Won't you spare me over 'til a another year?
Well what is this that I can't see
With ice cold hands taking hold of me
Well I am death none can excel
I'll open the door to heaven or hell
Whoa death someone would pray
Could you wait to call me another day
The children prayed the preacher preached
Time and mercy is out of your reach
I'll fix your feet so you can't walk
I'll lock your jaw so you can't talk
I'll close your eyes so you can’t see
This very hour come and go with me
Death I come to take the soul
Leave the body and leave it cold
To drop the flesh up off the frame
Dirt and worm both have a claim
Twitter is a fascinating beast. Someone floats an idea and you watch it roll through the accounts you follow, and those you don’t through retweets. My Twitter round up yesterday yielded one of my favorite D&D topics, death.
I gave this issue a lot of thought when I sat down 6 years ago and started gaming with my son and his friends. They were 10 years old, and it was a group of boisterous, competitive, loud mouthed lads. Good friends. I didn’t want to traumatize anyone by killing off their PC, but I wanted to give them a challenging game too.
I’ve been running games for 35 years and there is one truism I can get behind, almost everyone likes to play a role, to act like someone else for a while, mainly because TTRPGs, when immersive, can connect to your emotions. You feel excited when making a decisive dice roll, your character’s victories are your victories, when your PC takes a big hit you scream, “NO!” It’s glorious to see this in action.
So where does death fit into this? If you can identify with your character, and become emotionally attached to playing the character, then death is the end of that adventure. You could, in principle, experience emotions of loss and grief, etc. Losing a long running PC can be traumatizing, emotionally deflating stuff, so I considered taking it out of my game, eg replacing death with severe consequences.
I didn’t though, and here’s what I do and why.
A. Deal with it Explicitly / Set Expectations
Session 0 - I’ve given a version of this so many times I can do it from memory:
“This game is deadly, a first level fighter in chain mail has 6 HP on average, a 0-level city guard hits chain mail around 30% of the time weapon dependent, and does an average of around 4HP damage with standard troop weapons like spears, longswords, pole arms, maces and flails. You hit that guard in chain around 35% of the time at first level, you do the math. You have a very, very slight edge, easily devoured by the randomness of the dice rolls. If it’s a city guard patrol with multiple guards, you are in real trouble.
AD&D is not balanced, you can run into something way above your pay grade.
Animals and monsters with claw, claw, bite attacks get all three attacks at once, to represent their ferocity and speed, PCs and NPCs have their multiple attacks spread out over the combat round. Most PCs will only ever have 1 attack per round. Monsters and animals are extremely dangerous.”
So the game world is dangerous, there will be fatalities, everyone knows this BEFORE they create their character, and BEFORE they become invested. This doesn’t, oddly enough, mean they become less invested, indeed in some ways they become more invested. But they know the drill from the get go.
This also means that for us, backstory is kept to a minimum, if you invest that much time in the PC before playing and they die off early, that’s not fun.
B. Minimize Lost Table Time
If PCs die you have to make new PCs, in 1e that takes about 15-20 min, if the player is indecisive or unsure it can take much longer. In our campaign we run either multiple PCs for each player, and/or we have a pool of NPCs (henchmen, etc.) to draw on, so if a PC dies the player can run a second PC or one of the henchmen instead, so no one has to lose game time. That also means you know a bit about the new PC before you play it.
C. Decide on the Process for Introducing New PCs to the Table
If the party is on average 5th level and a PC dies, if the player rolls up a new PC, is it the same level as the party? Does it get the previous PC’s loot and items? In our game, new PCs come in at 1st level, but due to the XP system they level up to the party’s level in about 4-5 sessions. We do it that when a PC dies their magic items and loot are split amongst the adventuring company. When the new PC arrives it is traditional to give them an item to help them out.
We have had 3 PCs go through this process in my after school game, it has become something of a cause celebre to have caught up to the party in level that fast, and they enjoy the risk of running with a higher level party as a low level PC and surviving. Kind of a flex.
D. Clarify the Methods In-Game for Reversing Death
In my preferred edition there are a few ways to come back to life. If you are going to run a deadly campaign you have to understand that, BtB in many fantasy games, there are mechanisms for reversing it. However, in 1e a lot is left to the DM.
Be clear about how this works, is it possible to get brought back from the dead, what are the costs and benefits, that sort of thing. Whatever you do, don’t make it too easy, otherwise “death” is meaningless.
E. Be Clear About Death Mechanics
If you are presenting a consequence that can take out a character, often for good, then you need to be transparent about the mechanics that can make that happen.
In 1e you don’t just die at 0hp, there are some fiddly bits, so it’s important the players know these. Ditto for healing mechanics, saving throws, they need to know how all that works to make decisions that support their agency at the table.
F. Establish Protocols for Dice Rolling
This sounds ominous, but here’s the thing. If a dice roll can kill you, it has to be fair. All dice rolls should be fair, but the point is still important. If your game is to have the possibility of permanent character death, and that death can be the result of dice rolls (damage, saving throws…), consistency and transparency will be crucial.Of course, you and your table may not care if someone changes their dice roll, every table plays their own way, but for us everyone rolls in the dice box where everyone else can see the results as well. If someone’s PC dies when dice are rolled, we all see it happen.
