Greatest Hits 2009: Should Players Suffer When PCs Die?

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on December 31, 2009

While the Dungeon’s Master team enjoys some well-deserved vacation time, we’re breaking out the greatest hits and shining a spotlight on a few of our favourite articles from 2009. We’ve searched for hidden gems that our newer readers might have missed and our long-time readers will enjoy reading again. Enjoy a second look at these greatest hits from Dungeon’s Master.

The was probably one of our most controversial articles. My intent was to discuss how you handle player death in 4e D&D. Do you do what’s best for the PCs, in-character, or do you do what’s best for the players, out-of-character. In the situation I describe below there was good reasons on both sides of this argument, but in the end we as players decided that we had to do what was best for the players out-of-game even though it was probably not what the PCs would do in-game.

I think part of what made this article so controversial was that the player death happened during an LFR (Living Forgotten Realms) game at my FLGS. The RPGA has very defined boundaries regarding what a DM can and cannot do. So in my article I might seem like I’m really giving the DM the gears, but that was certainly not my intent. I merely tried to point out that a creative party may come up with options that were unexpected by the author of the adventure or the DM. But in the end it comes down to the DM’s call.

I think most of the people who commented on the original article, including the DM from the actual table where all of this happened, agreed that if this situation happened at a home game it would be easier to show some latitude. But because it was an RGPA-sanctioned game the DM’s hands were pretty much tied.

From November 13, 2009, Dungeon’s Master once again presents: Should Players Suffer When PCs Die?

Death. Until this week, I’d never witnessed the death of a PC. It can have serious short-term and long-term ramifications on your campaign. In a world without easily accessible magic to raise a dead PC, death is final. Your guy dies and it’s time to create a new PC. But in most D&D campaigns magic is readily available (for a price) and you can revive a fallen comrade easily enough. Chances are if a PC dies as part of a long-term campaign you’ll bring him back from the dead, but what about a one-off game?

In a recent Living Forgotten Realms (LFR) game I played at my friendly local gaming shop I sat down with six complete strangers to play a level 4-7 adventure. During the first combat encounter one of the PCs was killed. Dead, dead. We had to decide what was more important, making the best in-game, role-playing choice or making the best out-of-game, real life choice.

Here’s the context of the adventure. Our party was traveling with a merchant caravan from one town to the next. We were one day away from our destination when we came across an ambush in progress. Another caravan had been overrun by monsters. Some people were dead, others were being carried off as captives and a few were still fighting. We immediately joined the fight. It was during this combat that a PC was killed.

The following out-of-game exchanged followed when the encounter was over.

PCs – What are our options?

DM – You can a) continue on to the town, purchase a raise dead ritual and revive your fallen comrade, or b) you can track down the monsters and try to free the captives.

PCs – If we head to town is that it, game over?

DM – No. There are three encounters left. If you return to town and come back, you’ll miss one of the encounters.

PCs – If we press on and pursue the monsters now, is there any chance for reviving the dead PC before the end of the game?

DM – No. If you don’t bring him back now, you won’t have another opportunity until after the adventure is over. If he isn’t brought back now, his night is done.

The in-game, role-playing solution was simple, rescue the captives and revive our comrade later. That’s what the dead character would have wanted. Letting innocent people die because we took two days to get him raised from the dead was not what he’d want us to do. It didn’t make sense to do it any other way.

But the out-of-game decision wasn’t nearly as straight forward. Sure the characters might have done things one way, but how much would that suck for the poor guy who died? We weren’t even an hour into the game and a PC was dead. Considering that this was just a one-off game anyway, did we really want in-game decisions to determine if one guy got to play the rest of the adventure or not?

There we were. Six strangers faced with a tough choice. The player running the PC who died said he’d be good with either decision. I applaud him for that declaration. Had it been my PC that died I’d be asking the party to bring me back as soon as possible.

After a little bit of debating we all decided that reviving the dead PC was the best course of action. It meant that in-game some people would die, but it also meant that out-of-game a player got to participate for another two hours. We all agreed that the real life fun of playing D&D outweighed the in-game consequences that would play out after we brought our dead comrade back to life.

I think one of the reasons we all agreed to the raise dead option so quickly was that his death was not entirely his fault. Yes he ran into combat recklessly, but he was playing a tough, burly, Dwarven Fighter. It’s his job to draw fire and mark foes, which he did. His death at the hands of the party’s Wizard was unforeseen and unexpected. The benefits of hitting six monsters seemed like a fair trade if it meant possibly getting the Fighter too. The Wizard just happened to roll a 20 to hit the Fighter.

Now that we’d reached a decision to bring back the dead PC, we looked to the DM for advice. I was a little bit disappointed with the way the DM handled the situation. Now I want to be perfectly clear that the DM didn’t do anything wrong. He followed the rules. He didn’t pull punches or fudge numbers. Although I might have done things differently, what he did wasn’t wrong. It was just his choice to hold fast to the rules and not throw the PCs a bone given this unlikely turn of events.

We had to figure out the best, fastest way to do revive our comrade. We started brainstorming for any way to raise dead now and push on immediately. Our imaginations went into overdrive.

PCs – Is there any chance that a raise dead scroll is among the goods being transported in the caravan we’re accompanying?

DM – No.

PCs – We search the remains of the other destroyed wagons. Do we find a ritual scroll in there?

DM – No. It was picked clean by the monsters before you arrived.

PCs – Even the secret compartment just big enough for a scroll case?

DM – No secret compartments, sorry.

PCs – We probably knew that this was a dangerous route before we took the job. Could we say that someone bought a raise dead scroll before we left?

DM – No.

PCs – How about this? We load our friend’s corpse on the caravan. We give the merchant enough gold to cover the cost of the raise dead ritual and ask him to go to the church when he arrives in town.

DM– This merchant has never seen 500 gp in one place before. He’s more likely to dump the body, keep your gold and just ride past the town.

PCs – What if we provide a promissory note to the church instead of giving this guy cash?

DM – No, that won’t be good enough.

PCs – Is there any chance that in place of our next treasure bundle we find a coincidentally well-placed raise dead scroll?

DM – No.

I’ll admit that some of these suggestions were a bit of a stretch, but a couple were somewhat reasonable. For a game that encourages the DM to say yes, this DM said no a lot. Considering that this was just a one-off game what would it hurt to just bring the dead PC back to life right there?

In the end we travelled to the town, had the Fighter raised from the dead and returned to the ambush site to try and rescue any surviving captives. When we got back to the scene of the ambush and tracked the monsters to their lair the NPCs were dead. We killed the monsters and then found the person responsible for hiring them in the first place. So in the end we got two more exciting combat encounters out of it and everyone got to participate throughout the whole adventure.

Looking back on the adventure I realized that no mater how appropriate in-game actions may be, it’s more important to have fun playing the game. If in-game consequences mean that one or more players can’t participate then it’s time to reassess the situation. After all, D&D is a game and everyone playing should enjoy the experience. Sitting on the sidelines for hours because your PC died isn’t fun for anybody. In-game death should carry some consequences, but making a player sit out for an extended period of time isn’t the best way to handle it. This is especially true if the game is just a one-off adventure.

Have you experienced character death since the release of 4e? Did you bring the dead PC back to life or just create a new character? Do you agree with the way the DM handled this situation? If you were the DM what might you have done differently?

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