It's tense frustration, really; at best, anxiety. The feeling is familiar to most people who have played a single-player computer RPG recently. Leading your party down a dark and mysterious cavern, your finger is poised over F2 or F5 or whatever button quicksaves. Every so often, you tap the button, watch a progress bar move, the action pauses for a moment, and then you get back to the tunnel. Suddenly, a spike thrusts up from the floor. Your wizard is dead. So it's F3 or F7, a longer pause - "LOADING" emblazoned on the screen - a hang in the music, and then the wizard's alive again, a few feet farther back. Perhaps you're wondering how your versions of the indomitable Conan, Gandalf and Robin of Locksley started dying faster than Dirk the Daring. More likely, though, you're just muttering about why developers can't find a way to speed up quickloading. It's supposed to be quick, after all.

The Problem
Consider the following pieces of sage advice. IGN.com warns Oblivion players: "You'll want to save a lot ... since things can quickly go wrong. The game occasionally autosaves, but you'll need to stay conscious to save as often as possible." UHS's fourth general hint for Baldur's Gate II cries, "SAVE OFTEN! You'll probably die quite a bit." The definitive BGII walkthrough on GameFAQs elaborates that there are three times the player should save: when you win a battle, when you rest and "everywhere else." After all, "you never know when you will go to a new area, have your best warrior charmed, and have half your party killed." To be safe, use 10 save slots! The same warnings abound for Fallout 1 and 2, or for any other contemporary Western cRPG .

This "hardcore" aspect of Western RPGs is often treated as a badge of honor, as though the frequency of death is equated with challenge. Games with low death rates coddle the player; they invite "newbies" and "idiots" and "crybabies" whose presence in the target demographic will surely lead to a dumbing down of the game's story and gameplay. Killing the player ensures consequences for failure; it adds tension; it ensures that combat does not become the sort of mindless grind endemic to Japanese RPGs and MMOGs. Or so the theory goes.

In fact, this theory doesn't hold water. When the only consequence of failure is death, and death is instantly undone by loading a saved game, failure becomes nothing more than a minor, meaningless inconvenience.

"Death is Different"
Outside of computer games, it is usually taken for granted that death is the ultimate sanction. In the beginning, RPGs took this lesson to heart: For pen and paper (P&P) games, death was rare and seldom "true" (raising or resurrection was usually just around the corner), and penalties more often took the form of attribute reductions, broken items, curses and the like. This is still true for P&P games today; the 3.5 Edition of the Dungeons & Dragons DM Manual describes the death of the entire party as "rare" and notes that it should be used to create new gameplay opportunities, such as having a band of NPCs revive the party and place the heroes in their debt, or letting the players roll temporary characters to retrieve their principal team's bodies for resurrection. Only in the extremely rare case should the PCs' adventure end for good.

A good DM would usually find a way to penalize a player for his failure without killing him; after all, killing too many characters often left a DM without anyone to play with. So, when Eric the Brave failed at his roll to jump across a chasm, usually he would end up with broken legs (how will we get him out?) or trapped in a scorpion den (can he fend them off until rescued?) or something of the sort.

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