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I Hate Permadeath

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OBSOLETION NOTE: March 2017: This discussion is largely blown out of the water by the existence of Path Of Exile. PoE has an amazing combination of depth and no permadeath; if you die in the Hardcore league you just end up in the Standard league. It’s an amazing game and you really should check it out! (I just wish it was standalone.)


Permadeath is a concept originally from Roguelike games. The context is what we’d today call action RPGs, and the idea is that when your character dies, it is dead forever and ever, and that this is a fundamental aspect of the game.

I’m not trying to change anybody’s mind about permadeath here: some people like it, some people don’t, there you are. What I would like to see is the roguelike community not treat me like such a pariah because I don’t. Even better would be if people would start including permadeath avoidance options in games, but I’m not holding my breath.

To clarify that last comment: I don’t care if such options are marked as cheating, and I wouldn’t expect them to show up in the high-score list. I just want to have fun, not prove how awesome I am. (Seriously: how does winning at a computer game make you awesome anyways?)

Permadeath Attitudes I’ve Dealt With

I hate permadeath. I hate it a lot. More than that, I hate the attitude of smug arrogance that a lot of roguelike gamers take about permadeath. It’s the latter that prompted this essay.

Here’s the thing: I play games to enjoy myself, to have fun. I don’t find permadeath fun (this is a massive understatement). Some other people do. That’s fine by me. However, it seems to be totally incomprehensible to some people that there are other people out there who genuinely don’t like permadeath, and aren’t messed up in some way.

Quoting from Julian Mensch, the creator of Incursion, who seems to get it, from a roguelike wiki page:

    I think the core point you have to remember is that there are
    two kinds of roguelike players: those that like the genre for
    having permadeath and find it emotionally satisfying to repeat
    playing a game hundreds of times until they are skilled enough
    to win it, and those who gain more satisfaction from steady
    progress and gain no fulfillment from starting a game from the
    beginning again and again. These seem, IMO, to be fairly
    distinct groups.

I’ve mentioned my dislike of permadeath in various contexts, such as Crawl mailing lists, and more than 80% of the responses fall into one of two categories, as follows.

You Just Haven’t Played Enough

People routinely accuse me of just being inexperienced. The idea is that if I played the roguelike in question more, I would get better at it. I’ve had people go so far as to say (and this is nearly a direct quote) that with more experience it would become obvious to me that permadeath is the most fun way to play the game.

I’ve been playing roguelikes off and on since about 1993. So, just no. My experience is not the problem.

There’s Something Wrong With You

People routinely accuse me, in more or less polite ways, of being lazy or stupid or emotionally fragile.

I haven’t had an IQ test as an adult, so you’ll have to take my word for it that I’m not stupid, but I am a successful Linux systems administrator for a living. It’s tricky to do that and be a drooling moron at the same time.

As far as laziness, that’s really an entirely seperate issue. I enjoy action RPGs because I enjoy advancing characters (more of this later). I am willing to spend staggering amounts of time researching and tweaking and grinding and so on to improve a character. I get no enjoyment whatsoever out of losing a character, or having to play a character’s early levels over and over and over and over and over.

In this context, I am, in fact, emotionally fragile. Character death in roguelikes has been known to cause me to weep and/or feel nauseated. And so what? What business is it of yours, anyways? I play games to have fun. Telling me “oh, you don’t like permadeath, you’re a wuss!” is functionally equivalent to saying “oh, permadeath isn’t fun for you”. Yes, I’m pretty sure that’s exactly what I said. Thanks. Maybe having that response means there’s something wrong with me, but I seem to have arranged an enjoyable, functional life despite any emotional problems I might have, so I’ll thank you to keep your opinions on this to yourself. I repeat: I play games to have fun. Permadeath isn’t fun for me. Deal with it.

Permadeath And Fun, From My Point Of View

Some people seem to think that permadeath is fun. This is utterly incomprehensible to me. As an example, from the Berlin Interpretation definition of roguelikes:

    You are not expected to win the game with your first character.
    You start over from the first level when you die. (It is
    possible to save games but the savefile is deleted upon
    loading.) The random environment makes this enjoyable rather
    than punishing.

That … just makes no sense to me. Random environments make no difference whatsoever to my experience of permadeath.

