Power of Life & Death – A DMing Dilemma

One of the most common complaints levelled at D&D’s much-maligned fourth edition was how hard DMs found it to threaten characters’ lives. Thanks to healing surges, pumped-up hit points and death saving throws it was hard to take adventurers down, let alone kill them outright.

Despite the widespread opposition to this from entrenched fans, however, it’s worth asking the question of whether character death should be a constant worry, or something that only rears its head in the most dramatic and dangerous circumstances.

Corpse Party

In earlier editions of D&D it was fairly common for parties to leave the haunted mine, ancient tomb or pirates’ den with a few freshly-vacated spots on the roster.

Rock-slides and pitfalls could cause instant death and even when they weren’t being outright murdered characters were generally much more frail, especially at lower levels. Indeed, it was a common assertion that in a one-on-one battle a first-level Wizard stood a decent chance of being killed by a housecat.

In many ways this simply reflects the wider tone of the game at that point, which was much harsher and focussed on survival – more gaming and less group storytelling. It’s an extreme example, but the (in)famous Tomb of Horrors module demonstrates this attitude rather nicely.

Specifically designed to mess with experienced, over-confident players, it featured dozens of traps that would kill adventurers stone dead as soon as they made an unwise – or even just unlucky – choice. It was expected that each player would have to cycle through multiple characters over the course of the module, with Gary Gygax himself warning that “the Tomb is a deadly place, and there is a very great probability of favored PCs perishing.

While the Tomb of Horrors was certainly an particularly dangerous module, many others released throughout this period were still pretty lethal by modern standards. To a certain extent this reflects the wargaming origins of the series, which not only attempted to roughly simulate the dangers of medieval combat but also provided the DM with a much more antagonistic approach to the game.

As the decades and editions have rolled on, however, the game has changed significantly. One of the most prominent changes is has been the perception of the DM’s role. While this will vary from group to group, one only has to take a look at forums and social media to get the impression that many DMs view themselves as story enablers rather than impartial adjudicators.

(Kid) Gloves of Ogre Strength

When the party is just ploughing their way through dungeons and completing quests, even a well-loved character will be more-or-less replaceable. However, if  a DM views the characters as a core and completely integral part of the ongoing narrative it can be hard to pull the trigger when the situation demands it.

Narratively driven games often place the party members at the very centre of an ongoing story. If the party is laser-focussed on the Paladin’s quest to avenge the disgrace brought on his family by an evil uncle, it can be a little awkward when he gets knifed to death by Goblins in a random encounter.

In many ways this has informed the development of the D&D ruleset. As the editions have progressed it’s become harder and harder for adventurers to fall unconscious, let alone die outright.

Of course, there’s plenty of room for death to drive a story rather than derail it – think of Obi Wan getting cut down in A New Hope or Gandalf’s trip into the abyss in The Fellowship of the Ring – but generally that requires the death to at least feel as though it meant something.

For example, if the Paladin falls to his uncle’s assassin at the climax of a ferocious battle the story can at least be salvaged and his loss can be used to grow the conflict. If he just gets careless while sampling woodland mushrooms and melts his liver… it’s a little bit harder.

Obviously no DM wants one of their characters to get wiped out to a generic pack of minions, and many of them will adjust things behind the scenes to ensure that bad rolling alone won’t get them killed. The monsters may start trying to take captives rather than kill, or a few of their number run into statistically unlikely streaks of poor rolling courtesy of some DM intervention.

Most of the time this is fine, but a sense of danger is an important part of gaming. If the adventurers suddenly begin to feel that they are functionally invincible in most of their combats it can reduce both their investment in the game and the fun they have. After all, a game that you can’t actually lose isn’t all that much fun.

It’s entirely possible to replace character death as the main threat of minor encounters with something that the players want to avoid but won’t leave the story in tatters – a terrible scar, for example, or lost equipment or prestige.

Indeed, once you get into the later levels of most RPGs, including D&D, death itself is more of an inconvenience that a tragedy. With a fistful of diamonds and a friendly Cleric you can be brought back from the death as many times as you need.

Mercy or Madness?

The question still remain – should DMs try and kill their characters or should they fudge things until an appropriately epic death presents itself?

Annoyingly, the only appropriate answer to this is that it depends on the type of game they’re running. If it’s an old-school dungeon crawl or a published module then it’s probably fine to go buck wild. Let people bleed out, apply appropriate penalties for player stupidity and make the game seem truly lethal.

If the game is character-driven, however, it may be best to hold back somewhat. Take captives, steal magical items and hold the entire party for ransom, but try and restrict the actual deaths to points where it feels at least slightly appropriate.

It’s also worth bearing in mind how your players will respond to having their characters taken away from them. Sometimes people new to the game can become extremely attached to the hero they’ve created, and can be rather upset or annoyed if pure bad luck leads them to an ignoble death.

Old hands, meanwhile, tend to be much more sanguine about the entire thing. After only a few years of playing I tend to view death as a chance to give a dramatic final speech and begin rolling up one of the interesting characters I have floating around in my notebooks.

Death is a vital part of D&D and other RPGs, and certainly isn’t something that you should avoid out of fear of upsetting the story. Like other story elements, however, it requires important management if you’re going to get it right.

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