Runescape’s Deadman Mode: the best competitive game you’re not watching

It would all be gone in an hour. Five days of planning, training and gambling. Five days of hunting, hiding, killing and dying. Two thousand players wanted to leave Runescape’s Deadman Mode invitational $10,000 richer, and all but one of them would fail.

This was the scene on Saturday, June 25th. Runescape’s second Deadman Mode Invitational tournament reached its climax at 1 p.m. EST. The arrival of encircling fog forced players into an all-out brawl at Barbarian Village, to the delight of some 90,000 Twitch viewers. Competitors and onlookers were all there for the same reasons: to learn just how intense Deadman Mode can get, and to see for themselves who would win the grand prize.

Deadman Mode is the sharpest of the fangs that Jagex’s venerable MMO has grown over the past few months. A cut-throat PvP version of Old School Runescape, Deadman Mode effectively turns the entire world into one big Wilderness, the game’s otherwise-confined PvP zone.

Everyone has just five days to build their accounts up in preparation for the last-man-standing finale

 

But this ain’t your mama’s Wilderness. The in-game login notice puts it best: “welcome to Deadman Mode. On these worlds, you die.” For starters, there are no level restrictions. Anyone can kill anyone anywhere; a hungry level 90 player can, and probably will, prey on a level 70, or even a level 20 if they’re feeling cruel. What’s more, if you’re killed by a player, you’ll not only lose all the items you have on you, but also the 10 most valuable items from your bank. Here’s the real kicker: your skills will also be lowered by up to 50%. 

There is some carrot to the stick, though. Levels come much quicker than in ordinary Runescape, and a few can be protected from the, well, death penalty. You can also store 10 items in a deposit box that’s separate from your bank and safe from PKers. Safeguards like these make Deadman Mode more approachable, but dying still stings, especially in a tournament. It’s one thing to die in a three-month Seasonal where you have time to rebuild. Losing your stats in the tournament itself, where everyone has just five days to build their accounts up in preparation for the last-man-standing finale, can be crippling.

The Barbarian Village finale was a whirlwind of overhead prayers and AoE spells.

The question, then, is how do you play Deadman Mode to win?

To the surprise of no one, a lot of players focus on PKing. They spend their early hours training to build up basic abilities and gear, but their real goal is to gain the most power in the least amount of time, then immediately start killing other, weaker players. As Jagex’s Mathew ‘Mod MatK’ Kemp explains, this is a risky but potentially hugely rewarding way to play.

“If you can get your levels up really quickly to where you can PK, you can then kill lots of players and get loot from them,” Kemp says. “You then have an advantage in leveling up with a lot of money, since it’s a lot quicker for you to level.

“It’s really quite fun to watch, because people like to kill each other.”

Deadman Mode is ultimately one big race to the top, but there are numerous competitions nested within it that are unique to specific strategies. It’s this variety of mad dashes that creates the wildly experimental, gladiatorial culture that makes the game so entertaining. PKers, for example, fight tooth and nail over Ancient magic, which unlocks ice spells capable of freezing players in place, granting invaluable extra seconds to bring them down before they can reach a safe zone.

A map of Deadman Mode. Green areas are safe. Red, less so.

Because PKing is difficult and dangerous, many players go for the late-game route, opting to get their levels as high as possible while avoiding aggressive players at all cost. That way, when they finally take the PK plunge, they’re at least tougher to kill. Until then, theirs is game of stealth where lacking an escape route means death.

This drives people to take a closer look at the world of Runescape, both to find lesser-known training grounds and to root out nooks and crannies in which to hide. People use all kinds of screwy hideaways, from Agility shortcuts to obscure quest sites and guilds to Runecraft altars. In a similar vein, it behooves the late-game-minded to build an information network, lest they unwittingly walk into a clan’s territory.

So, what are these more passive players racing for? Slayer, more often than not. Players with 85 Slayer can kill abyssal demons for abyssal whips, one of the most powerful melee weapons. Naturally, the earlier you get a whip, the more it will fetch on the ever-fluctuating Deadman market, so the competition is fierce. PKing is a war all its own, but hell hath no fury like MMO players fighting for monster spawns. And for good reason: as prominent Runescape Twitch streamer B0aty demonstrated in the latest Invitational, a single whip drop can completely change your tournament standing and is well worth celebrating.

Deadman Mode brims with helter-skelter strategy and puts on a damn good show

There are even players who forego combat entirely in favor of leveling non-combat skills like Herblore and Cooking. At first glance, this flies in the face of Deadman Mode’s hardcore philosophy, but skillers fill a vital role. Nobody wants to PK or train without good potions and food, but not everyone has the stats to make the stuff themselves. So, skillers stand to profit immensely from supplying the players on the front lines. In fact, Saturday’s winner, player On Codeine, was a skiller who frequently sold to the tournament’s many Twitch streamers.

But you’d better believe there’s malice behind that profitable pacifism. It’s not unheard of for high-level skillers to team up with PKers and clans in mafia-esque agreements, providing discounted goods in exchange for protection, not to mention the elimination of rival skillers. Skills like Hunter are perfect for just such back-alley alliances, and you can bet that the hunter with a bodyguard will be catching more red chinchompas.

According to Kemp, over 300,000 people have already tried Deadman Mode, and it’s a clear hot button on Twitch and YouTube. Speaking as a viewer and former Runescape diehard, I can see why. Deadman Mode contorts Runescape, many an MMO fan’s nostalgic darling, into something violent and unpredictable. Replete with behavior we’ve come to expect from the likes of DayZ and H1Z1, Deadman Mode brims with helter-skelter strategy and puts on a damn good show. Because above all, it’s about danger.

“What [Deadman players are] experiencing, more than anything, is nervousness and fear,” Kemp says. “Players will go out into a dangerous area, they’ll try and do whatever activity they’re trying to do, and they will see somebody else coming toward them. And their heart will stop. They’ll think, ‘Have I got to log out now? Have I got to teleport away or run so I don’t get killed?’"

“And the other player they saw is thinking the exact same thing.”