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DM Dilemma: Should You Let the PCs Die?

Written by Janna - Published on June 16, 2009

Janna discovered D&D at the age of 16, and she's been rolling the dice for 16 years. (You do the math.) She is fond of intelligent villains, drow society, and campaigns that explore the Dark Side.


Picture by Mugley

Death happens. If you think it’s going to happen to the PCs during one of your gaming sessions, you need to figure out how you want to handle things. Should you just let the dice fall as they will, or should you fudge things to keep the party alive? That depends on the situation, and the circumstances that led the party into their current death trap.

The Safety Net

D&D is all about having fun and being badass. There’s nothing badass about getting skewered by a goblin minion on your very first outing. Therefore, to protect their gamers’ fragile egos, some DMs take the safety net approach, which means that no PC can actually die during level 1. Others protect the PCs until level 2 or 3 before kicking them out of the nest and into the cold world of vicious monsters with pointy teeth.

Being Cheaty (But in a Good Way!)

As a DM, sometimes you have to use dice rolls as guidelines rather than hard and fast rules. If the monster lands a killing blow, but just barely, there’s nothing wrong with deciding that the blow bounced off of the PC’s armor. Or you could shave a few points off of the damage rolls. Either way, you’re bending the rules in favor of fun and enjoyment. (Just be prepared for the one player in the bunch who will notice your die-fudging and loudly point it out to the whole group. Yes – even to his own PC’s detriment.) You’re the DM, and it’s impossible for you to actually cheat unless you’re showing favoritism. So be an equal-opportunity fudger, and you’re good to go.

Who’s to Blame?

Did the party run full speed ahead into a deadly situation, knowing full well that some of them might not make it out alive? If so, it’s fine to let the dice fall as they will. But if you put the party into the situation as a plot device, show a little mercy when it comes time to kill them horribly. Some DMs handle this by ruling out coup de gras from monsters. If you’re using relatively dumb monsters, it’s plausible that they’d simply assume a PC was dead when they hit the ground, and move on to another victim while the downed PC makes their death saves.

Stoopidity Bad

There’s one in every party: the enthusiastic fighter who kicks in the door before the party can form a plan of attack; the overzealous warlock who’d just as soon hit you with Eldritch Blast as speak with you; or the rogue who keeps burying their blade in people’s backs at inappropriate times. Death does not favor the stupid, and neither should you. Quirky characters are great, and often make for memorable gaming sessions. But repeat offenders who get the party into deadly situations time and again should be rewarded with unmodified dice rolls. In short, if the PC is too dumb to live, let ’em die. (If their actions are the result of inexperience, it’s good form to speak with them before you pass the death sentence.)

It’s Not The End

Death in D&D is seldom permanent, but it’s enough of an inconvenience that your players won’t want to experience it every session. Sometimes a little tough love from the DM is all players need to start making wise decisions.

How do you handle character death in your game? Do you pull your punches, or do you kill ’em all and let God sort ’em out?

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Written by Janna

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Janna discovered D&D at the age of 16, and she's been rolling the dice for 16 years. (You do the math.) She is fond of intelligent villains, drow society, and campaigns that explore the Dark Side.

 

 Comments

20 Responses to “DM Dilemma: Should You Let the PCs Die?”
  1. AL3X_B says:

    Since the release of the new Revenant race, it is now safe and fun to kill off entire parties.:D

  2. Nicholas says:

    My role of thumb is that if I can help them without them noticing I did it, I will. I think the fear of death is very important to the story and the fun of the game. If they know I am helping them, they will think I’ll never let them die. But I’m willing to secretly lower defenses mid-battle (this one is tricky, they keep good track), cut the enemies hit points, turn a crit into just a hit. Stuff like that is okay.

    Usually when a PC dies in my game, all of his friends go with him. I have had 3 TPKs so far in 4e and no characters dying outside a TPK.

  3. ZedZed77 says:

    In more “fantastic” settings I’ve seen DMs simply treat death like another obstacle to be overcome. For example, when our party’s halfling rogue died “before his time,” the player and PC merely endured a solo side-adventure through the bowels of hell. Next session, he was back in the party and good to go.

