Dealing with death

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As a young up-and-coming DM (i.e. a noob), I've been trying to get to grips with all the open-ended questions that 4E raises - in this case, how to deal with character death. I've trawled the internet for information, but I can find surprisingly little (that was any use), and I'd like some first-hand advice on the rules more experienced DMs have implemented in their games, or the rules that players have had to deal with.

I know that traditionally death is final, and I can see how this would motivate the players to treat their characters with respect, but I can see two major problems with that approach - the first is that it is demoralising for the players to lose a character which they've so diligently nurtured, and the second is that if one player has to create a new character, surely the game then turns in to a babysitting simulator for eveyone who didn't get themselves killed? Unless they're allowed to create a new character of the same level, but then there was never any point in investing any emotion or time in their first character.

On the other hand, I can see how allowing players to be revived, or to respawn after the encounter, might eliminate the fear of death. I did think about taking all the character's earned hit points towards their next level, but I don't want to run a tabletop version of Fable :/ If anyone does this sort of thing I'd like to know how careful their players are with their characters - in video games death is very undesirable even though revival is guaranteed, but I don't know how well that mechanic translates to D&D.

One thing I don't want to do is run a game where the question of dying will never be an issue - I won't mollycoddle my players, or make the world an easy place for them. I want death to be a genuine possibility, and something severely undesirable.
Death only matters if the players are attached to their characters*. If your players all have PCs they enjoy playing, with a rich connection to the game world, and a decent story, then they won't want their PC to die. So create stories that the players enjoy and they will try to keep their PC alive. 

One way to do that is to give the PCs intangible rewards. Rather than giving a magic sword, give someone a land deed or noble title. That way if the PC dies they will lose something that can't be purchased again with starting gold.



* You can create house rules to punish PCs who die, like having to start again at level 1 when everybody is level 11, but none of those house rules are good options and will all ruin the fun of the game. Having a party of mixed level PCs isn't much fun for anybody, and causes problems with the game math.

Co-author on AoA 2-3 and 4-1.

Most groups let you make a new PC at the same level as your old one. Harsher old school groups make you take a penalty of 1 or 2 to your level.

In my games I just ask a PC if they are dead or unconscious/incapacitated. If they want to die, there it is. If they don't think that death suits their PC's story he got knocked out/incapacitated.   There are worse things than death, and if killing a PC is the only way you know to challenge them, then you need a lot more practice. Killing PCs is easy, challenging them without killing them is what makes for a memorable game. 

Alternatives to death - Captured, left for dead, Thrown overboard and washed up on shore (for pirate games), left defeated and without honor (for the noble warrior), defaced/defiled.

Alternatives that mean the PCs lose without death - Guy you are protecting is killed, protectee is captured, villain escapes, villain does that thing you are trying to stop him from doing.   

They get pretty specific outside that but you should be able to find tons of stuff to do with someone who says "nah my PC didn't die from kobold 14, if he dies it will be by the dark lord himself". 

"In a way, you are worse than Krusk"                               " As usual, Krusk comments with assuredness, but lacks the clarity and awareness of what he's talking about"

"Can't say enough how much I agree with Krusk"        "Wow, thank you very much"

"Your advice is the worst"                                                  "I'd recommend no one listed to Krusk's opinions about what games to play"

> I can see how this would motivate the players
> to treat their characters with respect,

This may or may not be the case.

For many players, no-recourse death, especially if it happens easily or arbitrarily, results in the characters being treated as the disposable gaming pieces that they are (and as the game used to explicitly regard them).
> I can see how this would motivate the players > to treat their characters with respect, This may or may not be the case. For many players, no-recourse death, especially if it happens easily or arbitrarily, results in the characters being treated as the disposable gaming pieces that they are (and as the game used to explicitly regard them).



This.

Anyway, yeah, any good DM will have the new PC come in at the same level of the rest of the party.

What I have done is to make death very, very rare; I feel it should be an event, filled with drama and emotion, not just 'whoops, Bob lost another character'.  So, in my game, PCs die in precisely two ways:
1. Being reduced to negative-bloodied HP (which has yet to happen), or
2. The player consults with me before a game so his character can die in an appropriate heroic fashion, sacrificing himself for others or something else important.

A few other rules/adjustments that came along with this:
A PC at zero HP or below is simply 'down'; they are still conscious, but can take no actions (-- a couple of players were bugged by the Warlord healing working when you can't hear him, this fixed that).  He can still be healed normally by all appropriate methods.

A PC who has failed three 'death saves' is 'out'; he cannot be healed with in-combat techniques and is out cold until the short rest post-battle.

