Friday, February 20, 2009

Bad GM Advice: Player Death

4th Edition fixes the revolving door of death. Where previously you'd have characters going up and down like elevators, and getting more use out of spells like resurrection than they would from their fireball, the new rules make death far less likely without in any way removing its spectre.

Characters in 4th Edition who are knocked to zero hit points wind up on "death's door". They are unconcious, and each turn on their action they can roll 1d20. On a 10 or less they slip closer to death; three such failed rolls, and they die. On the other hand, on a 20 they wake up and get back in the fight with the benefit of a healing surge. In the event that a player continues taking damage after going unconcious, they'll die when they hit their bloodied value in negative hit points.

This is a great system. It takes players on average six rounds to completely die, which is longer than your typical combat. Unconcious players have something meaningful to do on their turn with the possible reward of revival for a good roll. Healers have plenty of time to get their friends back on their feet. Really, a player should only ever die if the entire party wipes together, and in that scenario DMs have plenty of opportunity to have them all saved or thrown in prison instead, if that's your play style.

It's great because not playing isn't fun. If we wanted to not play, we could not buy the rulebooks and not turn up to sessions of the game. The difference between unconsciousness and sitting at home with a good book is a question only of degree.

The occasional couple of missed rounds interject some genuine threat into combat encounters but beyond that players are just being punished for playing heroic fantasy as though it were heroic fantasy. There are plenty of exciting games about never taking chances and only attacking when you have an overwhelming chance of success, but they are not Dungeons & Dragons.

So I found this on the ENWorld forums today:
"Well maybe I take game too seriously in this case, but I personally penalize death a lot. This means most of the time that the player will have to wait until the end of the *adventure* before re-joining the group and usually arrives with a character which is at least one level lower than the lowest level character in the party (I reward experience individually).While the dead waits for playing again, he can assist me as a DM in the adventure, interpreting NPCs or other situations."
Oh sweet Jeebers. This is wrong on so many levels. First of all, how did your player die? Did the monsters keep attacking him after he was unconscious, instead of taking down the players who were still dealing damage? "Monsters Who Are Also Self-Defeating Jerks" is one of the lesser acknowledged dangers of dungeoneering.

Secondly, why are you punishing him for death? Are you saying he didn't avoid death to the best of his ability? Watch out for next game, when he'll stay back at the tavern rather than going dungeoneering. Are you saying he displayed inadequate skill in combat? This probably means he's a less experienced player; killing his character and getting him to sit out a session is not a great way to encourage him back for more games. Or was the guy just being an unrepentant idiot? Rather than dumping him for a session you might be better off talking about the issue directly.

Next, you're making him sit out a session AND getting him to roll up a new character? If losing his character wasn't a punishment to him you've got bigger issues with this group than death-happy adventurers, and players skipping a session isn't going to help them any. The only reason a character should ever permanently die is if it makes good story; if that's not what's happening here, your first and most important duty as DM is to find a clever way to save him. If resurrection cheapens death for you then don't let him die in the first place.

And last, your guy's coming back lower than the lowest-levelled player? So the punishment for being too weak to survive a combat is... getting weaker? That's what's called a "vicious circle". And again, that's on top of skipping a session and losing your character.

If this DM's players are really enjoying this type of play in full awareness of the existence of other options, then more power to them, they should keep doing what they're doing. But for everyone else out there, if you're playing like this, do the world a favour and stop.


Anonymous said...

I kill all of my players. But then I give them the opportunity to "respawn" as a regular moran, like a gnome, for instance. Makes the game twice as fun.

PS - GURPS RULES!!!!!!!!!

Joshua said...

One of the rules changes I like about 4E is the death rules. To me, it makes dying tenser and less just a bad luck roll.

In previous versions, once you hit negative HP you take one point of damage per round until you stabilized, and you died at -10. To me, this usually meant one of two things happened:

1. You died because of one bad luck roll(say that you were at the perilous stage of having only a couple of HP, and then one hit took you from being functional and fighting to pushing up daisies).

2. You entered unconsciousness at the low negatives, which meant that you had 7-8 rounds before you died. Players usually went out for a smoke and waited for the rest of the group to finish off the fight and then come back to healing them.

In 4E, you're less likely to die just because of an unlucky chain of events(one hit that takes you to low positive numbers, and a second hit that takes you past -10) due to the death threshold increasing with your level. For example, my 5th level Dwarven Paladin has to reach negative THIRTY before dying.

However, it's still possible to die within just a few rounds, so it's still a tense situation and will cause the party to rush to your aid.

Oscar said...

In my old 3.5 games I would use the 2nd edition rules for death I think they were, which meant they lost a level from their character when they were raised. Due to this, if a player opted to roll up a new character instead, I'd have him start this new character one level lower than the one that died for balance issues.

In 4th edition I've achieved two TPK's, both in encounters which really shouldn't have caused one, and both when the party kept saying they were gonna make a tactical retreat and then no one in the party actually doing so. Irontooth was one of those two, and was caused by the pregenerated and supplied cleric for the module (being played as an NPC by the party for that magical fifth character and the essential leader role) not being able to do anything productive at all. +3 to attacks? Not to mention a gimp on his encounter power from an At Will from another class. Where's the blog on this guy? Anyone playing this before buying the books and being conned into playing the cleric will think that 4th edition clerics are even more boring than 3.5 clerics, which is so radically not the case.

