D&D General character death?

jgsugden

Legend
Okay. So what about where it isn't contrivance? Even if it isn't explicitly prepared for in advance, if room is left to make it a reasonable adaptation, is that somehow a problem?
There are judgement calls here - but the game itself, within the rules, sets up ways to bring back the dead, etc... That is all fine. They're set up. What is not set up would be the deus ex machina BS that we all can feel when it happens.

The real test is whether the PCs feel the DM 'saved' them. It is contrivance when it feels contrived.
Except that the DM can never be an impartial judge. They must always be partial to some degree, because they want the players to enjoy the experience.
The DM should always strive to be an impartial judge. A little bias may slip in because we're all human. However, what I am arguing here is that you do not need to be partial to the players to make sure they enjoy the experience - and in fact that is going to rob them of agency and take away from their experience. I have 40 years of experience in D&D, as a player and as a DM, that backs me up 100% here. For the last 40 years, I set PCs up for success before the game, but strive to be impartial during the game and let the chips that have been set up fall where they may.

Obviously, when the PCs do something entirely unexpected that has not been set up, I have to improvise a bit. However, I have a lot of prepared 'generic' material I can fill in to address the unexpected situation. I have level appropriate dungeons just waiting for me to drop them into a spot the PCs unexpectedly go to explore. I have hundreds of prepared NPCs, and thousands more that live in my memory primarily, that I can call on that have motivation and personality - as well as potential story hooks. Even when I have to improvise because the PCs are pushing me towards the unprepared - I have tried to develop an arsenal so that I do not need to make up everything and I can just try to implement what makes sense given what is known.
Is it still a problem when one works to make it completely unintrusive? Is it a problem if the DM tells you that's what they do--build actual justifications for bringing the character back, not just "because I said so"?
Let me turn this back on you and ask you why it is important that it not feel contrived (as I have been discussing). Here is a brief scenario:

  • 5th level PCs go into a dungeon. They set off a trap that alerts the first guardian - a fire giant
  • In the first encounter a PC gets hit for a very high damage critical hit (70 damage) on a thrown boulder and drops to negative hit points - death (no death saves).
  • The PCs have a spellcaster with the revivify spell, but no diamond dust.
  • 3 rounds after the death, the combat ends.
  • The DM describes the death of the giant and calls out that there is sparkly powder on his belt pouch.
  • The PCs investigate immediately, discover diamond dust, and can cast revivify. The PC is brought back.

Most of the time, that situation would leave players feeling hollow. It would tell them, "Hey, as a DM, I'm not going to let you die. You're playing this game on easy mode. Even if the dice turn against you, I've got you. Even if you mess up, you don't have to suffer the consequences of your actions." Players get bored in these games because their actions do not matter. If they don't solve a puzzle - DM will solve it for them. If they don't roll well, it doesn't matter because the DM will just offset the bad luck. They're just there to say a few words that do not really matter while the DM plays his game.

However, what if that dungeon is a diamond mine and the room that the giant left was a jeweler's workshop that was once used to cut the stones found in the mine? Does that make the scenario feel less like a DM save and more like a lucky coincidence?

What if the PCs didn't know it was once a diamond mine when they went into the dungeon? Does suddenly finding out it was a diamond mine feel like just a way the DM is changing things to save them?

What if they explore further and find no other evidence that this dungeon used to be a diamond mine?

And how does the quality of the storytelling of the DM impact all of this together? What if the DM is just a really good weaver and can fold in a really believable reason for the diamond dust to be there that totally seems real to the players even though the DM is making it up on the spot?

Or, what if the storytelling DM has an off moment and despite having planned the situation as a mine, and despite having written down in advance that the giant had 300 gp of diamond dust in a pouch, the players groan and feel the DM just saved them from bad luck?

The answer to all of this is pretty much the same simple answer: If the players feel like the DM is saving them, then the players feel like they're along for the ride - not that they're actually playing the game. So where is the line where it is ok and where it is not? As with so many things, we should seek the guidance of old men and porn.

