Everybody Dies: Why Player Deaths in D&D Are Okay
In real life, this is an uncontested fact. It’s not typically one we care to dwell on, but we accept it and move on with our lives.
In Dungeons & Dragons, however, death is an entirely different matter. It’s not a function of biology, but of numbers and storytelling. It is an ever-present threat that contributes to the stakes and drama of the adventures we share. Most importantly, character deaths in Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition are both reversible and subject to the Dungeon Master’s discretion (here at Quest Chests we say “Quest Master”).
Given that most of us play this game with our friends, our family, and other people we appreciate, we—as Quest Masters—often use our discretion to shield the heroes from death.
This tendency is fine in some circumstances. Killing your friend’s character in her very first game might not be a good way to hook her into the idea of tabletop role-playing. But softening too many blows can be just as destructive as letting the characters fall; when the threat of death evaporates, the whole nature of the game changes.
Death is okay. Death is every bit as natural in Dungeons & Dragons as it is in real life. And, as Quest Master, you need to remember that it’s okay to let your friends die.
Death is a Necessary Threat
These spells exist because the world of Dungeons & Dragons is laden both with powerful magic and terrible threats. Chief among these threats is the threat of death. Characters in Dungeons & Dragons throw themselves against lethal adversaries on a regular basis, and sometimes those lethal threats are realized. And they should be.
Removing the threat of death cheapens the gaming experience in three ways.
First of all, Dungeons & Dragons allows players to imagine and experience fantastical tales of adventure by allowing the threat of death to raise the stakes and tension of those perilous missions. What would your adventures look like if they weren’t matters of life and death? Just think, for a second, how The Lord of the Rings would read if Frodo wasn’t trying to carry the One Ring to Mount Doom, but an overdue library book—and there were no Nazgûl or Orcs trying to stop him… only a series of red traffic lights.
Second, Dungeons & Dragons transforms into a tactical game during combat, one that still permits a great deal of player creativity, but that demands players take constant measure of their situation and the threats arrayed against them. In this regard, removing the threat of death is more or less the same as telling the players they can never lose… and that they will never be seriously challenged in their combats. But many players take delight in overcoming the challenges they face.
Finally, the general concession of most adventures is that the players’ characters are heroes. They’re heroes because they’re willing to brave horrifying dangers in order to bring good to others. Risk is a necessary part of the hero equation. No one calls you a hero because you open a door for an old lady. Someone might think you’re a nice person, but you risked nothing.
Let Them Die a Death Worthy of Song
Death may be an integral part of the classic Dungeons & Dragons experience, but that doesn’t mean you have to be a jerk about killing your players’ characters.
There are a few things you can do to ensure that deaths in your campaign feel justified and meaningful:
Warn your players before particularly deadly encounters. Now, you don’t necessarily need to do this before a boss fight. It should be understood that the villain powerful enough to control and unite all the monsters the heroes have fought for the past several weeks is likely a deadly adversary, as well. But for those other fights? Like the one where you pit the heroes against two dozen goblin sorcerers who all cast Magic Missile every round? Give the players a warning. But do it in the story! Foreshadow. Have the heroes walk through two devastated villages and encounter the frightened child who survived the goblin raid. This creates a good social encounter and it gives the heroes reason to understand those goblins are no fluffy XP bait; they’re serious!
Make sure your players know what they’re doing when they put themselves in real danger. Sometimes players will declare actions that just don’t make any sense and are likely to get somebody killed. Maybe the cleric wants to hit the orc next to him when his companion is about to die. Much of the time, players make these decisions because they’re not aware of the details. Maybe the cleric thought the fighter was still standing because the player was reading the rules of the spell he was excited to cast. Maybe the ranger who wants to shoot at the owlbear didn’t know her wizard companion had just been flanked by a pair of trolls. Players won’t be happy if they feel they were blindsided when their characters died, so make sure they are fully aware of facts like there are two trolls, not one, and that they’re not your standard trolls but are, in fact, wearing full plate and wielding greatswords shrouded in crackling black energy.
Make sure you remain thoroughly informed of each hero’s status. Just as you should make sure your players fully understand the scene, you should keep close tabs on your heroes’ hit points, armor class, saving throw modifiers, and anything else that might suggest how likely they’ll be to survive the trolls’ attacks and the wizard’s Fireball.
Have your monsters fight the way they would fight, not necessarily the way that’s most lethal. You can bet your player’s not going to be happy when his cleric dies because he was attacked by all the unintelligent golems. Those golems don’t understand the cleric is the linchpin of the encounter—the one who can mitigate the damage dealt to the rest of the party. That’s you, and if you make the decision to have your golems march past the fighter and the barbarian in order to focus all their attacks on the cleric until he’s not only down, but absolutely dead, that’s just spiteful and out of character. Don’t play that way.
Make sure the death is given its due in your story. Raise the quality of your narration. This is a powerful moment, and you should give it your best effort. Describe the attack or effect that kills the hero. Have your villain react. Encourage the other players to have their characters respond. Think about how the death impacts the larger scene, and allow the tenor of the whole situation to shift. When the combat’s over, and the rest of the party thinks about how to move on, bring them back to the idea of their companion’s corpse. How will they return it to the temple for the use of Raise Dead? If the character is returned to life, do your best to describe the strain he or she endures, and encourage the players, again, to immerse themselves in the scene. Allow them time to grapple with anything they may have learned from the encounter. If the mastermind is still out there, maybe the heroes learn that he’s become aware of both the character’s death and return to life. Incorporate this into your story, give your character a scar, and do your best to shape it into a turning point.
There are sometimes valid reasons to soften a blow or two in order to reduce the amount of damage your characters suffer. You might want to get a player invested in the game before you kill his character. You might want to give a player the chance to level up her character to the same level as the rest of the party.
But if you want your players to cheer when they narrowly survive a particularly harrowing encounter, then you need them to believe their characters can die. And the only way for them to believe their characters can die is to give death its due.
Have there been any memorable PC deaths in your campaign? Share their obituary with us in the comments below!