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You’re Dead!

posted Friday, July 17th 2009 by Brandan Landgraff
Dungeon Mastering AdvicePlayer Advice

“The thief, Black Leaf, did not find the poison trap, and I declare her dead.”
“NO! NOT BLACK LEAF! NO, NO! I’M GOING TO DIE! Don’t make me quit the game. Please don’t! Somebody save me! You can’t do this!”
“Marcie, get out of here. YOU’RE DEAD! You don’t exist any more.”

It happens to every party sooner or later. Maybe that last fight was a little bit too rough, or maybe the dice just weren’t on the party’s side—whatever the reason, someone’s kicked the bucket and now it’s time to decide what to do about the dead character. Obviously the death has to have some effect on the game—if dead player characters just wandered back in after the fight ended none the worse for wear, death wouldn’t mean very much at all. (Unless you’re playing Paranoia, in which case that’s half the fun.) On the other hand, if the penalty for dying is too harsh, it can lead to death really being the end—players will not want to continue with the game with characters who have been heavily penalized if it means they’re going to be at a disadvantage from then on. It may seem ludicrous to consider a player being forced out of the game simply because their character has died, but it’s entirely possible for excessive penalties for character death to cause a player to become frustrated enough to quit.

Back in the days of AD&D Second Edition, dying was pretty harsh. You were out of the game till someone could raise you, which was an expense to the party. You couldn’t be raised at all if you were an elf, and even if you could be raised, you lost a point of constitution permanently, with all that entailed. If you died and were raised enough, this would eventually become essentially a hard cap on the number of times you could be brought back, but in practice most people abandoned their characters long before that particular limit set in, for obvious reasons.

Third edition removed the stat loss in most cases and the restriction against raising elves (though non-native outsiders couldn’t be raised) but you still had to find someone to raise you, pay the associated costs, and until then you were out of the game. Problems could arise in situations where people decided that it was easier to simply roll up a new character any time they died. We’ll examine that in a bit more detail later.

Fourth Edition is pretty much the easiest to come back from the dead in. There is no long-term loss—a temporary penalty to rolls for about half a level, a loss of gold equal to the cost of a low-tier magical item, and being out of the game until your buddies can get your remains to a safe place, either to pay someone for the ritual or perform it themselves without fear of interruption. Of course, if that proves untenable, it’s easy enough to return with a new character, as before.

The issue becomes whether these penalties are sufficient detriment. Once upon a time, the argument goes, dying in D&D really meant something—it was a harsh situation and it wasn’t easy to come back from. That’s the way it should be, right? You shouldn’t just be able to shrug it off and come back as if nothing happened, right? And if you want to bring in a new character, well it should be at a lower level than everyone else, right? Death is supposed to be a big deal, and it should have real consequences to it, right?

Wrong. The problem with that thinking is that it doesn’t take into account the full consequences of what harsh penalties to dying do to the game. Loss of a level means that that character is now more likely to die again in the future because of the discrepancy between their character’s level and the rest of the party. Of course, the next time they die, they lose another level…Admittedly this can be mitigated by a skillful DM, but it’s a frustrating thing for the player to deal with in any case. As far as it goes, being removed from the game until your character is raised can potentially lead to the player sitting out a fight or two while the rest of the party tries to get to safety.

The financial loss is not insignificant, either. Given that there is a very real expectation that characters will use their adventuring gains to purchase whatever magic equipment they require that isn’t obtained through looting the bodies, the loss of a chunk of those funds towards bringing back a dead friend can be a major setback in the acquisition of much-needed gear. If more than one person in the party dies at the same time, it’s even harder to recover.

As for bringing in a new character, the same note about character levels applies. Ideally when a player brings in a new character to replace the old one, there should be some agreement that the party can’t just have at the magical gear carried by the old character—with the exception of any plot-essential MacGuffins he may have been carrying. If your players question that, point out that whatever kept his spirit from coming back with a raise dead spell also leeched the power out of all his toys. There’s enough “a wizard did it” to go around when you have a setting where people can come back from the dead that it shouldn’t be too much of a stretch for them to believe that.

