is a concept originally from
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
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
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 essays.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
Some people seem to think that permadeath is fun. This is
utterly incomprehensible to me. As an example, from the
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.