I have been playing D&D for roughly 27-30 years now. I have had many characters die, and many survive. In looking back, it’s always the ones who died or nearly died that I remember the best.
One of my first games of D&D involved me showing up to a gaming session and being handed a character sheet. “You are playing a fighter,” the DM explained. “We’re playing in an Oriental campaign. Think of him as a Ninja. He has a sword and a long knife. Oh, and he has a bag too. If he opens the top it shoots out Hellfire so make sure to point it in the right direction.”
I don’t even remember that character’s name but I totally remember how he died. He was killed by an Ogre wearing Boots of Invisibility. The Ogre was running up and down the hallway, and my character tried to figure out what was going on. He got in the way, and got smashed. For several adventurers after that, the DM would described the sound of thumping as the Ogre jogged by and we would all cringe. Nobody else wanted to have a smooshed character.
I recently invited a friend of mine named Julia to play some AD&D with us. Her response was simple enough: “No. I get too attached to my characters. Then I don’t want to play the role-playing game because I’m afraid that they might die.” This statement was interesting to me, and it provoked some thought about the issue of Death and Dying in role-playing game campaigns.
In the world of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, most players are using their characters to act out the role of an adventurer in one form or another seeking treasure and wealth. Gygax made this quite clear in his discussions about handling treasure in a lower level campaign. He advised that a wise Dungeon Master would tell the players that their characters are running low on coins due to their above average lifestyles, and it was time for the characters to hit the dungeons again to make some money.
So if the playing characters are seeking adventure, wealth, and treasure that means that they will be intentionally placing themselves into the way of monsters, traps, and other dangers that very well could end their lives. Thus, the death of a playing character is not only expected, but perhaps should be planned out. But that’s food for thought for another post.
In any case, Dungeon Masters should realize that the possible death of a character is just as important in the grand scheme of things as any other part of the campaign, and should be given some thought. Where exactly does Death and Dying fit into your campaign, and what role will it play when the dice start clattering on the table?
First of all, be clear and concise. Explain during the opening phase of the first adventure that death and dying is a possibility. Explain that you, as the Dungeon Master, will not be going out of your way to kill any playing characters. However, make it clear that choices within the game have consequences. Egress and retreat is as much an option as engaging in combat. You should be very clear that just because the playing characters encounter a situations, trap, or monster does not mean that the encounter is balanced or intended for mastery. There may be some situations or creatures within the adventure and campaign that they will not be able to defeat and should be avoided. Also remind them that the skills of out witting an opponent earns them XP just as quickly as hacking it into pieces. Sometimes a party fo adventurers must run away to fight another day!
Secondly, make note of the game mechanics you will be using to determine death. Will you call for saving throws? Will you use SYstem Shock checks? Will the playing character in question be dead upon reaching “0” hit points or will actual death come only after slipping to “-10” hit points? Make sure to go over this information before slogging through a gaming session. For example, in my homebrew AD&D campaign, I use the following: dropping to “0” hit points leads to unconsciousness and “-10” is death. This allows the players to gauge what chances they wish to take with their precious playing characters.
Next, consider the availability of healing sources. You may think about making your campaign a bit deadlier by restricting access to healing spells, abilities, and magical items. You might get rid of spells and magical items that bring people back to life. This includes spells such as raise dead, raise dead fully, reincarnation, and clone. This makes the campaign a lot more deadly. For example, in my homebrew Blackmoor campaign, Healing Potions do exist but they are few and far between. However, I recall several AD&D campaigns from my past where healing potions were readily available, and consumed by the dozen. It just depends on what kind of game you want to offer to your players.
And while we are on the subject: What about spells that overcome death? Resurrection, for example. In my view, the rule of thumb here is to be logical enough to allow Resurrection to happen from time to time for a really, really good reason. However, it’s not something that happens every day to every person. Otherwise, consider the impact that happen in society. Death wouldn’t really matter because everyone would respawn like a video game. Death might become trivial, or perhaps even recreational. Always consider the impact such things would have on the world around the playing characters.
In my games, the system runs like this: Adventures are dangerous things that make one later for dinner. You might come home with a bag but it’s possible you’ll come home in a bag. Players are well aware of the hit points a playing character has as a resource, and should manage that resource properly to keep the character alive. Since I view hit points (HP) as a source of vitality and wellness, then a character who is reduced to “0” HP will fall unconscious. At that point, the character is Dying. Unless properly attended to and given some form of logical medical treatment the character will continue to lose HP until reaching “-10” HP at which point the character is dead, dead, dead. When the character is dead, he’s dead. The only exception would be a planned out plot hook involving a magical item, divine being, or some other event that would return the character to life. Again, this would require some planning for the Death of the character during the campaign.
Keep in mind that the possibility of Death and Dying can be a better monster for the game. Knowing that their character may die in the middle of a conflict makes them think about their actions a little more. The player characters will be a bit choosier about the fights they pick, and will run away from fights more often. High level characters will be rarer, as bad luck and player lapses will take a higher toll. This option gives character death more impact. It should be a sad and momentous event when a character dies—not just a delay in the proceedings. At best, it sharpens the players’ perceptions of how mortal their characters are. At worst, it leads to general player dissatisfaction. It is not recommended unless the players are mature enough to view the death of a character as exciting as the generation of one.
For example, I can remember playing a D&D 3.5 game a few years back. My friend Jason was playing a Cleric. He was having a good time playing the role, and in a crucial moment his character sacrificed himself to save the rest of the party. Although the Cleric died, everyone else lived. It wasn’t planned, but it was awesome.
After the game, I congratulated Jason on playing his character to the max even to the point of giving his life for others. I offered to allow Jason’s character to be resurrected by a divine being who would “return him to life until his task was done” but Jason refused. He liked the idea that his Cleric gave his life to protect the others, and believed that resurrection would only cheapen the event. The Cleric was dead, and that was a good thing. Time to make a new character for the next adventure!
Remember that Death and Dying serve a purpose in the game of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. It is the constant looming consequence to every actions within the game. It is the greatest monster to be avoided and defeated … or perhaps embraced and enjoyed.