Fade to Black

In my campaign I face the twin challenges of reinforcing the world's lore and giving my players something to do when they're knocked out. This is my solution.

fadetoblack.jpg

Make a Death Save!​

Dungeons & Dragons has always struggled with keeping players engaged when their characters are knocked unconscious. When a character is asleep or unconscious (by choice or misadventure), the player effectively loses control of their character. In a game where players use those precious rounds to try to do something, anything, having your character incapacitated can be really frustrating.

It's not just in tabletop games. For viewers, watching a character's point of view fade to black is not something we dwell on for long. Inevitably, that point of view shifts. It can be a flashback, a flash forward, a prophecy, or a moment of insight, but whatever it is, I find those media tropes a great way to keep players engaged with the game. And if they learn something about the world while they wait, even better.

All of these options require some work ahead of time. I like creating a file of virtual index cards for each character so I'm ready when the inevitable happens. Being knocked unconscious happens more often at lower levels when characters are squishier, so this kind of prep is more important early in a campaign. It also is harder to do at first, because the players may not have fleshed out their characters nearly as much.

As characters gain experience and become more powerful, being knocked unconscious may be a less frequent occurrence. But there are other opportunities to use these visions through elven trances, the dream spell, and just regular dreams.

Near-Death Clairvoyance​

In theory, the character is numb to the events around them. They cannot experience what's happening and thus have no idea what's going on while they're out. In practice, it's not particularly fun to order a player out of the room until they're awake again, unless there's something else for them to do (get snacks, play video games, etc.). For the most part, this means players know what happens while they're unconscious. You can make this a formal part of the game by describing it as near-death clairvoyance, but even if you don't, that's the default experience for most D&D games. Even then, it's still something that can be tweaked. Can they witness things others can't, like ethereal or invisible creatures (like how Frodo sees the ringwraiths in Lord of the Rings)?

My Life Flashed Before My Eyes​

This is the second easiest sequence for a Dungeon Master to create because it already happened, but it's the most common trope in fiction. Sometimes, it's remembering an event that happened, but with a different interpretation of the events (that villain was faking his wounds!). Alternately, it can be some part of a character's lore that never came up before ("so THAT'S why I'm afraid of the sound of crackling fire!").

Adventures in Comaland​

Unlike the above sequence, the character plays out the events in real time in an attempt to escape unconsciousness. This gets complicated because it essentially splits the party, but it gives the player more agency. With each death save (or loss of hit points, depending on what edition you're playing) the character navigates through another stage of their death experience. If they succeed, they wake up -- whether or not that plays out using the game's regular dying mechanics or if they just wake up by solving a puzzle, fighting a monster, etc. is up to the DM. Alternately, their rolls in the waking world determine the end result (fail three times and the monster wins in Comaland). It can also be as mundane as talking to an ancestor and grappling with a problem, with some sort of epiphany granted when/if the character wakes up.

Dreaming of Things to Come​

Instead of a flashback, this vision provides hints and clues about the future. It can be symbolic, or it can be specific to the adventure itself, or even far-reaching events in the campaign. These are the easiest to create because they're untethered from what happened before. The DM can make up whatever makes sense for the adventure at the time. That said, there's a limit to how long these pre-written dreams can be useful if they're prophecies of near-term events.

All of this takes work, but by preparing ahead of time it keeps the game engaging and gives players of unconscious characters something to do. They also tend to remember it when their life is on the line, a great way to nudge players into caring more about your world's lore.

Your Turn: How do you manage the play experience of unconscious characters?
 

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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca

payn

Legend
Not...where I thought this was going.

I have tried some of these examples before, and it just eats up time at the table as you back and forth between the live action and the subconscious. I try to keep combat as speedy as possible to avoid these issues. I also experience that players don't like letting their teammates stay down, if possible, so nobody is out of the game for long. YMMV.
 

I like the idea of this. I'm curious how you keep it snappy since combat tends to be a significant time sink at the table as is.

I'd also be curious how to navigate this when multiple party members go down. Is each one getting a bit of bespoke unconscious narrative; do they share a dream space, etc.

Basically how do you avoid tense combat turning into a clips episode, or is that an acceptable outcome?
 

Danny Prescott

Explorer
In the past I've found one solution for unconscious or otherwise not-in-this-scene pc's is to invite the relevant player(s) to act as mini-DM's in rolling/controlling enemy combatants. Normally I'd give a strategic objective and then allow them to make tactical decisions themselves. Kind of sub-contracting..

I fully acknowledge it may not work for every game or group, in my case generally I know the players very well and it's never played out in a catastrophic way (yet). Don't think I'd do too often though. Not being the best at finding time for pre-prep it also enables me to avoid feeling guilty that I haven't done my homework!
 

Mad_Jack

Hero
In the past I've found one solution for unconscious or otherwise not-in-this-scene pc's is to invite the relevant player(s) to act as mini-DM's in rolling/controlling enemy combatants. Normally I'd give a strategic objective and then allow them to make tactical decisions themselves. Kind of sub-contracting..

I fully acknowledge it may not work for every game or group, in my case generally I know the players very well and it's never played out in a catastrophic way (yet). Don't think I'd do too often though. Not being the best at finding time for pre-prep it also enables me to avoid feeling guilty that I haven't done my homework!

On the various occasions as a player when my character's gone unconscious or gotten separated from the party, I usually volunteer to help with things like keeping track of initiative and spell durations, and don't mind taking over some of the rolling/figure moving duties for the DM.

Personally, I don't really care too much if I'm down/uninvolved in the main action for a few minutes or a scene or two - it's a chance for a bathroom or snack break, or to let others have more spotlight time.
 


ehren37

Legend
Neat idea, but with popup healing in 5E this seems like it would take up way more time than just letting that player chill for a round or two. I could maybe see this for when a character dies.
 

talien

Community Supporter
I like the idea of this. I'm curious how you keep it snappy since combat tends to be a significant time sink at the table as is.

I'd also be curious how to navigate this when multiple party members go down. Is each one getting a bit of bespoke unconscious narrative; do they share a dream space, etc.

Basically how do you avoid tense combat turning into a clips episode, or is that an acceptable outcome?
It really depends on the medium you're using for gaming. In-person, giving them some text to read is probably easiest (if it's a clue or a visual experience, a picture might work just as well).

Online, it's much easier to handle as you can simply share content in a separate medium (by email, within the virtual platform, via Facebook, etc.)

You can also do this after the fact. That is, the player can just be told "you have a vision about a shimmering field of golden wheat" and then if the character is back on their feet quickly, provide the details later.

I've done all three at various points, but online definitely gives more control over the experience.

As for multiple members, I have essentially run it as if the party was split. But that really only works in shared vision sequences.
 


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