A further note is that in 4th Edition, even should your players want to bring in a new character to avoid having to pay for raise dead, it’s worth observing that at any level beyond level 3 or so the new character may well be at a significant detriment in terms of gear anyway. The parcel system suggests giving out four magic items each level, at level +4, +3, +2, and +1. By level 5, your character may well have items at level 9, level 7, and two at level 6, for example—plus whatever items you’ve spent your share of the gold on to that point. In contrast, a character started at level 5 by the rules presented in the DMG for creating characters above level 1 will have one item at level 6, one at level 5, and one at level 4, plus enough gold to buy a level 4 item. The gap only gets higher as the party level increases. It definitely makes it more desirable to stick with the character you’ve already got—and the penalties are not so harsh that it becomes too frustrating to keep playing in the long run just because the dice let you down.

Ultimately, keeping players satisfied and wanting to keep playing should take a higher priority than applying “realistic” or harsh penalties for dying. The ability to come back from the dead at all should be inherently unrealistic enough to undercut any arguments to the contrary. In the end it all boils down to the question of “what is the most fun?” If your players all agree that the game is more fun with harsher penalties for dying, by all means impose them—but be aware of the broader implications of that decision on your game, as with any house rule.

Comments

  1. Dyson Logos

    July 17th, 2009

    The most recent B/X campaign that I’ve been playing in has had a pretty heavy graveyard. We’re on our… fourth fighter in five games?

    Five games with this party. The first party was wiped out in their first foray into the dungeon – TPK.

    We don’t raise the dead, we hire replacements.

  2. mthomas768

    July 17th, 2009

    Kids these days, everyone knows the first thing you do when someone dies is loot their corpse!

  3. Tom

    July 17th, 2009

    Is it even possible to kill a 4e PC? I have yet to see it.

    I have a feeling WOTC, in their research, discovered the DnD players have become complete wusses through the years and can’t stop crying when they’re PCs die.

  4. Brandan Landgraff

    July 17th, 2009

    Tom: Absolutely yes. I can think of a few times where it’s happened over the past year in my games, actually.

    Generally it happens under one of three circumstances. I have a feeling you’re not going to be too assuaged by them, though…

    The first is when the players are absolutely incapable of acting as a team or applying logic or tactical thinking to their play. This usually won’t happen with experienced players, because they tend to be able to recognize the need to actually work as a team.

    The second is when the encounter is poorly designed. Endless streams of unkillable spirits that drain life (Weekend in the Realms last year) or excessively deadly traps, or even just overwhelming numbers of enemies can all bring down one or more players.

    The third option is the rarest, and it’s a legitimately challenging encounter that just goes wrong, with bad rolls for the PCs and lots of good rolls for the monsters. It’s also probably prone to DM fudging, as nobody wants their campaign to be dragged to a screeching halt thanks to a few unlucky rolls, and adversarial DMing is something that isn’t universal in its appeal.

    The absolute truth though, is that in the past 20 years I’ve never, ever seen a character die period, that was not one of the first two situations or the player in question wanting to bow out of the game or bring in a different character. Even in AD&D it just wasn’t something that we ever had to face without basically going out of our way to get there. All this is pretty anecdotal, but there you have it.

  5. Heinous Tugboat

    July 17th, 2009

    This is one reason I really liked Ghostwalk for 3.5, I liked the idea of a character dying and still actually being useful to the party, even in death. Even opening up entirely new avenues of progression.

  6. d7

    July 18th, 2009

    I like the idea of “meaningful” death, but I also have to cop to never having a PC in a game I’ve run actually die. Usually it’s because even as the DM I’m rooting for the characters to do their cool thing, so the encounters I’d set up were challenging but not deadly. I’d beat them, mash them, scare them, but killing them took the fun out of the game, even when there wasn’t a Big Plot that made PC death inconvenient. I’m not sure how that actually happened in practice, but it never did seem like I was being soft on them. I just wasn’t holding the Sword of Damocles over their heads all the time.

    I think that meaningful death, ironically, would work better in a game where PCs were more expendable. A sandbox game would be best for that, since success in that context simply means surviving with the loot and fame. Sure, a PC can be easily replaced, and they’re disposable in the first place, but “dammit, that PC was doing well!” is plenty to keep a player invested and make their PC’s death have impact.

    In a sandbox, too, there’s no problem with replacement PCs being of a lower level—the party still gets to decide where to go, and hence what degree of challenge they’re willing to take on. There’s also no problem with gear being recovered, since often If the dead character fell down a pit, they can decide if they want to climb down to retrieve the gear, knowing that doing that might get them all killed if there are more traps for the unwary. If the PC died while crossing a river, or they got themselves disintegrated, the magic gear’s gone! Dangers that make their gear/corpse unrecoverable is another factor that the party can make decisions around.

  7. satyre

    July 21st, 2009

    Death is always meaningful.

