log in or register to remove this ad


D&D General What does D&D look like without Death on the Table?


A friend and I were talking about running games, player characters, story and protagonists. Long story short we decided that in most cases, the protagonists' lives are not really on the line and if they are it is at a climactic or dramatically appropriate time.

Before I continue: Ido not believe this is the best way to play D&D. I like emergent story, and sometimes the story is "you fell in a goblin hole and got eaten by rot grubs." Adventuring is dangerous business, the heroes are the ones that survive, and so on.

That said: if a group decides to treat their PCs like protagonists in a longer story and effectively take the kind of unsatisfying, random death caused by bad die rolls out of the equation, what does a D&D campaign look like? If you play this way, how does it work and how does/did it go? if you don't play this way, what do you think? if you refuse to play this way, why and what are you worried about?


log in or register to remove this ad


You ever played Cartoon Action Hour? That game has no death. Characters don’t take damage, they only gather ‘Setback Tokens’ and when they gather a number superior to their ‘Star Power’ they are taken out of the scene, usually in a way the players pick. Setback tokens don’t (normally) last longer than scene. And it’s possible to fail an opposed check so bad that you get taken out immediately instead of getting a single token.

it doesn’t super well works if you go in with combat-centric characters. It getd repetitive, but you can get some dramatic failiure. The game also uses a d12 instead of d20 so it gets super swingy, and thus you really got to get good at preparing for the failiure of heroes.


You can handle it the same way comic books handle Superman, and it works fine, provided your players buy into emotionally caring about the people and things in your world. In many ways, "Dire Consequences" not involving death are more interesting than outright stopping someone's story and their associated plot hooks. You can stretch that too thin, of course, but losing an arm or a loved one is often more character development than simply dying.


I have run a lot of D&D campaigns that last 2+ years and it’s quite often that in the early phase (below about 6th) death is a significant likelihood. Many have been the single story campaigns like adventure paths. More than one campaign has had the sole survivor recruit a bunch of new 5th level adventurers. This is fine at the start of the story. But once they get past 9th it’s pretty rare that a permanent character death happens. I see this as a feature of the game not a bug because also by this level the players have powerful magic at their command and they feel that they can frequently (not always) face down death. Plus they have a decent amount invested in their character and to play a new character for the last third of an adventure path where everyone else has a character with solid history in the story is just less fun.

The question then is what are the stakes. In these story heavy campaigns like the Paizo adventure paths or Tomb of Annihilation the stakes of failure are two fold, the lesser is getting the loot on offer and the greater is stopping the bad guys doing their thing.

Basically you would need consequences to happen. Oh that kid that looked up to your Paladin and wanted to be his squire? Well the kid appears to bail the paladin out but gets eaten by a dragon in the process. The elven archer NPC your party is good friends with gets her defense position overrun by the goblin horde and she's torn apart. Etc, etc, etc.

And the NPCs of the world should react accordingly.

"Oh hey yeah I'd hire you, but after that tale came about involving that town your group failed to save, I think my coin is better spent on a group that I know can get the job done."

-the party face decides to roll a CHA check on Persu-

"I SAID NO!!! Good Day kind sir."

-the door is slammed shut in the party face's...uh face.-

Well, I don't know that perma-death has ever been a game feature. Even if someone died at low enough level we couldn't cast Raise Dead ourselves, the DM made one available at a plot cost instead of a gold on. But if you're going to make it an explicit house rule and not just a de facto DM style, then you need to have a brief sidebar in Session Zero to explain the stakes and narrative consequences you're going to be playing for. If I were doing it it would go something like this.

"Think of it like a TV series. The PCs are the main characters and they only get written out when the player decides they want to retire the PC. Defeat means you narrowly escape with some distinctive new scars, or perhaps are captured and have to ransom your freedom from your captor. Failure means the rampaging dragon burns the village to the ground, along with many of the NPCs you'd grown attached to, and the next adventure is leading the survivors to a place of safety. If you prefer a video game metaphor, we're not playing on iron man where one mistake means your character gets erased, but you don't have manual saves so there's no takebacks when things don't go as planned."


