Forcing Permadeath in Tactics Games

Permadeath is a staple of Fire Emblem, but most players just restart missions when somebody dies, which sort of defeats the purpose of the mechanic. How would you redesign permadeath to force players to deal with it rather than cheese to avoid it?

It’s tricky. You could go the obvious route and have no permanent save file to revert back to, but that’s harsh. My first thought was go dark souls and autosave constantly.

But then you run into the trouble of, what if everyone dies? Do you just reset everything? do you give them a checkpoint (that isn’t a save point) and restore the characters to what they had at that checkpoint? Then if they lose one character, they might just intentionally wipe their party, which is dumb and a waste of time on their part.

I asked a friend who is a fire emblem fan and he said you’re basically paying in the real time that you’re losing, so resetting is already a big punishment to players. Which makes me think that maybe permadeath isn’t actually supposed to be the intended consequence, maybe the permadeath thing isn’t supposed to be a real persistent factor, maybe it’s just a way to force loss-averse people to keep retrying. Maybe it’s a way to force people to play to a better standard of excellence, because if units revived, then you could just rush enemies down, and not worry about a few casualties, since they’ll be there the next mission. Maybe they don’t actually intend for you to lose units at all, they just hold that threat in the air so you’ll always try to play perfect.

The fundamental problem here is, you want people to occasionally basically be forced to progress with 1 less unit, to be forced to see things through when a unit dies, but you also want to always restart a mission with all your units intact. If you get a total wipe, then it’s ridiculous to ask people to go back to the beginning of the game.

Maybe it could be solved by having a set limit to how many characters can die per-mission. So if a character dies, they get marked for death automatically on the save file, meaning that if you lose the mission, that marked for death thing is still on the first 1, 2 or even 3 characters that died. Then when you complete the mission successfully, those marked for death characters die invariably. From there, build the game so you’re not allowed to revert to checkpoint in the middle of a battle, just suspend saves when you quit the game, meaning that if a character is about to die, you can only resume at the point you’re currently playing at, you can’t say quit the game and reload from checkpoint. Then if they die, you might wipe your whole party to restart from checkpoint, but that’s increasing your losses instead of decreasing them, creating an incentive to continue with the mission. So you’re allowing people to retry with all their characters, but they still take losses as they go and can’t reset. If you’re really harsh on people, you could even allow another 3 characters to be marked for death on the retry, or just allow the whole squad to be marked for death post-mission, assuming there’s backup units waiting in reserve.

Though talking to my friend, I don’t think anyone actually loses units intentionally. The fandom would probably hate a real solution here, they don’t actually want anyone to die.

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4 thoughts on “Forcing Permadeath in Tactics Games

  1. H October 31, 2016 / 5:53 am

    I see the “permadeath is pointless if you always just reset” argument made against Fire Emblem all the time and it’s infuriating.

    You’re completely right about the “force people to play better” bit; it’s not about making the player continue without their dead units, it’s about forcing the player to be cautious and figure out how to clear maps with no casualties. It prevents suicide/meatshield tactics, which indirectly forces many other things from the player. Using terrain and the weapon triangle to consistently mitigate bad RNG. Saving rare, low-durability weapons for the tough encounters where you really need them. Distributing experience points efficiently. You want to pick your handful of units and make sure they not just survive, but keep up with the EXP curve as well. There are like 40+ recruitable units in a Fire Emblem game, and you’ll only be using maybe a quarter of them by the endgame. The games are frontloaded with high-potential units and backloaded with more mediocre ones. If early units fall behind they’ll struggle to pull their weight, and you’ll be forced to swap them out for the less ideal replacement units. This is the same thing you’d need to do if those early units had died; the penalty for barely scraping by is still there even if everyone survives.

    Self-imposed no-restart runs are viable and fun in their own way, and it’d be nice if you could force that as a difficulty option when you make a new save file, but it doesn’t diminish the value of permadeath as a mechanic in the default modes.

    This all applies from Seisen no Keifu through Radiant Dawn at least. The 3DS games, Awakening and Fates, are mixed bags and not really representative of the series as a whole. Bland maps, overpowered units, paid DLC that lets the player grind, etc.

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    • Chris Wagar October 31, 2016 / 6:03 am

      Cool breakdown, thanks for the information. The EXP thing is a great point.

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    • Han March 21, 2017 / 11:36 am

      Conquest does not let you grind and DLCs are paid option that wasn’t designed to be in the game. They are there due to publisher pragmatic attempt to obtain more cash from the game. I don’t get this mentality where Awakening and both Fates games dismissed just because the former and half of the latter allows grinding and have paid DLC that ease that up.

      Does that mean SMT IV and SMT Apocalypse are not representative of their series just because they have that paid DLC for grinding? This particular dismissal have weak basis and only stems from elitism more than anything else. Why? Because while I see discussion that Nocturne is better, I never encountered any argument that dismissed the entirety of SMT IV instalment just because they have paid DLC for grinding. This shit only happened to FE and it’s not surprising that the one always does this will found a way to mention Path of Radiance.

      Don’t get me wrong, I wholeheartedly agree on your breakdown on the importance of permadeath despite the existence of soft resetting (they intentionally lets you to reset easily). However your unnecessary last remark shows the kind of elitism that create rift between veteran newcomers in the first place.

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  2. Joevan Salmon-Johnson January 23, 2017 / 12:13 am

    Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones does the whole “constantly auto-saving” thing, and still ended up really easy, so I don’t really see the issue with that approach. (Albeit, it still allowed you to restart, but forced you to play the entire chapter from the beginning)

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