Can a DM Have Monsters Kill Fallen Characters Without Bringing Hurt Feelings?

In Dungeons & Dragons, the threat of death makes the game exciting, but actual death brings a character’s story to an end that usually feels sad and disappointing. Fifth-edition D&D copes with this conflict by making death virtually impossible for characters above level 4. Only new characters typically die. The game’s designers embrace this bent. To them, a new character represents a small enough time and emotional investment to feel disposable. But at higher levels, players feel indestructible, and this lack of risk can drain the game of excitement. (See How Character Death Lands D&D in a Tug-of-War Between Game and Story.)

D&D needs a better way to add peril without the problem of dead characters. In my last post, I suggested a solution to limit the problem of dead characters: Substitute character deaths for more interesting and less permanent setbacks. But while writing the post, I realized the proposal hardly applied to fifth edition because only new characters die. Once you solve for dead characters, the game needs a higher risk of death.

How can a DM increase the threat of death?

Obviously, we can add more and tougher monsters. Higher challenge monsters rarely hit with enough damage to threaten higher-level characters. Maxing out the monsters’ damage increases their menace to a level that makes fights interesting.

We can run monsters with more cunning. See 4 Simple Tactics that Make Cunning D&D Foes Seem More Dangerous, D&D Locations and Tactics that Encourage Dynamic Combat Scenes, and the book The Monsters Know What They’re Doing.

I support these approaches, because greater danger makes a more exciting game. But pressing threats too hard will create more total-party kills. D&D enthusiasts call them TPKs, and we don’t want them.

In fifth edition, fallen characters usually survive if anyone stands to revive them, so the rules make TPKs more common than individual deaths. To raise the threat of death without substantially more TPKs, fallen characters must suffer a higher risk of dying.

If I were king of D&D rather than a DM who shuns house rules, I would rule that damage that exceeds the Constitution score of a character at 0 hit points results in death. Does that seem harsh? If so, perhaps you should sit down for my next bit.

The existing D&D rules offer one way to make the game more lethal. Monsters can deal killing blows to fallen characters. Older editions called this the coup de grâce. This edition calls it attacking an unconscious foe within 5 feet, gaining advantage, counting any hit as a critical, and then inflicting two failed death saves. That’s a mouthful, but at least I can say it without anyone laughing at me for pronouncing the P in coup de grâce.

Monsters have good reasons for dealing finishing blows.

  • Monsters of average intelligence who see a fallen foe magically healed will want to prevent more revivals.

  • Brainy monsters who recognize healers will avoid leaving unconscious enemies.

  • Demons, gnolls, and other creatures fueled by blood and destruction will delight in murdering enemies.

  • Creatures with a hostility toward particular party members might focus on slaying them. For example, drow might finish elves.

Despite the logic of finishing blows, DMs never let monsters make them because the tactic feels harsh. Such attacks single out players in a way that seems personal. Besides, although we want a threat of death, we would rather keep characters alive.

But handled with finesse, the risk of a finishing blow might make the game feel more dangerous and urgent without hard feelings and without sending character sheets to the shredder.

To make finishing blows work, players must see the risk and understand that the menace comes from the monsters.

If smart monsters resolve to make finishing blows because of potential healing, make their decision obvious. So if a character falls and gets revived, have an evil leader shout an order to finish any other characters who drop. Or at the start of the fight, have a mastermind point out the party’s healer and order the other monsters to knife anyone who falls.

Demons, gnolls, and other creatures who exalt in blood lust will gain a reputation for rending fallen foes. Make sure that the player characters hear such tales before they face battle.

All these warnings let players adapt their strategies to higher threats.

In most D&D games, players treat fallen characters with little urgency. Three strikes usually take a string of bad luck and a several turns to accumulate. Players often choose to make an attack over spending a turn pouring a healing potion into an ally. They expect plenty of time for healing after the fight.

Sometimes, party healers aiming for efficiency will avoid mending characters until they drop. Curiously, these healers know the rule that allows all damage below 0 to heal for free. When the dread warlord orders his soldiers to finish fallen characters, such metagaming ends immediately.

Simply a threat of finishing blows makes D&D battles feel much more dangerous and urgent. Plus if players adapt by healing characters before they drop and by immediately healing fallen allies, the number of deaths remains close to zero.

