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Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Death, Where Is Thy Sting?

Play enough computer-type games and you'll find that death is brief - at best.  You either revert to a saved game or re-spawn where you fell.  Not very lethal, but that's okay because the challenge lies in mashing buttons like mad and defeating a foe after several (doubtless frustrating) attempts.  Tabletop games are a different breed.  Here death is more permanent, barring divine intervention, because it has to be.  A sense of risk is essential...

But what is risk, exactly?  Let's start by suggesting that job one of a game is to make people care.  Job two is threatening all they care about, and herein lies the risk.

What can we possibly care about more than life itself. barring family, obviously?  And in a tabletop game, our imaginary "life" counts for a lot.  Heroes stake life and limb in a vast underworld and have a vested interest in staying alive.  You know, risk.  But what does death mean in a game where you just roll up another character and rejoin the adventure almost immediately?  Especially when they inherit money and/or powerful magic items.     

I once played no less than six dwarven brothers who picked up where their dead relatives left off, inheriting most of their stuff in the process.  It was a brazen exploitation of the rulebook and something close to "immortality" in a game everyone calls lethal.  No, what players really care about is the preservation of their cherished in-game personality figure...

And there's lots of ways to threaten these.  Lots.  Que maniacal laughter.  Luvar the Shining gets turned into a slimy toad.  Thingol the Foe Smasher loses his Dwarven Hammer.  The diabolical possibilities are endless, and players will vigorously avoid them all.  Herein lies yet another way to threaten the characters.  Don't kill 'em.  Let 'em live and force the players to struggle with an uncomfortable blow to the identity they've struggled to preserve.

With this in mind, is it possible to reduce in-game death while simultaneously raising the stakes and building greater dramatic tension?  Ironically, letting characters live longer could actually make death more effective when it finally happens because the players have had time to grow attached.  Talk about cold.  Could it be that old-school dungeons might actually go easier on the players by killing off their heroes before attachments form?   

That being said, here's an outline for an alternate deathless D&D where characters live longer but possibly suffer more.  The latter is debatable; but the players will feel like all they hold dear is threatened, which feels a lot like death.  Take it as the suggestion it is... 

(1) When a character falls in battle, they go unconscious instead.  Should at least one companion survive or manage to drag their friend to safety, that character revives and even recovers up to 10 lost hit points.  It takes a total party kill to produce true death.

(2) Death magic, poison, and/or traps are still fatal, as is death from one-on-one fights with no backup.  There's safety in numbers, and splitting the party or going alone is a bad idea.

(3) Cheating death incurs an experience debt equal to the opponent's level x 1,000, with earned experience applied to the deficit first. The player must pay off the debt before further advancement is possible, and since levels are everything, this one hits home! 

(4) If advancement is capped, the character loses 1d3 levels instead.  Alternately, they could sacrifice one or more magic items with a total experience value equal to the experience deficit incurred under rule #1, above.  Higher-level characters have more options and more opportunities to recover, so the cost is firm (but fair) given that life itself is at stake.

Once again, these are just suggestions, and admittedly not fully formed ones!

Death is a clear and present danger, which in turn motivates careful planning to avoid the possibility.  At the same time, too much death lessens the impact, which in turn saps its motivational power.  It could be that improving survival while dishing out harsher, albeit non-lethal, consequences for defeat might actually feel riskier.  Ultimately, this depends on the system and the desired ends of the group; but when story matters, so does survival.


  1. With my five year old, we use something I'd read about ages ago. There is no death, but simply "it gets worse". He's "died" several times and ended up in quite a lot of hot water.

    For my current (adult) group, no one's yet died but my intention is to use the Dungeon World "Last Breath" rule. We'll see how it goes...

  2. This sort of approach was the one that kept me in some games and not others when I started in 79/80 with AD&D 1e. These were definitely old school games: actions had consequences. The environment was dangerous. Your characters were at risk pretty much all the time, mitigated (or not) by how you played. It was also present in most other games I played AD&D, Traveller, RQ2, gurps,...etc, and especially in Flashing Blades, where our characters were hot headed stuck up wannabe musketeers who got in far too many duels, with a ref who didn’t believe in plot armour and let the dice roll as they may. We got to value all our characters much more, whether or not they lived long or died young. Last at least 5 (or 50) sessions and die ignominiously or gloriously, we’d remember those characters because of the risk. Making 7th level easily with no real threat of death - I remember playing in such a campaign and being bored, and can’t remember anything else about it! But I do remember my 3rd, then 4th level fighter stepping in to a narrow-ish enough corridor that he could block so long as he used his 2H sword to cover the party retreat. The dice were with me both times, and as the 3rd or 4th time something like that had happened, it cemented a certain rep for that fighter. His story emerged through the game play and the risks that were taken.

    1. To address the point of longevity, characters lost in Flashing Blades and later a GURPS campaign were felt more keenly when they’d become well established. So I think this does make a difference. But in all the games we played, right from the start, we all valued our characters and hoped they’d last. Maybe our group was atypical - we didn’t consider them throwaway - unless we generated something absolutely rubbish. Even so, some of those survived to become people’s most memorable characters. Once we got somewhere over 3 sessions with characters that had survived there seemed to be some attachment, especially if you lasted more than a dozen sessions and/or levelled up to 2nd and perhaps 3rd.

    2. Excellent points. Many people develop that attachment right from the start, which speaks to the quality of the experience. While death doesn't have to be the only possible price, there should be consequences for every action...

  3. I've riffed on how Tolkien allows all kinds of mad escapes from death, and allows the rare, meaningful heroic sacrifice.

    1. It's an idea worth emulating in games if we want it...

  4. i use suggestion 1: O HP characters are disabled and must be carried away to safety and receive proper care by their comrades before the end of the turn in order to escape the Grim reaper.
    However, a constitution roll must be made, and, if failed, 1 point is lost in one Ability score (randomly determined by 1d6)