In 1964 the US Supreme Court had a case that essentially had to decide when something was porn, and when it was just artistic expression. We have a lot of Greek statues with naughty bits. We see drawings of nudes. We had Playboy which claimed to be classy and artistic nudity. Where do you draw the line?

Justice Stewart said that drawing a line is hard for a variety of reasons, but in the end, "I know it when I see it." Lots of people thought it a cop out and there has been a lot of litigation after the Supreme Court elected not to create a bright line test, but there is an important element in that decision that applies in so many places, including here - when people perceive there to be a problem, that is when there is a problem.

So, in the end, so long as your players do not feel like you after the fact stepped in to save them, you're likely not offending what I've suggested before. However, if they do feel you saved them - whether that is true or not - you have a problem.

So - a really good DM can get away with saving a player if they sell it to the players and they believe it, right? So long as the players believe it you're ok?

Not really.

Why? Because that is looking at only the incident, not the gaming experience as a whole. Players notice trends over time and become increasingly likely to feel like the DM is cheating for them ... even when each and every individual situation where the players got 'lucky' has a good - or even great - explanation. It is like when your partner has a good reason that explains away all the evidence that looks like cheating ... but that evidence keeps on piling up, despite the good explanations. "Where there is smoke, there is fire."

So how do I battle this? By trying to be impartial and not introduce anything 'after the fact' to help the players - and to let them suffer the consequences of their actions. I want my players to feel like I'm the BG3 DM. I've put a challenge in front of them, and if they look around they'll have the tools to beat it, but I am not giving the answer to them. I have challenges in my games that are too tough for them. They can find hints in advance that tell them they're up against something too tough if they continue, but if they miss those hints or discard them ... they can get in real trouble and I will not bail them out. I'll express regret when their PC dies, "Sorry, folks, but you saw the roll ... the breath weapon recharged ... and you're perfectly lined up. The dragon contorts its long neck to perfectly align with your group in the hallway and lets fly with a massive blast of acid at your wounded bodies. DC 17 Reflex Save - 78 damage, or 39 if you make the save."

I've got 40 years of this working for me. It has resulted in some harsh outcomes for players - but it also has made the rest of the game far, far, far, far better by making the players know that their actions matter - and that the luck of the dice also matters. They get a thrill when the dice roll because that know it means something.
 

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Andvari

Hero
I do see where you are coming from. But let me ask you about the combat in your games. What purpose does it have?
You can still enjoy the tactical experience. In most CRPGs, if you lose a battle, you can just reload from before until you beat it. Yet people still enjoy these games. With a GM you can have consequences that allow the game to progress in interesting ways while having some consequence. Seems more interesting than just re-doing the fight until victory.
 

Larnievc

Hero
You can still enjoy the tactical experience. In most CRPGs, if you lose a battle, you can just reload from before until you beat it. Yet people still enjoy these games. With a GM you can have consequences that allow the game to progress in interesting ways while having some consequence. Seems more interesting than just re-doing the fight until victory.
I dunno man. That seems like turning and RPG into a video game. I went down that path once and wouldn’t do it again. I’m probably this way because I cut my teeth in the early eighties where death lurked behind every corner; but it takes all sorts to make a world go round, I reckon.
 

Oofta

Legend
You can still enjoy the tactical experience. In most CRPGs, if you lose a battle, you can just reload from before until you beat it. Yet people still enjoy these games. With a GM you can have consequences that allow the game to progress in interesting ways while having some consequence. Seems more interesting than just re-doing the fight until victory.

