The Alphastream Game Design Blog
D&D has changed over the years, transitioning from plentiful and often random character death to resilient characters and a system where death – especially random death – is unlikely. For today’s RPGs, how should we take this into account? How do we design adventures where death is meaningful?
It’s important to note that character death, even random death in older editions, did come with a few benefits. Deaths kept us on our toes. Deaths changed our behavior. Deaths made victory sweeter.
Editions from 3E on have ramped up both character resiliency and the depth of character creation. They are related, representing the investment players now make in their characters, and the emotional payoff from developing those characters over time.
At the same time, we still value a thrilling game. The possibility of a character death – not a frustrating or meaningless one – continues to shape behavior and create excitement. Most players want fun moments emulating the rush we feel when experiencing a great movie or novel. For this to happen, we need to think death is possible.
Ideally, the death is meaningful, because it then has greater impact. I fondly recall when we ran Confrontation at Candlekeep at Gen Con and PAX 2013. A blue dragon faced several tables of heroes playing simultaneously. Each table represented a tower, and the dragon flew from one to the other. It didn’t take long for a player to say, “Can my character jump onto the dragon, so I can keep attacking it?” The first time it happened, we made a ruling. You could, but you might fall to your doom. Make a check, and if you fail, you fall… and die. Players’ eyes went wide as they contemplated the feat. Several players went for it… and some went splat. The others? They were heroes, riding a dragon from table to table.
Various organized play events over the years have offered characters the chance to make a sacrifice. There was an Arcanis multi-table interactive where heroes volunteered for a one-way heroic trip. They died, but lived on in the tale of the event, told for years to other convention attendees. There were adventures and events where one character could give their life essence, that the rest might succeed.
Such events show us that death has meaning. It matters. Most players are okay with death, if it has meaning. And as DMs, we should contemplate how to best enable that.
The Right Challenge
When running a campaign, we want to have a sense of our player’s challenge preference. We can poll our players (for a player-focused campaign, ideally before the campaign starts) to learn about their desired challenge level.
For most campaigns, it’s okay that death can come at any moment. It’s understood that the dice can go cold, the monsters can get lucky, and even an easy fight could turn on a character. A risky move might also result in death (such as jumping on that flying dragon). But, in general, players want a death to feel right. At low levels, dying in a battle with kobolds can have meaning. It’s a tough battle at that level. As we level up, our players want to die in a more grand fashion.
When we design encounters, we ideally want the challenge to be high when it is a meaningful thrilling fight. This ensures that a death will also be meaningful. There is no shame in Tiamat gloriously tearing your character apart.
To keep the game exciting, we want to vary our encounter challenge and dance around our target challenge so the game isn’t boring or predictable. Think of various movies. Some, like Aliens, offer constant pressure and threat, and that’s super fun! Others, such as Pirates of the Caribbean or Raiders of the Lost Ark, are generally fun situations where everyone expects to overcome the challenges – even when everything seems to be going downhill we are pretty sure there will be a way out.
Techniques for Very Low Challenge Games
Some players want to really dial down challenge. In that case, death should be truly rare. We can threaten them in other ways.
Waves of easy monsters can feel like a cinematic challenge even though the challenge remains low. We can also transfer the sense of loss from death to other types of failure. This could include NPC death or capture, mission failure, losing out on treasure, or setbacks to goals and aspirations.
Consider this example. The characters have to choose between saving an NPC suspended from a fraying rope above lava, or go after the villain who is about to escape. That’s a thrilling moment, even though they are not personally threatened! Similarly, in a low-combat city campaign the players can feel genuine excitement when they can expose a council member as a spy, or fail and lose the support of the council. These types of loss can act as proxies for character death.
Death will have more resonance when characters matter. The more we spend on character creation, the more we play off of backstory, the more that we allow characters agency to shape the world, the more painful it will be if our characters die. Not just for the one player, but for everyone at the table. This can extend to NPCs. There was an adventure in the Living Greyhawk organized play campaign where every time I ran it, one or more players cried when the NPC died. Or how about the end of this Critical Role season 1, where a player knew their action meant they could no longer save a PC destined to die? For a more recent example of an NPC’s death resonating, see the Epilogue to the C-Team from PAX Unplugged 2021. It is absolutely amazing how DM Jerry Holkins builds up the startling finish.
