Role-Playing Games have all sorts of incredible moments while in character. One of my most memorable moments was in a play-by-post game on Discord, right after I had killed my first Player Character.
Who lives, who dies, who tells your story
There was a huge fight against a stone soldier, the Soldier of Cartix. He was made from thousands of people who had been turned to stone by Basilisks, fused together with a lava forge, and brought to life by necromancy. It was metal as hell. He laid waste to a small town, and the party was held up in a church to defend themselves. He attacked and they fought valiantly. Unfortunately, one player was stomped on and the minions of the Soldier finished him off. Couple that with a natural 1 on his death save and you have a dead character. Honestly, it was truly brutal. I had never felt so terrible as a DM. I felt like I had failed the player, the party, and the narrative of the game.
But the players fucking loved it.
They had a funeral, the forge cleric created a statue for him, and there was talk of revenge and avenging alike. The player’s new character had a lot to live up to, and that was even more interesting to work with.
You see, when a character dies in Dungeons and Dragons, it can feel terrible. You put so much effort into their life and their story, and now they’re gone. This can lead you on a new journey or quest, whether to bring them back to life or to bring their body home. This creates incredible character growth and character development, and it builds the camaraderie of the remaining characters. The cleric went on to honor his fallen friend with a statue, and then designed parts of his armor with that character’s style.
In other situations, the death may not be as bad as you thought. Maybe it was time for the player to try something new, or the character sacrificed themselves for a good cause. These situations are often rare, however, and can still be just as heartbreaking.
There are situations, however, where a bad DM coupled with a few weak rolls can truly kill off a Player Character in the most upsetting way possible. I’ve had this happen to me, and it grinds all fun and momentum to a halt. The DM didn’t warn you in or out of game, you rolled badly to see it coming, and suddenly in one hit you’re dead. This is a big mistake and it’s important for DMs to try hard not to make it.
A few key things a DM can do to try and warn players ahead of time that something is way too difficult for them to fight is to have it easily kill something they know to be strong. If your players had trouble with an Owlbear just last week, have the Dragon tear one apart right in front of them. Then they’ll know to run, and not to try and fight it. Also be sure to make it clear that XP is gained from surviving, not from fighting and winning.
Total Party Kill
The total party kill is a famous term used in Role-Playing Games to describe when an entire party of adventurers all die. It. is. rough.
I myself almost had a TPK earlier in the week in my Curse of Strahd game. I’ll be spoiling a bit of that adventure here, so tread lightly!
In the Curse of Strahd adventure there is a windmill called Old Bonegrinder. (To all the DMs who just nodded in understanding, I salute you.) Old Bonegrinder has a a bit of a reputation among DMs who run the official D&D adventures. It has inside of it three Hags who are part of a coven. This means they’re all CR 7 each and can cast all sorts of incredibly powerful spells. But they look just like little old ladies
.—little old ladies who cook kids into meat pies. Old Bonegrinder is right off the path that most parties will go on around level 2 or 3, which makes all of this all the worse.
Anyhow, the party approached Old Bonegrinder in the mid afternoon, cautious and curious. I had hinted over and over that this place was to not be fucked with through several NPCs of great power and respect with the party. They got curious anyway, and decided to say hello to whatever was inside, and I told them upfront that I was not to be blamed for what happened next.
The monk, rogue, barbarian (and dog) started sneaking inside, while the bard helped the wizard onto an outcropping to look into the window. The rogue went upstairs and witnessed one of the Hags sweeping her floor of dust and bones. He was naturally disgusted and extremely excited to use his new Assassin abilities, so he shot her. He dealt 39 damage, and I informed him that she was not even bloodied. She responded
“Oh dearie, that was a big mistake,” and I asked them all to roll initiative.
The wizard Gimble said it best: “Guys, I think we fucked up.”
What followed was me being fair and brutal, using counterspells, lightning bolts, an eyebite, and hold person. I was honestly feeling nervous, worried the characters wouldn’t make it, but I was also super excited to be brutal after warning them of the danger.
They wanted a fight? Alright, let me show them a fight.
The initial lightning bolt knocked out the monk and rogue. It wounded the bard and barbarian brutally and almost disintegrated the dog, all in one attack.
But the bard and the wizard were clever, picking up on the sisterly conflict that I was subtly indicating. They combined their efforts to cast crown of madness on the head hag Morgantha, while also making her think her sisters were taunting her.
It worked out, due to some awful critical fails on Morgantha’s part, and the party escaped. But I think they’ve learned a lesson they should have learned a long time ago. Barovia is a very dangerous place, and I don’t fudge the dice.
(End of Spoilers)
Not to get too heavy here, but the conclusion I want you all to draw from this is the following. Death is immeasurably upsetting, and to have it hurt you when your characters die, or when you kill a character, is natural and normal. But do not let it stop your game, even if it feels like it was a mistake. Because the game will go on, and you won’t make that same mistake again.
That just shows me that you’re doing this game right by giving it the thought and care it deserves. Grieving a fictional character is, crazy enough, not that weird. Just look at Critical Role. Characters dying in the first season made for some of the most brutal and heartbreaking scenes. I won’t be specific to avoid spoilers, but fans will know exactly what moment I mean.
But not every mistake can be fixed, and that is a good thing to keep in mind. Just look on the bright side and make sure the players are alright with what’s going on. Don’t for a second be afraid to get transparent and warn them. Just a warning though—you wouldn’t wanna ruin the fun.
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