Wednesday, August 4, 2010

50 Ways To Die

Getting killed in a game should be fun.

Is that too radical a statement? Perhaps. Certainly it might seem a little…um…morbid.

But honestly, isn’t it part of the game? And by “the game” I am of course referring to The Great Game, aka Dungeons & Dragons, the fantasy RPG of choice for O So Many young (and not so young) folks.

Well, at least it used to be part of the game. Dying, that is. But apparently someone did a study or there was a bunch of complaints such that game designers came to the conclusion that “dying just ain’t all that fun.”

I mean, I ASSUME that’s what happened. Something like that, right?

To me, I’m afraid it smacks of the same annoying whine that causes professors to give out better grades than students deserve…it’s not EXACTLY the same thing but it’s akin to it. Basically people complaining that they can’t really take what they’re O So Ready to dish out. That as a DM, my sole responsibility is to entertain putting fish in a barrel and allowing them to shoot, rather than arming the fish with a fighting chance.

Ah, well. It's a different world with different “new fangled” attitudes, what can I say? People want to be heroic…and even Old School players that don’t want to be heroic (folks like my buddy, Kris) tell me:

JB, dying is no fun.

Well, dammit…it should be!

If you’re playing an Old School D&D game, dying is probably nigh inevitable, REGARDLESS OF HOW GOOD A PLAYER YOU ARE. I say that with all seriousness and in all honesty. You can take all the precautions you want, play as carefully as you want, exit the dungeon for “rest” as much as you want…but eventually your number will be up and you’ll be dead.

Sometimes it will be a blown save versus an auto-kill effect. Sometimes an opponent will luck out with an incredibly telling blow at just the wrong time. Sometimes your DM will simply make a mistake in setting an encounter that is too tough for the players. Or he’ll run your characters through some death S1: Tomb of Horrors.

In Old School D&D, death happens to every character eventually. That’s been my experience, anyway.

And really, it’s nothing to fear greatly. The game has built-in remedies for death in the form of Resurrection and Wish and Raise Dead spells…not to mention Neutralize Poison and Stone to Flesh for those “auto-kill” problems. Death is NOT supposed to be the end of the fun…it’s just one of the hazards of the game. And for those characters that are too low of level (and too weak or too poor) to make use of Raise Dead, need I mention that B/X D&D is a snap for rolling up new characters?

[one of these days I’m going to time myself to see how long it actually takes]

SO, all righty then…no need to fear death. It’s “fixable” at the mid-to-high levels and negligible at the low levels (now for folks playing with the Homes’s “7 sessions to level up” instead of the speedier B/X, I do sympathize for you, but you’re already a BADASS to play a game without Raise Dead, so I guess it really is “your funeral,” pal). To me, death’s simply a speed bump to one’s gaming life and certainly not the end of the world.

However, it CAN be tedious if done in a boring fashion. And tedious does NOT equal “fun.”

That’s why I strongly endorse poisoned characters writhing on the floor in agony for ten rounds while frothing at the mouth. I also heartily recommend deaths by traps, as they are often unexpected and thus interesting (I’ll need to post about this later). Furthermore, I’m honestly not convinced DMs use enough petrifaction in their games…bring out those medusas and basilisks!

Now combat, of course, is the real culprit for boring death. Oh, yeah, sure…you put all the responsibility for making combat “interesting” on the DM, don’t you? After all, in D&D (unlike some RPGs) it’s up to the poor, over-worked DM to interpret combat rolls and make things livelier than “you hit” or “you miss AGAIN.” It’s all on US to keep it from tedium.

But what about when the DM’s monster or NPC kills a player character?

Well, sure, that’s on the DM too, right? Except players have this funny little thing I’ve noticed when it comes to DMs describing their character’s death in combat…it has this tiny little problem of sometimes breeding a little resentment if “done wrong.”

After all, the player’s character has been reduced to 0 hit points and that’s “bad enough;” it means the player is going to have to take a penalty Time Out (to roll up a new character or wait for the Raise Dead spell). But graphically describing a PC’s death…even when it isn’t done in a gleeful fashion…can sound a little too much like GLOATING to your average player.