Permadeath bothers me because my primary interest in RPGs is advancing my character. Through the plot, through the land, through power progressions, the works. Learning about the game world is a distant second. Learning how to play better is an extremely distant third.

As an example, I currently have something like 6 characters in Sacred 2, which has no random environments of any kind as far as I can tell, nor random anything else. I have all those characters because I want to try out different skills and classes and so on; exploring different character options. Every character goes through the same quests, in the same places, and so on. That really doesn’t bother me very much. I can’t even tell you how many times I played through the first few chapters of Diablo 2, trying out different character options. Dozens, surely.

When a character dies, my internal experience is that every moment I spent playing that character was entirely wasted.

Boom, 10+ hours of my life gone, as though I had been sitting staring at a wall drooling.

Yes, I know, I still had fun all that time, but I assure you that the overwhelming disappointment is more than sufficient to counteract that.

Worse than that are the roguelikes that are actually designed to be hard and to prevent grinding (Crawl, I’m looking at you!), because in those, most of the time, I don’t get to do enough character development to really enjoy the character’s possibilities before I die. To my mind, that time really is utterly wasted, and that’s frustrating as hell.

Punishment For Death Is Good, Just Not Quite So Much

In case I’ve given the wrong impression, I do want there to be some kind of punishment for death. Fable 2 has basically none, and I find that very jarring and unpleasant. I just want something not quite so severe. Strip me of all my money. Revert me to a long-ago save. Knock off a few levels. Just don’t completely destroy all my hard work.

Permadeath And Tension

An early response to this essay was that I’m missing the point: permadeath is about increasing tension; it’s supposed to be scary. Creating a massively powerful character is supposed to be scary and lethally dangerous. I was told that “cheating removes all the tension in bad situations and the feeling of accomplishment when getting out from there alive”.

That’s just not how it works for me. A decent death punishment that doesn’t destroy all my hard work provides plenty of tension and fear. Permadeath provides unacceptable (to me) levels of terror. Again, not fun for me.

By The Way, It’s Not Just Me

No-one ever actually says it’s just me, but when I get a no-permadeath patch (where cheating death clearly marks your character for all time, and is entirely optional) rejected because “it isn’t fun” (not “I don’t find it fun” or “this community doesn’t find it fun”), that says that The Absolute And Eternal Fun Scale has been consulted and found that I’m full of shit. So yeah, while no-one ever actually says it’s just me, it’s pretty strong implicit.

Diablo 2 has sold over 4 million copies. I doubt very much that 4 million people have even heard of all roguelikes combined. Some of that is because they aren’t pretty, but look at the surge of intrest in Dwarf Fortress a while back: tons of people in the fairly-mainstream-gaming crowd were blogging about how awesome it was, and not only is it character based, it has the most user-hostile UI I’ve ever seen.

Seriously: I’m not the only person out there who doesn’t like permadeath.

Save Scumming Doesn’t Really Help

It is possible, with varying amounts of effort, to make copies of a roguelike’s save files so that you can continue from your last save, cheating the permadeath system.

This doesn’t really make much difference, because you can still end up in a place where it’s near-impossible to advance further in the game. A friend mentions that running out of food is a big one for this; many roguelikes simply may not generate enough food in the dungeon for you to survive. You can reload the save as many times as you want. Another good example is when the random generation routines produce a severly over-powered monster between you and the down stairs. For many character classes, that’s the end of the road.

Wizard Mode Helps Even Less

People routinely tell me to use wizard mode to “solve” this problem (and then go on to tell me that this completely ruins the fun of the game). Wizard mode means there’s no punishment for death… or anything else. There also doesn’t need to be any character advancement, because you can just set your character to any level you like. That really doesn’t sound like fun to me. As soon as I open up the wizard menu (or whatever) to punish myself appropriately (and manually) for death, it’s obvious that I can do anything I want. There’s no challenge at all.

It seems that when I say “I want a different kind of challenge” or “I want a slightly less severe challenge” people here “I want no challenge at all”. That’s really not the case.

Why Even Play Roguelikes, Then?

Permadeath is actually a definitional part of roguelikes to most people, who then wonder why I’m going anywhere near roguelikes if I don’t like permadeath. The answer is simple: roguelikes are, in many ways, better than all other action RPGs I’ve played.

