I’ve been thinking about character death recently. Depending on what TTRPG you run, lethality can vary. So for me the answer on how you should deal with it depends on the game system you use and the specific campaign you are running.
Types of Character Death
First let me clarify some terms and positions one can have regarding character death. There are at least two types of character death: (i) death based on a bad die roll (e.g., failing a saving throw vs. poison from a wyvern sting, or perhaps a failed save and falling into a bottomless pit), (ii) death because the player didn’t use their character’s abilities.
Game System Lethality
Some game systems are structurally more dangerous than others. It is much easier for a character to die in AD&D, whereas in D&D 5E character death is rare.
5E has structural components built into the game to prevent character death for categories (i) and (ii) (e.g., instead of a vampire draining two levels like in AD&D, it just takes away some hit points, and then after you rest for 8 hours you get them back. That is a substantial weakening of that monster from what it once was). To die in 5E you almost have to work at it. On the other hand, character death in AD&D is sometimes effortless. From 2018-2019 I spent a year playing AD&D twice a month and a character died roughly every game session (keep in mind, though, we frequently had 5-6 players running two characters each, so that ended up being 1 character out of 10-12), during the first six months of that game I only lost one character, during my final six months in that campaign I lost 5 characters. After 4 years of 5E I found it boring and unchallenging and walked away seeking a game where I felt challenged and alive again. After one full year of playing in that AD&D campaign I only had two 1st level characters who had only been in 1 or 2 games to show for it. I no longer felt any sense of progress or connection to that campaign, because no matter how thoughtful or careful I would be, I knew I could trip over a pebble and die. So I experienced the two extremes of games where nothing you do has any consequences, and no matter what you, or how careful you are, you could die. I have tried to learn from both those extreme experiences.
We also have campaigns that challenge you differently. I have been running Castles & Crusades since 2018. It allows me to run any edition of D&D through it. I currently run two campaigns. One is the Barrowmaze, made for Labyrinth Lord (i.e. 1981 B/X D&D), and the other is the Dragonclaw Barony, which is currently using Basic Fantasy (but will transition to AD&D 2nd edition when the players head toward Dragon Mountain). I also need to begin prep on a new campaign for 2022 when Barrowmaze wraps up, and that new campaign will be the Dungeons of Aufstrag (imported from the world of Aihrde and altered to fit my world), this is a C&C designed game. Each of these campaigns have a different sense of challenge and lethality.
How I deal with a campaign that has high lethality.
In my weekly Barrowmaze campaign (which has been running since 2019, having finished our 76th session), my players lose roughly 2-3 characters a year.
- Multiple Characters. Every player uses two characters each session and has a minimum of 5 characters in their roster which they rotate out of the game when they level up and train to acquire a new ability (I have a homebrew option where characters can take time off and pay to learn a new language, profession, attempt to raise an attribute, or gain an “advantage” – i.e. feat – from the Castle Keepers Guide). The players know well that the Barrowmaze is unforgiving and one of the ways in which they have responded is to create a lot of characters. Using more than one character in post-2000 D&D-type games is a rarity, since characters these modern games have become overly complicated. But in oldschool games (and in my C&C games) where the character sheets are a lot less cluttered with numbers and stats, and success is based more on player creativity than referencing numbers on a character sheet, you have a greater ability to use more than one character (in any given battle in an oldschool game you may only have to use one of your characters and the other can sit out if they have nothing to contribute).
- More Careful Planning and Evaluation of Situations. Because the Barrowmaze is filled with plenty of old school “saving throw vs. poison or die,” or “Dexterity saving throw or fall into a bottomless pit” situations, the players tend to be more cautious and engage in more careful analysis and evaluation of a situation before proceeding. They understand the need to bring more than one rogue/thief to check for traps, they have more than one cleric to cure wounds, remove poison, and remove curse. Having more characters and engaging in more planning gives you more options to avoid catastrophe.
- Deck of Dirty Tricks. I use the Deck of Dirty Tricks from Frog God Games. Each adventure I fan out the card deck and have players randomly pull out roughly 3 cards. These cards give options that provide a benefit such as a dice re-roll, automatic success on a die roll, cause enemies to attack a different target, and there are even two cards in the 52 card deck that provide limited wish, and raise dead (all have been used by my players to avoid catastrophe!). These cards will alter how the players behave (if you have a raise dead card, you know that if a character dies there will be a strange twist of fate that will allow them to avoid it). I think this is good, it keeps the game a bit unpredictable from session to session, and players can try out different gaming tactics, sometimes being more cautious and sometimes throwing caution to the wind when they know “the gods” are looking down on them.
- Alter Critical Hits by Monsters.
When my monsters roll a critical hit against a player I don’t have them do extra damage, instead, the attack either destroys their shield or weapon (magic items get a saving throw), or their armor is reduced by one point (example: some strapping on the shoulder piece is cut and now it hangs in front of the character, reducing their armor AC bonus by 1 and in some instances reducing Dexterity checks by 1. By using armor/weapon wastage instead of extra damage, characters have an increased chance to survive and hang on a little longer, while adding a new dynamic to the game (the need to fix armor/shield/weapon, or buy a new one when back in town).
- Death and Dying in Castles & Crusades.
