Earlier this week I wrote a little about player character death in pen and paper gaming, and how it impedes one from becoming the pulp hero master of all. If you are dead, you cannot be Conan.
Branching off a little, Alex of Cirsova and I exchanged a few thoughts on the nature of hero deaths and the primary mortal threats to iconic barbarians and the like.
Alex went on to expand upon his point here.
I agree with him on the danger of groups of enemies. Play enough games (of various types) and you’ll learn that mobs of low-powered foes can pose plenty threat.
What about for the characters in the kinds of stories we often model our own gaming characters after? Well, we find a mix. In the Cirsova post, there is talk of “economy of force.” That is to say, when there’s one big monster, it is usually fighting against multiple adventurers who get more attacks than it does, or do more damage or can take more punishment in aggregate. Thus it’s pretty much outgunned, even if it’s super strong.
Two things about this. First, in the kinds of stories we often read of heroes facing off against terrible horrors and fell beasts, the numbers are usually more even. Or at least they are more likely to be than in a game of D&D. Conan picks up occasional companions, it’s true, and he is a leader of men. But he also operates and fights alone quite often. Thus his eldritch encounters are usually pretty close to 1:1.
Second, I’d argue that game mechanics are limiting. A party of heroes facing off against a giant may have a pretty decent shot in a gaming context, but in a written setting…well, of course that in large part depends on the author. But a “written” giant is unbound by combat rules. D&D and other systems may do a decent job approximating battle mechanics with armor class and hit points and attacks of opportunity, but how likely is a DM-enthralled giant to just step on a PC or PCs and insta-smoosh them (though I’m sure this does happen)? And what are the odds that a party (if there are multiple adventurers) is capable of retaliating in kind?
Of course I haven’t read every fantasy book, nor am I an expert of man on monster combat. But it just seems to me that in such stories, even when in groups, heroes are often forced to rely on more than economy of force and the fairness of turn-based combat. They often need clever plans, strong magic, or favorable circumstances. It’s not to say that they can’t win otherwise, but usually the odds are stacked against the good guys in such cases.
(Warning: some spoilers ahead for Lord of the Rings, The Gods of Mars, various Conan stories, and Three Hearts and Three Lions)
Then again, in some settings, heroes have the advantage. In Dickson’s Dragon and the George, for instance, dragon vs knight is an uneven fight…in favor of the human! Fully armored men, with lance and steed, pose grave risk to dragons, as the protagonist quite painfully learns.
Looking at mobs, Alex is clearly correct. Our own Conan is frequently forced to run when outnumbered and able. In the Lord of the Rings, the party flees from orcs and trolls in Moria, and the mighty Boromir is taken down by an overwhelming pack of Saruman’s orcs. Early in the Gods of Mars, John Carter and his companion Tars Tarkas barely escape from a horde of plant men and great white apes.
So as Alex says, “The difference between your characters who died and Conan could be that Conan knew when to run and you didn’t.” Yes, very true.
Where I do want to diverge a bit is in the estimation of mobs as more of a threat than monsters. To be fair, I don’t think Alex is making this as a blanket claim. His post seems more limited to a gaming context. It’s unfortunate that so many games, through their mechanics, make this distinction important, though.
In the Conan stories, the barbarian runs from unwinnable battles presented by both man and monster. The very last paragraph from “The God in the Bowl”:
At last the movements ceased and Conan looked gingerly behind the screen. Then the full horror of it all rushed over the Cimmerian, and he fled, nor did he slacken his headlong flight until the spires of Numalia faded into the dawn behind him. The thought of Set was like a nightmare, and the children of Set who once ruled the earth and who now sleep in their nighted caverns far below the black pyramids. Behind that gilded screen there had been no human body—only the shimmering, headless coils of a gigantic serpent.
In “The Slithering Shadow” Conan runs from a mob of soldiers, trying to find his woman. He ends up encountering a terrible beast from which there is no escape. He barely survives:
A footstep roused her out of her apathy of horror, to see Conan emerging from the darkness. At the sight she found her voice in a shriek which echoed down the vaulted tunnel. The manhandling the Cimmerian had received was appalling to behold. At every step he dripped blood. His face was skinned and bruised as if he had been beaten with a bludgeon. His lips were pulped, and blood oozed down his face from a wound in his scalp. There were deep gashes in his thighs, calves and forearms, and great bruises showed on his limbs and body from impacts against the stone floor. But his shoulders, back and upper-breast muscles had suffered most. The flesh was bruised, swollen and lacerated, the skin hanging in loose strips, as if he had been lashed with wire whips.
Once again in the Lord of the Rings, Gandalf the Grey fights the terrible Durin’s Bane. While the wizard is able to slay the powerful Balrog, he gets as good as he gives.
In Poul Anderson’s Three Hearts and Three Lions, the party’s battle against the troll is a costly one. One of the party members is killed, and my memory is a bit fuzzy but I think the protagonist’s memorable steed, Papillon, may also be lost.
In our favorite stories, there are many dangers, both magical and mundane. A hero can be slain by a large group of foes or by one large foe. Discretion is indeed often the better part of valor, and living to fight another day is usually the best option. Once they’re dead, they don’t get another chance (unless Gandalf).
In game terms, the calculus may differ. When the most important thing is the survival of the party, you may not care about losing a member or two so long as you win the battle. If the dragon fries your fighter, you can just roll up a new one.
Returning to what I was talking about last time, though, I think many (most?) players come into a campaign with personal goals. Sure, sometimes they just want to be part of a cool story. Sometimes they want to amass a huge fortune or delve deeper into the dungeon than anyone before them. Sometimes a player wants to create a memorable hero – the most powerful wizard of the century, or the Conan or Solomon Kane clone (minus being a Puritan, probably), or the next Robin Hood. For those guys, losing their character to the lich king (even if the party wins) may be just as devastating as a TPK at the hands of a mob of bandits.
That’s not to say that a DM or a gaming system has to or even necessarily should consider the hurt feelings of such players. It’s just to say that on an individual basis, a monster may be just as threatening as a mob.