D&D General If not death, then what?

Panzeh

Explorer
The connection from "the world appears to exist independent of the PCs" to "character death" seems... exceedingly tenuous to me. People, even those who live physically risky lives, fail to die every day. In droves. The world operates independent from them, but they still don't die.
This is true. I think everyone sits somewhere on a sliding scale of what they'll allow. For example, I can't think of even the strictest DM who, if the person on first watch failed to spot a group of ambushers, would have the sentry be garotted and the rest of the party murdered in their sleep with no response, even though that might make sense in that situation. But then, I also can't think of the DM who would send parties into combat and literally just have the enemy attacks bounce off and do no damage, either.
 

log in or register to remove this ad

EzekielRaiden

Follower of the Way
I intend to reply to the other thread as well, but there are things I can say faster or more simply here.

Part of the problem is, death is a consequence of attempting to do something dangerous or risky. You mentioned that the "reward" for being heroic is clearly a punishment (implicitly anyway), for example. This is very relevant to my game, because I have put in work very specifically to make sure that heroism is NOT a sucker's game, that being a good person is effective or rewarding. As an example, showing mercy to a captured opponent will not come back to bite you in the ass, so long as that opponent isn't a diehard fanatic or crazy or otherwise incapable of considering reform. (This came up in the first session we played, and I have worked to keep it true: mercy and forgiveness work.)

The problem is, the above two ideas necessarily conflict some of the time. If we desire for an action to be risky, it must entail the possibility of loss or detriment that cannot be simply brushed off. Conversely, if something is to be rewarding or effective, pursuing it cannot have a low (or even negative) expected value, because people will figure out that that's how things work and just start avoiding those actions. This is what I speak of when I say there are perverse incentives baked into many game systems and into the policies many DMs employ, where behavior the DM does not want to see (like murderhobo-ism) is rewarded and behavior they do want to see (like non-optimization) is punished. Yet we do desire that heroism be risky: if it were guaranteed to produce desirable results, everyone would choose to be heroic, which would be great for the world but terrible for making heroism feel valuable.

Overall, this tends to result in death or impairment (which death may be transformed into via magic) as the fallback consequence of choice, because it is sort of the end of the line, the place where logically you have to fall to when hit points can always be restored (often quickly, via magic) and even the unusually nasty 5e exhaustion is removed after but a few days' rest. For the consequences to objectively and consistently sting, these are some of the only options in D&D.

But that's not what I do, because I do not find these things exciting. Death, as you say, tends to be a fun-strangler. Permanent dismemberment tends to feel like a downer ending, a "and that's what you get for trying to do the right thing" result. I don't want that in my game. I want my players to see the risks, but know that the prize is clearly worth the price. This does not, technically, mean that I totally prevent death at my table. I tend to be a softie DM, so no player character has actually died in my game, but that's because I often underestimate my players' ability to overcome the odds, not because I'm actively trying to avoid PC deaths.

The big problem for me is, death is so final. It ends stories. Usually, death leaves plots hanging, unresolved and unresolvable. I find that...well, boring. So, when a player makes a mistake, or intentionally does something unwise, I either won't kill their character but will do something that makes their PC's life unpleasant, or will do so but with the caveat that death is not the end for that PC unless the player wishes for it to be.

It is that "making their PC's life unpleasant" that is the key, for me. These are consequences that can only work for THESE characters in THIS situation, not universal answers that can apply to every character in every game. As an example: we have a tiefling Bard in the group. Originally I was hesitant to allow tieflings because I wanted to make devils and demons special, but the player's earnest desire and carte blanche invitation to make the man's life complicated made it impossible for me to say no. We have since learned that his unbroken and unbranched(!) paternal bloodline is devilish in nature and connected to someone very powerful (either Baalzamon or Glasya herself!), while his maternal line is very specifically connected to his great-grandmother, a reformed succubus. Twice, now, I have in effect tempted the player with heroism: I have given him the choice between taking fiendish power into himself, changing what he is and making himself more like the Fiend-Prince, a semi-real, (formerly) semi-conscious subset of the Bard which represents his power and panache, his charm, his deceitfulness, and his adventure abilities, but also his selfishness (what little he has) and his capacity for cruelty and malice. (This contrasted with the "Librarian," the meek mild-mannered human who just wants to study his books and thinks adventure is scary and makes you late for dinner, but who represents the Bard's compassion, love, healing magic, and commitment to the truth whatever it may be; the character is truly both things, balanced against each other.)

