Accepting a Suicide Mission

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on May 31, 2011

How often do you know the outcome of your adventure before you even begin playing? Almost never. But, what if you did know the way the adventure was going to end? More importantly, what if you knew – before you ever sat down to play – that the PCs could only achieve victory by sacrificing themselves in the process?

I’m not talking about a typical TPK. This isn’t just a really difficult encounter where the PCs, through bad luck, poor rolls and dismal tactics end up dead. I’m talking about an adventure that’s specifically designed as a no way out scenario. The PCs, and more importantly the players, know at the beginning of the campaign that they won’t be coming back.

This kind of set up makes for a very different D&D adventure. Normally the players assume (and rightly so) that their characters will survive everything that’s thrown at them. No one plays D&D and expects for their character to die. Where’s the fun in that? Well, I’m going to tell you.

The Motivation

If a creative DM wants to run this kind of adventure then he first needs to ensure that all the player know and understand the parameters. Throwing an unsuspecting party into a campaign that you know will end in their deaths and not telling them about it is wrong. I know that as a player if I got to that final encounter and realized that there was no escape I’d be angry at the DM. But if this hurdle is clearly spelled out at the beginning then I think I’d be ok with it.

There are plenty of reasons that the PCs would take on such a mission. Perhaps they’re members of a military organization and they’re ordered to do it. Perhaps they’re prisoners facing execution anyway and a suicide mission is more appealing than a firing squad. Perhaps they’re divine characters who each receive a premonition directly from their deity. If all else fails, you can always appeal to the PCs morality and convince them that they need to do what’s best in the larger struggle between good and evil.

Regardless of how the PCs learned about the mission, the stakes need to be pretty high to warrant this kind of no return mission. Think of the story from Frank Miller’s 300. In this retelling of the Battle of Thermopylae, all 300 Spartan soldiers know full well that they won’t be coming home. They’re motivated by their duty and loyalty to King Leonidas, but they also know that if they don’t stand up to evil their way of life will be forever destroyed. They choose to fight and die to protect their way of life for future generations.

The Role-Playing

After getting the players on board with this kind of campaign, there suddenly becomes a rich opportunity for some unique role-playing. Knowing that they’re facing their own death, the PCs are likely to question their own mortality and their own value.

Think of how differently you’d play a character who knows that his death is just over the horizon. Does he begin to notice the little things in life? Does he turn over a new leaf and try to live a better life, if only for his few remaining days or weeks? Maybe he faces his death with grit and stoicism and appears cold to others?

If the PCs know that they won’t be returning after completing their task they may also take on different tactics than they normally do in D&D. If their quest leads them into the bowels of a dungeon, they have less reason to clear every room along the way. They don’t have to worry about the possibility of encountering some of these creatures again on the way back up. Their goal is to get deeper and deeper and face the final monster. Getting there fast might be more important that fighting all the monsters and stealing their loot along the way.

The Set Up

This kind of adventure can certainly work as a short-term campaign. The players make up characters knowing that they’re essentially just throw-aways. At the end of your short arc the PCs sacrifice themselves, destroying both themselves and the villain in the final showdown. However, this doesn’t give the players a lot of time to get to know their characters.

I see the true richness of this kind of story emerging if the players have a long time to really develop their PCs. Span the adventure over a longer period of time and across multiple levels. There are likely other events that need to be set up before the PCs can actually accomplish the ultimate goal. Have them work to achieve these tasks, all the wile knowing that if they fail then bad things will happen. If nothing else, their failure will result in another group of adventurers being assigned to take over the mission.

The Climax

The goal of the quest needs to be world-shaping. It needs to be something so important that the PCs agree to walk into death’s domain to accomplish the task. Assuming that the quest is indeed this momentous then there are likely peripheral events happening that coincide with the PC’s actions. This gives the DM a lot of room to keep the PCs busy before they have to get to it and sacrifice themselves. It also gives the players more time to role-play these PCs.

One option is to have the PCs involved in the preparation for this momentous quest and then be given the no-return assignment later in the adventure. Suddenly they realize that they are the ones that won’t be coming home. This is pretty much what happens to Frodo in the Lord of the rings. He agrees to carry the One Ring to Mordor where it can be destroyed in he fires of Mount Doom. It isn’t until much later in the story that he and Sam finally realize the importance of completing their quest, even if it means their own deaths.

If the PCs are having second thoughts about whether or not to complete the task, make them aware of all the other things that are happening to assist them. There are likely multiple events that all coincide with their PCs final push for victory. Again, we looking to the Lord of the Rings. The forces led by Aragorn don’t believe that they’ll emerge victorious from the final battle, but they understand that they need to keep the forces of evil distracted long enough for Frodo to destroy the One Ring.