People get all hung up on definitions, so let me just say right out: if you want to call a roguelike without permadeath something else (an “action RPG” is the usual choice), that’s fine. I don’t care what term you use. It’s still the case that all of the games I’ve played that call themselves roguelikes do certain things better than all the games I’ve played that call themselves action RPGs, but I still can’t stand permadeath.

As I’ve said before, the fun of action RPGs for me is about character advancement, and I like to try out different character types and skill sets and so on. I’ll use examples here from Crawl, because it’s my favorite roguelike, and Diablo 2, because it’s my favorite action RPG (although Sacred 2 is also quite excellent).

Diablo 2 (with the expansion) has the following classes: Amazon, Paladin, Sorceress, Barbarian, Necromancer, Druid, and Assassin. It has no race/class distinction.

The following are the race and class selection screens from Crawl:

a - Human                     b - High Elf
c - Grey Elf                  d - Deep Elf
e - Sludge Elf                f - Mountain Dwarf
g - Halfling                  h - Hill Orc
i - Kobold                    j - Mummy
k - Naga                      l - Gnome
m - Ogre                      n - Troll
o - Ogre-Mage                 p - Draconian
q - Centaur                   r - Demigod
s - Spriggan                  t - Minotaur
u - Demonspawn                v - Ghoul
w - Kenku                     x - Merfolk

a - Fighter                   b - Wizard
c - Priest                    d - Thief
e - Gladiator                 f - Necromancer
g - Paladin                   h - Assassin
i - Berserker                 j - Hunter
k - Conjurer                  l - Enchanter
m - Fire Elementalist         n - Ice Elementalist
o - Summoner                  p - Air Elementalist
q - Earth Elementalist        r - Crusader
s - Death Knight              t - Venom Mage
u - Chaos Knight              v - Transmuter
w - Healer                    y - Reaver
z - Stalker                   A - Monk
B - Warper                    C - Wanderer

You’ll notice a teensy little difference in scope there: ignoring entirely the choices you make after you start the character, Diablo 2 has 7 different character starting points, and Crawl has on the order of four hundred.

Crawl also has a better skill set, more monster types (by far), more loot of every variety, and so on, and so on, and so on. It is, in almost every respect, a better game, which is why I want to play it, but I can’t, because dying with a character that’s lasted longer than an hour or two is an emotionally crushing, soul destroying experience for me.

On a more selfish note, I really like to have a game to play in a Unix shell; it’s nearly indistinguishable from the work I do to the casual eye, and sometimes I need a break.

The only places that action RPGs win are prettiness, plot and UI, and I’m told ADoM has a pretty decent plot.

Good Roguelikes Or Action RPGs Without Permadeath; Seeking Help Here

I’d really like to find things of the complexity of roguelikes without permadeath, and I have so far almost entirely failed. Please mail me if you have any ideas along those lines.

Please note that I am totally willing to trade time for security here: if I have the option of scumming low-level monsters for hours on end to make myself nearly invincible so I don’t have to worry about death for the rest of the game, that’s a fair trade off in my books, but most roguelikes go out of their way to prevent that.

Here’s a short list; I could make a huge list of standard commercial action RPGs here, but those are easy to find. I’d love to find text-based (especially stuff I can run in a Linux shell window!) stuff, and/or stuff with the real depth and complexity of games like Crawl, and I’ve mostly failed.

  • GearHead is text based, has a plot, and has no permadeath. I’ve honestly no idea why I’ve never gotten seriously addicted to it. I do prefer fantasy-based RPGs, which it isn’t, so that may be relevant. I think I’ll go try it again, though.
  • Diablo 2 and Sacred 2 get mentioned just because they’re my favorite commercial action RPGs.

Here are some I found after writing this essay by searching The RogueBasin Roguelike Wiki. This was quite surprising, because other searches I’ve done haven’t turned up much.

  • MAngband apparently has a different death system. Haven’t tried it yet, but played a fair bit of Angband back in the day.
  • Legerdemain I haven’t tried yet.
  • Deliantra I haven’t tried yet.
  • Egoboo I haven’t tried yet.
  • CryptRL I haven’t tried yet.