Death and Danger in D&D

This topic has been preying on my mind lately. So much, in fact, that I’ve decided to resurrect this blog. Not even blog death is permanent! The question I’ve been asking myself is this: what purpose does death play in RPGs, and D&D4e specifically?

1. Excitement
D&D is a game about heroic combat. Kill monsters and take their stuff. Sure, there’s roleplaying, complicated plots, moral quandaries, loves and betrayals and all that good stuff. But eventually there comes a time when you have to kill monsters. And take their stuff. Which is fine, tactical combat is fun, and I wouldn’t be running D&D if I didn’t want it to be a big part of my game.

When you regularly fight and kill monsters, sometimes they get to kill you. It’s only natural. If they could never beat you, the thrill would be gone. The threat of death makes combat exciting. It is this constant threat of death that makes easy resurrection necessary.
TPKs as a result of a string of bad rolls and poor tactical choices is the extreme example of this.

2. Consequences
More often than not, character death comes as a direct result of their choices. Heroes choose to defend the village from the orcs. Potential death is the price they’re willing to pay for the safety of the villagers. It’s what makes them heroes.

An ultimate case of this is final sacrifice. Someone has to stay and guard the bomb until it explodes. “I’m taking you bastards down with me”. Certain death for the cause.

3. Utter Failure
Sometimes characters fail completely and irredeemably through faulty planning and diverging mental pictures of the DM and players (this is a topic for another post). “You said what to the lich-king?”. In this case, death could even become a cut-scene, where the character is unable to oppose the greatly superior force that munches on him or her. Once the story gets to this point, the logic and consistency of the world demands for the character(s) to die. It is a penalty for failure.

4. End of a Story
Death can be a logical end to a character’s path. He has gained revenge on the archenemy, and now can be reunited with his wife in the afterlife. 3.5’s Complete Divine, I believe, had a very interesting note on resurrection requiring not merely agreement from the dead, but drive and willpower to make the journey back, too. Afterlife, even a ghastly one, brings peace and a sense of belonging. Only those with unfinished business in the mortal realm and great motivation (i.e. PCs) can break away from it.

5. Start of Another One
Depending on the cosmology of your setting and the circumstances of the death, resurrecting the character may require an adventure in itself. Free their soul from the clutches of the evil god in whose temple the character died; help the soul escape the Underworld.

Of these roles death plays in RPGs (and feel free to suggest more in the comments), 4 is entirely in player’s hands, just as 5 is in DM’s. 3 is up to them both. These points don’t really require system’s intervention. Which leaves 1 and 2, excitement and consequences.

So how does 4e handle character death?

In a word, as a nuisance. Pay some money, write down the temporary -1 penalty (which you’ll forget to apply half the time), and off you go. Essentials have made this even simpler: if you have a warpriest, you don’t need the money, and the penalty will go away on its own.

This does OK for the excitement: your character can still die. It’ll happen less often in 4e than in previous editions, as characters are a lot more resilient, but it’ll still happen. The ease of resurrection is good: it allows the DM to not worry about accidentally killing off a PC. They’ll just get up and keep going on the next day.

But this is also the system’s weakness. Your character has died… and it’s a mere inconvenience. Not a tragedy, not a great final mystery. Consequences? There are none. Once the bomb has exploded, the survivors can go in, scrape up the remains of the “hero” and raise him. And after a character has died a couple of times during the course of the lengthy campaign, there isn’t even an emotional impact left.

It’s just a game

I find it very interesting that the way pen-and-paper RPGs handle character death has evolved in parallel with the way computer games do. They started out with arcade machines geared towards killing your character as often as possible, so that you’d keep putting money in and trying again. This bias towards harsh penalties for failure has kept throughout most of the computer games history, despite there no longer being coins to drop. This topic has been covered elsewhere, though, so I won’t dwell on it. In many modern games death has become less of a penalty. There is no Game Over should you suffer a fatal fall or fail in a fight. You rewind to the moment just before the death and try again – in the case of Prince of Persia, literally.

While that is very close to the way 4e handles death, there is a very important difference. In the narrative of Prince of Persia, the character hasn’t actually died. “No, no, no, that’s not what really happened, let me start again”, the prince says. Other games without in-world time manipulation simply reload the previous, often automatic, save.  MMOs can be an exception to this, but they are so full of abstractions that dying and respawning is just another thing you do.

