Tobold's Blog
Monday, January 13, 2014
Death penalties in D&D

Last week we had the first character death in my 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons campaign. That is a good opportunity to talk about death and penalties in D&D, in comparison with other games. So, what is death in a role-playing game? Basically it is the game telling you that somebody made a mistake. Maybe that frontal assault on the red dragon wasn't the best possible tactic, or the group ran out of healing spells. It isn't necessarily the person who died who made the mistake, it might well be another player, or in D&D even the DM; but as long as we are in a cooperative multiplayer situation (and in D&D that includes the DM), the responsibility is somewhat shared, and the death of one character is to some extent a message to everybody.

And having that sort of message in the game is important. If you believe in Sid Meier's maxim that a good game is a series of interesting decisions, you need to realize that there is no success without the possibility of failure. I am not at all unhappy that a death occurred in my campaign. Due to the group having 6 players, of which 2 are healers, in a system that is designed for 5 players with 1 healer, it wasn't always easy to keep up the sense of danger necessary for a good game of adventure.

But if I say that this was the first death of the campaign after two years, I need to clarify that it wasn't the first time somebody was down and dying. 4E has basically three levels of death: You go from fully active to "dying" when you drop to 0 or less hit points. But then there is still a window of opportunity in which you can be saved as long as you succeed "death saves" and don't incur further damage. And the penalty for going into "dying" state is light as long as you get revived before dropping to "dead": You might miss a turn or two until somebody heals you, but then you are back up on your feet with no penalty.

If you don't get revived and drop to "dead", all is still not lost. D&D always had resurrection spells, and in 4th edition that spell is a level 8 ritual in a game of 30 levels, so not all that high. My level 7 group doesn't have it, but finding an NPC priest who can do it shouldn't be impossible. And the rules allow that resurrection to happen within 30 days, and even longer if a ritual of preservation is cast on the dead group member. Resurrection from an NPC costs gold, but not all that much; the group lost more money when they had two magic items eaten by a rust monster. And once resurrected the death penalty still is moderate: A -1 to dice rolls for the next 6 fights.

Sometimes a character can't be resurrected. Maybe he died somewhere where his companions couldn't recover even a part of his body. Maybe he got disintegrated or suffered some other unrecoverably fatal condition. Now obviously the player is still sitting at the table and you still want to play with him. So the death penalty in that case is that the player needs to roll a new character. At that point we are firmly in the domain of house rules. No D&D edition ever was very firm on rules for rolling a new character into an existing campaign. A few DMs insist on new characters being level 1, but in general large level differences in a group cause more problems than it is worth. In my campaign all characters always have the same level and the same xp, to stress the cooperative multiplayer part, and avoid somebody going off on his own to get ahead in experience points. So a re-roll character in my campaign would also have the same level and xp than the others. The death penalty for a re-roll would be handled by the magic items that I'd hand out to the new character, which would generally be common magic items and thus less interesting than the equipment the previous character had.

Of course changing your character also has lots of other effects, but I hesitate to classify those as "death penalties": You need to put some work into creating a new character, you lose story lines linked to the previous character, but gain new ones instead. Replacing an old character who died by a new one is as much an opportunity for a new start as it is a penalty. That is why in my campaign I don't insist that a character needs to be dead beyond the point of being resurrectable to allow a player to roll a new character. If somebody really had enough of his old character, he could even replace him without needing to die first.

And sometimes I wonder why computer roleplaying games don't have that option. Wouldn't that make for an interesting option to be able to reroll a character without losing progress in character power and/or story? On the other hand, computer games are often short enough that starting anew at level 1 isn't that much of a burden. In a way the next expansion of World of Warcraft is offering improved re-roll capabilities, with the possibility of skipping the first 90 levels. If you grew bored with your old character, or your guild / group needs a different class, why not?

Some Roguelikes already have that concept, where each successive character is still a new character, but at a similar or slightly less power level as the one you just got killed.

Also, *spoilers*

Please tell me the thing that killed he player was at the top of the crazy tower. That's where my campaign has had the only actual player death. 3 failed saves vs. death and bam, instakill regardless of hit points.
Nope, see detailed description here. The death occurred at the bottom level of the tower, in the fight against mimics and a black pudding.

