I want to get your take on something. So last night my "Tales of Darkmoon Vale":http://www.obsidianportal.com/campaigns/tales-of-darkmoon-vale gang got together for another game session (we're just about to finish up with Paizo's D1 _Crown of the Kobold King_). The group confronted the chief villain of the campaign, Merlokrep the Kobold King, and two of his elite warriors. It was a tough fight (CR 8) for our band of 4th level adventurers and two of the party members went down in battle. They didn't end up dying but one of them came pretty close. This wasn't the first tough fight I've thrown at them, they've had at least two other battles that, by the 3.5 Encounter Difficulty standards would be rated "Very Difficult," and in one of these, a PC _did_ die (though he was latter resurrected).
Well, when things started to heat up two of my players really began to gripe, especially after one of their characters went down. The third member of our group had a blast however; he tends to thrive on dangerous encounters. Afterwords one of the former players came to me privately to complain that the encounter difficulty level of this battle was far too high. His position roughly was that the PC's shouldn't be confronted with combat situations in which there is a decent likelihood that one or more of them could die. I disagreed. I pointed out that according to the 3.5e DM guidelines for Encounter Difficulty, while most of the CR encounters the PC's face ought to approximate the party's level, at least some of the encounters in an adventure ought to be "difficult" (CR 1-2 levels higher than party level) and one or two ought to be "very difficult" (CR 3-4 levels higher). In these encounters it is totally possible that a PC will die. We went back and forth on this issue for some time, and it became apparent that each of us just had different expectations here. In general I feel that a quest ought to involve a bit of real danger. Not _all_ heroes in the story books do survive (think of Boramir), and risking one's life and limb to fulfill a quest is just part of what makes the quest so exciting. Likewise, virtues such as courage and honor in battle would be meaningless without such a risk. As such, parties ought to come to expect a fatality or two in their career as an occupational hazard of adventuring. My player's thinking on the other hand was that it would really be lousy to have invested so much time, effort and care into a character only to see that character die midway through a campaign. The looming threat of death might thus either prevent him from fully investing into his character, or make him a whole lot more skidish in combat.
So here's a question for you DM"s our there. How do you deal with both challenging encounters, and PC death in your campaigns? Regarding challenging encounters, I assume that most of you probably have them. But what happens when say that Deathknight lands what would be a killing blow on one of your PC's. What do you do? Do you fudge the roll or do you let it stand? Have any of you ever had PC's die in your campaigns before? If so, how frequently has this occurred, and how do you and your players usually deal with it? I realize that different systems might have different conventions for dealing with this matter, but I'm just sort of trying to get a feel for the conventional wisdom on this issue. Anyway, curious to here your thoughts.
As far as making the encounters fit them, I do what I can, but it doesn't really matter. You're just as dead if a kid shoots you in the head in an alley or a Dragon bites your face off in the midst of an epic battle.
For example. Let's say we have a quick encounter. I have a Security Guard who's just shot at a player in a hallway. I roll and the security guard has good enough numbers to flatline the player right out.
Roll Player -
GM: OK, the security guard checks his run and swings around towards you barrel blazing at you.
Player: Uh, I shoot at him I guess. (rolls)
GM: As your gun fires, you feel white hot pain stitch it's way up your chest, The world goes black and the staccato of gunfire echoes away into silence. You hear your dead grandmother's voice.
GM: OK, the security guard checks his run and swings around towards you barrel blazing at you.
Player: Oh shi-- I drop prone and take aim at his kneecaps! (rolls)
GM: Your sudden drop is fortuitous! Though part of your tactical goggles was destroyed by the guards arc of gunfire, but you make it down and blow his legs apart!, He's dropped his gun, what do you do now?
Basically speaking, I reward Roleplaying. If they want to rely on dice rolls alone, I can do that too though.
Personally, I've watched proudly as many of my own characters bit the big one, and dropped a few from the other side of the table as well. Here are some of the conclusions I've reached:
From a GM's (or DM's, ha) standpoint, one is extremely hampered if you have to constantly avoid putting the characters in too much danger - it hurts the story (by making it less believable), which hurts the game play (because players will quickly realize that they are invincible), which makes it less fun for everybody (because there's no challenge, and victories become meaningless). That said, I try to make sure that player characters only go down when it makes sense in the story - no one slips and falls out of a ten story window while doing research, and no one actually dies when some schmuck minion gets a lucky roll (although it might sting for a bit). Death, I think, is a plot element to be exercised sparingly and carefully - which sometimes means fudging rolls, and sometimes means letting them lie.