Surviving but having to run away is a fate worse than death for many players. :) PC death is just one way for the PCs to lose
 

EzekielRaiden

Follower of the Way
I do see where you are coming from. But let me ask you about the combat in your games. What purpose does it have?
Generally, to challenge the tactical skill of the party, and to put something they care about (one or more allies, a resource/treasure, the safety of the city, etc.) in danger unless the party overcomes the conflict. Often, to advance some part of the story or give life and color to the world. Sometimes to complicate their efforts to achieve some other end, e.g. travelling to a new location. Rarely, as in almost never, merely to delay the adventure or sap accumulated resources (I have plenty of better ways to do that.)

Does that adequately answer the question?

The DM should always strive to be an impartial judge. A little bias may slip in because we're all human. However, what I am arguing here is that you do not need to be partial to the players to make sure they enjoy the experience - and in fact that is going to rob them of agency and take away from their experience. I have 40 years of experience in D&D, as a player and as a DM, that backs me up 100% here. For the last 40 years, I set PCs up for success before the game, but strive to be impartial during the game and let the chips that have been set up fall where they may.
You are desiring that they have a good experience and tailoring your behavior as a result. By definition you are being partial to their enjoyment. For example, I imagine you would avoid dead-end failures where the party has tried everything they can think of and can't progress because the dice just absolutely hate them that evening. (I play a system that is fail-forward, meaning this can't happen, but in regular D&D it absolutely can, regardless of edition.) Hence: some amount of impartiality is genuinely desirable. You do not want your players to be bored. You do not want to, say, squick them out with content that you know would do so, e.g. if you have a player with intense thalassophobia, I would assume you'd avoid aquatic campaigns. Hell, you even said at the end there: "set them up for success." By definition, that is intentional, desirable partiality.

You do not want to be an unfeeling robot DM who enforces the rules with perfectly uniform reliability regardless of the effect it might have on the players. You enforce the rules in order that players enjoy the experience. If you encountered a situation where you were 100% certain that enforcing a rule would truly upset your players, you would certainly not do so. Your core claim is that such situations are rare, perhaps extremely so, and thus there is no reason not to enforce those rules, while conversely many reasons to enforce them properly and without "contrivance."

I'm frankly not really interested in responding to the rest because you keep doing that same thing, going back to but but but contrivances! Your examples, your phrasing, your whole argument rests on this being a painfully obvious stretch essentially always, and that's just not true. I'm not interested in talking about that because that's obviously bad. From what I can tell, the rest of your post can be neatly summarized as, "As long as it isn't contrivance, great, go right ahead, though I (jgsugden) struggle to believe you can do that." If you feel there is more being said, I welcome correction, but if that really is the long and short of it--"if it isn't contrived it's fine, but I want to talk about contrived examples"--then I think there's nothing further to discuss between us.

Also? Great jab, by the way, constantly claiming that because the DM puts in effort to allow character revival, the players' actions have no consequences at all whatsoever no matter what. That's simply not true, at all. As I said above. Death is only one consequence, and often a pretty boring one since (by definition) a random, permanent, irrevocable death ends a story and requires that there be zero further consequences for that player.

You can still enjoy the tactical experience. In most CRPGs, if you lose a battle, you can just reload from before until you beat it. Yet people still enjoy these games. With a GM you can have consequences that allow the game to progress in interesting ways while having some consequence. Seems more interesting than just re-doing the fight until victory.
Precisely. A conflict can only happen once, and there are no do-overs. Can't re-load over and over to get the golden ending; if you struggle and stumble and lose allies or break something important or empower an enemy, tough luck.

The one and only thing I will work to address is, again, random (the pure result of unpredictable luck, not forewarned stupidity or intentional sacrifice etc.), AND permanent (char is dead and staying that way), AND irrevocable (party cannot, under any circumstances, revive the char) player character death. Characters could still die (hasn't happened, but it could), but I have, both through prior planning and through leaving myself room to improvise, prepared for addressing such things so that a death, if it occurs, is not the end of the character's story unless the player would prefer it so.

