The Red Box Blog

Ramblings about D&D.

Can Dying Be a Good Thing?

Until 18 months ago, I had never given much thought to how fast player characters were dying off in my games. I would design adventures that seemed to me to be the right level of difficulty and then just let them play out how they played out. That’s not to say I never had any regrets about results (there’s a TPK from 5 years ago that I still feel bad about; I ruined a great campaign with poor planning), but I had never stopped to think “what is a good number of PCs to kill off”.

Killer DM.

Then, as my second 4E game was winding down, I came to the realization that in a year of playing 4E we had never seen a character die, and in fact had only three times seen characters close to death. The whole year we had been playing low level characters – aka the kindling of the D&D world – and yet the players were winning every fight without a death.

To be sure, they weren’t running away with fights, and there were many battles that had been huge struggles, but no one was dead and this wasn’t because of a good streak of luck or a lot of well timed healing, this was because the game itself was much protective of PCs.

Since I didn’t have a blog at the time, I recorded my thought for my friends privately (though I later added them to this blog). Of particular note I wrote:

In the early days of RPGs death was a common and some times unavoidable experience. But over the years more and more protections have been put in place to keep characters alive. In my first campaign we went through characters faster than snacks; I have never seen a character die in 4E.

Like the growing amount of story, this might seem good, but the consequences of it are huge. If PCs don’t ever die then there is no fear of death – no exhilaration as they try to dodge danger. And no fear of death means that the players get less of a high from in-game success. And finally no fear of death means that the players play the game much like they would read a book, just going from one encounter to the next to see how it will end.

As you can see, at that time I was feeling that death was a very important element for the danger it represents; I didn’t even touch on how a slow turnover of characters can keep a game fresh and new.

Boromir's death was great for the story.

So with a desire for death in my heart I pulled out the Red Box set, and there was much death to be had. In the first few weeks of play almost every session ended with a total party kill. After a break from the game I realized a lack of characters was definitely contributing to the killing spree- but even after fixing that issue death continue to happen regularly.

This steady stream of death had an interesting, though quite predictable, result. Players stopped caring about their characters; how could they get attached when characters were lasting only a couple of sessions at most. Because the players didn’t care, they didn’t invest any time in the characters, making them that much more anonymous. Our game degraded into what might best be described as a board-less board game. Everyone moved their pieces around and had a gay old time, but the characters had no more personality than the shoe in Monopoly.

In an effort to bring back some semblance of role playing to our games, I decided to return to 4E. Sure we could have gone for any other edition in between, but I liked 4E in many ways, I just felt it needed some tweaks. Hopefully the tweaks I have in mind will keep death at present, but sane levels. Certainly from the two sessions we have tried with these rules danger has been very present, but not in the Basic insta-death sort of way.

Still, I am left wonder. What is a good amount of death for D&D or any other RPG for that matter? Obviously the amount of death will go a long ways to setting the tone of the game. In Paranoia the constant death reinforced the danger, the frustration, the backstabbing and the humor. On the other hand Toon’s lack of death (or any real consequence) was a big part of why it was so light hearted. Too much death removes caring about the characters, while too little death removes worrying about them.

So to answer the titular question of this article. Yes, dying is a good thing. It can rejuvenate a group , but more importantly it can reinforce the reality that failure is an option. But it is only a good thing in small doses.

Have an opinion about this article? I love comments. Please feel welcome to leave your thoughts.

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November 18, 2010 - Posted by | Dungeons and Dragons, RPGs | ,

7 Comments »

  1. I’ve found that as a player I end up in a lot of low-death to no-death campaigns. Personally, I don’t care if my character dies, so long as it is a respectable death, one worthy of the cost (I’d rather the Gm didn’t arbitrarily drop a piano from the sky, or whatever). But this is not a common attitude, I guess. Most GM’s I know are hessitant to kill off someone’s masterpiece for fear that the player takes it personally. I think if you can find a professional group that respects the fact that their characters are not protected by the player’s love for them, then you’re off to a good start.

    I kind of like records and data, so might I suggest that you keep a log of how frequently a PC dies, and then analyze it after a few months. I think it should be frequently enough that people remember, but rare enough to build an “it won’t happen to me” attitude.

    Comment by Nicholas | November 18, 2010 | Reply

  2. I have to admit that I tend to be a little hesitant in killing pc’s, although in 4th edition, with the exception of the infamous “Iron Tooth” fight in Keep on the Shadowfell it hasn’t really been an issue. I think that it is tuff to have a “good” death in 4th edtion due to the mechanics without some creativity from the DM as it can be very anti-climatic, or else Boromir really just lies unconscious for several rounds until he fails 3 death saves and drifts off to the Astral Sea…unless of course the DM likes to coup de grace 🙂

    Comment by middleagedm | November 19, 2010 | Reply

  3. […] Can Dying Be a Good Thing? Red Box Blog muses on the value of character death. […]

    Pingback by The Week in D&D Hardcore: November 19, 2010 « Save Versus Death | November 19, 2010 | Reply

  4. I believe the underlying cause of deathless campaigns is the ‘balanced’ encounters and xp budgets. The playing field always feels a little too level. I think DM’s should throw in an unfair encounter every once in a while, but with the option of providing a way of escaping/retreating or avoiding/delaying the encounter altogether. Then the PC’s can have a sense of real danger.

    If they know an encounter is too tough for them right now they can wait until they gain a few more levels and come back. This mechanic is common in computer RPG’s. Sometimes you just aren’t strong enough to tackle a particular encounter. However, if they insist on charging in and get killed then their fate was in their hands and that’s how they decided it should go.

    Comment by Chris | November 20, 2010 | Reply

  5. I’ve never felt that the threat of death was important so much as the threat of failure. I’ve put my party up against very hard fights, but I always have a plan in the back of my mind for how things will go down if the party loses. They’re captured and forced to perform something unsavory to their ideals, a close friend is taken hostage, etc.

    The important thing, to me, is that there are consequences and it doesn’t feel as though the DM is providing a safety net. I suppose if it happened enough it would lose its appeal, but I haven’t had to break out these backup plans often enough for it to matter. Of course, when they succeed, I never tell the party what would have happened if they had failed.

    I vaguely remember the 4e DMG2 having a nice section on this idea. Something about story arcs and how to use failure to craft the direction of a campaign.

    Comment by Walter | November 21, 2010 | Reply

  6. You might find this discussion helpful.

    http://discourseanddragons.blogspot.com/2010/10/pc-death.html

    Comment by kiltedyaksman | November 22, 2010 | Reply

  7. @Chris: I definitely throw in some quite hard encounters. Another idea is to have nearby monsters hear and join in late in the battle, essentially having two “fair” encounters without a short rest in between.
    @everybody: I don’t think death is nessecary to have a fun game. After all, a lot of action movies and series manage to threaten the characters without having much or any death. I can see it being something that’s very depended on group dynamics, though.

    Comment by Philo Pharynx | November 22, 2010 | Reply


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