From a player's standpoint, I feel that the risk of character death is part of what keeps the game exciting week after week. What I'm worried about is not whether or not my character might get killed, but rather that I'm playing my character well enough that his/her death is meaningful in terms of the game. That is: am I risking death for something my character believes in, or something that will have a real and important effect on the game world, and do I go out looking like a badass (or whatever it is I want to go out looking like).
I usually try to communicate a bit of these thoughts to players before the campaign starts, and I also try to ease the pain of loss with a House Rule called "Soul Reaving." Basically, if a player's character dies, the player can "Reave" half of that character's XP and apply it to the new character - this way they don't start from 0, and are generally powerful enough to continue contributing to the group. Of course, this mechanic is designed for Savage Worlds, where levels differences are not as vast as they can be in 3.5 (and presumably Pathfinder). If you wanted to do something similar, you might go with 75% (or 100%, if you're feeling generous).
That's my two cents.
Jonathon, as of right now the ruling I've made regarding death in our campaign is that if you die, at a minimum you lose 1 level of experience. This is true whether you manage to have your character resurrected (which may or may not be possible) or write up a new character (in which case the character simply begins at 1 level less experience than the former PC). So they wouldn't be starting over from scratch exactly, but they would be penalized. Course I'm open to other ideas as well. Anyone else out there have some?
I can't say it much better than Jonathon. I firmly believe that if your players are giving their best, and you're giving your best, that the death of a character needn't be a source of contention in the group. Sometimes, the good guys don't always win. If the death of a character makes the story more compelling, or drives your group to become better role players, then you've experienced a victory.
Conversely, if your players are having a bad night rolling the dice, and the death of a character will do nothing more than create conflict within the group, then perhaps it's better to pull your punches for the good of the story.
It's a fine line - too many easy encounters cheapen the experience, and too many near misses or tragic losses stops a campaign in its tracks.
1. When I design a difficult encounter, I always try to make sure there are ways for the characters to interact with it in a way that allows them the chance to avoid engaging in the worst possible scenario (all the baddies in the same place at the same time and ready for the party). Like many things, I guess it boils down to choice. If the players feel that their choices led to them getting cornered and killed, then they'll feel less bad than if you just ambush them with arguably too much firepower. For example, if the party attacks the orc hideout by charging headlong into it, then they'll face all the orcs all at once and probably get slaughtered. If they hang out in the woods for a few weeks trying to pick off patrols, then when they charge headlong into the hideout there will be a lot fewer orcs and they'll have a better chance.
2. Having alternate characters on stand-by can help. If the player has another character to play ready to go, the player will feel less bad about death of the primary character (I picked this up from ADnD 2nd Edition's Dark Sun campaign). It's even better if the player rotates playing the characters (primary mage character goes off to research a pile of spells, so the player plays the alternate fighter character in the meantime). Now the player's emotional commitment is spread out, so the sting is less when one of the characters dies. Even better if there's some story-line tie-in. For example, the player is on a personal quest to recover an important family heirloom. The campaign is actually heavily centered around this. The character dies, so the player plays a new character who is the original character's younger cousin who upon hearing of the first character's quest, set out to join him only to finally catch up with the party after the first character has died. Finally, there's the henchman option where as the DM you introduce playable henchmen as NPC's. Under ADnD 2nd Edition, these are dedicated followers of PC's with formal rules, but the general concept can of course be used in any system. The henchmen don't have to travel with the party all the time, just enough time to build some emotional connection. Then, the henchmen can do things like "guard the village in case the orcs attack while the main party tries to find the lair."
Still, it's a good idea, and sounds like it would soften the blow fairly effectively.
Kenurion, great insights. As for your first point, my players are pretty smart guys and usually figure out work arounds to just about every scenario I throw at them, and are thus rewarded with less difficult encounters. I like the idea of creating secondary characters. I think I'll suggest this to see what they think. If they don't go for rolling up new characters, I might create "henchmen" of my own that might be decent fall back characters. Thanks for the advice guys.
