Blog, I want to say some words to you. Blog, I am conflicted. Here are two points of view on player death in D&D, and I am sympathetic to both of them.
PCs die. The world of D&D, especially what we’ve seen of the Points of Light so far, is a dangerous place. People die. Even heroes die. It’s impossible to save everyone when there are ravening hordes of undead out there that will not, for example, spare PCs so they may extract concessions.
D&D is as much about game as it is roleplaying, and in games, sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. Losing a character isn’t the end of the world because there’s theoretically an infinite number of fun characters you can play.
And when a character dies, it’s a potential jumping off point for roleplaying. A dead character is an opportunity for everyone to react, and for the plot to take an unexpected turn. Or, alternately, it’s an opportunity for someone to play a different character, one that they might actually enjoy more or might have a novel effect on the game.
If, god forbid, the whole party dies, it’s still a big deal. You have an obligation to make it their death as epic and dramatic as possible. But it’s also an opportunity to do something special. Did the PCs die trying to save the world? Now the next plot arc is 1,000 years later, most of the world is enslaved by demons, and epic-level PCs have to fix it.
In practical terms, this means you don’t fudge the dice. The dice exist to make things random and interesting and fiddling with the dice to keep the PCs from dying risks making the game too easy. You can’t possibly anticipate all of their strategies or remember all of the resources they have. It may be that what you thought was a telling blow actually gives the cleric his chance to shine. Maybe it would increase group cohesion as the party realizes that they damn near lost a companion.
And while this isn’t true of most people I play with, there are plenty of people that take a strong dislike fudging. Some might also characterize this as babying the players and resent it.
Death requires consent
Don’t kill a PC without player consent. A person created that character because that’s what they want to play. Killing their character in a random and possibly senseless fashion is not dissimilar to telling someone to stop having fun and to play something else.
Most importantly, if you’re running a character-driven game, the death of a character in the middle of a plot arc can collapse the entire line. A total party kill is worse! Although it can serve as jumping off point, you essentially have to start from scratch in terms of characterization and history. For a group that has a great dynamic going, this is a tragic shame, not unlike a TV show canceled in the middle of a season.
As a DM, you will almost certainly have to fudge the dice. Chiefly, you can hide your to-hit and damage rolls. If you’re aware of how much health the PCs have left, then you can fudge monster damage to prevent someone from dying or dropping at a really bad time. You can fudge saves. Finally, you can fudge monster HP, something players have no real way of knowing.
Players that play well thought-out characters will typically appreciate this method. They know that if they’re going to die, they’ll get some input and it will be meaningful.
I mentioned above that this approach has drawbacks. There are some situations where, if a PC does something stupid, they should by all rights die. What do you do? You could of course run a glorious death scene, but that’s not always appropriate. There are some alternatives, like restating the obvious, which can prevent you from getting into this situation to begin with. A little bit of prep beforehand could leave you with an escape hatch (e.g. the cavalry shows up; the villain wants a bargain; another, scarier monster disinterested in the PCs scares off the other monsters). But in the end you can’t anticipate everything. Eventually, I think you will run into scenarios that will test your improvisational skills.
Whoops! I nearly forgot about resurrection. This is probably because I haven’t played all that many games of D&D until semi-recently. When a single PC dies, resurrection is pretty much the answer, giving the player a chance to rejoin or not.
I’m not sure I actually like resurrection. At least as it’s executed in 3.5, it’s hard to rationalize anyone with a decent chunk of money dying. When you want someone to die, you have to add some kind of qualifier whenever anyone dies and doesn’t come back (“There was no body left”) that explains why the Great King Jorund died and nobody could find a cleric.
It also makes death very weird. Adventurers can still permanently die, if you engage those mechanics as a DM, you’re back to the default scenario “Death happens,” where somebody loses a character and you’ve got a bit less plausible deniability. If you’re careful not to have monsters that render people unrevivifiable, adventurers’ deaths become less dramatic.
Ultimately, in the context of PC death, I’m going to have to go ahead and say that I’m a fan of resurrection. As a player, I like that it’s there. I think it’s absolutely necessary if you’re going to go with the “Death happens” approach.
4th Edition, unpredictability, and resurrection
Once again, 4th Edition is to some extent taking aim at unpredictability in combat. Crits are less random. Although PCs get mechanics to add dice to their crits, monsters seem to follow the pattern of simply having a flat damage bonus on a crit, meaning their damage is more predictable.
Monsters in 4th Edition are supposed to be more well-balanced, as well. The CR system was basically inadequate, and you could pretty easily end up killing somebody if you weren’t careful.
There are also some changes to resurrection. According to pre-release information, resurrection in general will be more rare except for at the paragon and epic tier. Supposedly a character has had to gain a few levels before resurrection is available, which (depending on how this is written) is an interesting way to limit resurrection to characters that have been played and possibly also NPCs.
In theory, all of this means it’s less ridiculously easy to kill PCs and resurrection is available when it makes sense. Based on a little playtest I ran, it does seem like it’s harder to kill PCs. Starting at level 1, PCs are much more resilient, and between fights they can fairly easily shore up hit points.
Furthermore, monster damage appears somewhat less ridiculous even at the epic tier if you look at the likes of the ice archons and swordwings. These guys don’t hit you with massive damage all at once; they’re designed to hurt you over and over and over.
I’m still conflicted
Of course, vis a vis 4th Edition, there’s another tiny little detail here: we don’t have it yet! So most of this has to go into the bin marked “Follow up.”
That aside, in general I am much more sympathetic to the “Death requires consent” view. This is chiefly because when I am not playing D&D, I typically do not enjoy crunchy types of games. I prefer plot or character driven games, where random death doesn’t work quite as well. Consequently my default inclination is to run D&D similarly.
Outside of that context, I’d really like to run a “Death happens” game in 4th Edition. I would not want PCs to be replaceable; I can’t run a game without some degree of drama. I would have a lighter touch with regard to character-driven plots so that the death of one PC doesn’t ruin everything.