How frequent is death in your campaign? How does it affect gaming at your table?
When I first came across Fifth Edition Dungeons & Dragons, I began thinking that 5E was soft on death with all it’s saving throws at zero HP, but then started meeting 5E GMs who regularly had TPKs (Total Party Kills). I attend a number of OSR and old-school conventions throughout the year with classic (D&D BECMI – 2E) GMs who have players start with multiple characters because death will certainly occur in their games. This and the numerous ‘save or die’ situations in Old school games and clones, had me assuming death was more common in older editions.
As I attended more conventions and began talking with more GMs, I started to see not all GMs were eager to bring the danger of death to the game. Death of a character can be devastating to a player, and if it is, possibly the actual game. Death however, is a risk that adventurers take on. Without death in your campaign, there is little risk in the player’s minds when charging into all situations. The same can be true of constantly bringing your players to their last few Hit Points. After a while it gets stale.
In various on-line groups I see a wide range of opinions on death of characters in gaming, and i am not sure how to approach this in my own games, or what the expectation should be.
For Fail Squad Games tables I have begun telling players that death is a real risk of many adventures. Gold and magic pile up in dungeons because brave heroes were lost. I do write in a few save or die instances in my games. Usually those situations arise most for the fool-hearty adventurer.
Recently I have come to the place where if a character is going to die, I allow it to be such an end, that it will be remembered. These are heroes after all, and yes a phase spider is save or die and can be very ani-climactic…. but we are the GMs, masters of destiny and chance. Allow the hero to fall, but give the player their moment to act through the drama of how they wish to see their character end.
The value of death in gaming may not be as apparent as you think. Players know they are taking on risk, but secretly many think the GM will skip over the true end of the characters at the table. When you bring the true danger of character death to the table, you bring the true thrill of risk and adventuring. Some Game Masters are so loathe to bring the fatal blow, that there are players who have never felt that moment of disbelief when a character is at the end and will adventure no more. It is a vital aspect of the game, a wondrous, and possibly, macabre aspect of tabletop RPGs.
The danger of too much death in a game brings a feeling of hopelessness to your players. Players may become too detached from their characters. There should be a sweet balance that reveals itself quickly after the first couple of deaths. The player is far more cautious and weary, but still able to emotionally invest in the story telling and their character. The player will take risks, but calculates the danger of doing so. Congratulate yourself… it may have been difficult, but you have groomed a great player with great stories of their hero.
Sometimes the blow of character death is made more bitter-sweet when the new character encounters a monument erected by the villagers to the lost hero who risked all to save them.
Many GMs, old and new, seem to pride themselves on TPK (Total Party Kills) especially at conventions. This, I feel, generates an adversarial GM situation and doesn’t mean you ran a successful campaign. A GM can TPK a party at any time, we are the GMs. Nothing is stopping us from deciding a dozen Terrasques emerge from the ether, or Blargh the warrior cut his neck shaving. Killing player characters isn’t a badge of honor unless it contributed an epic enjoyable story for all.
Character death likely doesn’t come as often as we think it does. Nearly dying in a game is a regular piece. Are you letting your heroes fall? If so has it ever soured your real-life players at the table?
Is there a way to keep the danger of death at the table without hurting the feelings of the players involved? We truly need to retain this piece of RPG history in our games. Death should be the real and ultimate danger. Seeing dead NPCs is not the same as being stricken down to the final breath.