Thursday, October 7, 2010

PC Death

Christian at Destination Unknown wrote recently about PC death.

I don't struggle with this topic (anymore) so I thought I'd share.

In D&D, there must be the fear of death to give the game its sense of risk. How do you develop that sense of risk? Make sure the players understand the tenuous nature of their adventuring existence and carry through with PC death when it arises.

This means that some PCs are going to live and some are going to die.

The primary question though relates to how.

Players need to understand that DMs don't kill PCs, players kill PCs - and PCs die by two means: 1) stupid or reckless play, 2) Fate (dice).

The bottom line is that if you fail to scout ahead, fail to prepare your ground, engage in a full frontal assault, attack an entrenched enemy, or take on an obviously superior foe, you deserve to die. There's no need to over-complicate. That's it. Period.

If you players are dumbasses, then a few deaths will address the issue of stupid tactics. Either that or have them read-up on basic war tactics or take a military history course.

Now if my group were slow learners or new to old school play, I'd probably sit them down and go over tactics, style of play, and approach to the game. There's nothing wrong with that. Also, encourage them to read game reports. You can use other approaches too. I've played in games where, when a PC dies, the DM required the player to recite the glorious nature of his/her accomplishments, "Here lay Jones, defeater of the goblins of Kertle, ransacker of Merle's tavern, wielder of the Blue Star, Digger of the local ditch," or whatever lol. This actually became a lot of fun and people got really good at eulogizing their fallen PC. Death is part of the wry humour and fun of D&D.

In terms of my personal preference, I let PCs do what they want but after a situation, encounter, combat, or whatever, I will normally take a moment to suggest alternative courses of action that may have resulted in fewer deaths or given them a better chance of success. I did this very recently (in my last game report), when the party was attacked from behind.

In terms of a concluding thought, I think death is crucial to the suspension of disbelief in D&D. From that standpoint, I don't think I could enjoy the game without it.


  1. Suggesting that DMs do not play a role in character death is surprising. It removes a lot of agency from the DM in the creation and employment of a dungeon, not only in its paper conception, but in its table execution:

    1) Is the dungeon too powerful for the characters?
    2) Regardless of 1), are the dangers properly indicated?

    Of course a dumb party is responsible for its deaths, but a good DM must also make available clues to what is around the corner to smart parties: how is a large gnoll encampment not leaving clues to its presence nearby? A smart party running smack dab into even a small gnoll tribe in an otherwise empty, silent part of a dungeon is the DM's fault. That shouldn't happen.

  2. @ Kiltedyaksman - I'm in agreement.

    @ anonymous - I disagree. Who am I, but a humble DM, to decide for the PCs whether they are too weak to proceed into th dungeon?

  3. Great post! I couldn't agree more. I've been thinking about writing a series of posts adapting The Art of War to dungeon delving. Sun Tzu's classic advice on warfare is equally applicable to gaming: gather intelligence before committing to battle, attack when you are strong and your opponent is weak, etc.

    @Anonymous: a party running smack dab into a gnoll tribe is no one's fault but the players. If they take the trouble to scout ahead that won't happen.

  4. I am immediately including eulogies for every death in the party, including henchmen, torch-bearers and porters.

    Thanks for the food for thought.

    @Anonymous: As others have said, a failure to scout into a conspicuously empty and silent dungeon is the player's fault. You're really not going to check the next room for a camp full of noisy, smelly, cackling gnolls?

  5. @anonymous

    I do disagree with your perspective.

    I tell my players this: with the exception of wandering monster rolls, you (the players) control whether I roll dice (as DM).

    If you want to avoid monsters and seek treasure, then great - but you need to take all available precautions to ensure you don't walk into a tribe of gnolls, a patrol of orcs, etc. So scout, lie, cheat, pilfer, hide, run, do whatever you need to do, In effect, keep me from rolling my dice.

    However, as soon as you commit to combat, I get to roll - and I'm going to try to kill you :)

  6. Oh, yes! I absolutely concur as to the possibility of character death being necessary to maintain the tension.

    As of the eulogies . . . what a wonderful idea. I intend to use that now too.

    Finally one of my "favorite monsters" was quite useful in deterring a group of fighters who were attacking a Mage's Tower.

    The clues were there. Doors were all wood with leather hinges, all of the tableware was ceramic or carved wood, etc. . . . but the party blundered on until their plate armor started disintegrating.

    The monsters? Well the mage didn't want to be disturbed by clanking human tanks, so he kept a goodly supply of rust monsters in his tower . . . oh, did I mention that he'd cast invisibility on them?

    It was lots of fun watching the "big brave fighters" quickly heading back to town . . . they weren't hurt, but they were afraid to continue without their armor and weapons . . . *grin*.

    -- Jeff in BC

  7. when the PC dies, do you send the player home?

    Because if you don't, there is actually no risk in the game. The players aren't actually the PCs.

  8. @faustusnotes,

    Of course not.

    However, the PC with all the accrued XP and gear is now toast and you need to roll up a new character or take over a Man@Arms. Your new character has no gear either - normally the other PCs have looted the body of the dead character before it's cold.

    So it pays to play conservative and smart - don't be a hero.