I distinguish between PC death and PC permadeath.

PCs can die, but if the player still wants to continue playing the character, I'll work with that player to find a way to bring the PC back somehow.

The player having to sit out for a while or bring in another character temporarily is consequences enough for us.


A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
I try to keep death off my game table, unless it is ground up, formed into a patty and grilled.

As for death in the game. I'm not a fan. PC death is not a frequent occurrence in my game but it is a very real threat. For me, the goldilocks zone for my D&D games is infrequent-to-rare character death. When death happens, even if for a stupid reason, it is impactful and memorable.

Now, in Paranoia, if a character doesn't die one an hour, you're doing it wrong. But that is a pretty slap-stick. Frequent PC death works best in slapstick games. Otherwise it starts to feel like an old video game without save points.

I don't know that I've played any game where death was completely off the table. Even if highly unlikely, it was always a possibility. Let's see...

The Expanse - kinda hard to die, the game is more about cinematic gaming and setbacks, but death is still possible. The mechanics just try to ensure that any PC death is a dramatic moment.

InSPECTREs. It is so improvised back and forth between game master and players that PC death is unlikely to happen unless the player buys into the idea. But the play CAN buy into it and so death is possible.

Dialect. Hard to see anyone dying in the middle of the game given how it is structured. But frequently EVERYONE dies at the end of the game. It actually works best that way, knowing that you are playing towards the group's inevitable demise.

Okay...I thought of one. There is no PC death in Labyrinth. Losing just means that the goblin king keeps your baby brother (or, optionally, some other MacGuffin). But Labyrinth is made for one shots, not campaigns.

I don't play superhero games, just not a fan of the genre. Actually the nobody-really-dies and rampant retconning turns me off on the genre outside of TTRPGs, except for limited series like "From Hell" that tell the story and are done.


That said: if a group decides to treat their PCs like protagonists in a longer story and effectively take the kind of unsatisfying, random death caused by bad die rolls out of the equation, what does a D&D campaign look like?
Like a D&D campaign. As far as understand in most 5e campaigns death happens very infrequently.
If you play this way, how does it work and how does/did it go?
Far Trek has a rule that says if the PCs take damage that would kill them they simply fall unconscious. It works fine. As other posters have said, there are more interesting consequences of failure than death.
if you don't play this way, what do you think?
Think about what?
If you refuse to play this way, why and what are you worried about?
I'm really not sure what you are asking.
You're welcome.


Goblin Queen
It works fine. It’s a different vibe than traditional D&D, but there’s nothing wrong with that. I’ve run games this way, and they can be quite enjoyable. You do need to introduce some other stakes besides character death to preserve tension, but honestly that’s something DMs should probably be doing anyway.

You write a story together. Lots of great plot twists, caused by both DM and players. They interact with the world, and change it. Large overarching storylines (slowly) get influenced by the actions of the players, and meanwhile the players make or break the lives of other NPCs they meet and (quickly) change the local surroundings wherever they are.

Death is possible, but it is not the goal of the DM to give the players unlimited opportunities to die. The goal is to give them unlimited possibilities to interact with the world, and to describe that world as best as you can.

I would never allow the players to just fail a Dex save and die, because "adventuring is dangerous", and if my character would die like that I would likely step out of the campaign rather than roll a new character.

That said: if a group decides to treat their PCs like protagonists in a longer story and effectively take the kind of unsatisfying, random death caused by bad die rolls out of the equation, what does a D&D campaign look like? If you play this way, how does it work and how does/did it go? if you don't play this way, what do you think? if you refuse to play this way, why and what are you worried about?

Since this is more or less how I run my own game (characters can die, but there will always be a way to bring them back--it just might be costly), I can say that the game still has plenty of excitement. Heck, for me, it actually has more!

