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.
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?