    Having killed a PC in my last game (where he saved lots of bystanders by holding the line so they could escape) as a DM you can determine a meaningful or good death for a PC. Think about that.

    Having played in a high-attrition party, the first couple of deaths are OK. Then after four, you wonder. Six? Been there, done that. Hopefully entertaining, yet you ask why you keep coming back…

    @Tom – The investment put into creating and playing a character over time can make random death less fun. Not sure what calling people wusses achieves.

    As long as it’s fun who cares?

  8. franciolli araujo

    July 23rd, 2009

    Hello Brandan Landgraff.

    I like your articles so much and I’d like to translate to my site, in portuguese, putting the credits and linking to original post.

    May I?

    Thanks!

  9. Brandan Landgraff

    July 23rd, 2009

    Hello Franciolli Araujo.

    That is possibly the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me.

    Yes, you may. As long as credit is given and a link to the original provided, I have absolutely no problem whatsoever with this.

    Thanks!

  10. franciolli araujo

    July 23rd, 2009

    I’m a big fan of the D20 Source articles and I’ll translate it to portuguese to shared this amazing knowledge with my brazilian friends.

    And all credits was given and I’ll link it to the original.

    Thanks a lot for permition and continue with this amazing articles.

  11. d7

    July 31st, 2009

    Hm. Satyre, I think I wasn’t clear when I used the word “meaningful”. What I meant was that, in my games, I hope that the possibility of character death has a significant impact on how the players play the game. I wasn’t talking about whether a particular PC death is meaningful or meaningless, but whether Death, the categorical, is significant.

    Put another way, by “meaningful death” I mean the opposite of death being an irrelevant or momentary setback to the players. I want death to be a meaningful consequence of players’ choices in my games.

  12. Saggi

    December 15th, 2009

    Death is a part of the game. If the players get e feeling they can’t die, the game looses it edge. But as a DM I always ensure a death gets some sort of purpose.

    Players may never end up feeling they just died and that was the end of it. Let them save the day in some way. Even if it happens “just like that” you can always as a DM make it purposeful. In the next dungeon the players may learn that an evil mage had cast some sort of curse, causing the player to fall into his death, and then you can easily have the story continued in the memory of the dead player, while the party hunts down the witch. Relatives are always useful to make up new stories. Didn’t the players forget some important item on the body, that they later learn about?

    Keeping the dead player alive in the continuing story is always fun, and make the player feel his lost character remains a part of the game. At least for some more dungeons until he has put his new character in place.

    I use the same technique when players choose to leave the game and make new characters. I often recommend the players to create a new character when they have reach their goals. (They do have individual goals, right?) Then you can carry on the player as an NPC. The players will love it. They know their old friend who settled down as the local mage, shopkeeper or just from time to time hear about the stories regarding the famous warrior fighting in the wars far away.

  13. Joost

    December 18th, 2009

    it’s part of the game… I’ve had pc’s die as a result of a misjudged attack plan. It was spectacular and fun, and the new players in the group learned a lot from that fight: a group of 7 level 1 characters still can’t easily defeat 1 level 7 giant, and critical hits do lots of damage.
    The barbarian got his famous last words (chaaaaaaaaaaaargh), we had a good laugh, and rescued a wounded fighter from a monastery courtyard shortly afterwards.

  14. Adriano Cardoso

    May 11th, 2010

    Good evening, Mr. Landgrff.
    I´m playing a D&D version 3.5, but I´m not the DM. Currently we are a level 5 party, which consists of a barbarian (my character), a ranger and a wizard; and we just happened to recruit a unicorn…yes, an unicorn. It has 2 levels as cleric also…
    Anyway, this is our very first D&D campaign, and we are facing a annoying problem: we keep dying. The DM is running out of ideas to keep us alive / coming back from the dead, which is even more annoying. We compared our characters with the ones from the DM guide (lets say, a level 5 barbarian sample) and actually we are more powerful than them.
    My doubt is that D&D is that deadly to low level characters or we have a bad designed party?
    Can you shed some light on this, please?

    As our friend Mr. Araujo I´m also brazilian, and we are looking forward for the World Cup Championship this June. Go Brasil! heheh

    Good night, sr.

    Adriano Cardoso

  15. Adriano Cardoso

    May 11th, 2010

    And for the record and completing the above posting, the DM just puts creatures of the right CR (i.e 5 or less).