For example: If you're running just a classic dungeon crawl, and the level 1 party thinks it would be wise to sneak down to the beholder's room.. chances are they'll die. But they knew what lied ahead.
As far as like difficult encounters go, it could probably be a case by case. The party fighting wave after wave of villains as they scale the wizard's tower that they've been journeying to, end up having a TPK after the second wave. That would just ruin the story. Maybe tone down the waves and just have the final battle be crucial. Then at least at journey's end, there can be some closure and memorability in the player's death.
I think whatever the case may be, as long as the players are having fun with it, then you're heading in the right direction.
I've yet to have a character die in a Florimel campaign, but that's because I figured out the cheat code for immortality in his games. I *have*, however, willfully yanked a character out of his most recent campaign because it was painfully clear to me that she was not going to fit in with the rest of the party. It was so cute - Florimel tilted his head at me and said "So, um, do you have another character?" I had to laugh. Of course I did! We worked in my new character next session.
However, the end game in this particular scenario is VERY difficult, and I anticipate trouble. For my part, if an investigator dies or goes insane, I hope that it furthers the story, builds the tension, and raises the stakes for the rest of the investigators.
I have six players and I'm running the Rise of the Runelords adventure path. So, I've upped the encounter difficulty to fit a party of 6 (assuming that the adventure path was written for a party of 4). On the rare occasion when I've had 4 players instead of 6 at the table, I lower the encounter difficulty back to its original settings.
In past games I've had only a few player-characters die. Honestly, I don't like it; but I find without the threat of such danger, the game is lacking something.
Signs & Portends, Dwarves of Lost Koldukar, In a certain realm
I kill PCs all the time. Death is part of the game, and when it comes it comes. This makes the survival of epic heroes all the more epic; removing the threat of death takes the "fangs" out of the game for me and my group. Sure, they're sad when they lose a PC. However, its usually because they didn't think out an encounter or they took on more than they could chew. I'm a fan of "organic" adventure design, which means I don't think about the PCs in any way when designing an adventure. If this group of goblins has an Ogre at its head as its leader, that's what it has. The adventurers can chose to deal with that information in many different ways. For example, they (level 2-3) decided not to confront a dangerous Hill Giant but rather leave it to a dwarven militia because they were afraid it would crush them -- and it could have.
The fear of death has always been an important element to the game with me, and I will never ever fudge dice rolls to protect anyone. This way when they win, they win on their own merits. Sort of like buying your first car that your parents don't help pay for.
The first thing I established in this game was: you're in hell. 1 death save. Fail it, and die. Permanently. No resurrections.
Everyone was fine with it, making new characters with the idea in mind that they could, at any minute, be victim to a series of brutal DM crits, then roll a 4, then lose their dude. What I discovered in the early going was that this made the players think like the characters WOULD think. Nobody, no matter how adventurous, goes through their lives without considering the risks. Everyone has to decide, once in a while, that whatever is on the other side of the room isn't worth their life. The threat of death on more realistic terms encouraged the players in my campaign to actually feel the blood rushing through their character's veins. I swear, they sweat when the encounter seems particularly dire.
When one of the PCs died, there were actual gasps of disbelief, actual grief, and actual tears. Myself included.
They run more often than they used to, try to find safer paths than they used to, and generally act less boisterous and more cautious. The player whose character died took it in stride. I handed him an npc to control in combat through the end of the encounter. He stuck around after the session, shaking, and said he wanted to learn from this and build a character more suited to this harsh world. His old character was obviously built for an easier environment. Life in Hell isn't full of second chances. Someone that lives long enough to become a seasoned adventurer in a place like that knows the risks, and has faced them many times. We hammered out his new PC, and he has been an incredible boon to the team. In fact, as much as they miss his old character, they don't know how they could make do without his new one.
Use this as a catalyst for change, both in how your players perceive death, and in how you represent the harsh realities their characters are facing. Role playing is great. Role playing with genuine emotional attachment to the role... that's just something else entirely.