  4. Wimwick says:

    I’m a fan of letting the PCs get out of first level in order for them to get a sense of their characters abilities and limitations. After that the gloves are off. While I don’t design adventures with the death of PCs in mind, I view the game as a shared storytelling/adventuring scenario, I’m not afraid to have a character die.

    If a PC dies and the villan escapes it increases the drama and excitement for everyong involved as now their is a grudge.

  5. I roll all dice in front of the players and let them fall where thay may. No one can complain if their character is killed this way, not that they should be anyway. You need death because you need danger – you need excitement and risk for the game to work.

  6. ObiJon says:

    I’m a fan of being “Cheaty (In a Good Way)”

    I use the screen. If massive damage will kill a player outright, I might shave it down. If it’s the third crit against that character in the encounter, I might downgrade it. It all depends on how I’m feeling, and how they’re playing.

    That being said, 4e has made killing pc’s more fun. They can all heal themselves a little bit, and if the healers are worth their salt, they can bring friends back from death’s door.

    Also, I think only the most ruthless monsters are going to be twisting the knife in a “corpse.” Unless they’re used to battling groups with healers, it makes better sense to clean up at the end.

    No TPK’s yet, though our rogue seemed to die in every encounter until they got the hang of tactics. If only the group had a real tank… the addition of a warlord helped, though.

    I’ll figure out what to do with a TPK if that happens. I’m thinking rolling up a new adventuring group. Letting them try out new roles. Maybe a level, or 1/2 level lower. If they can recover their own remains, maybe they can choose what PC to play (if the new crew is inclined to resurrect.)

  7. Siliaris says:

    I rarely kill my pcs, preferring to “tamper”, however when it comes to boss encounters, I leave the fate to the rolls, no more nice dm!!

  8. DandDGuy says:

    As for Killing pc’s it depends on the situation at hand and weather the person wants the character to die so he can bring in a new character in that session. If the Party makes a bad choice and enters a very dangerous situation anyway this is the case of poor leadership with in the party and they deserve what they get in that situation. However, Sometimes fudging the “Dice Rolls” to prevent casualties in the party is perfectly acceptable also. As a DM You need to have an open mind and be flexible if situations like this arise and they will all to often.

  9. GroovyTaxi says:

    I’m way too nice when it comes to unlucky deaths and I tend to cheat a lot to make sure the group sees its next adventure. However, if a player simply splits from the party, put his mates in danger or anything that’s as dumb as this is, I’ll enjoy seeing him die. Some of my players are just way too confident, and one of them is especially daring. He’s that type of player that insults an adult blue dragon when he’s barely level 3, contests the king’s decisions or tries to slay a fire giant in his sleep while the giant could easily kill him in one punch if he misses. When he fails, he dies, we laugh. If he succeeds, then he gets ten times more EXP than the rest of the group… which happened only once, when he succeeded in slaying the fire giant. The rest of the time, he gets executed, crushed or eaten by an ooze. He’s the only player I enjoy killing.

  10. Hunter Rose says:

    I try very hard to find that line where the players *always* have to be careful about combat. If I do my job right and you don’t do anything too stupid (and by stupid, I don’t mean to include ignorance–PCs should rarely die from ignorance), you’ll scrape through.

    That said, I believe that…
    …combat should be challenging at any level. NPCs and opponents should use appropriate tactics, which includes running away.
    …PC death should be a rare event but ever-looming possibility in combat.
    …low levels don’t get a pass.
    …I should fudge die rolls when dramatically appropriate but that I should only do so within the realm of believability. Don’t break the narrative.
    …if it can be avoided PC’s shouldn’t be allowed to die unless it seems dramatically appropriate. Sometimes, the groups reactions to a series of bad rolls set that up for you. Read the crowd then make it both entertaining and memorable without being unnecessarily cruel.

    Of course, my players and I may have different sensibilities that other groups..

  11. Yax says:

    I always feel bad when I TPK. It should be the last option to fight the Chosen One Syndrome.

