Sunday, April 14, 2019

Player Expectations of Character Death and Disability

Just finished another session of my West Marches game. It was fun. We had a new player who has played a few RPGs before but never D&D. He rolled up a Human Fighter with 18 Strength and a halberd and off we went.

In the previous session, the party found a dungeon under a ruined temple, and explored part of it. They went back there. Last time, they had the 5th level Thief and Magic-User veterans, plus four brand-spanking new 1st level characters: Half-Elf Druid, Halfling Ranger, Human Fighter, and Dragonborn Cleric.

[Yes, I have house ruled Basic D&D to have race and class instead of race-as-class. And Dragonborn and Changelings (like Tieflings, but could be Infernal, Celestial or Fey ancestry) both because my son really likes Dragonborn and to make conversion easier since there were 3 Tieflings in the 5E version of West Marches. With race-and-class and race-as-class, I'm constantly a pendulum, liking one or other the other. Right now I'm on race-and-class, but starting to feel (again) that dedicated classes for demi-humans are better...]

The mother/daughter playing the Fighter and Cleric decided not to come anymore, but we had our new guy with a Fighter. But, this time, the Fairy Princess (Changeling Magic-User) player didn't come. And the dungeon they were in is really challenging. It's not designed for a 1st level party unless they are VERY clever. 2nd to 4th would be a better fit. But the treasures are right for that level range so...

Long story short, a wight killed the new Fighter in one hit, and the next round level drained the 5th level Thief down to a 4th level thief before they managed to kill it. The Fighter player was OK with that, actually. Like I say, he's played a few other RPGs before, and he'd just rolled the character up and wasn't attached. He rolled up another Fighter (with only 14 Str) and got back in the game.

Our Gnome Thief player (a really good friend outside of the game) had gotten up to 5th level in 5E before the conversion. And seeing all that XP drained, and taking the hit to HP, thief skills, and chances to hit was a shock to him. He got over it fairly quickly though, and after the session he was joking around about it. Not happy, of course, but able to take it in stride.

The player of the Druid, though, had this look on his face of controlling his anger during this encounter. He didn't say anything, but I could tell he was pissed that I'd throw something as dangerous as a wight into a low level dungeon. And later, in a room with a dozen skeletons, his druid died in the melee. I think he was probably considering if he should stay or quit the game. It took him a while before he accepted a new character sheet and started rolling a new PC.

I did say that he could have the XP earned from this adventure. It seemed only fair to me, as before his Druid died, he was having some good rolls and figuring out some of the puzzles and traps for the party. He accepted that, and in the end rolled up a new PC, but since we were near the end of our play time he didn't finish before we wrapped up the session.

He said he'll be on vacation during our next session, but will come back in May.

So, player expectations. The Druid player is used to playing 5E and Pathfinder. He's used to "tough but fair" encounter/adventure design. He's used to characters with lots of bells and whistles that help them manage encounters. And he doesn't have that now. Like I say, he's playing well and smartly. He just got unlucky (large room with skeletons laid out in a pattern on the floor, trying to go to the next room without the proper McGuffin animates them, so the skeletons could attack the whole party).

The Thief player has, like I mentioned, been playing since I was using 5E. His previous character was zapped away to imprisonment by the Deck of Many Things (and could still be rescued). Energy drain with no save was a bit of a shock to him though. In 5E, it's a temporary setback (3E/PF as well, and I don't remember if it was even a thing in 4E).

I'm thinking I should have been a bit more up front about what it would mean to switch to old school D&D with the players. I'm sure I mentioned that it's deadlier, but probably didn't impress just how deadly it can be. Death at 0hp. Lots of save or die effects, including most poisons. Ruthless energy drain rules.

Of course, the players need to pony up some responsibility as well. They could have run from the wight after the Fighter was drained. They could have mentioned taking defensive positions in the skeleton room (bothering the remains was also a trigger to animating them, but they could have done that with the squishy PCs out in the hall). Part of it was just bad luck. They didn't have a Cleric to Turn the undead, and the skeletons and the wight had initiative on the party in the first round both times. But the losses could have been better mitigated by clever play.

Well, everyone still seems keen to play, despite the setbacks. And if they do keep with it, the treasure they could collect will make it worth their while. We may find out in two weeks or so.


  1. I will be interested in reading how this turns out.

  2. If you just gimp everything in the hope to make them happy, you're robbing everyone.

    I hindsight, a 1 page handout mentioning some of those noteable changes may have been nice. But really the basic; "PC's are more vulnerable & the consequences more immediate & harsh. I'll make rolls & explain mechanics in the open so you can simulate how hard a time of it your PC's are having" covers it.

    They had some warning from the Fighters death but if they also... were able to differentiate the Wight as a new thing visually; had the chance to learn about it prior somehow; had some sort of "countdown" ala Dungeonnworld- even a creepy/sucking/chilling/torch dying etc etc as it enters the room... Any of that may make it more palatable & atmospheric.

    But stick to your guns. Level drain creeps the players out like almost nothing else. Always has. Gets a reaction even among "old school" players who I recruited with the OSR primer the first time you throw it (Phase Spiders in this case, or Ghost Spiders as I skinned them).

    It's memorable. In a few months, if that's an anecdote or part of XYZ the thiefs story- then job done dude.

  3. Undead are incredibly powerful without a cleric but manageable with a cleric. That’s one of the strongest parts of the cleric class.

    Remind them before the next couple of encounters that they are allowed to talk or run before fighting. Like, “would you like to talk to it, run away, or what?”

    Remind them about fire and about dropping food/treasure. Suggest simple tools for dungeoneering like spikes and hammer, crowbar, pole, lots of oil. Suggest dogs and henchmen.

    Lots of ways for common folk to battle evil without coming close enough to be smeared on the wall.

  4. @Jeremy - Me too! I think it's going to be fine, actually. Everyone was cool in our after session chit-chat.

    @Reason & @Scott - I did try to telegraph it. I described the wight as looking like an elven version of Sadako from The Ring. And they did try talking to her. But when they said the name of the long-dead elf-king whose second favorite courtesan she used to be (the favored courtesan has her own private tomb in the complex), I rolled a reaction roll and got hostile. So she attacked.

    Also, the Thief's player had run into wights and a vampire spawn under 5E rules where energy drain is laughably weak.
    (Link to that story: )

    I should have been a bit more forthcoming about Classic D&D energy drain. I did try to telegraph to the party that this wasn't just a zombie. I probably should have done a bit more. But oh well, what's done is done.