Those moments resonate because we have invested in the PCs or NPCs. We are also treating them with respect. If they die, even when the death was unexpected, the moment matters to the player and to everyone at the table.
Reducing Arbitrary Death
The dice can always result in death, even in an easy campaign. Our adventure and campaign design can therefore eliminate punishing and random meaningless death. Last time we reviewed how some classic adventures offer death without any chance to determine it could happen. In Isle of Dread, some dungeon doors are fine, and some could kill you, but nothing provides information one way or the other.
When you design opportunities for death, allow for ways to determine that. If the rope bridge can snap, allow ways to determine that. And give PCs a chance or two to grab on or leap to safety. Here’s the thing, it is super thrilling to know you might die when the rope snaps. It is still gratifying to leap to safety. In most cases, it is more satisfying for everyone if that leap succeeds. The close call is often the best result.
When something is deadly, try to foreshadow it. That time I died in 3E from a single monster, even though my character was at full hit points? It would have meant far more if I had known about this terrible foe and had a way to determine that it might lurk behind the walls and emerge to kill me.
The Right Timing
(Spoiler for The Artifact)
When I wrote the adventure The Artifact, which takes place in the Amber Temple in Barovia, I focused on the story and exploration aspect. Combat was secondary. But, back then, the Adventurers League required me to have a certain XP value of monsters. So, I added a tough fight at the beginning and then a medium one at the end. That tough fight has a beholder zombie… and it can disintegrate a character.
I understood the math well enough. My thought was that since this was the only challenging encounter, and it wasn’t all that hard, it should have some risk. Disintegration could take out a character. Save or die. I thought it was okay for some adventures to present such a challenge, and I still do, because death should sometimes have a chance to happen.
But I made a big mistake. Because the fight happens at the beginning, at a convention you might lose your character in the very first fight… and now you sit there doing nothing for the rest of the fight. In retrospect, I wish I had added a way for the character to play a ghostly version of their character, so they could continue to participate, with a possible way they could return to their body if the adventure was a success. We want to consider the timing of a death, and ideally it happens near the end of the play session. In a home campaign, there are better times than others for thrilling fights that may have a higher chance of character death. Similarly, with NPCs, have their death be poignant but meaningful. Perhaps the NPC leaves a message for the PC closest to them, or even a gift. In one campaign, the party had a choice, and the choice they made resulted in their village being attacked. A mentor to a PC died, but left them with a supernatural gift, which allowed the PC to communicate with their spirit during important moments.
The best deaths place the player in the driver’s seat. When I ran a D&D Encounters game at a gaming store, there was a great session where a young girl decided her character should jump a chasm to get to a critical foe. There was an enormous chance of failure. Counting the squares, we told her she needed a 19 or 20 to make the jump. She decided it was what her character would do, rolled, and made it!
When a death trap simply kills a character, that’s dissatisfying and frustrating. If a character were to hear the clue, “only the penitent one shall pass” (as featured in the Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade movie) and decides this means they should pray loudly while striding upright down the hall… we will probably have a good laugh once they realize what they should have done.
This is an aspect classic adventures missed time and time again. Gotchas aren’t generally fun. Challenging situations, risk, and making choices… those are fun.
Is the Story Satisfying?
We can’t always pick when a PC will die. But when we are designing tougher challenges or situations that have a higher than usual chance at death, we can ask ourselves whether that will be satisfying. If we create a situation where a life must be sacrificed, and there is an innocent goblin with the party, that decision is far more interesting and satisfying if we had a chance to develop a relationship with the goblin. Think through the way the death fits into the story and whether there is a way to make it more satisfying. Movies that end with the heroes making a final stand, but dying, are satisfying because it fits. It’s a great story.
How about you? What deaths have resonated in your games? How do you make death meaningful? Let me know in the comments, or join us on Discord!