Healing is too easy in D&D. This is especially true in 4th Edition. In my D&D game, my players have to roll for a permanent penalty for every time they are dropped to Bloodied in a fight, regardless of whether they heal up. The penalties are never huge, but they stack up, and that motivates them to do what their character would do, and not wait until just before they see sanguine fountains spraying from their abdomens before considering a quick retreat and tending to of their wounds.
It doesn't have to be death to give players a sense of consequence for their actions. They have to put themselves in the shoes of their characters. Their characters don't want to die, and they don't want to get so hurt that, as a result of their injuries, they are never quite the same person again. That's realism, and that's engrossing for a player.
I, on the other hand, intend to run a very cinematic game where the PCs can come back from being "mostly dead" with little ill effect. And there are other folks who are into that. I would probably want to let the die rolls stand and not fudge them, BUT if the die roll indicates a horrible result for a player and I think it's for a really stupid reason, I might come up with another reason to roll. Bull rushed into a pit of spikes because my monster rolled a 20 and you rolled a 1? Okay, it's not realistic to think you could catch yourself, but make that Athletics or Acrobatics check to see if you can use the wall to slow your descent. Or maybe the spikes were set by a less-than-clever humanoid who set them all around himself before climbing out and never filled in the space where he was - maybe there's a 10% chance you could land most of yourself there and only take the falling damage without the extra spikes damage. If the player gets crappy rolls on those things as well, then okay yes the horrible result has to happen, but coming up with other creative ways to ameliorate the situation does a lot to sate the basic human need to control the uncontrollable. =)
(As a third philosophy: Florimel has flat-out admitted that he doesn't run games for the purpose of telling a story - he runs games for the sole purpose of messing with our heads. And I happen to love that. It's one part puppet therapy and two parts emotional BDSM, and it's a gaming experience I don't get anywhere else.)
I would be interested in your thoughts.
Also, I was trying to post the charts in-line here, but I couldn't figure out how to do it without html.
For "Cold Warriors":http://www.obsidianportal.com/campaigns/cold-warriors, which is 1980s espionage action set agaisnt the backdrop of the Third World, I chose _Top Secret_. Characters in _TS_ begin as quite competant, which in some games would equate with being relatively difficult to kill. However, _TS_ can be a very lethal system, as one would expect in a game with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenade lauchers lying about. _TS_ provides characters with Fame and Fortune points, which effectively function as "Get Out of Death Free!" chits; spending a point makes a deadly attack result something less than lethal. Fame and Fortune points are a finite resource however, and the player is never quite sure exactly how many are available, so while they do provide for some level of cinematic action, again appropriate to the genre, they must be managed carefully.
As far as the setting goes, I opt for a status quo game-world: things are as lethal as they should reasonably be, and they do not adjust to the nature or composition of the adventurers. Frex, if you want to assassinate Cardinal Richelieu, you need to be prepared to deal with up to fifty bodyguards, all of whom are expert swordsmen, and possibly a detachment of additional soldiers as well; an African gun runner will have a security team appropriate to his status and his operation, not to the number of agents in your team. Put another way, the world is what it is, and the players and their characters must be adapt to those circumstances in order to succeed.
In my experience the referee must set expectations at the outset; the first time a player discovers that the referee play the dice where they lay, or that there's no such thing as "plot immunity" for player characters, shouldn't be when the character is killed. Talk with the players, cover it in your house rules, and so forth; make sure everyone is on the same page, so that everyone's made an informed choice to play the same game.
My first ever character, Flank, died during a cut-scene my old DM was telling between adventures on a campaign. He explained that I was so much of a daredevil that I had come too close to death, and death got tempted one to many times to keep me for her own. I was crushed. That was unfair, in my opinion. Playing a game where you have a set of scores, including a definitive measure of how close you are to dying, and holding true to those scores regardless of whether it affects the plot... that's exhilarating to me.
All my players also roll alternates, sometimes two or three of them, that they might have had their character mention in the past. That way, they have a replacement character for the next session, and the onus is on me to find a way to work this new character's introduction into the narrative. Sometimes the player will have mentioned this person so many times by the time their character dies, the introduction session for their replacement character is just plain epic, and changes the tone and scope of the whole campaign thereafter.
Then go about my business and ignore any attempts to get me to elaborate.
Of course, that's a reference at least one person at the table is going to get.
You're guaranteed at least one player's full attention for the evening.