Twice now, I have put the player into an agonizing decision of whether to accept plausible corruption into himself, and in the process save others from an unfair fate, or walk the high road but leave others to face that darkness. Twice, after really struggling, he has settled on taking power, power he does not want, power he finds abhorrent in many ways, because it will let him save "his people." This has been a BEAUTIFUL consequence for heroic choices made. For almost any other player, this would never have worked. Someone else would almost surely have said something equivalent to "awesome, I get to be a hero AND get a fiendish power up? Sweet deal, where do I sign?" But for this person, in this game, these were incredibly difficult choices, and the player still to this day is not always 100% sure he made the right choice. That doesn't mean he hasn't used or enjoyed the fiendish powers he has received by becoming (in effect) a "double cambion" (half-human, half-devil, half-demon.) It just means that the consequences had their desired effect: long, long after the action was taken, its consequences continue to matter, continue to shape behavior and direct the story.

So, when I look for consequences, that's the sort of thing I want. Consequences that build new story, not tear current story down. As Disney's Arabian Nights song (the version from Return of Jafar) goes:
Arabian nights
Like Arabian days
They tease and excite
Take off and take flight
They shock and amaze!


I want consequences that do that. Ones that create intrigue and foster player investment, ones that enrich and entangle rather than impoverish and impair. Because the more invested and entangled my players become, the more eager they will be to play, and the better the payoff will be when they do succeed...and the more bitter the pill will be if they fail.

This requires a lot. I have to judge what my players will value. I have to think, long and hard, about what they will pursue and why. Yet I must also be light on my feet, adapting to unexpected rolls or choices, flowing like water around the choices and story that unfold. I find this task utterly delightful, so it is not work but play, a vast and unfixed playground of difficulty and overcoming. This sparks joy. And my players have been coming back most weeks for over four years now, so I presume I've gotten at least a few things right along the way.
 

Micah Sweet

Level Up & OSR Enthusiast
And that's fine. Have fun in your games. I say that honestly - there's nearly nothing to discuss about this - your preference, your time, your amusement. Do with it as you wish.



The connection from "the world appears to exist independent of the PCs" to "character death" seems... exceedingly tenuous to me. People, even those who live physically risky lives, fail to die every day. In droves. The world operates independent from them, but they still don't die.
Sure, but the world still allows the possibility of death, and the person in question can't just say, "no thank you" when it happens. That's what I'm talking about. Death being outside player control is part of the world existing independent of the PCs.
 

If loss doesn't matter, then neither does success.
Loss needs to matter for success to be meaningful, but loss does not need to be character death. The only thing the game needs to be an engaging challenge is for there to be two states - success and failure, and that the player's decisions have a meaningful impact on which outcome occurs. The rest is just shaping the details to emulate the playstyle preferred.

Fundamentally I think the issue is that there is a divergence of what people want from TTRPGs. Initial dungeon-crawl D&D fits very well in line with the computer game style known as roguelike -- make careful decisions about whether or not to press on/push your luck in a threatening environment, knowing full well that if you guess wrong you will have to start over, but if not you get stuff/points which help you get better at pressing forward and getting more stuff/points, until maybe one day you finish out the game or hit a retirement point or something, but most likely you are just seeing how high you can get those metrics before eventually you make the wrong decision or your luck runs out. In that kind of scenario, a harsh penalty for failure (starting over, or whatever burden resurrection imposes in a given edition) makes perfect sense.

In a game where you are more concerned with the narrative or the like, it isn't that death isn't useful, it is just that it isn't the primary fail-state against which the players are testing themselves, so it can be seen as confounding interference to the actual primary play loop.

