Tobold's Blog
Monday, June 11, 2012
Handling character death in D&D

Character death is a tricky issue in any roleplaying game: On the one side players can feel an immense sense of loss if they really lose a character they got attached to; on the other side having death become too trivial leads to all danger being perceived as trivial as well. In a pen & paper roleplaying game the likelihood of a player death will vary a lot between different groups. It is up to the Dungeon Master of a D&D game to get the balance right. How do you make death significant, without it becoming frustrating?

In my campaign the first thing I'm trying is to avoid "random death". I handed out an improved toughness feat to my players as reward of their level 0 adventure, increasing their health by 6 points. While that is only a little more than the standard feat of 5 points of extra health anybody playing a level 1 D&D 4E character can take, it nevertheless led to everybody having this extra health, and there being less of a chance in general of somebody dying from a lucky hit of a monster.

What I'm also trying to avoid is "unfair death", situations in which traps or monsters are designed to kill characters with not much they can do about it. That does not mean players will never be overwhelmed by monsters; it only means that *if* they are overwhelmed by monsters it is because of a decision they took. For example if they split the party they can very well end up with just a part of the group facing an encounter that was designed for a complete group. And if they don't leg it, they could very well die.

I am quite okay with "tactical death". 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons is not *just* a roleplaying game, it is *also* a tactical game. It is up to the players to play their characters well in that tactical combat part. If they make tactical mistakes that lead to them getting into a bad situation, I have no problem killing a character off. I would try to avoid that the stupidity of one character kills off the whole party, e.g. by providing opportunities to retreat. By if e.g. the rogue thinks he is a front-line tank and dies in consequence, I would have no problems with that. There is no "playing well" if there are no negative consequences for playing badly.

On character death, one option in D&D is resurrection. I would allow that, but it would require some effort. There is a cost involved both in treasure and in time, and the resurrected character suffers from some resurrection sickness as a penalty for death for some time. This is a good time to check how attached the player is to his character: Does he absolutely want to continue playing his character? Then resurrection is the best option. Not so sure? Then consider the alternative.

The alternative is the player rolling a new character. I don't remember ever having read actual rules on that subject, but I would consider it not practical for the player to have to restart at level 1. For the group to function it is best if everybody has the same level, and in my campaign everybody always has the same number of xp anyway. That does not mean that there is no penalty involved in rolling a new character: While I would allow the new character to have the same level and xp as the others, he wouldn't have any magic items. As 4th edition adventures are designed to hand out around 1 magic items per character per level, a newly rolled character would in fact be and feel somewhat weaker.

While the situation has yet to come up in my campaign, I do think this way to handle character death will work well. While it would effectively enable a player to deliberately kill off a character he grew bored with to roll a new one of the same level, I do think that is not a bad thing. I'd always allow a player to quit a character and roll a new one without death anyway, if somebody really wouldn't like the character he has any more.

As long as everyone is clear on the deadliness of the campaign at the start, I definitely have no problem with basically any system.

I could have fun with a soft camapign where character death is almost never going to be a lasting consequence (Either through easy resing or a creampuff DM) as long as the focus isn't on combat. And I have also had fun with a meatgrinder campaign where it was clear from the start EVERYONE was going to have to roll multiple characters.
There should be rules in combat that allow characters to fall back, retreat, run away, etc., when fights go bad. I could drop my enticingly glowing sword which should give me enough time to get away, or set up a brutal trap or ambush later.

Fighting to the death should also be rare for most intelligent mobs. At least some will always cut and run in a large fight. Rats will scatter when they get outnumbered. Most animals will turn tail if they are significantly injured.

I know the mechanics are easier if all fights are to the death, but they certainly don't have to be. Winning by subduing or chasing away baddies actually creates more tension as the world begins to fill with those who are looking to get back at you.
One difficulty I have with your system is that if a player fails at somethign and dies they come back weaker. This could lead to a cascade of failure for weaker players. The inexperienced rogue tries to tank and dies and is resurrected with a hefty death penalty so he dies again and so on.

I suppose you as DM could cheat to make sure this doesn't happen but is there any other penalty you could give for a player death that doesn't gimp the character subsequently? Loss of gold or loss of renonwn or something like that?
There are rules for creating characters at above level one, for magic items you get one at x-1, one at x and one at x+1 where x is the level, (two commons, one uncommon I think) plus a level appropriate amount of gold that you can spend on more items.

I'd think forcing a char to re-roll without magic items at much beyond level 3 would be too much of a discouragement, personally I'd go for the res at that point.
"Handling character death in D&D "

I'm just chuckling to myself right now at this title. It's amazing how far the game has come today, where death is treated like some horrible, unfortunate incident that we all want to avoid at all costs.

You see, in "Appendix N" gaming systems such as Basic and First Edition D&D, death is no different than gaining another level for your character. When you die, your character and his memory becomes immortalized in your campaign world. Statues are erected in towns that he visited, bards sing of his tales of heroism in local taverns on warm summer evenings, and his weapons and armor become relics sought after by sages and thieves alike. In fact, it's not uncommon to possibly run into the spirits or reanimated corpses of past characters, reawakened for deeds of both good and evil.