It sounds like @jgsugden would always prefer it so, so unless the rest of the players attempt to convince them otherwise, I wouldn't put any further effort into it. Of course, because I have prepared for this already, at least with my current group, there are by my count at least four distinct allies who would all volunteer to bring a dead PC back to life, one of whom could do it purely under his own power (so long as the body was recovered, anyway.) None of these allies were included by contrivance; we're talking "the Sultana" whom the party has repeatedly aided against threats foreign and domestic, or "the head of the priesthood's internal police, who genuinely (and perhaps correctly) believes the party has been blessed by his deity," or "a literal ancient gold dragon whom the party trust and respect as both a friend and an ally." And that's just the allies who could do this; I haven't even considered the powers they could personally call upon, nor services or resources they could seek out. Hell, they could probably even convince their Jinnistani prince semi-kinda-sorta friend to do it, simply because he's an avid consumer of the sensationalized plays based on their adventures, and being the person who revived one of them would mean he would actually become an integral part of their adventures. (Prince Sahl is the personal patron of the Royal Cyclonic Theater, where the Skywind Repertory Company performs their "thoroughly researched" renditions of the PCs' adventures...and several more that never happened.)
 

jgsugden

Legend
You can still enjoy the tactical experience. In most CRPGs, if you lose a battle, you can just reload from before until you beat it. Yet people still enjoy these games. With a GM you can have consequences that allow the game to progress in interesting ways while having some consequence. Seems more interesting than just re-doing the fight until victory.
Why do we have honour mode in BG3? Why do people brag about not having to reload those CRPG games? Why don't we just reload the second the first thing goes wrong in them? Why do we still try to pull it out until it is absolutely lost? Why do so few people run the games on total easy mode where every combat is a landslide victory for the PCs?

It is because we place a value on consequences. We want to have something at risk. We want our capabilities to mean something.

When a DM takes away consequences after the fact to protect the PCs and players, it robs the game of that value - and it reduces the importance of player decisions. As you properly note - a DM can still put in consequences if the players have a failing. If the DM gives them an easy way to raise the dead, they might do it by forcing them to retreat and give the enemy more time to prepare. However, if the PCs believe that upon their return, if the enemy gets the jump on them again and the DM will save them again ... it just becomes a slog to finally get to the next story beat. there is no thrill of victory. The players feel punished to have to repeat (or with whatever other consequence the DM set) while the story eventually continues along the narrow railroad.

Plenty of games run this way. When I would rank the games I have played from top to bottom in terms of enjoyment, the ones where this takes place fall much lower on the spectrum. You'll tend to find players taking less interest in story elements (because the DM will give them the answer eventually if they miss a clue), they act more silly in combat across the board (because the combat has no real stakes you must have humor to keep it interesting), and the campaigns tend to end earlier. Few of the games that ran to the highest level took this approach as it becomes doubly worrisome when the PCs gain abilities that give them more options ... as those options are meant to drive the game, but the players feel tend to feel that they're meaningless.
...You are desiring that they have a good experience and tailoring your behavior as a result. By definition you are being partial to their enjoyment. For example, I imagine you would avoid dead-end failures where the party has tried everything they can think of and can't progress because the dice just absolutely hate them that evening. ... , I would assume you'd avoid aquatic campaigns. Hell, you even said at the end there: "set them up for success." By definition, that is intentional, desirable partiality.
Your assumptions are partially wrong, partially right, and fail to consider what I have actually said.

DURING THE GAME - I strive to be an impartial judge. This is done to let the decisions of the players matter. It is essential to giving their actions meaning that they ... you know ... matter. If I save them from their decisions, they do not matter.

BEFORE THE GAME - I set things up to provide them with the opportunities to create fun situations. When I introduce a BBEG, the plan they set in motion is designed to create a fun challenge for the players to overcome with their PCs.

I have explained repeatedly why it is a big deal that the players not feel like I am protecting them in session.

