Last week, I made the plunge (puns) and gave into the temptation to download the incredibly silly time-waster known as Mola Mola. From numerous people I follow on Twitter, I kept seeing notifications about fish dying in tragic ways. I was curious, and decided to give it a try. It’s free – what could go wrong? The game is like a million other products that run on the mechanics of behavioral psychology and a variable-ratio reinforcement schedule. There is even an achievement for tapping on your mola 3,000 in one game, which is ridiculous. Did I complete this task? Of course I did! When you play the game, the goal is to grow a bigger fish, survive grander adventures, and unlock more and better food. Rinse (oh, puns), and repeat.
The unique thing about Mola Mola is that death, which happens frequently, suddenly – and quite tragically I might add – actually makes you stronger in the next play through. When your fish dies, the likelihood that it will die again from the same cause is reduced. For example, your fish could die sunbathing (just trust me). The first time you go on the sunbathing adventure, you have a 50% chance of surviving. When you die by sunbathing the first time, the chance of survival increases to 75%. When you die by sunbathing a second time, the survival rate increases to 95%. Also, when you die, you earn Mola Points (MP) that can be used to buy food and adventures – so death makes you stronger. If MP reminds you of experience points (XP), then you are correct; it’s exactly like XP.
Death is often seen as a negative outcome in gaming. Death in videogames often leads to the player starting over from a checkpoint to progress through a level again in the hopes of learning from their errors. Death in tabletop games often ends the adventure for the character that has died – unless he or she is brought back to life through some type of game mechanic or divine/DM intervention. Mola Mola takes the outcome of death and turns it into something that is rewarding and makes it easier to advance further in future games. Below, I explore how Mola Mola-style death could be used to inject more life into your next roleplaying game session.
Here We Are At the Death of All Things
From what I have played of 5th Edition Dungeon & Dragons, it seems the early-level characters – especially Level 1 – are incredibly squishy and prone to early deaths. However, I have also noted others speak (I’m looking at you Mike Shea) about some challenging character builds such as the Mood Druid that can be downright dominant against anything the DM throws into a combat encounter. For the purposes of this article, I will ignore any balancing issues that are present in the current edition of D&D. In addition, the concepts discussed from this point forward could be applied to any roleplaying game system.
The Killer Dungeon. The mechanics of Mola Mola could be sampled by creating an environment that behaves differently from the standard rules that apply to death in the game. It could be a mysterious temple, ancient ruin, or lone-forgotten cave; whatever fits into your campaign story. The players could be alerted to the unique nature of the special environment with a series of clues from prominent NPCs or investigation as they enter the site. For example, a wizened scholar could describe legends that portray a specific cult as gaining strength from death, or perhaps a series of runes leading up to the temple that repeat the same phrase, “Sacrifice makes all stronger.”
During the course of the delve in The Killer Dungeon, the odds will be stacked in favor of the environment (e.g., traps, hazards) and the monsters. When the first PC dies during the delve the DM can introduce the Mola Mola Death Rules, which can have no limit in terms of creativity. A few buffs that could be applied to the dying character or the party:
- Bonus to attack/damage rolls
- Increased hit points
- Increased armor class
- Increased damage resistance
When players realize that death is not permanent in this environment, a few things are likely to happen. First, they are likely to become bolder with their actions. I have sat through many a game session as a player and DM when the hand-wringing about what actions to take grinds the game to a halt. Players do not want to suffer negative consequences that could result in their death – so there is a tendency to play it safe. When it becomes clear that death is not the end of the character’s life and actually provides bonuses to the PC and/or party, then players are likely to become increasingly reckless. The combat-without-consequences approach is not something that would be useful all the time, but it could provide a nice change of pace for a group that is incredibly cautious in their approach to combat and exploration.
Second, the tension may be drained from the session since the threat of death is removed. To remedy this, link the events in The Killer Dungeon to a time limit. For example, make it clear that the party only has so much time to complete their task in the dungeon before they are “locked inside forever.” When players realize that a) death makes them stronger and b) they only have so much time to complete the delve, then they may go out of their way to die in spectacular fashion. Perhaps they even resort to attacking each other, which could be comical. If death by losing hit points is no longer a permenant threat, then the DM has to develop another source of tension; a time limit seems to be the easiest to implement.
The Puzzle Box. Another option for using the mechanics in Mola Mola is to sample how it rewards players for dying in different ways. When you die while playing Mola Mola in a new way – whether it be by getting caught in a net and turned in sushi or too much flash photography – you gain a buff for all future gameplays in terms of how quickly you grow from eating food. It becomes desirable to find new ways to die; for the record, I cheated. One way to utilize this approach to death in a roleplaying game is to establish an environment that requires players to die (or simply drop to 0 hit points – your call) in different ways to reach a specific goal. For example, a dungeon may require numerous sacrifices to unlock an area with an artifact the party needs to defeat an evil lich.
The DM could again rely on NPCs or other clues to alert the players how they need to advance in the dungeon. One option is to provide a riddle to the players before the reach the location or right when they enter:
Seekers of the lost
Claws tear right
Fire burns swift
Acid melts the soul
Spikes of might
Incur pain to advance
I am not a poet; please give the riddle and clues more pizzazz as needed! The gist is a party member has to die (or drop to 0 hit points, which would make things a bit easier) from each of the following methods: an attack from a creature with claws, burning from a source of fire, suffering acid damage, being impaled by spikes. Another option would be for the spirit of another adventurer who died in the dungeon to give the party instructions about how they need to harm themselves to advance. The dynamics of these interactions could be really memorable as the players progress through the dungeon.
“No, trust me, you need to jump in that pit of spikes. IT’S THE ONLY WAY FORWARD!”
The DM could make the spirit unique in multiple ways; an old sage who relied on study to learn the secrets of the dungeon, a brash fighter who is not aware he or she has already died, or a charismatic rogue who helps – and taunts – the party. The DM could modify the methods of death/unconsciousness required to progress in the dungeon to suit his or her whims or whatever they feel fits into the environment or dynamics of the players.
The two ideas presented above can shake up the dynamics of life and death in your ongoing campaign. It may stretch players to use their characters in different ways, remove an element of caution from their actions, and provide unique memories for everyone at the table. There are likely other methods to implement the mechanics of Mola Mola into a roleplaying game. What are your ideas on how to make death rewarding for players?