Sunday, October 6, 2019

Character death is becoming a feature of my game

Talking of my West Marches campaign, of course.

When I started it two and a half years ago, in 5E, there was early on an encounter with three 1st level PCs -- Thief and 2 Monks -- against ten or twelve skeletons. It was a near TPK. All of the PCs were down to 0hp. The skeletons moved on. Death saves ensued. Only one PC, the Thief, managed to survive.

I think there was one more character death early on before anyone reached 3rd level, but I don't remember exactly. There was a long span without many close calls even (but with two Clerics, a Paladin, a Bard, and occasionally a Druid in the party, they had lots of healing powers).

After most PCs had some levels, Dean's paladin (who was maybe 2nd level) was killed by will-o-wisps. The Deck of Many Things was employed in an effort to get a wish to revive him, and Ferret Jax was Imprisoned.

Jeremy's character in an online play session was charmed by dryads and never rescued. I think Brad's ranger may have also died facing sahuagin. 

So in nearly two years of 5E play, we lost three or four characters to death, and a couple more to mishaps.

Since I switched to Classic this past March, death has been a more frequent visitor.

Some new players were starting with low level PCs, and yes, deaths have been pretty common.

Nate lost both of his early characters in combat. Julian's Berserker tried a potion and it was poison - he failed his save. Someone else fell victim to the Deck of Many Things as well...maybe one of Justin's characters. There was the TPK a few sessions back (including Nate's 3rd character, the Muscle-Wizard).

Last night, in another online session, Jeremy's Fighter was killed by Dean's Fighter who was mind-controlled by an intellect devourer. And when he was released and Justin's Mage-Thief and Jeremy's backup Ranger were both hit by feeblemind but Dean's PC was freed, there was a pretty tense battle of low hit rolls and low damage results (Dean's Fighter is an archer with high Dex and low Str), lots of misses and whittling down hit points on both sides. Eventually Dean won and slew the second intellect devourer. So we avoided a second TPK.

While the game was fun in 5E, it was a lot less of a challenge for the players. These days, because death is a real possibility, I think the players are feeling like survival (with treasure) is a real victory. Especially when events like last night occur.


  1. There have to be stakes! It doesn’t always mean character death, but there have to be real consequences for messing up or else there’s not as much fun succeeding.

  2. Exactly. Too many people (myself at one time too) have a video game mentality where failure is just a temporary setback. Just reload to the last save point! And some game designers seem to cater to that.

    Any character that died in my West Marches game in the 5E days was 1st or 2nd level. Granted, it can happen to higher level characters. But with so many options for healing, death saves, formerly save-or-die effects being turned into temporary setbacks even without the use of high level magics, etc., it makes it rare.

    Now, players losing their characters, or the characters' hard-earned magic items, hirelings, etc. gives them a lot more investment in the game. The win conditions are clearer.