The top of the tower is very deadly if you fight there, but being one healer short, the group decided to negotiate instead. Of course by doing so they released a terrible evil onto the world, which I very much plan to make them bite in the ass later. :)
There's a wide range in computer roleplaying games to consider. In a tabletop game, you can throw together stats and a background, but you do lose a lot of formative shared group experiences (how much that matters depends on the game and group). In a CRPG...

- You might have a single-player RPG with such focus on story that loading from save might as well be a new character (that has gone through the exact same things).

- You might have an MMORPG, where death is frequently so built in and unavoidable in the "learning" of major fights that having to even just choose a new name upon each death would rapidly become a burden.

- Or you might have a game that tries to do something to justify continuing after death with an immortal character or gameplay based on "historical records" where death is just "desyncing" which can be fixed.

Hmm... thinking about all this makes me want to play Planescape: Torment again...
I never understood why PCs shouldn't die. Just make a new one, it mixes the group up.

Dead not meaning dead was one of my major turnoffs regarding D&D and the reason we moved on to a better suited system. This mentality of "He died. Damn. No we must visit a temple before we kill the next dragon" always felt to much like playing a comic book.

Fundamentally it is a question of what is more fun for the players, on an individual basis. Some people prefer to play the same character forever, others prefer to change from time to time. How the DM handles death in his campaign is a question of what his players like. The rules only say HOW resurrection COULD work if needed, it doesn't say that everybody who dies needs to be resurrected.
If you're leveling up 'when the DM says so' probably any sense of accomplishment from getting a class to a certain level is removed from the game.

In computer games, getting class X to level 99, then just remaking them to class Y means you can't say with any pride that you got a class Y to level 99.
Every single thing in a pen & paper role-playing game happens "when the DM says so". If you are trying to get a sense of accomplishment by "beating the DM", you are playing the wrong game (and you'll fail).
My my, that's a zelous rejection of any sort of gamist play!

And I can hear the wound in 'if you're trying to beat the GM...', for sure. That one player who turned up and without getting any mutually agreed upon notion of attempting to win, they most likely tromped all over your plots and stories, crushing anything on the off chance it was a win to do so or at the very least harvesting metaphorical tears was their win. So, what was his name?

Actually you're wrong - there's play to win gaming that is not like that and actually while you might not win, you will not fail to have actually played in a gamist manner. It's easy and fun. Plenty do it and I suspect don't post about it because they are too busy gaming that way (and have no issues to talk about in regard to it). It just doesn't involve anything like the dude coming in and crushing every plot and story.

And no, while some/perhaps many DM's demand absolute fealty, some groups actually hold atleast some rules above everyone, including the DM. This means when anyone who the rules say can use a particular rule uses it, it happens then. It doesn't just happen when the DM says it happens.

Paradigm shift, I'm sure.
And I can hear the wound in 'if you're trying to beat the GM...', for sure. That one player who turned up and without getting any mutually agreed upon notion of attempting to win, they most likely tromped all over your plots and stories, crushing anything on the off chance it was a win to do so or at the very least harvesting metaphorical tears was their win. So, what was his name?

You couldn't be more wrong.

Play to win on the side of the players is not a problem. In fact rules systems like 4th edition very much assume that the players do their best to use their powers to maximum effect against monsters. And any good DM has no problem at all handling that.

The problem arises if you DEFINE the purpose of the pen & paper game as the players "beating" the DM. Because then you run into the risk of the DM believing that his role is to play the adversary to the players, and to beat THEM. That can't work, because that is a totally asymmetrical warfare: The DM has infinite resources. The players killed the giant? DM introduces the giant's big brother! If the DM *wants* to "win" and kill all the players, he *will* win. Always. And that won't be much fun for anybody.
I've no idea why you've categorized me into your 'beating the DM' pidgeon hole, then. All I said was the accomplishment of getting a class Y to level X. Doesn't that apply under your fighting the monsters paradigm as well (if you gain XP from fighting monsters, rather than the DM giving out levels)

Seems like the beat the DM thing is another subject and not terribly relevant.
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