I'm really on the fence on whether D&D needs to do anything about this, since on one hand, it is people taking a square pegged game and trying to make fit it into a round hole playstyle (the primary game engine is a combat-centric resource depletion loop with one or more character death as the main failstate), but on the other hand, people will be doing so whether the game fits that mold or not (and WotC certainly would have no problem with those players not deciding to jump ship for another system).

As a home rule, I would suggest that there be some other secondary form of fail state that is more likely to happen than death -- let's say 'clobbered' (unconscious, and even when brought back up, have some kind of limitation). I agree with OP that some of the consequences rules aren't great, often being worse than death (predominantly because death=reroll ). Clobbered instead means you are meaningfully constrained from completing the narrative success state.

None of this does address that, yes -- if your character role is some kind of Stalwart Defender and thus you're doing your job by standing in the middle of the fray and taking blows meant for others or the like -- then eventually you will receive the Penalty of being taken down and suffer some negative consequence for the act of doing your perceived job. That's unfortunate, but I don't see a way around that. If your job is to take on party risk, it's hard to make a reasonable failstate not be your character taking the hit (I guess the time the enemy gets past you and greases someone else is also a failure, but I doubt you want that happening more either). Maybe one could make some kind of group HP total and dropping it to 0 meaning the whole team just loses the narrative exchange rather than any specific character dropping and being hurt for a time, but that's getting significantly more abstract than even D&D combat.
 
Last edited:

Oofta

Legend
That's always bugged the heck out of me in gaming. I saw it all the time when I used to watch Critical Role. They would act convincingly threatened whenever combat ensued, even though in a lot of cases there was just no real chance of failure, and the players had to know it. It felt disingenuous to me.

Matt has killed off PCs, so there's that. In addition, you're talking about a group that can't seem to remember the rules from one session to the next*. Do you really expect them to understand PC death? ;)

*Some are better than others, but I've finally gotten around to listening to campaign 1 and the number of times Matt has to clarify the difference between evasion and uncanny dodge in a single session would drive me up the wall. I enjoy listening, but really Liam? You have to ask every single time?
 


Panzeh

Explorer
That's always bugged the heck out of me in gaming. I saw it all the time when I used to watch Critical Role. They would act convincingly threatened whenever combat ensued, even though in a lot of cases there was just no real chance of failure, and the players had to know it. It felt disingenuous to me.
I don't- i kinda treat that the same way you treat players actually paying attention to the hooks and engaging with the stuff that's happening in the world instead of say, doing investment banking. If the players are having the characters do nutty things because they know i'm not going to try to kill them, that's gonna be a sit-down OOC- but, if they're respecting the challenges ahead of them despite the fact that it is exceedingly unlikely that they'll be killed, that's ideal, it's just being a good player at the table.

This is, I think, a way D&D differs from board games.
 

Micah Sweet

Level Up & OSR Enthusiast
I don't- i kinda treat that the same way you treat players actually paying attention to the hooks and engaging with the stuff that's happening in the world instead of say, doing investment banking. If the players are having the characters do nutty things because they know i'm not going to try to kill them, that's gonna be a sit-down OOC- but, if they're respecting the challenges ahead of them despite the fact that it is exceedingly unlikely that they'll be killed, that's ideal, it's just being a good player at the table.

This is, I think, a way D&D differs from board games.
See, I don't expect players to respect challenges if they know they're extremely unlikely to die regardless; that wouldn't make sense to me or my players. That would be being a nonsensical player at my table.

Edit: that came off harsher than I intended. If you and your players like that style, by all means have fun. It just doesn't work for me.
 


DarkCrisis

Reeks of Jedi
If the game doesn't have consequences for your actions (like tempting death by fighting monsters) then you might as well just sit around in a circle with your friends and tell a story you each take turns telling.

Just IMO.

As for character ideas, one bit of advice I read and still use to this day, is take character ideas from books, movies, and tv. I've literally played a character based on the Monthy Pyhtons Spanish Inquisition skit by way of Carmen Sandiego named "The Rouge Rogue".
 


AD6_gamerati_skyscraper

Upcoming Releases

Top