  16. Chuck Gilmour

    May 18th, 2010

    Hello Adriano,

    You are correct. D&D is not tailored to kill low level characters. With a decent DM it is really tailored to cultivate low level characters and grow them into vibrant mid and high level characters with influence in the realm. A couple of things to watch for; when a DM is designing an encounter for 4 lvl 5 pcs and decides a CR 5 creature is perfect for the encounter there should only be that one creature, anything more would up the EL (Encounter Level) and most likely end with severe consequences for the party. Another common mistake is for the party to not have a good plan in place during battle. Take advantage of the terrain, flanking, bottlenecks…stuff like that. I doubt that it is just a problem with unlucky dice rolls killing player after player so I would guess that the adventure is unbalanced in some way. Bottom line is that even inexperienced player can form a balanced party and have tons of fun if everyone, PCs and DM is doing their jobs well.

  17. David Devine

    June 3rd, 2010

    My best friend had a rule when he DMed: only kill a character if they’re really asking for it (either doing really stupid stuff, or the heroic sacrifice thing).

    The problem I’ve always had with easy ‘bringing back the dead’ is not with the PCs but with the NPCs. Take the first Neverwinter Nights. If you die, as I remember it, you just wake up back at the temple … but if an NPC dies, that’s it, it’s over. The whole reason your ally betrays you is because someone is tricked into committing a crime, for which they are executed … and the betrayer doesn’t even think to have them resurrected, which would have solved the whole final act issue.

    So many plot threads can be short circuited by an easy resurrection system.

    Then again, if we were to take a page from MMOs, I could compare the rather harsh death system from Everquest to the mild death system from World of Warcraft … if you don’t get a buddy to raise you in EQ, you’ve got to physically make it back to your body to get your stuff, while in WoW, you just run back as a ghost until you’re close enough.

    Further to consider MMOs, let’s say that if you died, that was it, you had to start over. RPGs are very much like MMOs in that regard, they don’t have single player ‘save games’ along the way to fall back on.

    In the end, I agree with my best friend … death in an RPG should never be random, unless you’re playing a ‘life is cheap’ kind of setting. If a player dies, they should die for a good reason … essentially rendering any raise dead spell moot (or with serious consequences).

  18. Chaosmancer

    July 29th, 2011

    I know this is rather late into this post, but I’d like to throw in my two cents worth.

    I’m new to role-playing but in the 4e campaign I’ve been playing I had a rather frustrating experience with death. We are doing a Dark Sun game and were confronting some bandits on silt skimmers. My character is a sorcerer and as the battle started I noticed everyone had ended up fighting the group on the left, and the group to the right was closing in fast. Not wishing to get bottle necked and being the closest to that side I started firing off spells, hoping at least one of my allies could break away and help my out when the bandits boarded us. Suffice to say that with all of them taking on the boss that didn’t happen and I quickly was backed into a corner despite my best efforts to fix my tactical blunder (I have notoriously bad luck with dice). I ended up unconscious and rolling my death saving throws when Lady Luck decided to kick me while I was down. The boat got hit by something (can’t remember what) and my body fell off the front of the still moving boat. Yes I was run over, but since I was hurting already the DM was nice and didn’t actually damage me… until I got lucky with a saving roll and woke up. I tried swimming out from under the boat but it was hopeless. I died one turn away from safety. I wasn’t happy about it, I struggled really hard to get through that and just missed my chance. But luckily after a game or two with an NPC I was revived… Only to die again two sessions later. I was stuck in a prison with magical wards and my personal arch nemesis sent four warriors in to grab me. I fought back but with no support (everyone was in different cells) and no magic (Last time I had seen those symbols it was implied I’d get fried for casting a spell so I didn’t feel it was a smart risk) I didn’t last long and my dead body was dragged out just as my companions finally started breaking out and getting the guards. I was revived again but we had to break for the summer, so I really haven’t gotten to play my own character for quite some time.

    Anyways the point of this very long post is that while I can see people’s points about death needing to be “meaningful” nothing is more frustrating than dying a pointless death. Especially my second death was this way, because as our last few sessions progressed I realized I would have been able to participate in the final fight if I had seen what the DM was planning. I should have gone with the guards or made a break for it, because the four I was fighting by myself were the most powerful on the field. I lost the chance to take down my personal nemesis because of bad luck and not reacting as my DM expected. And if that had been it for my character I would have been fairly bitter about this next campaign and might even had just walked away. I don’t think I’m a wuss, but it would have been better to leave than to have had that kind of cloud floating over the group as we set out for a new adventure.

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