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Dungeons & Dragons Roleplaying Games

“The Hickman Revolution” & Character Coddling

Yesterday, in “Why Cthulhu Excels in Gaming” I touched on the topic of aversion to character death in science fiction and fantasy campaigns — a phenomenon I refer to as character coddling. Today, I stumbled on a topic via YouTube from The DM Lair that speaks further to the issue. It regards something called “The Hickman Revolution.”

In the clip below, Luke of The DM Lair says the following:

If you’ve played D&D long enough, you will have certainly noticed that with every subsequent edition of the game, it seems to get harder and harder to kill PCs. The game gets less and less lethal, and the PCs become more and more likely to live through the entire campaign. And with fifth edition as we currently have it, I can confidently say having DM’d the game for multiple groups for over half a decade, that it is nearly impossible to kill PCs. These game design decisions were, naturally, influenced by players who want the story and want to see their characters live through the entire campaign to see it all conclude.

I had never heard of “The Hickman Revolution,” or the notion that Tracy Hickman — co-creator of the Dungeons & Dragons “Dragonlance” series — deserved blame for controversial contemporary trends of the RPG industry, but the phenomenon of power bloat has existed for as long as I’ve played roleplaying games.

Luke explains that “The Hickman Revolution” has become a pejorative. The term refers to the following recommendations Hickman wrote in an adventure module titled “Pharaoh”:

  1. Characters should have an “objective more worthwhile than simply pillaging and killing.”
  2. Campaigns should have “an intriguing story that is intimately woven into the play itself.”
  3. Dungeons should reflect “some kind of architectural sense.”
  4. Players should have “an attainable and honorable end within one or two sessions of playtime.”

Source: Tavisallison. (March 23, 2012) “manifesto of the hickman [sic] revolution.” The Mule Abides: Manifesto of the Hickman Revolution | The Mule Abides (wordpress.com)

So far, so good. Seems reasonable, right? So what’s the problem?

It stems from a sentiment among some players that narrative has overshadowed, or eclipsed, the original game. The argument runs like so:

  1. Roleplaying games have become too narrative.
  2. Players must see their characters through to the end of said narratives because they are the protagonists.

As a result, campaign power level runs amok because the game focuses too much on the narrative and plot of characters who never die. The game no longer feels like Dungeons & Dragons.

The phenomenon culminates with game masters dissatisfied that they cannot challenge PCs who are too powerful and players who resent game masters “railroading” them through plot points (more on “railroading” and sandboxes in another post).

In general, D&D has become bloated and game masters do sometimes force players through plot hoops. Nevertheless, to attribute these problems to Tracy Hickman’s recommendations in “Pharaoh” remains preposterous. While I agree campaign story arcs become obscenely overblown (a trend that mirrors other forms of popular American entertainment), there’s no reason the original characters need endure to the end, aside from unsporting players who feel entitled to coddling.

The problem remains character death — the lack of it.

Bottom line — if you’re the game master, be the George R. R. Martin of game masters. Kill your players’ characters. Kill them early in the campaign — kill them often.

Remember, a game without the possibility of failure is not any kind of game at all — it’s a mutual admiration society.

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