So if the players wander into a no win situation - they are in a no win situation. I do not intentionally create such situations, but if they run into a dragon's lair unprepared and announce their presence - giving it time to set up an ambush: That is a bad mistake and they'll suffer the consequences. Their actions have consequences. If they get to beat the dragon regardless of their tactics (and luck), then their tactics (and luck)9 are meaningless and they didn't beat the dragon. I just told them a story about how their PCs beat a dragon.
You do not want to be an unfeeling robot DM who enforces the rules with perfectly uniform reliability regardless of the effect it might have on the players. You enforce the rules in order that players enjoy the experience.
Again, I have addressed this and you did not listen. I do strive to be impartial. I do let the chips fall where they may. That is the goal. If the situation has been set up and enforcing the rules will result in a TPK - then TPK it is.

And that is not robbing the players of their enjoyment: It is enabling it. If they can fail, then they can enjoy success. If they are protected from failing, then success is meaningless.

This is the same old argument against coddling kids, participation trophies, etc... If we treat everyone the same regardless of what they do, then everyone is treated fairly ... but it is boring as %@#.
... Death is only one consequence, and often a pretty boring one since (by definition) a random, permanent, irrevocable death ends a story and requires that there be zero further consequences for that player.
Again, no. I have addressed this recently - I believe higher in this thread. When a PC dies in my game, their story doesn't end. They have a backstory and involvement in ongoing storylines - and those continue to develop with them being absent. Their PC, even when gone and not returning, matters.

Please consider - this is something I have performed, experienced, and observed for over 40 years now. This isn't a debate. This is an explanation.

When I used a demonstrative example that reinforced my point, you called it obvious stretch. I disagree, and I pushed it back and forth across that slippery slope line to demonstrate the challenges. It was INTENTIONALLY designed to not b an obvious stretch, but to be something on that border. Regardless, let's call it a flawed example and turn to you to give the example. You keep putting words in my mouth to tell me what I am arguing. Instead, use your words to tell me the scenario that you think is a good decision by the DM that gives the PCs consequences, but allows them to avoid a death they'd have experienced had they been allowed to fully fail by an impartial DM. I'll walk you through it and explain how my views relate to the example.
 

Andvari

Hero
I dunno man. That seems like turning and RPG into a video game. I went down that path once and wouldn’t do it again. I’m probably this way because I cut my teeth in the early eighties where death lurked behind every corner; but it takes all sorts to make a world go round, I reckon.
In an RPG you have a GM who can create whichever consequences make sense ad hoc. In a CRPG consequences have to be pre-programmed. That's why you often have no choice but to reload if you die.
 

billd91

Not your screen monkey (he/him) 🇺🇦🇵🇸🏳️‍⚧️
Surviving but having to run away is a fate worse than death for many players. :) PC death is just one way for the PCs to lose
Or being captured or having their gear taken. OH.MY.GOD. are players nuts about that. The RBDM in me always keeps that page open on the consequences Rolodex.
 

payn

I don't believe in the no-win scenario
Or being captured or having their gear taken. OH.MY.GOD. are players nuts about that. The RBDM in me always keeps that page open on the consequences Rolodex.
Well they are often right to be nuts about it. In 3E/PF1/2. losing your gear is often a significant reduction in offense and defense.
 

billd91

Not your screen monkey (he/him) 🇺🇦🇵🇸🏳️‍⚧️
Why do we have honour mode in BG3? Why do people brag about not having to reload those CRPG games? Why don't we just reload the second the first thing goes wrong in them? Why do we still try to pull it out until it is absolutely lost? Why do so few people run the games on total easy mode where every combat is a landslide victory for the PCs?

It is because we place a value on consequences. We want to have something at risk. We want our capabilities to mean something.
Do you HAVE data on what proportion of players select either easy or hard mode? I'm thinking you're guessing. But your preference for an "honor mode" when the game definitely allows reload by default just underscores the nature of it being a personal preference thing that games should enable.
 

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