Death and Danger in D&D

My earlier post brought up the topic of danger and lethality in the game. Something you really can’t run nowadays is the oldschool lethal dungeon crawl or the kind of thing you see in videogames. Players really have too much attachment to their character and D&D doesn’t have the “save game” feature that lets regular games ramp up the difficulty.

A very important piece of DM advice is that should never be afraid to kill off player characters. There is a thin line between expecting to survive, and knowing you’ll survive. The moment your players realise that they cannot be killed, the danger level drops and the game becomes that much more dull. Danger is fun.

Asked what they enjoyed the most, my own players each discuss the time their own character almost got killed. The time the cleric was possessed by a ghost, which turned out to be a pacifist: but he didn’t know that, and that’s what made it exciting for him. The time the rogue was almost killed by an ambush when everyone else was two full rounds away. The sorcerer’s player still talks about the time his previous fighter character was almost beaten to a pulp by a door.

When you win fights as frequently as D&D characters do, what’s truly exciting is not the next assured victory, but those rare incidences of true danger.

Comments (5)

Steve (September 26th, 2007)


No fear == No fun

Obligatory mini story - After failing to solve the mystery and keeping the trolls from attacking town, our party watched the sacking of the town from the top of a nearby hill… Big troll army vs puny party and townsfolk - we “knew” the GM didn’t believe in protecting players, we’d be creamed. Me, I was the druid; what did I care if the trolls win one once in a while;-)

Ben (November 26th, 2007)

I have no qualms about killing players off. I put them in risky situations, and many of the choices available lead to their death. I don’t recommend the approach for inexperienced DMs, or DMs with new players. But when your group has been playing together for 5 years, you gotta spice it up. A great example of a dangerous quest is the games Namesake. Make a dungeon, fill it with monsters, through a dragon at the end. Dragons, especially in my experience — Red, Blue, Silver, and Gold — are incredibly dangerous opponents. But don’t take it overboard either. Rarely if ever put your players in a situation they can’t win. Every encounter should have at least a 45-50% chance of the players winning, otherwise its fun for no one. The onlytime I had a wholesale player slaughter is when they tried to siege Sigil, and ran into Our Goddess, the Lady of Pain

True necromancer (December 5th, 2007)


Chaos (May 21st, 2008)

The guys I usually play with have been playing together for quite a while, so we’re pretty open with campaigns. The players are aware that the DM very well may kill someone off, sometimes just to prove a point.

My favorite example: The players were taking on a particularly powerful Evil Humanoid NPC, leveled as a weapon master. The players didn’t bother planning the encounter, and just threw themselves at him, even after the DM recommended against it (tried to drop suggestions in game). The NPC killed off 2 of the 6 players, left 1 at -10, and another unconsious. The players were much more careful after that.

Quicksilver (August 27th, 2009)

A true 45-50% chance means you lose a group every 1-2 fights and you can’t have a campaign like that. If its truly 50%, then they all die half the time. I understand that you may have been going for the “make it look like theirs 50% chance to survive”, and i’ll just assume that’s what you were going for.

As i run games, i too like to make it so that the players have to think in order to survive. Recently in my BESM game the characters tried attacking a cyclops that was ripping a structural girder off a crashed ship they decided to make a base. They knew it was there (pulling something out of the ground) before they went into what was just going to be a cave but they didn’t want to make it their home base until they found out it had a portal jacker inside (it could tap into other portals to utilize them for short periods of time). The poor cyclops wasn’t going to end up doing too much damage to the ship before leaving it alone, as all it wanted to do was get a fancy new metal spear out of the deal, but the party felt it too risky as it was making them nervous. One of them lucked out and found an emergency disposal device in the armory (the equivalent of a sci-fi thermite grenade) and used it on the cyclops, not realizing it had immunity to heat already (something they could’ve deduced from the fact it was surviving wave after wave of death throes that lash at the land they were currently on). They nearly killed themselves in that one. I thought it was hilarious, they learned a little from it. Them “I want to look over the ridge-line to cast/throw/shoot something at it”, Me “Well you can tell you’ll be making defensive rolls to survive the waves of heat coming off the thermite grenade, as you put just a little bit of your hand over the edge and it begins to blister immediately as you reflexively pull back”. Dumb cyclops was just looking for a meal out of it by that point, since he only spotted the one guy who approached to talk with him (he got a really low spot).

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