I generally don't like to play "random death takes you out" games because they make me paranoid and disheartened. Paranoid because I'm going to be so afraid of losing my character, I'm going to never take risks, or at least never take a risk if I feel I ever have the slightest choice about it. That's boring! Players should be willing to do exciting things. Meanwhile, I get disheartened because every time I think about what I've achieved or where my character's been, there will be this haunting specter of "and next week you could lose it all, permanently, and it will all have meant nothing." That's deeply disheartening, and makes me feel like I shouldn't bother getting invested in the character. After all, if random unavoidable death is a thing, eventually it's going to happen (that's how probability works, folks!) unless I bow out, and I don't really consider that fun or interesting.

Basically, for me, character death is the least interesting stake because it terminates participation. Sure, this induces fear of loss, but I don't find that fear an enjoyable experience--I find it very unpleasant, actually. And because in the long run that loss is essentially guaranteed, I lose interest in the character. What's the point of becoming attached to something, of caring about where it's going to go, when you know where it's going and know it's (eventually) going to be unpleasant? Better to disengage and avoid the heartbreak.

With unexpected+permanent death off the table (note that it really is the combination of the two that is the issue), I can relax--and pay attention to stakes that really matter to me. The allies and friends we meet, the places we become attached to, the enemies we struggle against, the personal victories earned and personal defeats suffered: these are the things that excite me. And that's where a more narrative, "protagonistic" experience is useful. The story happens to and around the characters, and they earn their victories as well as their defeats. It's not that the Song of Thorns threatens the characters that makes them want to defeat it; it's that the Song of Thorns threatens to destroy their home and kill or corrupt their friends/family/beloveds which gives them the unshakable resolve to fight it. It's not that finding a new homeland for the Riddle-Makers will win them money or fame, but that these are my people and I must protect them. It's not that uncovering the lost fourth volume of General Khalifa al-Hamdan's Struggle and Calm will give bonuses or earn reputation, but because it is a valuable work of both philosophy and martial tactics that deserves preservation and protection. (These are all motivations my real players have had in our current game, BTW.)

The point being: with unexpected+permanent death off the table, the players have space to focus on the aspects of their story that most excite them, that they want to overcome or build up or tear down. And each such victory or defeat enriches the world, makes things that much more ripe for investment and excitement on their part. Instead of a negative feedback loop running away from undesirable consequences, it is a positive feedback loop of running toward the desirable consequences.


Second Most Angelic Devil Ever



Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
Even though being raised from the dead is extremely difficult in my campaign (more than just casting a spell), permanent death is still rare. If I can't tell an interesting story with threats, goals and drama without the threat of imminent death hanging over everybody's head I would want to work on improving my DMing skills.

Death is not "off the table", but I want and encourage people to get heavily invested in their characters. If a PC dies, it's the end of their story and personally, I don't see how that benefits the game especially stupid death because of a bad roll or two.

Different people play for different reasons, but death is not "fun" for me, nor does it add any enjoyment. It just means that the protagonist of the story I'm invested in dies along with their story.


I think a lot of it is determined by the game. If the players are invested enough in the world, the NPC's and thier own plans then just those things being endangered can be enough to create the tension needed for a good game. But if the players can't lose, either by dieing or letting other NPC's die or failing in thier plans or saving whatever they are trying to save then you have a game where there are no consequences and that's just boring. I don't know if I've every played in a game where death is completely off the table, but in the current campaign I play in I'd be far more upset if my players long term goals were short circuited than if my player died. Dm has used this against me many time. It makes my characters plans to build up a wizards guild for the city exciting and unsure, and that's really all death is bringing to the table.

David Howery

uh... wow. Way back in my 1E days, PC permadeath happened. A lot. Especially at low levels. Of course, way back in those early days, people were still figuring out the game, and the idea of long story-driven campaign arcs wasn't really around much. The attitude, "I died? Well, that sucks. Let me roll up a new character" was pretty common..