DMing with Intent Part 3: Dealing Death

I do like to help my players get better, I encourage them to take their time, use their minds before attacking, stick together, and use teamwork. Once they get the fundamentals of the game down, then you can really start throwing stuff at them. Sometimes, however, people fail. Whenever we take risks, failure is always a possibility.

I know as a player, I have lost countless characters. The only times that I ever got angry about it was when I felt that it had nothing to do with what I did personally. I have vowed to never do this, but this does not say that PCs don’t die (again, this goes with risks and that is part of failure), I am just saying that their deaths are either because of bad choices that they made, or because we rolled the dice and they lost.

I have found that when played well, the player characters are very resilient; I know that I can be extremely tough on them, and they will bounce back, but sometimes things just happen, and the DM really needs to just let them happen.

Lets look at a case were we have a party in a 9’ long hall; they see a goblin at the end of the hall fumbling with a crossbow. The fighter tells everybody that he’s got this, and declares that he is charging the monster. He doesn’t know that this is a trick, I tell him to roll initiative, he rolls a 4, and I roll a 3, but tell him that he won and he gets to charge. Halfway down the hall, the goblin sets off the trap and the fighter has to make a save vs. breath weapon, which he fails. A pit has opened and he falls into it, falling 10’ and I roll up 6 damage. He is lying prone at the bottom of a pit, which grants me another attack on him. The goblin runs over to the edge of the pit and fires his crossbow, hitting him for max damage and the character dies.

Who killed that character? He could had let somebody else with a ranged weapon have an attack on the goblin, so it was his choice to charge. He was granted a saving throw to avoid the trap and jump to safety, and the goblin shot him fair and square. This death isn’t on the DMs hands, yes the DM wrote the trap and executed it, but we owe it to the players to keep the danger real, else there really isn’t any sense in playing the game.

Losing one character in a party during the game tells us that our challenge level is good, losing two tells us that our challenge is difficult but still possible, but if we kill more than that, then we have to evaluate what we did. Is the challenge level too high? Did you give the players a chance, or are they just playing badly? Were they too bold and unprepared to deal with this threat because of something that you did, or something that they did? Now, granted: If you told the players clearly that they are looking down a valley upon hundreds of campfires, with orcs as far as the eye can see and they attack it . . . well that is not your fault. If you put them in the same room with a monster that everybody knows can kill them in one round, and they attack it . . . again, not your fault. But, if they are in a dungeon, and although they have used sound judgment, they have the magic, and the resources to survive but they are still dropping off like flies, then chances are that you accidently set the level too high for them, which happens. Honestly, there is no real guide on how much you can throw at your PCs. Like a good chef, we are just measuring by eye. Once we realize that this is going on, it is time to change strategy.


Unlike in videogames, there is no reset button. It is too late to correct the damage that you’ve already done; well, you could but that might mess with the integrity of the game. No, it is best to just roll with it. This will go back to creature motivations. They won’t see the players as a threat, and they may want to keep the PCs alive, if they do, then change your tactics to capture instead of kill. Don’t make surrender easy. Who knows; maybe one of the adventurers can make it out alive! Wouldn’t THAT be something? But don’t keep running an impossible scenario unless it is very very rare, and all of the players know that they probably won’t be coming back out alive so that they can pick their characters more carefully.

PC death happens, and it should happen! But as long as we are doing it fairly, the players can’t call us Killer DMs, nobody wants to be that. There is nothing worse then getting stuck at a table with one in charge, I think that any experienced player can tell you that; but the term “killer DM”, gets thrown around a lot; what exactly is a killer DM?

The Killer DM is a cheater, plain and simple. He is lazy, and he likes to have the game be all about him. He won’t use the monsters in the MM, instead he will create his own and they won’t be balanced with the system that you are playing. He may even trick you by letting you play a character that is also unbalanced, but it is just that, a trick. There is just one strategy with the Killer DM, you are expected to attack everything, and the second that you try to role-play or do something different, he just attacks you and laughs because you don’t know how to play the game; and, if you are able to beat his stupid, over-powered monsters, you still don’t win anything because his campaign is also a Monty haul. If anybody gets any glory, then it will be his DM Character. The killer DM thinks that he is a difficult Dungeon Master, when he really isn’t. He’s boring. Allowing the dice to do their job, and allowing the players to fail has nothing to do with being a Killer DM, and if your DM is playing a fair game, then it is a huge insult to suggest otherwise.

The moral of the story is, don’t be afraid to play at your best. Play your monsters up to their strengths and minimize their weaknesses. If you play hard and play for keeps, your players should still be able to win, but they won’t be handed the win, they’ve got to earn it, which will keep your players coming back!


Brooser Bear said...

I also prefer to have my characters get killed as a consequence of their player's bad decisions. I have a tool, though. I use a pretty detailed character generation system, where each player character is written into the setting. You tell me your player's character's story, and it will become canon. If you make your character a prince, then you will have all of the resources of a prince at your fingertips, etc. Of course, I get to revise your bio for the game balance sake. You are a first level prince, but your evil uncle usurped the throne, and now half the country is hunting you down... Of course, you get a fighting chance, allies, as well as enemies, and it beats starting the game at the proverbial tavern. So, to have the players write me their character's bio and spend a good game session investing in their character, it does not bode well to have them killed at the drop of the hat and also, players tend to reincarnate into the same character over and over and over again. I have the solution:

Players have a ready access to the resurrection spell, all they have to do is get to a priest, who can cast that spell. Once the training wheels come off, I use the AD&D resurrection roll, decreasing the CON by one (only for the purpose of that roll), with each resurrection. Also, the chances decrease by one per day of being dead.

One other rule I have is that the storyline continues, unless the whole party gets wiped out, then story starts all over again with a different band and at a different point. Each band of adventurers lives on so long as at least one of the members remains to carry the memory. I came close to the total party kill, but I hadn't had it happen yet. One of the reasons I give players so much leeway, is that my fist level dungeon will have a mixture of first to third level monsters, with 4th and 5th level encounters thrown in the mix. The dungeon knows no level. I balance this out by giving the player characters enough resources and low level NPC to give them a reasonable chance of survival. The surprising fact is that after all of the fixes were put in place, the player character mortality (dead no come-back roll a new character) hovered around 10%, which is the mortality rate for the modern US troops in Iraq. Coincidence or the reflection of out own modern world in a fantasy?

Ripper X said...

I just give some extra experience if you give me a background, and I don't expect it right away. At first level, until about 3rd anything can happen. It isn't rare to have a 1st level player traveling with more experienced PCs, you'd think that a 1st level character couldn't keep up with a 5th lvl party, but they catch up really quick.

1st lvl characters always start with max hp, after that they start to roll. Also, I rule that one is unconscious at 0hp, and loose an additional hp per round until a player can reach him and stop the bleeding, but you do receive a sexy scar. A character is dead at -10. If one monster takes you from 1hp to below -10, then you probably aren't coming back from the dead. My monsters follow these same rules to balance this system out.

I really shy away from keeping a character alive just to serve the story. I've done it before and we decided to move away from it as we found it more exciting to just allow the dice to decide what happens. I've never had a total party kill that wasn't on purpose either. I'd probably play a different game and maybe once some game world time has passed, maybe somebody finds a map or discovers a clue to the were-bouts of a party that went missing years ago.

In regards to leveled dungeons, those things are really really rare at my table, we love variety, and mega-dungeons, while fun for us for a session or two, can really get tiring after a while. I'll make them and hide an item that they want to get, but once they get it, I know my group, they are out of there!

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