It’s always important to ask “why” when thinking about TTRPG mechanics, the games are complicated, why take the extra steps? Why not just get rid of death in the game? I’ve played in games where it was clear none of us were dying unless we were cruelly stupid or wildly unlucky. They can work and be fun, and there is nothing wrong with them.
But I like what death does to the game:
Knowing that the threat of death is always around keeps them focused, as losing focus can be dangerous.
It sweetens the rewards when they win, as they feel they have earned it, facing the real risk of death. This is one of the reasons I don’t build my environments to ensure that “everyone has a chance to shine”, as this, to my experience, can take you out of the immersion, it becomes obvious something was placed there to meet the character’s ability, it reminds you that you are playing a game, instead I run it such that the players have to exploit the environment to “shine”.
It builds bonds, the aaracockra priest in our game that died being consumed alive by Cifals was fighting a rearguard action to let the party flee to safety. He died a hero, and the others treat that player as if he had done a meaningful favor for them in real life. If he had “just barely escaped” would it have had the same impact?
It is often talked about as the most memorable or enjoyable moments of the game. My players are all friends, so they talk about the game a lot outside of the game. All of the parents mention it, and one recurring topic is spectacular deaths from the game! D&D doesn’t just emulate heroic acts of success, it emulates heroic deaths.
And of course the times you narrowly miss death are exciting too, but only if death was a real threat, there to be missed. That is ultimately one of the big reasons I keep death as a possibility in my games. When you know you can’t really die, the “near miss” of almost dying isn’t exciting anymore.
It also acts as sort of a natural counter to the tendency to kill everything in sight. I see on a fairly regular basis complaints on Twitter about the tendency to see a lot of combat in the game. I think both of these are linked to death. When the PCs know that death is unlikely for them, they end up seeing violence as a simple, direct solution for their problems.
My players know pretty much any encounter can go south, and you can die fairly quickly, so they don’t start things unless they have to. They learned this early on, in 1e you can meet opponents well beyond your power level. To be clear, this doesn’t mean you are out to kill the PCs. It means that the mechanics of the game allow for death.
You might wonder what a game where you allow death would look like for a game like D&D where people can become attached to their characters.
I’ll give a few examples from my current game, we have had five fatalities over two years of play.
When the party magic user was killed (another party member picked up a cursed book and was polymorphed into a hydra, that hydra bit the head off the party magic-user), the party took the magic-user's body to a druid they had befriended. They had found a scroll with the druid spell “reincarnate” many sessions ago, but knew they were too low level and might fail casting it, and the failure consequences for this were obviously death. So they had sat on it.
The druid was higher level, still had a fail percentage, but he cast it successfully and the party member was returned to life... as a bear.
Gygax essentially says that you shouldn’t play monsters as PCs, but in the case of reincarnation suggests giving the PC say around 6hd (swapping out their HP) and basic attack capabilities (per the animal), and make them humanoid, but it wasn’t clear if he said they get to keep their class abilities from a previous class. So we decided in our game that a returning PC would keep their past skills, unless the physical form forbade it. I also decided he could still cast spells, which was something else that wasn’t made clear in the rules.
What’s important is that there was real risk involved, the player could have ended up in a form he didn’t want, or the spell casting could have failed, or worse still had a reverse harmful effect and killed the druid casting it, or something else horrific, ie. the dead magic user comes back as a zombie or something.
So the point is that you can still have the real threat of death in your campaign even if you have possible ways to cheat it, but those ways have to carry meaningful risk.
In another example, when the party druid died (the average level of the party at the time was 5th), they took the body to the temple of Horus, and asked to have him brought back. The DMG lists prices to cast spells, but this spell isn’t listed, so it’s all your call.
The spell works in such a way that the temple’s high priest, a 16th level NPC, would be out of commission for 5 days afterwards, unable to spell cast or fight. So it would make the temple vulnerable, and it’s a big ask. So what do I charge for this? The druid did worship Osiris, so that helps a bit, but still, this is supposed to be a VERY expensive thing, but what do you charge?
I decided they would have to perform a quest for the Temple, to retrieve a lost artefact of theirs, the Mask of Horus, which was half a world away in the Lost City, hidden in the Sea of Dust. One of the other priests cast a Quest spell on one of the party members, to ensure they didn’t swan off, and they have been heading to the Lost City for the last 15 sessions on this quest.
So this time it was risk and challenge, and time. It has become the overarching campaign theme for the group, this quest to pay back the temple that brought back their fellow party member. So in this case the spectre of death is still meaningful as the cost of reversing it is immense.
Two further things about this. The player whose character it was didn’t want his PC to die, and when I told them what they would have to do to get him back they had a lot of conversation, but they all agreed to essentially redirect the campaign for the indeterminate future to help him out. It was genuinely cool to see them putting it all on the line to help their friend.
