Friday, 25 November 2022

The Phenomenology of Death in D&D

It had been a while since anyone had croaked, but last week saw the 20th PC death in my regular campaign. It hurt, too. Pandion, a Greek Magic-User we fondly envisaged as being played in the movie of the campaign by a late-middle aged Sean Connery, had navigated those difficult early spellcaster levels, and made his way up to level 5. His combination of Web, Fireball, Magic-Missile and ESP had become an important feature of the party's dungeoneering arsenal, and it was always felt by the womenfolk of the campaign world in particular that beneath his salt-and-pepper good looks and suave charm his personality also had hidden, profound depth.

But when you've only got a maximum of 9 hit points, you're only ever a critical hit or so away from death. And so it proved: a random encounter with not-all-that-powerful enemies on level 2 of the dungeon, which should have been relatively easily dealt with, turned tragic in the Steinerian sense, reminding us all of the fundamental incomprehensibility of the universe, and also that even a band of PCs of 5th-6th level are not invulnerable to 2 HD foes in early editions of D&D. 

I am convinced that the way I handle death (ie when you're dead, you're dead, and that's that) is the right way of doing things. PCs are unconscious at 0 hp and permanently dead at -1, and they roll their hp at each level, including level 1. The players know that what happens in the campaign is for keeps, and it gives everything, even the most mundane random encounter, an added frisson - you just never know. 

I don't do this because I'm a harsh DM and enjoy throwing my weight around. Far from it. As soon as anybody loses a PC, I more or less immediately let them get back in the saddle with a fresh character, and integrate them as soon as practicable. I do it because I want what happens to feel like it matters.

In any case, it's important to remember that the death of a PC in D&D is not the same thing as death in real life - although it's annoying and a bit of a bummer, D&D is played by the players and not the PCs, and the player remains in the game. When his PC dies, he just takes on a different form. In this sense, D&D PCs are really something akin to a Moorcockian Eternal Champion - just another iteration of the person for whom they stand in as an avatar. Pandion might have died, but that doesn't affect his player's continued participation. 

This is why I also don't think it matters very much that no matter what kind of PC they come up with (fighter, thief, magic-user, dwarf, elf, etc.) the vast majority of players kind of end up just being a version of themselves during play - same voice, same personality, same priorities. I would be troubled by that if I thought that role-playing should be about exploring the character of the PCs, but as I think it's more to do with exploring a world, it's fine by me that the next PC Pandion's former player takes on will probably be pretty similar ultimately, aside perhaps for some new eccentricity or other, even if it turns out to be a female halfling. (The same goes for all the other players, by the way, and undoubtedly me too if I'm ever no longer the DM.) The important thing is retaining the existence of the player in the ongoing campaign, and what he brings to the table, than having any particular PC or other involved.


  1. That's all very true - and most 'DM's guides' (for whatever game) and modules could do with more advice on how to get new PCs into the adventure as quickly as possible (i.e. in the next room/encounter location). It's not much of a problem for experienced GMs, but pointers are always useful for newer referees. Slavers passing through with captives; a lone adventurer following the party's trail; a bewebbed victim of a giant spider (like Ufthak in The Lord of the Rings); or a lone survivor playing dead among the corpses of his adventuring fellows: these are all pretty obvious, but they all beat "wait until you're back in town", and lists of scenario-specific rationales could be a real boon to new GMs.

    You're dead right that most players tend to play similar characters - but one of the joys of the game is that it accommodates the minority of players who enjoy distinguishing their characters through idiolect and mannerism. That's another reason why PC death is an active good in a campaign: it gives the more thespian-inclined players the opportunity to come up with new and memorable creations.

    1. Many newer games, such as Into The Odd, put a lot of stress on the fact that it's more important to get players back into the game with a new character than it is to maintain realism. I like that. Yes, perhaps that first level thief did just materialise out of thing air, it's a magical universe, stranger things have happened.

    2. Yeah - I've used all those kinds of scenarios before. I've also often resorted to the old, "X's brother/sister/nephew/niece has come looking for him and shows up only to find he's just died" routine.

  2. Is there no raise dead in the campaign? One would think a 5th level MU us a pretty valuable commodity to the adventuring party, and worth the investment of resources (party gold) to get him back on the field of play.

    1. Speaking as one of the players in the campaign, I'm not sure my dead would want to be raised. I can't speak for the other players, but for me part of the enjoyment is in leaning into the inherent weaknesses and accepting death as death. When my last character died, at level 5, I felt more than ready to try out a new personality. And when my current character *finally* levelled up and so had more than 1HP, it felt like a kind of loss of innocence.

    2. Huh, interesting.

      Hmm. Five minutes after writing "interesting" I'm still wondering what to say to your comment.

      That's a very different perspective of play than my own. I can see being tired of a particular character, and wishing to move on from it. I'm currently playing a 5th level magic-user that (if he died) I wouldn't be too sad to see the back of. But while I've started a new PC in the same campaign that I take far more enjoyment in, I haven't yet retired the mage because he's such an integral part to the party's success...I'd be letting the group down (and certainly stepping backwards from our progress) if I set him aside.

      [one might ask, "why not transition him to an NPC then?" At 5th level he's the most experienced character in the party our campaign...he wouldn't be willing to adventure with the party as a 'henchman.' Either the character's played as a PC or he leaves]

      But needing to lean into "inherent weakness" and "accepting death as death?" Um...