The Eulogy

This kind of adventure is certainly different. It’s not going to appeal to everyone, but I believe that some groups would eagerly accept the challenge that playing this kind of adventure presents. It may initially sound like a short game, but the more I think about his idea the more and more detail I see this kind of game taking on.

It’s one thing to embrace a TPK if it seems like the right thing to do at the time, but in this case you know that there is no other option. It takes a big player to create a cool character and then willingly agree to sacrifice him. But D&D is all about courageous heroes doing heroic acts. I can’t think of anything more noble or heroic than giving one’s life for to save the world and make it safe for the people he loves.

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1 Kilsek May 31, 2011 at 3:15 pm

This scenario makes for some evocative roleplaying and dramatic, memorable adventures for sure.

I immediately thought of stories and movies where the world is ending and one or two stars sacrifice their lives for other people – from their friends to all of humanity!

Good stuff. Would fit extremely well in a flashback style encounter or adventure similar to the one in the Eberron Campaign Setting guide.

2 OnlineDM May 31, 2011 at 3:31 pm

I’m getting ready to be a player in a Tomb of Horrors game, and I fully expect that my character may die. The difference is that this probably won’t be an epic, heroic death – I expect more of a random, meaningless demise. Should be fun!

3 Sunyaku May 31, 2011 at 8:29 pm

Buah ha ha! I was just considering something along these lines. My bachelor party is coming up in September, and I suggested an ultra-deadly one-shot adventure (most likely epic or paragon) as a possible weekend activity. 😀

I’m open to suggestions if anyone has any– thinking of doing something a little less “typical”… perhaps instead of battling Orcus, create an evil group and try to take out one of the good gods. Or, freeing and fighting Tharizdun (the chained god) sounds like fun too…

4 Victor Von Dave June 1, 2011 at 3:01 am

It’s an interesting proposition and I think there are a lot of story opportunities there, but you have to be careful of a few pitfalls that come with that kind of setup. The characters’ guaranteed doom might actually stifle roleplaying. Knowing that your character isn’t going to make it may lead some players to distance themselves from their character to avoid getting attached. The urgency that imminent death lends to the campaign might also lead some to avoid roleplay encounters in order to ‘cut to the chase’. There’s nothing wrong with a game like that, but if you’re setting up the suicide mission for dramatic purposes it’s a little cross purpose.
I think that if you emphasize the elements you point out – especially the drama of self-sacrifice, through the NPCs the party meets, it will encourage the kind of roleplaying I think you’re going for.

5 Ameron June 1, 2011 at 9:38 am

I never considered it as a flashback adventure. That’s certainly an interesting way to spin it. It lets the players run new characters in a familiar world (albeit in the past) without directly impacting any other adventures their “real” characters already completed or might be engaged in currently.

The thing with the Tomb of Horrors (the original) is that the players are essentially motivated by greed. No one’s making them take on the dungeon delve. And although there is a strong likelihood of player death, it is possible to complete the adventure without dying (as we learned last September). But knowing that your character’s life is actually in real danger does make for a much more interesting (or at least different) kind of adventure.

I love that for gamers an awesome bachelor party is a weekend of gaming. Man how I wish I could join you for that adventure!

As I was gearing up to write this article I tried to think of actual scenarios that would mean the death of every character. What I kept coming back to was a creature trapped deep beneath the surface (an ancient dragon or maybe even the Tarrasque) that, if freed, would essentially destroy the know world. The PCs had to find the lair, get in, defeat the minions along the way, and then ensure the big boss is destroyed. The only way I saw this happening with absolute certainly was to bring the roof down on the creature, its lair, its supports and ultimately the PCs. It’s a pretty straightforward kind of set up but I see it teeming with potential.

@Victor Von Dave
I agree that there is a real likelihood some players will not want to get too attached to a character they know will be dead at the end of the adventure. This could very will lead to detachment and poor or even non-existent role-playing. The key is to ensure that the adventure and the build up are long enough for the players to want to get emotionally invested in the PCs and the story goals.

If I was to run this kind of adventure I’d start it at low paragon level and have it run through the entire paragon tier. Along the way I might actually have the PCs skip a level here or there to progress their power level more quickly, but I’d want them to be very familiar with the character by the time they had to face death. During the game I’d also have each player develop a strong back-story for why they’re involved. Even if they’re military officers ordered to do this task, there’s a reason that they were chosen in the first place. This is where I’d try to direct players that showed some reluctance.

This is not an adventure that will appeal to all players, and I realize that. You know your group best so it’s up to each DM to decide if they think this kind of adventure will work or not at their gaming table. I’d like to think the more will say yes than no.

6 northierthanthou May 15, 2013 at 3:31 am

One thing I find particularly appealing about this sort of approach is the prospect that it may settle the issue of buy-in. Why engage in petty theft or all the other distractions of buzz-kill play when you know your character will not be around to enjoy these things? For some players this could help to clarify the value of group effort.

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