The Alphastream Game Design Blog
Classic D&D adventures often have situations that force a quick and meaningless death. Modern editions are often accused of being too easy. Why has the game changed, and what is the point of character death today?
On the Mastering Dungeons podcast, Shawn Merwin and I are reviewing classic adventures from previous editions (so far: The Village of Hommlet, Pharaoh, Against the Cult of the Reptile God, Dragonlance’s Dragons of Despair, and Isle of Dread). These adventures have some excellent design worth emulating, and some terrible design worth avoiding.
Shawn noticed that several of the adventures pose situations where a character may choose to do something that seems safe… but results in certain death or a chance at certain death. For example, Isle of Dread has a dungeon where parts are flooded. In some rooms, opening the door causes water to move into or out of the room, and this can push the characters around. That’s a really cool concept. But in at least two cases, it sweeps one or more characters to their doom or provides them only a percentage chance to avoid plunging into certain death. There is no way to know the result of your actions beforehand.
My “favorite” example of this may be Hall of the Fire Giant King. In the kitchen is a chute, 6’ in diameter. There are any number of adventures where exploring this could unlock some secret treasure. But in this particular case, it is a greased garbage chute that drops any explorer into a pool of lava. No damage is noted… it’s a pool of lava. If you explore the chute, you die.
Then there was my character, Ferdinand II (I don’t recall what happened to Ferdinand I). Ferdinand the wizard found a magical tome. Yay! I opened it and read the first line. I was the wrong alignment, so the book dealt damage to me… enough to kill me. In an act of defiance, I immediately created Ferdinand III. (I don’t recall how Ferdinand III died – I’m sure it was just as bad.)
Instant death can come in many forms. I was playing my beloved monk, Weary Fox, in a 3E organized play adventure and an umber hulk broke through the wall and attacked me. I had all of my hit points when it rolled the first attack, and I was at -10 and dead when it was done.
A year later and my dwarven ranger is walking down a corridor, checking for tracks and traps. There is a spell trap, which can’t be found. It fires three rays at me, each draining levels. The DM rolls high. I’m a 15th level ranger one second, and irrecoverably dead the next. (Okay, we did spend an incredible amount of gold on a true resurrection spell.)
And then there was a 3E organized play special mission I was DMing. In the encounter, an assassin begins hidden. Three rounds later, it strikes a random character, the wizard, killing them outright. From full to zero. I will never forget the demoralized face of that player.
When I played the Original D&D edition prior to the launch of 5E, I remarked how simple the game was (for example, every weapon dealt 1d6 damage). It was also deadly. Any room could spell doom not just for one character, but for the entire party! The high mortality encouraged clever play (like forcing our mules to run into a room with trolls), but there was no way to truly avoid a meaningless death. A giant spider has a poison bite… save or die. A wandering monster table tells us we can encounter 1-100 nixies. 100? No wonder I have a binder full of dead characters.
OD&D was more of a skirmish game with some exploration, rather than what we think of as an RPG today. And this remained largely true through much of the Basic and AD&D editions. Second edition (and later parts of Basic/BECMI) begin to add a number of design complexities to allow characters to have more meaning, capturing that investment players wanted to make in their characters. Just as importantly, our play had been evolving. Groups were celebrating the characters that did manage to survive a campaign. We began to weave ever more complex stories about our characters and to increasingly derive enjoyment from the evolution of characters and the interplay between characters, the party, and the setting.
For this reason, designers for both 4E and 5E wanted resilient characters. Much of the danger today is the threat of danger rather than the random chance of danger. Absolute unavoidable and unpredictable death is right out.
Characters today have the means to dig deep and achieve success, rather than see unlucky dice drive a TPK. I saw many more character deaths in either 1E or 2E than I did in 3E, fewer in 4E than in 3E, and fewer in 5E than in 4E. This is by design. Characters are meant to survive to tell the tale, and the trick today is making it feel like the challenge is deadly. We can see this in the DMG’s description of encounter design: A Hard encounter is one where weaker characters might drop unconscious (not die) and there is only a slim chance of one or more characters dying. A Deadly encounter isn’t deadly for the entire party. It could be deadly for one or more PCs.
As I discussed in Why So Many DMs Have Trouble Challenging Players, a close look at 5E’s math shows that it is extremely hard for monsters to achieve a TPK (Total Party Kill). This becomes even less likely as the party gains levels.
The game has changed significantly, from a variant wargame to a game where beloved characters are livestreamed to tens of thousands. From our intimate homegames to convention one-shots, we want to see our characters prevail… though at times it may be a close call. Design has shifted over time to try to match what we expect for our heroes.
Next time we will look at how to walk the fine line: avoiding meaningless death while also creating fun challenges.