Unconventional Leveling, post #1: permadeath as a foundation for intense player experiences

Suurahl. He died. He was 14. R.I.P.

One of the topics I hope to write about a bit here is the concept of unconventional leveling.

The WoW Ironman Challenge

The idea was partially inspired by a post by Psynister last summer called WoW Ironman Challenge.  I didn’t actually read the post until sometime last October or November, but once I did, I branched out and found some more posts that discussed fun ways to level.  In particular, The Overlooked Heroes of WoW – Unconventional Ways To Level by Ironyca was an eye-opening collection of various ideas about how to spice up the leveling game.  And Tome of the Ancient brought her warlock, Ironsally, to 85 back in October following the Ironman Challenge rules, which was a heroic feat!

This winter, the idea caught fire, and a large-scale WoW Ironman was started by players world-wide, complete with a website, WoWIronman.com, and database to keep track of participants (the rules are at this link also).  This challenge had a slightly more strict set of rules than Psynister & Co.’s, and Kripparrian won this challenge back in February, bringing his troll hunter to 85 in an impressively short amount of time.

Permadeath in DDO

Before the Ironman, though, inspiration came from reading about the permadeath playstyle that was burgeoning in Dungeons & Dragons Online a few years ago.  The idea of permadeath, which is also a condition of the WoW Ironman, is generally that you play a character until it dies.  There are degrees of ‘hardcore’-ness associated with permadeath: often permadeath guilds in DDO have strict rules that state that a member plays until the character dies, and then he or she must delete that character and re-roll if they want to continue.  Other guilds and sets of rules have less ‘final’ or brutal standards, but the concept is basically the same.

I found the idea of permadeath to be very intriguing when I read about it.  Karthis at the now-defunct Of Teeth And Claws blog first brought it to my attention after he quit playing WoW and was looking into new MMO experiences.  His first article on the subject, Craving Death, literally had me craving a permadeath character!  However, he has stopped blogging entirely, and the blog has gone down, so that post and its followups are sadly no longer available.  He did post about permadeath on the Gamers With Jobs forum back in October 2009, and that post and responses are still viewable here.

One of the things that makes permadeath, as well as the Ironman, special is its contrast to the way of modern MMOs.  In WoW and similar games, there is generally a lot of character death.  There have been articles and blog posts all over the place over the past several years about two related subjects: how easy it is to level, and how small the penalty is for dying.  In essence, we become fairly immune to death – it is reversible, and is an essential ingredient of progress, particularly at endgame.  Permadeath, on the other hand, immediately intensifies the playing experience, because you can put a great deal of work into a character, only to have it be nullified in an instant.  I’ve read many stories over the years about epic experiences had by players, either solo or in groups, playing a permadeath character.  DDO permadeath guilds will often take groups of characters that have a great deal of time invested in them into an instance or encounter, knowing that, for them, this could be the last battle.  And whether they come out unscathed or end up dead to the last man, the end result is often an epic and unforgettable experience.

My meager experiences with permadeath

For all of my interest in permadeath, I have only attempted it five times in WoW.

A few years ago, after I first read about permadeath in DDO, I made a paladin that I took to level 10, and then decided that I didn’t want to level another paladin.  In 2010, I started a dwarf hunter that I took to 24, but eventually deleted him in order to make a worgen hunter (my current ‘other level 85 hunter’).  I made a tauren shaman, Suurahl (pictured above), on a different server last December, and he died at level 14 just south of Ratchet in a facepalm moment.  I then made an orc hunter who is currently 11, but hasn’t been played for four months now.  Finally, I made a dwarf hunter less than two weeks ago and took him to 15 in one evening – an evening which ended during a quest that I had never done before, where I was ambushed by a bunch of murlocs and mercilessly beaten to death.

What did I discover about permadeath with those characters?

While I only ever played at low levels, the experience was immediately much more meaningful because I knew that I had to be careful.  This adds an element to the game that can be missing, particularly for veteran players for whom leveling is basically a total piece of cake.  On my orc hunter, for instance, I was questing in a completely new area, and did find myself in some close shaves (where I was kiting with almost no kiting abilities), simply because I wasn’t questing on autopilot and didn’t necessarily know what was around the next corner.

On the two occasions where I died, I found myself to be markedly more upset than I normally would be by a character death.  On the shaman, where I was unfamiliar with the fatal quest, I went into an area where there was a quest target that was impossible to pull without also pulling the two closest mobs to it, and I was unable to handle the resulting carnage.  This left me upset with myself because I did not accept the situation for what it was, and so did not wait a couple of levels to be better able to handle all three at once.  The hunter death, on the other hand, took me completely by surprise, and left me mad at the quest for not indicating that I was likely to be attacked by a bunch of extra murlocs.  Had I gone to Wowhead and looked it up ahead of time, I would have had a slightly better idea of what I was up against, but part of what I liked about these experiences was playing new areas – it adds discovery and uncertainty to permadeath play.

Ultimately, there is something to the feeling of defeat when your character dies that is unique for veteran players at these lower levels.  I can only imagine that it intensifies at higher levels.  I found, in my limited experiences, that I was more immersed in the game, felt close to my character, and took it harder in various ways when it died.

I hope to someday level a character in an unconventional way that incorporates permadeath as a core condition.  If I do, I will share my experience with it here.

If you’ve had any interesting leveling experiences and would like to share them, feel free to comment!

More on Unconventional Leveling to come.

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Thanks for reading this post by Mushan at Mushan, Etc.  Comments are welcome!


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