Tobold's Blog
Saturday, May 11, 2013
 
Death in Dungeons & Dragons

As I mentioned yesterday, Cardhunter is a game about a group of people playing Dungeons & Dragons. At one point their usual DM Gary is replaced by his elder brother Melvin, who makes the players play through an adventure designed to kill them, and is a rather mean DM. He reminded me of actual DMs I played with many years ago, for whom the job was some kind of a power trip. Anyway in Cardhunter your whole party is fit again as long as just one of them survives, and if you wipe you just have to replay the same adventure again. In Dungeons & Dragons death is a lot more severe.

I didn't have a player death in my campaign yet, although there were some tight spots. So some commenters believe I deliberately don't kill my players. That isn't true. But I don't design adventures to be lethal on purpose. I design them to be challenging, and then death can be a consequence of either stupidity or really bad luck. For example in my last D&D session there was the possibility of the players getting all killed: They had found out how to weaken him by scattering the earth from his grave in the dungeon; but if they had skipped the dungeon, they could have gone directly to the end fight, and faced an un-weakened and therefore presumably deadly vampire lord.

The fight they actually did was also not an easy one, as they were outnumbered by the 9 castle vampires. But they played that combat very well, using great tactics to avoid getting surrounded early, and some good combos between the powers of the different players. In my opinion, if the players play well, victory should be the normal result. You can always have the dice rolling some extreme results, but it would require a lot of bad luck for a player to actually die if the groups' tactics were sound to start with.

What I am trying to avoid is the kind of game played in this Mines of Madness podcast, where repeatedly and early in the adventure players die for no good reason, and are repeatedly replaced by a constant stream of "member of your party that came to the mines later", played by whoever just lost his character. If your character is disposable like a Kleenex, you never develop any character story. So while I would agree on a player rolling a new character of the same level to replace a dead one, I wouldn't want that to happen too frequently.

Comments:
Yeah, player death is a tricky thing to handle in D&D and can quickly destabilize an entire campaign. Do you let the player reroll a new character? If so, do they start at the same XP levels as the party, or one below? What if everyone else is at level 12.5 and the newly-minted guy is at 12... will he be behind forever? If the dead player rerolls, what happens to their prior character's stuff? Can the surviving members loot his body?

I think one of the most ignored aspects of the DM manual is the part where you're "suppose to" have players encounter CR+2 ranked (aka unwinnable) encounters around 10% of the time. Sounds like that could have happened in your game if the players skipped the dungeon, but in my experience players almost never consider a tactical retreat an option all the way up to and past a TPK scenario.
 
Honestly, it was the one thing that permanently held me back from being a serious DM.

I just...can't kill off players. The urge to fudge numbers is too high in favor of protecting people.
 
My campaigns were always run with very close friends in a very relaxed atmosphere - we didn't have any really competitive players for instance.

Personally I've generally avoided character deaths, I can think of a few that happened down to bad dice-rolls but for the most part I'd rather punish bad decisions or foolish actions with consequences that the player characters have to live with (damage to their reputation, loss of items etc).

I'd be worried that frequent character deaths would lose their meaning and the players would be a lot less likely to invest any serious time in characterisation if they feel their characters are likely to be slaughtered on a DM whim.

Like the commenter above I'm probably a bit too lax at times though.
 
I have not DM D&D but other RPG where death has the same kind of impact as in D&D and I have never fully killed a player.
I have wiped a party once because it was stupidity and we started another campaign.
But in general if it is bad luck or a bit too ambitious I have full death. I prefer to add mid-term/long-term 'death sickness' as this is now called in MMOs, but related to the player.
So the player will get inabilities as a consequence of its near death experience, physical inabilites (permanently hurting legs) or phycological inibalities ( permanent fright from the uncountered mob with combat penalties etc..)

Apart if this is complete stupidity I prefer to make 'near death' part of the overall character experience.
 
In my games, a dead character can be replaced by a character of a higher power level, who is usually a mentor, parent, older sibling, master, lord, etc. of the deceased character, and joined the party to investigate and/or avenge his or her death.

(Hey, it works for villains, so why can't it work for PCs?)

It's a simple negative feedback loop: if you play poorly enough to get your character killed, you get bumped to an easier difficulty level.
 
If your character is disposable like a Kleenex, you never develop any character story.

Not really
 
Isn't the fact that they named the disposable characters Aragorn and Legolas proof that they couldn't be bothered to come up with a background story of their own? Yes, you can then chronicle their many deaths, but that doesn't really make a character story.
 
If you think pre written story is manditory, sure. It isn't though. It is possible to develop character from scratch simply by playing. I suspect you didn't read it - you certainly missed the spontaniously developing romantic rivalry subplot.
 
I read the post you linked to, not the several pages of thread. Maybe the link should have been more specific.
 
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