain the “reality” of the game a bit, instead of gaining everything that the previous character had, possible some of it would be retained by whatever mob killed the character and then the “Apprentice” would have to hunt down that mob to attempt to regain the items left behind on the corpse. It could be possible made a special case where you get a significant chance to get the items as a drop when you kill the mob.
    Also, maybe if players could be looted by other players who are flagged. (IE Group members, Guild Members, Friends, etc) This could then make the items recoverable for transfer to the new character.
    So much to think about with this….

  3. syncaine says:

    Solf, thanks for the compliment. As for people going towards easy games, maybe some would, but I think a large enough market exists for people who also enjoy a challenge, as long as it’s ultimately rewarding. A good game with a harsher death penalty is still a good game, and vice versa.

    Brackishwater, I agree that death has to have some kind of benefit to go along with the penalty, otherwise every time you die it would just be depressing and all around not fun. Death should still be something to void, but in the event that it does happen, getting a little side perk would not completely ruin someones day.

  4. Droqen says:

    This is like saying ‘Let’s do permadeath – but take out the permadeath :3’

    You’re just respawning the character w/penalties applied, which is what mmos already do; the only difference is that you look different each time you die.

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