There is a rule I use in C&C (slightly modified from what is in the PHB and the Castle Keepers Guide). When you are brought down to 0 hit points you are not yet unconscious. You cannot attack, cast a spell, drink a potion, or defend yourself with your shield, but you can croak out “help!” and move at half your movement rate to try and take yourself out of danger (or put your arm around a companion and have them drag you out of the way). You have some hope and it ties in well with dramatic scenes we’ve read in books and seen in films with heroes on their last legs. From -1 to -6 you are unconscious and will remain so for hours or days (it will depend on what the wound). It is only when you reach -7 that you begin bleeding out, losing 1 hit point each round and dying at -10. I really like this approach because it presents characters with a range of effects. This approach provides opportunities to crawl out of combat, lie unconscious if you slipped and fell in a ravine only to wake up hours or days later, or try and get other players to frantically get to you to try and prevent you from dying. There is an array of possibilities.
Still, in spite of these rules my Barrowmaze players still lose several characters a year! Still, if I ran Barrowmaze without this approach there would have been a lot more deaths.
Campaigns with lower lethality.
My Dragonclaw Barony campaign is (currently) a lot less lethal. In the 1.5 years that campaign has run (it recently completed session 29), there have only been a couple of character deaths. I have mentioned how players in my games are encouraged to roleplay two characters each (since I prefer large old school groups that have as many as 10 characters and NPCs), but only half the players in that group have two characters, the other half have chosen to stick with just one. This group is filled with a large number of oldschool gamers, and they have begun talking about bringing in hirelings to carry torches, carry treasure, guard the camp, etc. But since character deaths have been minimal so far, there hasn’t been the need. I also don’t use the Deck of Dirty Tricks with this group since they aren’t needed.
This group will, however, begin to transition from the relatively easier Basic Fantasy adventures I have been using to more dangerous adventures I am designing, and then into a homebrewed version of AD&D 2E’s Dragon Mountain, and the transition to greater danger will be noticeable for that second half of the campaign.
How to Deal with Character Death.
Regardless of whether you have a high or low lethality game, when a character dies, what do you do? In a recent game we lost a character that was approaching 7th level and had been in the campaign for 2.5 years. That caused a stir. The frustrating thing about that character’s death was not that it was a fluke failed saving throw (category, i), but the player forgot to use their character’s class abilities several times during the battle that led to their death (category, ii). Player’s with pleading eyes and desperate voices can have an effect on you, and during that battle I threw that character an extra chance and only had them lying at the brink of death in the battle at -6 hit points (although the character eventually did die when a lightning bolt went off on top of him).
I have also sometimes thrown a character a subtle life line if they’ve been around for a while and happen to fail one of those “saving throw or die” situations. I think the “Save or die” is fine for low level characters (levels 1-4 in C&C), they are young and inexperienced adventurers and don’t yet know what they are doing. But once you enter the mid range (levels 5-8 in C&C) I begin to doubt whether a single failed save should result in automatic death, characters at that level have begun to develop a “second sense” for danger. Still, I am reluctant to do that for category, ii, situations, since by that point in the character’s development and that point in the campaign you really should know your character and what abilities they have. And when you get to high levels (levels 9+ in C&C), the characters in the party will, in many instances, have their own class abilities to bring back dead companions.
I wonder whether the mid-level character deaths are the toughest to deal with. By that point you’ve developed an attachment to the character, but characters aren’t quite powerful enough to bring their companions back, and you may not be influential enough to get others to bring them back. It is that transitional phase between being a low-level nobody and a high-level hero of the land.
So, I try to find a middle ground between the older games where if you fail a single die roll you are automatically dead, to the game where nothing bad will ever happen to you. Games where you die constantly just become tedious and annoying, since you get no sense of being part of the campaign. If you have been part of a campaign for an entire year and you still only have two 1st level characters, they have no connection to the group, they have no shared narrative of challenges that have been faced, and you as a player begin to wonder “what’s the point?” On the other hand, in games where you can get healed, recover, or overcome all obstacles in a matter of just a few hours rest, and there is always some way to cheat death, then the game loses its impact. It is boring. Nothing is ever truly threatening. It may have a lot of flash and special effects, but it lacks substance and impact.
I make it clear in all my games that players will lose characters. They need to expect that. They will probably lose at least one character per campaign, and in lethal games they will lose several characters. If players don’t want that play experience, they probably won’t enjoy my games.
Still, there are different way to deal with high lethality games to give the players the chance to overcome the threat:
- Have them use more than one character (this works more in old school games with simpler and easier to manage characters).
- Promote careful and attentive group problem solving.
- Throw in random chances to alter fate. I enjoy using cards like the Deck of Dirty Tricks for Barrowmaze, but I plan to use other cool options that are available, such as the Heroic Challenges deck made my LoreSmyth, and probability dice to alter an outcome.
- Find alternate means for monsters/villains to hurt or reduce PCs. Armor/weapon wastage is a lot more fun, in my view, than simply doing more damage. It keeps the game dangerous as armor or weapons are reduced in effectiveness, or even destroyed, yet it doesn’t just destroy the PC on the spot.
There has been a shift in some games to get rid of “save or die” situations, but I like danger – real danger – in my games, but it is a matter of finding out what works for each style of campaign and the make up of the players/characters.
What are your thoughts? What are some of the things you do, or have done?