Q: I’m a soft-hearted DM and I never know how to handle player death. Any advice?
(Cassie from Austin)
A: This relates to a number of the questions from previous months—how to make combat interesting, what to do when things take an unexpected turn.
As DM you hold the player’s lives in your hands. At its most obvious level, you have the DM’s screen and the power to lie about what happens on your sides. You can always choose to ignore a critical hit or to turn a hit into a miss. At the end of the day, a character will only die if you choose to kill them.
With that said, by the time you’re lying about dice rolls, you’ve already passed by a number of tools that control the fate of your PCs.
Intelligence and Story. Whether you’re the DM or a player, one of the greatest challenges of roleplaying is playing a character or creature that is significantly smarter or less intelligent than you are. When you look at an encounter group, you may see a particular combination of abilities that are ruthlessly effective. However, that doesn’t mean you HAVE to use those abilities to their fullest potential. It may be clear to you that the proper strategy is to focus fire on the weakest PCs… but perhaps the mighty bugbear will see the scrawny wizard as an unworthy foe, and choose to challenge the fighter instead. The kobolds may have backstabbing abilities that make them an excellent team… but perhaps this group includes kobolds from two feuding clans that refuse to help one another. These sorts of decisions also serve to add flavor to encounters and differentiate between different species and cultures. If you were playing Chess, you’d use every piece to its fullest ability. But in my opinion, what differentiates an RPG from a tactical wargame is that there is story—and the story may keep your pieces from acting at full efficiency.
Equipment and Damage. You’re running an encounter for first level characters. You create an orc fighter. He’s a fighter, so you give him what you’d take if you were making a fighter PC… say, plate armor and a greataxe. Of course, if he hits with that greataxe, he has a 60% chance of killing any of the player characters with a single blow. So? The players have the same tools, right? This is just what a first level fighter looks like.
That’s true… but it doesn’t HAVE to be. Yes, if you were making a PC fighter, you might take the heavy weapon. But this isn’t a PC. He’s not one of the main characters in the story. He’s not even an important villain. He’s just a random orc with a pie. If you don’t want him to kill PCs in a single blow, well, maybe he just loves big knives—a choice no PC fighter would make, but this is a sociopathic orc and it happens he loves skinning people with knives. Another option is to say that weapons simply don’t deal as much damage in the hands of NPCs as they do for PCs. It doesn’t matter what the weapon is; whenever an orc thug hits an opponent, they will deal 4 points of damage. If the player picks up the weapon, it will do 1d12+Str – but that’s a reflection of the player’s skill, and the orc doesn’t have it. This lets you have a clear, concrete idea of just how many hits a character can take, and to know that the orc can kill the wizard in one shot but will need three hits to take down the fighter… as opposed to using a 1d12+2, which leaves things completely unpredictable.
So you can always choose to lie. But you’re also setting up the odds when you decide how much damage the enemies can inflict on the PCs and how effective their tactics will be. So if you like to let the dice fall where they may, you can still set things up so the encounters that are most likely to kill the characters are the ones that FEEL dramatic. Really, the key point here is that Your NPCs aren’t player characters. The story isn’t about them. As a result, you don’t have to equip them or play them the same way you’d handle a player character of your own… and making these sort of choices will help to differentiate encounters.
Having said all of that, we come to a critical question: What is the point of death in your campaign? Why is the threat of death important? For me, the main purpose of having a meaningful risk associated with defeat is that it makes victory mean something. If the heroes can’t lose, then why bother having fights or challenges in the first place? However, the flip side of this is that defeat doesn’t have to mean death… it just needs to carry consequence. Consider the following house rule.
When a villain reduces a PC below zero hit points, the villain decides whether or not the injury is lethal.
Aside from this, you can keep all the standard rules for your system. The PC can “bleed out” and in 4E they will have to make death saving throws each round. When they reach the state that should indicate final death, they either die or pass into a state where no magic or skill can restore them for the duration of the combat. So in 4E, a PC who fails three death saves caused by a nonlethal injury no longer makes death saves each round, but they also can’t be woken up with a Healing Word. Reviving the character will require a short rest and attention from either a character with healing magic or training in the Heal skill; if this doesn’t happen, you decide if the character recovers or dies, based on the nature of the injury.
Once you’ve established this rule, the next question is what the default state is. It could be that all wounds are lethal unless the attacker makes a special effort to spare the victim. But it could be that people only die if the attacker makes sure it’s a mortal wound. Imagine that the PCs are guarding a caravan and bandits attack. The bandits don’t actually care if the PCs live or die, they just want these guards out of the way so the path to the loot is clear. Essentially, if defeat has clear consequences – the caravan is robbed, the king is killed, the magic artifact is stolen – it may not matter if the PCs die. An initial defeat can actually make the ultimate victory over a colorful villain more satisfying.
Looking to consequences, you can also consider permanent or semi-permanent impacts on the characters. For example, a villain might spare a hero’s life but leave him with a dueling scar or take a family signet. However, I wouldn’t do this sort of thing unless you’re sure your players will enjoy it. For some people, this creates a satisfying thirst for vengeance; but others would rather have a clean death than feel that their character has been humiliated.
Beyond this, my main advice is this: if you’re going to kill a character, have it MEAN something. When my character is killed in a random encounter with a first level orc with a greatsword, I don’t feel like a hero. But when my character gives his life to hold the gates of Moonwatch against the Duke of Frozen Tears, buying time for the wizard to complete his spell? In that case, I’m OK with it. Especially if there is lasting impact of some sort. Perhaps they raise a monument to me, or say that my spirit infuses the city gates and protects them against future enemies. For me, the ultimate test is this: if I saw this death in a movie, would it make sense? Or would I walk away saying “I don’t get why they killed the ranger in that random bar fight”? If it’s the latter, I’d consider one of the alternatives suggested above