Revisiting the past lives of long-deceased characters can be, no, is the most rewarding part of the characters I play in my games. I don't play D&D like some kind of movie script where there has to be some sort of amazing climax or showdown at the end, where only then is it appropriate for a character to die. The difference between your D&D and my D&D is the difference between a set with scripted actors, with cardboard cutout traps and dangers, and a world that might really exist somewhere, complete with "unfair" moments like those of our own.

I really wish we could get past this ingrained idea that death in games is some sort of dead end. Isn't a game world far more rich and meaningful if we have a legacy to build upon? Death should be fun, not a narrative nuclear bomb, looming to destroy our campaign at any moment. Trivial traps, encounters and other dangers would have so much more meaning if we knew the DM wasn't fudging half his rolls because, "In my campaign the first thing I'm trying is to avoid 'random death'".

Of course, then again, maybe I can understand the disdain for it. When it takes you 45 minutes to roll up a new character in 3rd or 4th edition, death would suck pretty bad. It also must really suck having to build that character all over again like a deck of Magic the Gathering; all those hours spent picking skills, feats and powers and meta-gaming builds for meeting reqs for prestige classes. Yikes!

In my games, rolling up a new character takes just a few minutes. Yet my characters are every bit as rich and fleshed out as yours. Characters should be built, not like a deck of cards before a session begins, but during the journey itself.
Your campaigns must be pretty bad then, if none of the players feels any attachment to their characters and wouldn't feel sorry to lose them.
"Your campaigns must be pretty bad then, if none of the players feels any attachment to their characters and wouldn't feel sorry to lose them."

Me and my players have great campaigns because we focus on building stories not characters.
Sorry for the previous snark. But I honestly don't get how any player could be happy if his character dies some stupid random death. Whether you need time to select powers, or you need time to make up a background story, in the end any player should be somehow invested in his character. If there is absolutely no emotional connection and the player really doesn't mind at all if his carefully crafted character dies some unheroic death, I would still say that there is something wrong.

Are your players a lot less invested than you are?
I think we need to qualify the phrase, "stupid random death", a little more.

In my mind, if my weather-of-the-day dice roll came up as, "global-extinction-causing meteor strikes the party", THAT would be a stupid random death - something that they had no possible chance whatsoever to avoid. I wouldn't put something like that in my game.

But if I set a random trap in a dungeon and gave some reasonable warning of it, I don't see why my characters can't be killed by that. "A small golden, gem-encrusted, idol stands just a few meters ahead of you atop a small pedestal". Anyone dumb enough to simply run in there without care, should have the full force of the trap sprung upon them.

Same goes for random monsters. If you're dumb enough to believe that I've set the dungeon up so you can win every encounter, you deserve to die. My level 1 dungeons will often be full of high level monsters and traps. Guess what: you're not supposed to kill everything that moves to find the goal.

What I'm referring to are people that explicitly set random monsters and traps in their dungeons, only to not end up using them in the way they were intended. If you're going to put that collapsing ceiling trap in, you'd better use it if things go wrong, otherwise it's simply an Indiana Jones movie set. It's people who aren't willing to pull the trigger until the big baddy comes along to make a climactic finish of things. If real danger only comes along at the end, everything in between simply feels artificial.

Like I said, my game worlds are persistent. The end of one character, only enriches the game for the next one. In fact, in my last game, I had a TPK because one of the characters did practically what I just described above - walked right toward an unguarded treasure out in the open. The floor opened up and they all feel 30 feet on to poisoned spikes. Who the spikes didn't kill, the poison finished the rest thereafter. The neat thing is that, our new campaign started about a year after those events in the same setting and they have been tempted to go after their old characters' possessions (following rumors of the lost heroes from other villagers, IC of course).
Is someone playing D&D with a single character? And a single party? Really?

I'd say the minimum number of pre-rolled characters is three and they should be at different levels, too. When one of your characters dies, you introduce the next. They are to be considered already living in the game world, not just something you roll up now. In best cases you have played those characters up to their current levels.

You can indeed start playing with several parties, each of them at any level, and switch between them for different sessions, even during sessions. The boss monsters in a dungeon which were too tough for your 1st level party will encounter the level 10 party of your adventurers in the next session. Perhaps the level 10 party will find the spike-impaled adventurer from the level 1 party and take him back to his friends for proper burial.

Persistence is the key. Permadeath is what makes the game exciting.
Characters and death were a mistake I made in my last major D&D campaign. The players and I spoke a lot about what we wanted before I started, and then did a debriefing after each session about what they liked or didn't like, so it became pretty clear that what we wanted was a long-term story that took the characters from true nobodies (their first "quest" was to fix a magical overhead fan during a wedding; from there, they were promoted to guarding the horses when the wedding was attacked) into important people in the world. It was an even mix of character and story based, with mechanics coming in a distant third (those being, to my mind, the three legs on which PnP stands).

The problem was that I let the specific characters bleed too much into the story. Having one of them die became a worrisome possibility as their levels climbed and combat become more potentially instantaneously lethal. When I had 3 of 5 characters die (due to very poor decision making on their part, not mine), that was it for them. They didn't see how the story could continue with new characters, resurrection was too costly, and they were honestly mad about how they'd perished. It killed the campaign.

Since then, I've been much more careful to let their be a detailed, immersive, overarching story without it hinging so heavily on particular characters. I've also left more and more logs in the fire, so that if something does happen to screw up one of the storylines, there's still plenty to go around.
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