Permadeath (short for permanent death) is one of the main features of roguelikes. It consists in the fact that once your character dies in the game, you can't restore him to a previous status via save-files or save-states. This means that once your character dies, he is dead for good.
Although the feature is commonly referred to as "Permadeath", it applies not only to death: whatever bad (or good) thing happens to your character, you cannot go back in time. (One exception: roguelikes should allow the player to restore character if the game crashes due to a bug or external reason.)
The idea may scare people from other RPG genres, such as console and common "plot" RPGs, as it is common custom to reload the game after something bad happens to the main character or his party; however, this feature makes roguelikes unique, demanding all your attention and thinking your best moves because the life of your character must be kept.
There are only a few roguelikes that lack permanent death, see Alternatives to Permadeath.
Permadeath is not as horrible as it might sound at first. The design of roguelikes is built around this concept. This is one of the reasons why they tend to be light in plot. Unlike an RPG, where starting over can involve doing the same hundred page conversation over again, a roguelike presents you with fresh challenges every game. Some other traditional roguelike features, like hidden traps and requirement to identify potions, also make more sense with permadeath.
As a good example of a game feature which makes more sense with permadeath, ADOM has pools which you can drink from. Every time you do, you get a random effect, which can be good or bad. For example, you have a small chance (1%) of getting a wish, which is a very good thing. It is also possible (with chance, say, 10%) that the pool will dry up, making you unable to drink from it anymore. By saving the game after getting each wish or another good effect, and reloading the game each time the pool dries up or you get something unpleasant, you could easily get all the good effects and as many wishes as you want from a single pool. Permadeath makes sure that the pool is unpredictable as it was supposed to be: you have a chance to get a wish or even several wishes, but you also have a chance to become doomed. Some players will instantly drink from each pool they come across, some players will wait with it until their character will be able to overcome any potential bad effects, and some will decide to never drink from pools for fear of their bad effects. Similar features exist in other roguelikes, like NetHack and IVAN.
Of course, roguelikes have saving facilities that allow long games to be played for several days, weeks or even months; but the save-file is deleted upon the death of the character.
The Permadeath can usually easily be avoided via backup of save files, however this is widely considered as cheating, and not the right way of playing the games. Using backups of save files is known as Savescumming.
Some argue, that Permadeath is just an obsolete heritage from systems that couldn't handle proper save/load, that it is taking away the freedom of the player to play with the game, yet the concept has still a strong support in the roguelike world.
Some commonly accepted advantages of permadeath are:
- It produces the feeling of responsibility—you will be responsible for your actions. If you fail on a quest, it's all your fault and you have to live with it. If you attack a friendly and he dies—you will suffer the consequences. The player is more attached to his character, for he knows he may lose him. This increases immersion.
- It produces the feeling of anticipation/fear—will you win? Or will you not? If I go into those caves now it might be the end of me, if I attack that dragon will I stand a chance? If not these 2 weeks of playing will be lost! Again—it increases the immersion.
- It cautions the player against doing stupid actions—the player will play more realistically, won't go for unnecessary risks, and hence feel that the world is more real—immersion.
- It makes the game harder—if you fail at a task after playing for a while, you need to cope with it, and try to rise back. What means that you will face more challenges. And feel more satisfaction if you win—for you know you could lose and have to live with it. The reward for the player when winning is hence a lot bigger—a lot more satisfaction.
Permadeath in other genres
The permadeath concept may be excellent and accepted within the roguelike genre, but it won't work with every game. It might, however work great with Civilization-type games, in which you can suffer setbacks as well as victories.
Generally Permadeath may work with games in which:
- There are not sudden-death situations -- because if they do, then permadeath makes the game really frustrating (some roguelikes suffer from this)
- There are many options of failure that do not lead to lose the game -- failures are very interesting, for they provide a challenge. In roguelikes non-death failures are for example losing a valuable item to a monster attack, getting your levels drained, etc.
- There is enough balance to assure that the failures do not mean game over. If one failure would mean that you don't stand a chance in the rest of the game then it would in fact be a game over, thus violating the sudden-death rule.
Permadeath would probably be a bad idea in FPS games, as these games violate all of the above requirements. RTS's on the other hand, are fine in mission-scope, but violate the rules in campaign scope; however, if the campaign had a branching system (in which for example if you lose a mission you go to another mission, and if you win, you advance to another mission), then they would work really well, and it would gain a lot of replay value by the way. The branching feature wouldn't work at all with save/load because the work spent on all those missions that are not on the all-win path would be wasted, as most players would load each time they had lost a mission.
Some games, although not permadeath by nature, are reported to be played without using the save/load features for the sake of challenge, some games that would fit such requirements could belong to the strategy/tactics games, games such as UFO, Syndicate, Civilization and Master Of Magic.
In some massive multiplayer games, (OGame for example), one may find permafailure to be an appealing feature, not because of the multiplayer nature of the game, but because for example, each time a fleet is sent, or do something vital has to be decided, there is a feeling of anticipation, and a little nervousness, because the decision will be final, there is no save/load to back up a mistake.
This concept may be called permafailure, and is related directly to Permadeath.