2010-02-08 Character Death

I think that the fear of death and the risk of death are part of the core experience of D&D. Michael Curtis recently quoted Roger E. Moore from Dragon #144 who wrote about a lone paladin fighting a demon and winning. It’s an awesome story. The fear of death and a good story involving death or survival are important.

The antithesis of this is out-of-character complaining about the rules, asking for reconsiderations or rerolls because of this or that. That sucks all the drama out of the scene. Specially since we’re playing D&D and there’s nearly always a means of getting raised. All you loose is a level. Due to how XP work in D&D, you’re basically falling behind your peers for a few sessions only.

My personal motto:

“I prefer dying unfairly at the hands of a tough DM to living in shame, protected by a merciful DM!”

I’m not a masochist. I just want to be proud of the achievement. I can’t be proud of a gift given to me by a magnanimous GM. For best effect, the game rewards avoiding risky situations such as XP for gold or a sandbox wilderness or megadungeons where players get to choose their risk and reward levels themselves.

I’m well aware that not everybody shares this point of view, which is why players in my games can recheck the exact numbers surrounding character death, check whether they gained a level before dying, etc. I accept it because these players enjoy a different aspect of the game.

All merciless or all generous are the simple cases. What about mixed groups, I wonder. Does your group experience a similar pull in different directions? How do you handle it?



I love character death.

At my last session we had some new players. I told them up-front that character death is a likely possibility; that their characters are not any more super-human than they are... for now. Despite the warning, a couple of players decided their characters were rather heroic and tried some pretty spectacular stunts against an owl-bear they encountered while running through a forest. One of them succeeded and managed to really take a good chunk out of the beast; but enraged it struck back at him and made him a smear on the forest floor.

The upside of playing an older edition however was that characters take 5 minutes to generate so the player of this ill-fated character had a new one ready and joined right back in.

No one has forgotten that scene.

j_king 2010-02-08 17:49 UTC

In my D&D campaign, dead is dead – no resurrection, no raising, nada. As a result, the PCs think very carefully about what they want to do, how to minimize the risk of death in overcoming challenges, or even what challenges to <i>not<i> take on.

– Bevin Flannery 2010-02-08 19:52 UTC

Have any of your players ever objected? If so, how did you handle that tension between their desire for playing safe and your tendency to be tough? It sounds as if you said “I’m tough, if you don’t like it, don’t play.”

AlexSchroeder 2010-02-09 09:07 UTC

I still think you need some kind of permanent damage if you got killed and reraised. Like one attribut goes down by 1. Player decides which attribut. Of course everybody will pick his dumpstat, but I still think this could be fun. Charisma 4, Int 5....

– Sektat 2010-02-09 12:00 UTC

Hehe, yes, in the old days I think you lost 1 Con every time. Now you just loose 1 Con if you die at first level.

AlexSchroeder 2010-02-09 12:24 UTC

Another death-related post, but only tangentially relevant to my discussion of different death expectations: Assumptions, Balance, and Death by Trollsmyth.

AlexSchroeder 2010-02-09 12:45 UTC

I find myself pulled in different directions. Sometimes death seems an entirely appropriate end, given what happened, other times not so much. The AD&D DMG gives some advice as regards this, when players who made every decision right and still ended up dead.

Matthew James Stanham 2010-02-09 13:49 UTC

Have any of your players ever objected? If so, how did you handle that tension between their desire for playing safe and your tendency to be tough? It sounds as if you said “I’m tough, if you don’t like it, don’t play.”<i>

Not sure if this was directed at me ...

I’ve never cared for the “death isn’t permanent” thing in the types of campaigns/stories our group runs. If the PCs can come back, then so can the BBEG. No victory is really permanent, no loss has any significant impact beyond sheer mechanics. I’m not interested in comic book or soap opera deaths. If you manage to put the bad guy down, then he’s down for good. Similarly, if he puts you down, then your friends and family mourn (assuming you weren’t the sort they were glad to get rid of, of course), and go on without you.

That said, I’m not actually all that tough. I’m not a “me-vs-them” GM who tries to figure out how to kill the characters. If it ever came up (it hasn’t yet), I wouldn’t let a random dice roll by an NPC be the reason a PC died. I’ve also adopted Pathfinder rules for the save-or-die spells.

However, I do want the players to understand there are consequences for the decisions the PCs make including the decision to put themselves in a situation where they have to rely on their own random dice rolls for their survival. Further, the opponents are going to be whatever power level they are, and the opposition isn’t necessarily going to scale evenly with the PCs. The players can’t assume every encounter will be something they can defeat through sheer firepower.

If the barbarian decides he actually wants to try to mutilate and/or kill the NPC thief who is taunting him <i>while she is standing right in front of a city guardhouse with a guard looking on<i>, then he needs to understand what the likely outcome will be. Sure, he’ll probably manage to kill a dozen or so guards, too, but that just means the local authorities will bring out the big guns. This isn’t a hypothetical. I had a player do this – he’s the sort who likes to see how much he can get away with while still avoiding “punishment.” I made clear to him the likely course of events if he decided his barbarian would attack, and the other players made clear that their PCs would <i>not<i> go out of their way to protect him from the backlash.

Similarly, when the group was facing four landwyrms and a dragon, while searching for a religious artifact that the dragon had in his hoard, they could have tried fighting (with the odds stacked heavily against them) or do what they actually did ... bargain to get what they wanted.

– Bevin Flannery 2010-02-09 15:36 UTC

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