Shocking, right? Oh, please…it’s human nature for the DM to want to gloat a little bit regarding the demise of a PC. After all, the PCs have been spending the whole game session triumphing over every last monster they’ve encountered. Finally, the DM gets to score a little point of his own…and not on some “DM fiat-style” death trap like out of the Tomb of Horrors. No, this is a kill in COMBAT, baby. That’s beating the players at their own game…that’s hitting ‘em on their own turf!

But rather than risk the gripes of disgruntled players, DMs have this maddening tendency to TONE DOWN the descriptive narrative when a PC hits 0 hit points. To the detriment of everyone, in my opinion. Here’s kind of how it goes:

DM: Roll to hit!

Player 1: I get a 15!

DM (rolling damage): Your sword nicks off the ogre’s ear, he gives a blood curdling yell of rage; Joe your turn!

Player 2 (Joe): I roll a 7.

DM: Your character lunges under the ogre’s guard, but his blade is barely deflected at the last moment! The ogre brings his club down on your armored form (rolls) and hits! You take (rolls)…uh-oh. Ten points of damage.

Joe: Damn, I only had nine.

DM (sympathetically): Sorry, man. You’re killed. Okay, everyone else roll for initiative….

You see how lame that is? The DM can be worked up into a frothing lather every round of every combat, talking and jiving at a frenetic pace and then someone dies and it’s like, oh sorry about that, tough break man, I didn’t mean to hit you so hard (yeah, right…I was trying to hit you AS HARD AS POSSIBLE AND ON PURPOSE!), your character’s down to 0 hit points, everyone else roll for initiative.

DMs try to brush it off. Downplay it. Yes, some may feel bad. Some may give a wry chuckle, or make a low-key humorous remark. Some may gloat (secretly), but they certainly don’t sneer and say, “Take THAT, pal! In Your FACE!”

Which, of course, players do all the time.

The DM is supposed to be an impartial referee. The DM is also supposed to be the antagonist and opposition. The DM is supposed to practice non-attachment to the outcome. The DM is also supposed to challenge the players and put their characters in mortal danger.

I know it’s a balancing act…I’ve been doing it for years and I know it ain’t easy. But it should be. It should at least be easy to be NOT BORING.

Because that’s the real Cardinal Sin here. Yes, DMs: it IS bad form to gloat over a player death (DMs have all the power after all). On the other hand, if you bring a PC to zero hit points in combat, you can’t be so scared of hurting someone’s feelings that you tone down your descriptive prose. Deaths – ESPECIALLY deaths in combat!!! – should be AT LEAST as memorable as the guy who tripped over his 10’ pole, hurtling ass-over-teakettle onto a bunch of poison spikes. A death in combat…what the Norsemen would have called “a good death” …should be AT LEAST as interesting as Black Dougal frothing on the floor while his buddy Frederik goes through his earthly possessions.

Your players deserve better than, “oh yeah…and Joe got killed by an ogre.”

Since many players aren’t going to believe that your gory descriptions are anything other than gloating and showboating at their expense, I offer you this alternative:


Another one page, random chart in pdf format. It works like this: print it up, keep it close by (consider wedging it into the pages of your rule book next to your combat charts). Whenever one of your monsters or NPCs brings a PC to 0 hit points in combat, IMMEDIATELY roll a D% and read the description. Feel free to re-roll or adjust the description slightly to make it more appropriate to the weapons being used by the PCs opponent.

Unlike other fantasy RPGs (DragonQuest, Stormbringer, Warhammer FRP), D&D doesn’t have critical hits…characters are fine until they’re not. This table borrows a page for all those “other games” but the gory description it uses is ONLY for that final lucky (or unlucky depending on your perspective) attack.

Go get ‘em guys!
; )


  1. *Click*
    *Laugh again*

  2. It's a little bit story gamey, but I like the idea of letting the players narrate their characters' ends. They're a gruesome lot by nature, and they enjoy getting into the gory details of their own deaths.

    This will be a handy spur for their imaginations.

    1. This, I think, is a great idea. I've seen it spontaniously happen and it was great.

  3. Good post, JB. Although it was a bad link for me. I couldn't get the actual chart to come up. :(

  4. THANKS for this! I am a huge proponent of gruesome death descriptions for ALL, PCs and NPCs alike!