It’s also rare to see that group so focused, they wander all over the place and abandon tasks, this is the first goal they have consistently worked on for more than a few sessions. It has brought us some wild adventures, the boys learned how the alignment system worked, LOL, they had a visit from the avatars of Horus, it’s been a wild ride.
And all because someone died.
Here’s another favorite example, my regular home game crew was doing Forbidden City a few years ago, and they encountered the apprentice of the wizard they were hunting down. She was accompanied by 4 yuan-ti. Thanks to a good initiative roll she cast stinking cloud on the group, and while they were stuck for the one round minimum she cast web.
That was the end of it.
The party was taken to her patron, and I had them RP a conversation with him for a bit. Then I rolled an encounter reaction roll. It was positive (somewhere around 95% or something with modifiers) as the party warlock was a smooth talker (16 charisma). So I RP’d it that the wizard was missing company from people in the outside world, and there were bastions of evil monsters in the Forbidden City that opposed him. The party were generally good aligned, he asked them, in exchange for their lives, if they would attack and destroy these evil monster enclaves, as they would have done anyway, to help him out.
A deal was struck, things went well, the players liked the wizard as he helped them out and was eliminating evil monsters, then the PCs found out some stuff, they turned on the wizard, enlisted the aid of a pan lung dragon who used scaly command to summon a swarm of giant alligators, and the wizard brought a Marilith to the party. It was bonkers.
The point being that running a deadly game doesn’t mean you always have to kill PCs when the opportunity arises. A D&D adventuring party are still valuable resources in the game world. The wizard wasn’t going to slay creatures he could enlist or persuade to help him. And my players knew that I used encounter reaction rolls to help out when I wasn’t sure how he would react to the party, so at some point he could turn on them. The threat of death was real.
They know I didn’t “save” them, they were defeated in battle and I had the game world react as if they weren’t “special”, how would a warlock, isolated in the jungle for years investigating the ruins of a dead civilization for magical artefacts, and magically creating yuan-ti hybrids out of unwilling slaves and reptiles, react to a batch of new people showing up on his doorstep? He would keep them for company, enlist their aid if he can get it, and use them in his experiments if they don’t work out.
Having a game with death doesn’t mean killing PCs, its about keeping the threat real, and making the costs of cheating it known.
I’ve also noticed that sometimes players prefer their new, post death PC. In my home game a few years ago one of the PC’s died and switched from being a long time wizard to a fighter. He was very obviously happier with the fighter. But if his PC hadn’t died, he would likely have played that wizard for ages.
We focus on the lost character and don’t see the new potential. I think death in TTRPGs also plays into our affective forecasting issues, we overestimate the impact of character death on players, and seek to avoid it at all costs.
I think the threat of death adds to verisimilitude and immersion. Things that mimic real life add verisimilitude to the game, and help us become immersed in play. Death is one of those hard limits that mimics real life, which has many of these. It makes the game world feel independent, and makes the achievements feel more real.
Perhaps the most exciting game I ever played in was one where I was running a 1st level illusionist with 2 hp. I knew that anything that did any damage to me was likely lethal. So I had to play in such a way as to avoid combat and damage at all costs. However, there were only three of us, so I had to get in there or we wouldn’t make much progress. The combination of threat of immediate death and the need to push forward and play aggressively but smart was intoxicating.
Do what is comfortable for your group, I can only speak for what works for us. Being saved, “just” getting out in time, the deadly crossbow bolt just narrowly missing, that sort of thing happening all the time drop kicks me out of immersion and out of the game. I’ve played in games where it becomes obvious the DM is helping us out a lot, and honestly it removes the challenge, and the fun, of the game for me.
There are two broad approaches to playing TTRPG’s like D&D that are both popular, in one case D&D is more about shared storytelling, in this more narrative, social role play style of play, death means you end a character’s story, and that might be harder to take. So I can see why it would be tempting to remove death from the game, and sort of tacitly accept that your character will endure challenges and setbacks, but they won’t die.
The other style of play treats D&D like a game, and games are meant to be challenging, the threat of death (essentially having your piece removed from the board so to speak) is a crucial component of that challenge. I find that those who are more focused on the gaming aspects of D&D than the narrative aspects (though I acknowledge they are intertwined) seem to be more comfortable with the idea of character death. I think it is a crucial part of what makes the game challenging, and thus a better and more satisfying game for me.
One last example.
In our run through Barrier Peaks one of the party magic-users had his brain eaten by an intellect devourer, and it climbed into his skull and walked around in his body for a while, without anyone realizing it. Then, at an opportune time, he enlarged to a giant size and attacked the party from within. The party thief had to kill him to stop him from killing everyone. The thief snuck up behind the intellect devourer in the magic-user’s body who was bludgeoning the party ranger to death and ran him through with his sword, causing the host body to die and the intellect devourer to burst out of his skull and run away. They chased that damned thing through the ship, and eventually finished it off with a flame strike from the party priest.
That whole sequence has been talked about more than any movie scene, any book scene, any video game scene the boys talk about.
PCs DIED, AND IT WAS EPIC
You want a piece of this, it will electrify your game.