In Dragon Age: Origins, falling in battle doesn’t actually cause a character to die. As long as one person survives, everyone will get up, although with some minor and easily removed penalties. I don’t know how Dragon Age tabletop RPG handles death, but my idea (we’re getting to it) was largely inspired by the computer game.

Another medium in which characters constantly come back to life is comic books. Yet even there, despite all the criticism of heroic deaths made meaningless by inevitable resurrection, the character actually spends some time dead until they triumphantly return (or it is revealed that they weren’t actually dead).

To Be, or Not to Be?

How do we reconcile frequent dangerous combat with death that has consequences and emotional impact? Here’s my suggestion: don’t kill the characters. At least, not as easily. Observe the following variant rule:

Replace the “Death and Dying” rule with the following:
Incapacitation: When your hit points drop to 0 or fewer, you fall prone, become helpless and are incapacitated. You are unable to take any actions, but may remain conscious and be able to talk at the discretion of the DM. Any additional damage you take continues to reduce your current hit point total.

Incapacitation saving throw: when you are incapacitated, you need to make a saving throw at the end of your turn each round. This functions exactly like a death saving throw, with all applicable bonuses and penalties. On failing this saving throw three times before you take a rest you become grievously wounded.

Grievously Wounded: When you take damage that reduces your current hit points to your bloodied value expressed as a negative number, your character becomes grievously wounded, breaking or losing a limb or suffering some other horrific injury. The character is unconscious and may not be healed. Any further damage taken causes the character to immediately make a death saving throw. If the damage from a single source exceeds the character’s healing surge value, this death saving throw automatically fails. An effect that allows the character to spend a healing surge removes one failure instead. Upon three failures, the character is dead. A Coup de Grace kills the grievously wounded character instantly.

Healing grievous wounds: The wounds suffered by the character are so severe that only resurrection magic can restore their body. Any ritual or effect that raises a character from the dead can also be used to heal grievous wounds, with all the usual consequences.

I’m probably missing a couple of edge cases here, but the intent should be clear. Functionally, nothing changes until the character is taken out: it’s still a good idea for monsters to gang up on a single PC to prevent the character from getting up again, they can still be be healed up, make their saving throws etc. Once a character has suffered a grievous wound, most monsters would switch to other PCs, as killing him would require effort with no reward: that character is not getting back up. It would take a particularly vicious villain to go for a kill when the character is no longer a threat. There’s still a danger posed by area attacks and auras, but, well, don’t leave your wounded allies in lava pits.

By replacing death with incapacitation, we maintain the excitement of combat while allowing for greater and rarer consequences and keeping death as something to fear.

As an optional variant of this variant rule, try the following:

Heroic sacrifice: Even when your character is grievously wounded, he or she still has one last heroic effort in them, one last push past the limits of their body. When grievously wounded, you may declare a heroic sacrifice turn at any point in the initiative order, as if your character was delaying an action. The character is no longer unconscious. All status effects on him end. He gets up as a free action. All his powers are recharged. All his attacks hit automatically, but should still be rolled in case he scores a critical hit. At the end of turn, the character dies.

Blaze of glory, anyone? Something that has been remarkably hard to achieve with normal rules.

Now, you’re gone

So what do we do once the character is actually, really dead? Do a story about it (see point 5). This is hard to maintain when death is a relatively common occurrence. But with these variant rules, it no longer will be.

Perhaps the dead character has to be rescued from the Underworld. Let the dead character join the party as soon as they descend there, but have him unable to leave with them until he gets released by the goddess of death. This way the player can still participate in the game.

Perhaps the resurrection ritual requires a rare component, such as a phoenix egg, which cannot be simply bought at a market. The party might  even have previously acquired it as a reward, or will need to quest for it. In the later case, the player of the dead character should probably take over an existing NPC or create a temporary character (that will become an NPC later).

These two options can also be done “in credit” to avoid them interrupting the ongoing plot. Sure, the goddess of death lets you go. For a favour in the future. Sure, our monastery has a phoenix egg. Oh, by the way…

Or perhaps the resurrection, while still doable as a relatively simple ritual, has its drawbacks. Resurrection Mishaps table from 3.5’s Heroes of Horror is an excellent inspiration source. Despair deck from the upcoming Gloomwrought looks like it could work really well, too.

The bottom line of this is: let character death be more meaningful while still having dangerous combats. Let death be a source of stories, rather than inconvenience. And while the house rules in this post are 4e-specific, this approach could be applied to other systems as well.

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