Editor’s note: This post contains a pretty hefty spoiler for Enter the Druid. We purposefully have ETD running several weeks behind the actual gaming group’s adventure, so the contents of this Verb-age will reveal a pretty big plot point for a future ETD. If you’re on the edge of your seat for that series, you may want to save this one for later… – Stanford
No one likes their character to die in D&D. But character death happens, and it is part of the game. Unless you spend longer making the character than he actually lives, most players have an attachment that means something. These feelings, memories, and experiences of being in a different world setting is why most people play D&D with friends. But from making characters to playing in the campaign, most well rounded campaigns will also include death. Not just of NPCs, but also character deaths.
Spoiler alert, my character Gregory Kellerman died in our current OSRIC campaign. Rather than go out and dissect how and why Greg died, point fingers, or otherwise complain, I will start by saying that it was unexpected and the real threat was something only Greg out of the party would have understood. In a battle, there was a higher level fighter that most of the guys were squaring off against and a plain-looking guy in robes. My fellow players confronted the obvious choice, the dude with two swords, to fight against while I attempted to sleep the other foe. It failed, and immediately I realized that we were up against a higher level magic user and probably wouldn’t survive if the party was solely focused on the fighter.
With that as the setting, it seemed pretty bleak from the outset. But one of the key rules as a player is the fight to stay alive. Not staying alive just to stay alive and spite the DM, but to continue to play your character and progress the story line wherever it may go, win-or-lose the fight. To some of the other players, Greg was the resident torch holder, back line watcher and would only occasionally put people to sleep. In all fairness, Greg probably had the most individual kills in the party by putting things to sleep. Oh, and my party members probably thought of Greg as some nerdy and pedantic scholar mostly to be ignored if not for his super outspoken nature. Still, his off-the-wall logic and views were different from my party for a reason. It made a sort of balance to contribute to the knowledge the rest of the party’s characters lacked.
So without spoiling the details, Greg dies at the hands of a fairly powerful mage to be facing off against as a level 2 character group. Greg knew the danger, made a calculated gamble, failed, and died because of it. But in doing so, he protected the party from possibly more damage at the hands of a strong enemy. He saw no way out of it without sacrificing someone else in the party, and that outcome was unacceptable in Greg’s mind, to lose one of the few people he would call friend.
Being an experienced D&D group, outside the game, I think everyone did a good job not letting our knowledge influence our characters’ decisions in game. That being said, we do not usually have character death in our campaigns. Most are not that long, or the peril none-too-great. But at that moment, the two more experienced players of D&D began to gripe and complain about Greg being gone. It struck me as odd. Death happens in D&D, it is part of the game, and it should be the reality of the characters at some level. So what did I do? As a dead player, I couldn’t do much beyond reassure everyone it was alright and be a good sport about it. Sure, I could have asked for GM leniency, but that does break the story in some ways. Greg died for his choices to spare the group from another character being dead. I doubt the other characters will know this happened, but the players behind those characters probably will know and remember Greg.
And so, the death of Greg is now part of the story. Our D&D story that we affect by our choices in the game. In that way, it is not only finality, but an inevitability and conclusion to that small branch of the story. It is an experience that should be embraced to some degree. This isn’t a video game after all. No save points or re-spawns to be had. D&D is more than combat and rolling to see an outcome. It is role playing. It is taking bits of life and building characters in the world the GM creates to weave complex stories. This is the experience I think we play D&D for, not just the satisfaction of being the most overpowered character with the most kills in a system that is, admittedly, poor as a combat simulator. Again, if you are looking for levels and loot and killing everything, then I suggest playing a modern video game RPG as it is a better combat system on-the-whole.
So what happens after death of a character for the player? Making a new character of course! Some people don’t like to do that, but it is something I enjoy doing. First, because I will generally only roll a straight 3d6 and take the stats in order. I did move one key stat for my next character to make it feasible, but I generally don’t like to roll 4d6-drop-the-lowest or point buying. Yes, you end up with better numerical characters for killing minions and rolling dice, but I think it skips part of the key aspects of D&D. The experience of being just another small footnote in the history of the world.
Second, it is a time to execute new ideas. I am not sure about most people who play, but I constantly have ideas for new characters that I think I would find enjoyment in playing. Perhaps because I use the 3d6 straight rolling method, and roll for initial health to make for an exceptionally brutal game, I typically have several fun ideas. From an under-powered melee fighter who used to be a farmer until an orc raid killed everyone he knew when he found out that he is fairly handy with a sword, to a prince who has forsaken his title as a show of resistance to his father that has been tyrannical. How about a barbarian in AD&D when it wasn’t really a thing, swinging an axe with light armor in the face of his well-armored enemies. Each sounds interesting to me to play.
Third, the expansion of the story, plot lines, and broadening of the world. Often when you make a new character, the GM, if it isn’t a pre-made and set world, will have to create new areas and opportunities for the players. It is an exciting thing, especially when the players do not know much about the world around them. Think of it as setting up new exploration, settings, and things to see, do, and kill. As with the real world, things are continually changing in most D&D campaigns.
But one word of warning: do not seek to make your character over-powered. Just like with people who play level 1 characters as if they are demi-gods, and they are most certainly not, it is an easy mistake to roll a character and attempt to make them overpowered. I feel that weakness adds character to the characters, world, interactions and story in which a GM has asked the players to think within. And to that end, an interesting point on GM leniency. If you do it, do not attempt to survive what is inevitable. Allowing character to make a last action, words and acts of defiance adds more depth to the complexity of dealing with a character who is about to die. In hindsight, I would have liked to ask for last words of having Greg wishing the party well before his death with a grim smile on his face. I would not have taken back any actions or really tried of lawyer him back in existence. The die was cast and the 97 on a saving throw with less than a 30% chance of success meant he was dead.
Greg is dead, but all is right with the world. I’m sure my new character will be entertaining to play!