2011-08-25 Death


Christian wonders whether he’s being a Pushover and says: “I am growing weary of playing it safe. Safe bores me as a player and I am starting to feel that as a GM. […] My games are safe and the players know it. If PCs never die, why fear anything?”

I wonder. Is death in D&D and friends not simply a speed bump on the way up levels with all the resurrection magic available?

In my D&D 3.5 sandbox campaign I had deals offered by factions that knew resurrection magic (the lammasu ruling over the dwarves, the horned devil trying to break free from his cave prison, the Orcus priests, the elf druid in a village threatened by the troll king). Players could pick the kind of quest they want to embark on by picking the right faction. The resulting geas has always enriched our game.

The complications and side-tracking involved work well for a sandbox campaign. It’s trickier to do in a straight adventure path because of the extra experience points gained and because the plot itself might impose in-game time limits.

The detraction also works well in a sandbox because players have picked their own goals for their characters (the conquest of the subterranean city, the building of a tower, the finding of a planar sage). Thus, delays due to character death, resurrection and follow-up quests delay the achieving of in-game goals. Death is still something to be feared and groaned over.

Players characters Death is a likely event in my games.

It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen once in every five to ten sessions, it seems.

This approach doesn’t work in games where death is final. That’s something I disliked about the short-lived Rolemaster campaign I was part of: I was afraid of my character dying not just because the system was deadly but because character generation took so damn long!

For my new Labyrinth Lord game, ressurection is hard to come by. Usually characters don’t die per se, they are taken out by the Death and Dismemberment table in use. Forced to retire their characters for several weeks with broken bones, they often finish the adventure using a henchman, skip many weeks of in-game time, and resume. I usually take the liberty of advancing many of the plots by a few weeks as well. Trails are lost, new factions arrive, rivals grow stronger…



This makes me wonder: “If PCs never die, why fear anything?”

We have played several different systems now in which PC death is not a likely event or is out-right impossible. I never thought about this as a problem. I guess I reject the notion that the fear of PC death is the main thing that keeps a game exciting. The underlying notion is that the world is split up between god guys and bad guys and you always go against the bad guys and and while you pretend otherwise, you do not really care what happens to the good guys... a typical D&D’sh scenario and if I understand correctly also applies to sandbox campaigns. Enslaved Hobbits? What is that to me? Ravaged countryside? Not my job. If the players decide to take on an adventure its because they think they have a good chance and winning, not because they think it matters. Hence the only thing that really touches the player is if you kill his PC, cause that is (in those kind of games) a nuisance and a disappointment.

On the other hand, if the players care about something in the game world - about persons, places, factions or even about their PC - then this interest along can keep them excited and engaged. If I care about my NPC family then I will do my best to free my innocent brother from prison. And because I care I will also have to help him stay in hiding and will have to escort him to a different realm... But if my PC doesn’t have a family, then who the hell is this guy I am supposed to break the law for? If I care about the sanctity of the Birch Island I will try to convince the villagers not to fell the trees there. And because I also care about them I will help them find a different source of lumber for their fortifications. If Birch Island is nothing to me, then why the hell should I get excited about some stupid fictional trees? It’s not like they give me XP or something!

So, to recap: If the only thing that really matters to the players is that their PCs survive as long as possible then - ironically - you better threaten them as much as possible. If on the other-hand they care about other things too, then you can push all sorts of buttons to get them excited and you can put them in many interesting situations without having to constantly put bigger and bigger bad guys in front of them.

lior 2011-08-25 13:56 UTC

I usually claim that “there are fates worse than death”, but most people get that I mean boredom as much as losing interesting NPCs and generally being jerked around. In the LabLord game, death is always an option, and this justifies careful and outright cowardly behavior — you’re not a jerk when you run from four Shades as a level 1 character without magic weapons, you do the sensible thing … (there’s another layer here, where you help dismembered party members to a place where they are safe and can be healed etc. that show you’re not just a jerk; where running from the Shades does not mean you drop the party completely but wait for death screams and re-join quickly if none come to pass).

Harald Wagener 2011-08-25 14:31 UTC

Thanks, Lior. Figuring out what your characters care about (and implicitly agreeing that the adventures will be about the threats to what you care about) is definitely something to consider when starting up a new campaign. Some games make this explicit using beliefs or keys, others imply power and fortune (in which case level drain and costly resurrection magic seems like a perfect threat). I’ll try and remember this for the future. If players hesitate to provide values their characters care about, then I’ll mention the two alternatives: either there is no adventure, or the adventure is about staying alive…

Staying alive leads me to our Labyrinth Lord game. Harald, you provide an excellent example of something I’m trying to explore in my D&D games at the moment. As characters rise in levels, the game changes due to the spells available. During the low levels – the old Basic D&D levels of 1-3 – the game is about staying alive and finding enough treasure to level up. My hope is that characters will organically find issues in the setting to latch on to. Thus, as characters increase in level, as they get access to more potent spells, the things characters care about can change and thus the referee can adapt accordingly.

I think this works quite well in the Alder King game I used as an example in the blog post. At first, characters get a mission or two from the Alder King. They need to stay alive. They need to decide with whom to ally. They need to fight a war. And suddenly they find that they have been sucked into the setting, one of them cares about the goblin city, the other one cares about the mountain goblins, the shadow elf cares about a position at the court of the minotaur king. Not all characters go through this change, but for those who do, I can now shift the game since I can threaten their self-selected homes and their chosen people instead of just threatening them as individuals.

I wonder whether the original designers of D&D felt that this was an emergent property of the game...

AlexSchroeder 2011-08-25 15:45 UTC

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