Tobold's Blog
Saturday, January 23, 2021
Character death in D&D

I my last session of playing D&D as a player, my character died. I didn't do anything overly stupid, I just examined a painting of a maze, which triggered me getting sucked into the maze, plus the group being attacked by monsters and thus being too busy to help me. Splitting the party is always a bad idea, but in this case I wasn't really given a choice. While trying to get back to the group I first made an unlucky random exploration table dice roll which meant I encountered a minotaur in the mace. Then the minotaur made rolls that were unlucky for me, resisting all my spells. Then I was knocked out and was unlucky to fail three death saves.

Fortunately I don't mind too much. I would have minded more if I felt that I had caused my own death by a foreseeably bad decision. But this sequence of events and dice rolls wasn't really foreseeable, and thus I can see it as something close to a random event which gives me the opportunity to try out a different character class. I rolled a dwarven peace cleric with a "hippie" attitude: "Peace, man!".

For my next campaign as a DM, I want to try a completely different approach to character death. The Curse of Strahd campaign is gothic horror, not heroic fantasy. And it is open world, not linear, which gives rise to the opportunity of players walking into a fight they aren't strong enough for. I watched Chris Perkins as a DM in Dice, Camera, Action first turning three night hags into green hags to make them easier, and then changing other aspects of the adventure as written to make the fight even less deadly. And while I can understand this approach, I didn't really like it for my campaign.

The problem with permanent character death, especially the dreaded TPK, total party kill, is that it not only gives a message to the players that they were maybe too confident, but also tends to mess up the whole campaign for the DM. With a single character death you get the already not very believable "just after one of the group died, the group stumbles upon a lonely adventurer in the dungeon, who wants to join them". If the whole group dies, then continuing the same campaign at the same point with a new group is even harder to explain. Also, any character death negates any work you as the DM put into integrating a characters backstory into the campaign story.

So in my Curse of Strahd campaign, my characters will be unable to die. In other words, I am using a different set of house rules for the penalties of dying in D&D, the Dark Gifts rules from the D&D Adventurers League. If the party walks into a TPK, the monsters who killed them dispose of the bodies, and the next morning the "dead" player characters wake up, after "dreaming" of an encounter with the dark powers of Barovia. But they have come back with a dark gift, some modification to their bodies that turns them partially into a monster, with some advantages and disadvantages from the change. It should still make it so that the players get the message that they failed that encounter. But for the DM the advantage is that character death or a TPK is a way of "failing forward" the campaign story. The players probably want revenge on whatever killed them, but probably also want to avoid a repeat death, and thus will approach those enemies more carefully the next time. Or first do something else, and come back later, when they are stronger. The dark gifts and the realization that even death doesn't free their souls from Barovia should enforce the horror atmosphere of the campaign. I wouldn't use this approach for every campaign, but I think for this one it is appropriate.


I generally don't let characters die unless a player does something willfully stupid. I don't like to let characters die through sheer bad luck like happened to you for example.

The exception is when I run mini campaigns where stupid deaths and reveling in insanely harsh rules of early iterations of the game is the point. For example,a group spent a couple of evenings playing Keep on the Borderlands with D&D basic rules as originally written. Everyone rolled 3d6 for stats straight down the line, and then rolled for hit points at level one. Wizards with 1 hit point would head into a cave and die horribly the moment a kobold sneezed on them. A fighter with 16 strength and 10 hitpoints was a god among mortals. Every time the party got down to one or two characters they would head back to town and pick up replacements in the bar. It was a lot of fun, but no-one was pushing for a campaign set in that world.
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