  12. Hairy Camera Guy says:

    At first we let our PCs die, then a magical lake that on the sun rise or sun set of a particular day in a particular moon cycle could raise the PC from the dead (with the reduction in level etc). The only catch is the PC has to have been dead for less then a week, and as our campaigns move more and more away from the lake the less chance of the successful resurrection of the PC.

    All this is true I’ve killed of PC per request and witness several. The only character missed by other players so far as been by dwarf fighter (manly ’cause he was used a road block/trap springer and general tough guy)

  13. kaeosdad says:

    Let the fools die… Muaahahahahahahaaaahaha!!!

  14. JohnL says:

    I think it is important to make this decision prior to play, during character creation. What kind of game does everybody want to play. We have played Deadly serious games where PCs could and did die based on their decisions. We have run zany crazy games where violence was like in the cartoons and nobody even the monsters really died Lots of black charred faces and creatures running off crying for their mommies. We usually run a game where death is possible, but unlikely unless you screw up bad or just ask for it, refusing to retreat in the face of overwhelming odds, stuff like that. The main thing is for the players to know its possible if your gonna do it. The story and everyone’s enjoyment of the game is the measure I use to make the final call. I have even had my group stop and tell me it waqs ok I could let the PC go. JohnL

  15. Jon says:

    Usually I don’t hold back one bit with one of my groups. Killed by random encounter, no problem. Though I do have had a tendency to make a few minor changes to a monster if I see that it’s to powerful for the party to handle (which is rare).

    I do the same in my other group, but as they’re a bunch of babies I’ve removed the level loss on raise spells (whining hurts my ears).

  16. d0b3rm4nn says:

    Normally i try to help my gamers, but this depends a lot by the game setting we are playing. If we play dnd 3.5 so a truly heroic setting i try to help the pc( not the dumb ones who get killed coz they think that her char can fight an elder dragon alone without plan the fight with the party),if we play settings that are more real like cyberpunk2020 is better for my player don’t be too attached to a pc coz in this case when they die i let them die

  17. warfreak1865 says:

    I normally help the first 2 levels, but tend to help them out in later levels also. My fav is critiacl f*** up he stabbed his own leg or something like that.90% of the time thou thier fighting for every moment of thier lives usally an ECL3 or more above thier own,but I really like power games like the one Im runing now they all started out at 3rd with +5 to all stats and 20000 gps We’ve had 3 new characters out of 6. 14 deaths in 6 ms they are all level 13 now

  18. Janna says:

    @ kaeosdad: You scare me. ;)

    I know a DM who cheated (in a good way) to keep a PC from dying. Even though he rolled a 5 on the damage die, he announced that the character took 4 points of damage. The player then jumped to his feet in righteous indignation and yelled, “Nuh-uh!! I saw that roll, and you didn’t roll a 4!”

    So the DM simply sighed and said, “Fine. You’re right. You take *5* points of damage.” And there was much laughter at the expense of the loud and ungrateful player. :)

  19. Calmeister007 says:

    Well, first off, i am waayyyyy old school, and i STILL play AD&D v1.0….cuz personally i don’t like all the new fancy stuff. BUT, in my last gaming session, the party’s only mage was killed because of foolish spell casting. However, once the battle was won, the team hiked their fallen comrade back to the base town, (which wasn’t too far) and hired a cleric to do a resurrection. HE used to have a constitution of 13, but ow its a 10, because i took off 3 points for dying and and having to be resurrected……but for the most part, i try to limit deaths

  20. Deaths can work in terms of story, but usually only if I have the player’s permission. One of my players was leaving the game for a few months and I asked him how he wanted his character to leave. He said he didn’t mind being killed off as he didn’t have much attachment to the character since I had rolled it up for him.

    His character’s death was what made the campaign better, also given that the one who killed him was another player who was playing a mole sent by the enemy. (I give details for that on my blog)

    But the funeral was the scene I chose for the ending of the campaign, when they left his body inside a nebula. The players all said a few words and it was a beautiful ending.

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