Anyways, to the heart of the comment, I wanted to mention that there have been several times in my 4th edition games where a few people in an encounter died without everyone in the party doing so. The party's first cleric got pushed off a cliff by an arrow shot by an orc, I think. He failed his "grab the edge" save. In the other two instances of character death, it has been due to the front line dropping and the ranged characters not being able to finish the encounter in time to save them. In the heat of combat it's hard to "throw a heal" to a character who has fallen on the other side of the battlefield. Maybe it's just the fourth edition rules giving a false sense of security about how much time characters have to save their comrades, or maybe it's just my group's play style, but death is still a very real part of DnD, and I think 4th edition did a great job with the rules for dying and the penalties incurred for such an instance. I think they did an awful job explaining why the rituals for raising the dead start to cost more and more as you go up tiers of play.

Warren said...

I'm just catching up on your blog now. Great posts overall.

I think the death rules are something that needs to be discussed with your players prior to the campaign. Personally as a DM I like death to mean something. 4E provides a million ways to reverse it, which I'm not a big fan of. However if that's the way all of the players want to go, that's fine with me.

I don't like players wait around however, so I usually advise they have a character handy to replace their previous character (1 level lower). If the players want to bring their buddy back, I'll usually attach some sort of quest to it, so they really have to like their buddy. In the meantime the player who's character has died can have fun playing a temp PC/NPC that helps them out.

What I do like about 4E death is how the healing surge/bloody mechanic is built in to the negative HPs it takes for a character to finally die. I can only imagine running an epic level campaign, when a character is at 20HPs or so, they are basically 1 shot away from instant death, that's lame.

GregT said...

@Anonymous - We use GURPS as a swear word. As in, "Gurps, I rolled a 1!" or "Gurps, I accidentally cut off my thumb with a butter knife!"

Sometimes also, "Yeah, your *mother* Gurps!"

Raymond said...

I found in a D&D campaign I was in that no character ever DIED, but equally we did get knocked down a hell of a lot.

Probably the most memorable one was when my character, the Warlord Figgs, was incapacitated by an animated suit of armour flanking him. He is passed a last-minute heal by the cleric while on death's door, and stands up. He swings at the monster who killed him, and crits for stupid damage (3d12+68 at level 10) thanks to some unbalanced homebrew magic items the DM hadn't fully thought through. He then gets AoO'd due to some combination of interrupts and auras I forget the exact details of, and goes down again.

The idea of him pulling himself to his feet, smashing one enemy only to once again be laid low was very cinematic and quite awesome.

I don't hugely see the fun in games where sessions can be "oh well you didn't roll high enough, see you next week." I'm a bit worried that a sci-fi campaign I'm planning may end up like this, but I've got round it by allowing re-rolling at the end of the session, and for the remainder of the session the player steps into the shoes of an NPC and can carry on, just with reduced stats.

I still have unpleasant memories of a session I DM'd where one player says "I taunt the last surviving enemy mech." Obviously, this enraged enemy opens fire with every weapon, scoring over a hundred hits from missiles and miniguns. We begin working out damage distribution, and it looks like even if every shot hits the player's armour is so thick he'll lose perhaps a turret or limb but carry on.

Then he critically fails his dodge roll and takes about twenty critical hits. One of which is the confirmed crit "save or die" result. We roll openly, and he rolls a 1, being atomised.

Cue endless bitching from all the players about how "monsters shouldn't focus fire on players, nothing should be able to fire that many weapons, you should have ignored that critical hit, you're a terrible vindictive DM"

I pointed out that this wasn't a MONSTER, it was supposed to be a terrified rookie in a powerful mech with orders to fight to the last bullet who'd just seen the target he destroyed annihilate his five comrades in one shot, so surely holding down the trigger was reasonable behaviour.

But debating whether human enemies should actually act like people or monsters is another kettle of fish entirely.

Qfenestrate said...

After the first few dozen adventures I played in 4e with a variety of GM's I've found the lack of death more a problem than the yo-yo death of 3.e or the hard luck roll of 2nd, or even of the TPK deaths of basic and 1st. Death creates tension, in a good game system tension should be valued and controlled but not disallowed. Yes I realize that D&D players value crunchy sheet using but in independent systems like don't rest your head, death happens on a regular basis, expected in paranoia, but because it is focused more on storytelling, players normally don't care about rerolling a character if they die because they want to hear what happens to the story, and their death has meaning. Far too often D&D death lacks meaning in the greater story which is why dying is tangential to punishment. But at the same time the lack of the tension from death decreases the climactic outcome of a story thread. Overdoing death is as bad as under-utilizing death. With the first you turn it into an adult miniatures game, and the second because it also lacks the necessary values of storytelling, it becomes a child version of miniatures.

As a Gm and a player you should not be afraid of death. But you should not use it as punishment or pushing someone out of a game. It should only contextually be used as a storytelling device.

Jared Anderson said...

Haven't tried 4e yet, (currently dm'ng 3.75) but interesting article. Keep up the good work!