This month, Dungeons and Dragons Online will be venturing where many MMORPGs have feared to tread: into the realm of officially supported permadeath. The 90-day “hardcore league” server will be an interesting experiment to see how popular this ruleset might be — and whether or not it has legs to justify a longer run in the future.
Permadeath has long been one of the most hotly debated topics among MMO players for both its brutal concept and its painful allure. It seems like anathema to institute a ruleset in MMORPGs to permanently get rid of a character upon his, her, or its first death — especially when you consider that this genre is all about serious time investment and long-term progression.
But DDO is hardly the first MMO to flirt with this idea. Several titles in the past have taken this discussion past the academic realm and implemented it into their games — for better or for worse. Let’s take a look at many cases of how permadeath have been tried in online games.
Probably the most famous example of MMO permadeath comes not from an entire server ruleset, but rather a single class in an otherwise normal realm. To help keep Jedi appropriately rare in Star Wars Galaxies, the designers originally made it so that these characters would be forever killed. That permadeath decision was reversed only a few months after the Jedi started appearing the game, as players protested the elimination of a whole lot of hard work due to griefers and bounty hunters coming after them in droves.
The ARPs: Diablo II, Diablo III, Hellgate: London, and Path of Exile
While permadeath may be extremely fringe in the MMO world, in online action RPGs such as Path of Exile, it’s embraced as a frequent feature. Since these games encourage rerolling all the time anyway, it makes sense that permadeath wouldn’t be seen as such a huge issue. Besides, these games have figured out a clever way to enforce permadeath on one server while allowing you to transfer and continue your character elsewhere afterward.
If RuneScape players want to experience the game with all the safeties off, they can elect to activate the Hardcore Ironman mode. Jagex does allow players to buy two more “lives” during a character’s run, but that’s it: “Please note that Jagex will not reverse the death of a Hardcore Ironman character for any reason — even in the event of connection issues, or account hijacking.”
In case you were wondering, yes, Old School RuneScape got in on the permadeath fun as well.
While some MMOs have permadeath worked into it later, others include it into their foundational DNA. Realm of the Mad God is an insane action-shooter-fantasy romp where you’re expected to die. A lot. But even though those deaths are permanent, your actions live on through unlocks and other forms of progression, so it’s all good. It’s kind of the approach that other projects, such as John Smedley’s late Hero’s Song, contemplated.
While its western version died back in 2016, Wizardry Online left an interesting legacy of game design. Permadeath was included as a fact of life in the game, but the game designers made it to be somewhat rare. Players had varying opportunities to resurrect (less the more you died, however), giving a chance to rally back before one’s character was lost forever. This wasn’t an incredibly popular MMORPG, although the permadeath feature was probably not to blame for this.
With all of the different server rulesets that EQ has boasted over the years, it makes sense that permadeath would have made a (short-lived) appearance as a 2003 shard. According to one player who was there, “It didn’t last very long, but I enjoyed it for about a week. It was original EQ only, and only to level 50. Basically if you died at any point your character would get reset and wiped, and your bank emptied — and you’d end up back in your newbie zone at level 1 with nothing but newbie gear.”
Yes indeed, adorable turn-based MMO Dofus actually brought out permadeath “heroic” and “epic” server options back in 2007. With the increased risk came some nice bonuses, such as much faster progression and gear acquisition. These servers have continued to run since their incarnation, which might make them some of the longest-lasting permadeath shards in the genre.
Very few people are even aware of this small — and incredibly old — MMORPG that placed a huge emphasis on roleplaying. Interesting enough, the team decided in 2002 that permadeath would actually enhance roleplay and so incorporated it with the Dreamstrike mechanic.
No, Age of Conan never had a proper permadeath server, but we’re talking about “flirting” with the feature, remember? And Funcom did just that when it added a semi-permadeath mode that would pay out in special rewards only while players were on their first life. Die, and a character could continue — but the exclusive goodies wouldn’t.
Is it too meta to put a game on this list which has been permanently axed? Yet Survived By has to be mentioned here because its very game design was set up to see player characters “survived by” an endless wave of successors after their one-and-done run had wrapped up. It’s too bad that this one bought the farm back in April.
Newcomer indie fantasy MMO Legends of Aria always had permadeath servers as an option in its blueprint, although it seemed to drift away from promoting that over time. However, back in 2018 the team ran a special permadeath event. Characters could rez if killed in PvE, and were only forever gone in PvP if they ran out of “savior points.”
Far before graphical MMORPGs came along, multi-user dungeons (MUDs) had experimented with permadeath on certain servers. 1991’s hardcore DartMUD was early on the scene with this, although other games like FiranMUX, Sindome, Armageddon, Clok, Harshlands, The Inquisition Legacy, Ateraan, Legends of the Jedi, and several more offer this if you’re looking for an experience that most MMOs eschew.