      You folks ARE playing D&D, right? Don't your characters deal death on a regular basis? Don't you face the prospect of dying on a regular basis? Aren't you already well aware of the frailty of life in such a perilous world?

      And because of that shouldn't you be striving against death with every means at your disposal (including making use of magical means for extending a character's mortality)?

      Leveling up feels like "a loss of innocence?" What kind of babes-in-the-wood campaign is this? Didn't your character bloody its hands to achieve the gain that level?

      I'm sorry; I suppose I don't understand. I play D&D because it's a fun, challenging game...but I've never thought that one of its challenges included "accepting" the possibility of death. People *should* understand going in that this is an inherent part of the game being played.

      Ah, well. Different strokes for different folks, I guess.

    3. Ahh, see... I thought it was a *roleplaying* game. At least, that's how I choose to play it.

    4. Perhaps I ought to unpack a little more.

      In my opinion, raise dead spells are completely antithetical to the nature of the game. If such a thing were to exist, it should be a universe-shifting event, brought about by the gods maybe once in an aeon, as part of an epic backstory. It should not be a bog-standard spell which, when a spellcaster reaches a certain level, becomes a standard part of their armoury, and for those who don't have such a spellcaster: well just buy one.

      I can kinda see why the spell is in the rules as it is, essentially, I imagine, in response to hissy fits from immature players who are unwilling to accept that the however-many-months/years they have spent building this character up has ended in an instant.

      I don't expect my roleplaying games to mirror real life and, sure, in D&D there is a lot of death and it's violent, unrealistic, comedic, all kinds of wrong. But one lesson from real life which I thing should be part of the game is that death comes to us all in the end, and when it does then you can cry about it but you can't change it. The fact that "IRL" I work as a Death Doula probably has some bearing upon this, and I think its a reality which is largely avoided and skirted around in modern Western society.

      Death is part of a cycle, for life to exist then death must too. If you fuck with the cycle... well. The whole of existence may just come tumbling in on you.

      As stated in the post, this was the 20th death in, I think, around 18 months of play. This is not a "babes in the wood" campaign. But, you know, roleplaying. Different PCs have different ideas about death. And, yes, some of them may be a little naive. Particularly those with low wisdom. That's what I mean by "leaning into inherent weaknesses". Some people play every character the same way: as a machine for killing monsters, accruing treasure, and getting up through the levels as quickly as possible. And that's a valid style of gaming. But it's not one that's for me.

    5. There is no raise the dead. That's the point of death being for keeps!

      It's pretty much the opposite of a babes-in-the-wood campaign. When you're dead you're dead. So it really matters that you don't die.

    6. Ah. That makes more sense then.

    7. @dansumption:

      I hear what you’re saying.

      Just to be clear, THESE DAYS I approach D&D in a different fashion from other RPGs (in which “playing a role” may be a more paramount priority). I have reasons for my change in attitude.

      You don’t play that way; that’s fine.

      RE Raise Dead

      I think you’re a bit off-base with your take. Hard to call a mechanic “antithetical” to the game when it’s been a part of the system since the beginning. I think it’s justifiable to say playing withOUT raising is more antithetical to the game as designed.

      Raise dead is not a spell to be taken lightly; it has a number of inherent restrictions (more so in 1E, my preferred edition) not the least of which is its inaccessibility outside of high level clerics. Finding a way to bring back a trusted companion or henchman can be an adventure in and of itself. A 5th level character is probably the earliest I’d consider attempting to raise someone unless they had a particularly unique skill set (say, psionic ability or 18/00 strength).

      From a “role-playing” perspective, there’s powerful magic involved, time limits to be observed, and costs to be born. In AD&D raising is never guaranteed (one must pass a resurrection check) and in all cases there is a diminishment in ability (reduction of CON) in addition to permanent scarring. Metaphysically raise dead considers the nature of the soul/spirit as certain species are restricted from being raised (including elves)…although, if your campaign sees magic as black box science this might be a simple matter of physiological restriction.

      Anyway. My apologies for my implied accusations of a “soft” campaign…I was really struggling to express my bewilderment in a non-pejorative way, and I failed (or allowed my outrage to get the better of me…or both).

      Yes, your experience as a death doula probably gives you a different perspective. I was unaware there was such a thing, though that’s pretty awesome…quite sensible given our current disconnection / repulsion with thoughts of our own mortality.

      Good luck with your new PC.
      : )

  3. I love the idea of the player as Eternal Champion!

    Trying to piece together what kind of champion my coterie of comedy characters make...

  4. "D&D PCs are really something akin to a Moorcockian Eternal Champion - just another iteration of the person for whom they stand in as an avatar."

    That's a neat observation.

  5. I'm pretty much the same way with allowing/encouraging resurrections and for a lot of the same reasons. Generally it's been wish's or special quests if anything (and only if the party wants to make a special effort). Though I do go to -10 on hp.

    1. Apart from anything else I think it makes magic just that little bit too instrumental - although I do already allow PCs to purchase quite a lot of magical services.

  6. The longest campaign I ever was in as a player was a 3e game which went on for about five years. I went through 10 characters, a little more than the average player. For me, since I liked the crunch of 3e, the sheer (overwhelming) number of PC options helped soothe the pain of dying... whenever one PC died, it was sad, but there was always some other insane new build to try out!

  7. Do you have all PCs start at 1st level and adventure alongside higher level PCs?