This has multiple benefits, the big one being that the players know that they will, most likely, be playing these characters for the long haul and will have reason to invest in them and their stories.  Secondly, it makes it far easier to defeat the PCs, even all of them, without killing, which means they can perform their Heroic Comeback.  A big part of being a hero is how you deal with defeat; it's hard to overcome a defeat if the only way to be defeated is to die.
Another day, another three or four entries to my Ignore List.

I'm not sure how well my players will cope with being killed (should that ever happen) - they're all massive gaming fans, used to re-spawning whenever they mess up. They'll have to learn to fear death :D



I agree with basically everything that's been said here - my main concern now is making sure I can balance the encounters enough to make death possible, relatively improbable, and seemingly imminent... I guess that part takes practice.

Amusing, mainly because in one of our games, during the last two sessions and before, all of us players have lost our characters.  Me and my friend just lost ours in our last game; he killed me in a fit of rage.  We were in the Shadowfell using the Shadowfell emotion cards, it was awesome.  Depressing but death happens.

In our games if a character dies the player can make a new character at the same level.  We actually rarely revive characters outside of class/item/power abilities.  Plus generally when one of us dies its usually in a way that prevents even pieces being collected for say the resurrection ritual.  Like my character last game, my friend in his rage, attacked me with his magical hammer that when it kills something that creature is permanently dead, erased, finito.  And he killed me, not just dropped to 0 HP, but killed me.  So even if I wanted to be resurrected I couldn't.  But it was okay, I brought it upon myself.

Honestly OP, I wouldn't worry about death.  If it happens it happens.  Don't coddle the players really but at the same time don't be too harsh.  There have been times in our group where a death has occured by pure random chance and the DM allowed it to slide, or let us get a piece to resurrect and such.  At the same time sometimes players have done stupid things and death has resulted, thems the breaks.  So just go along with the game and play.  Don't try to kill your characters but at the same time don't treat all their adventures and situations like a room lined in feather pillows where they can't be harmed.  But I will say depending on circumstances, if a character dies let the player have a new character at the same level, just easier.

And in terms of the players trivializing their characters...well yeah it just depends on the players.  If all they see when they play are a bunch of numbers then it really doesn't matter anyways.  But if they make their characters, develop a story and personality, then they'll care about them.  As such they probably wont purposely put themselves into situations resulting in death.  And if they die, they die.  It sucks but life goes on.     
Death is rare once you get beyond 5th level.
Most monsters don't attack downed targets--they work on the conscious ones still threatening. Every once in a while there is a monster that doesn't let up, or that deliberately tries to kill the helpless, but those are rare.
There was one fight where my lvl8 warlock was down to 8HP, and got critted by an attack that gave ongoing damage that would have been enough to neg-bloody him on his turn, but someone had a healing potion on standby.
And I learned to keep better track of my HP.

Death still does occur, but not that often.

Now, in the old StarWars game (WEG, not WotC), death was a constant threat. On player threw a grenade down a hole, botched, and dropped it at his feat. He then botched his roll to resist damage, but did really well with the Grenade's damage dice. There is a statue to the brave Defel that gave his life to exterminating vermin.

I'm not sure how well my players will cope with being killed (should that ever happen) - they're all massive gaming fans, used to re-spawning whenever they mess up. They'll have to learn to fear death :D



I agree with basically everything that's been said here - my main concern now is making sure I can balance the encounters enough to make death possible, relatively improbable, and seemingly imminent... I guess that part takes practice.




Exactly.  Just because they're use to just respawning doesn't mean you coddle them.  In this game death happens.  You die in battle, you die out of battle, you die due to stupidity, but in the end you die.  In terms of balancing encounters, don't worry, it almost sounds like you're making it too complicated for yourself.  Use the DM Guide to make encounters based on the party's level and so on and so forth.  You're set.

What you'll need to do is just keep an eye on the battle.  If the team is doing poorly and say a group of four are fighting six monsters and they've only dropped two but three of the four players are real low, close to dropping.  Then either you made the battle too hard or the players might have just hit a bad streak of rolls, whatever.  If those monsters start dropping the players then you need to pull back some unless you want the players to struggle.

You just need to pay attention to the flow of the battle and decide whether you want to step in or not.  You'll get the hang of it.  I'm a poor DM and even I figured it out after a few battles in the game I DMed. =)   
I actually brought this up with my PC's in our first campaign and they thought it would more fun to have to start from level 1. If you are able to roll up a new character of the same level you can just re-equip all of yor old gear and then pretend like you never died in the first place. That kind of defeats the purpose of dieing.


Of course that causes xp balance issues, should the level 1 survive combat. But really it mostly means that the new character will just level up much faster but at far greater risk to his/her life.  
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