D&D rules make finishing blows a bit less dangerous than they seem. Typically, one inflicts two failed death saves, and leaves the character hanging to life. Monsters will assume that the one blow finished the character and will move to another foe. Let your monsters overlook their chance to kill characters with failed death saves. Still, be prepared to swap a potential character death for a more interesting complication.

After writing this post, I still feel unsure of the answer to the question I posed in my title. Tell me. Can a DM have monsters kill fallen characters without bringing hurt feelings?

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21 Responses to Can a DM Have Monsters Kill Fallen Characters Without Bringing Hurt Feelings?

  1. Shane Devries says:

    I’m sorry David but EVERYTHING in life has risks and the end result of all life is death, even in RPG’s. A Good GM will take the life of a fallen character if it is obvious to all the character should be lost, simple as that. If the GM does not take that life of a fallen character when everyone knows he should then the whole game is a farce.

  2. In short, yes. It depends on the agreement between players and DM, of course, but theoretically – yes. I find your use of absolute statements distracting though: “ DMs never let monsters make them because the tactic feels harsh”, says you. But I do this. I am a DM. Thus, some DMs do this. My players understand this and thus they play differently to some other groups of players. When you say we don’t want TPKs, I question if that is true – perhaps you don’t, but I don’t mind if it happens nearly as much as others might. What I will say is that when I didn’t embrace these tactics, my world felt less visceral and more of an illusion. These approaches add verisimilitude to my own experience of gaming.

    • Ancient Sage says:

      Agreed

    • Scott Nagle says:

      It completely depends on the group, and it requires a level of trust that, in my opinion, is only there if the players have known each other for a long time.

      The players and GM all need to share the view that the game is about creating an epic story — and it may turn out that any particular character may be in a supporting role and exit the story before the conclusion.

      Most importantly, all must trust each other enough not to slip into the adversarial GM vs players mindset. If they slip into this, then the players are more likely to take a character death personally, especially if it is due to a GM decision to have a monster keep hitting an unconscious character rather than simply due to random dice rolls.

  3. Michael V. Drejer says:

    My group are level 13 now and there were two character deaths 2 weeks ago. The encounter was a mind flayer and a beholder, so it was brutal. The mind flayer ate the wizard’s brain with a whopping 75 points of damage (I usually use the average damage, but this was epic) and the beholder petrified the cleric and also used death ray on him, while he was waiting for his second saving throw against the petrification (which also failed, because it was awesome to roll even though the character had already died).
    I (the DM) talked with the two players, it was obviously emotional for all of us. Both felt the deaths were epic. The druid offered to cast Reincarnate but explained the consequences. The high elf wizard agreed to the spell, but only if he came back as a high elf again (the spell states that DM rolls and then the player decides). I rolled the d100 and looked on the Reincarnate table, it was a high elf.
    The dwarf cleric’s player asked for some time to think about what he wanted to do, which felt like a good time to end that night’s session. He decided that dying by being petrified and death ray’d by a beholder was as epic a death for a D&D character as it gets, so (even though I rolled the Reincarnate table again, because the rest of the party didn’t know the decision, and rolled the same dwarf race!!!) he created a new character, that was introduced last week and will be battle-tested tomorrow.
    Character deaths can and should be epic, but I like the idea of permanent injury as a option as well.

  4. Sevenbastard says:

    I have my smart monsters attack downed foes if they have seen others get up from healing magic. The first time it happened it killed a p.c., but it set the tone for a deadly game and everyone comes back each week because the victories are sweeter with risk.

    Area of effect spells also are a great way to trigger death saves.

    After 18 months of play 5 PC dead. And the game keep rolling. Death doesn’t derail the story despite only one orginal pc still alive.

  5. “Sometimes, party healers aiming for efficiency will avoid mending characters until they drop. Curiously, these healers know the rule that allows all damage below 0 to heal for free. When the dread warlord orders his soldiers to finish fallen characters, such metagaming ends immediately.”

    How is this sort of “metagaming” different from playing the monsters as though they know how the rules work?

    If it’s okay for the DM to have a werewolf take an action and strike a fallen foe, with the intent of ensuring their death, how is that any different from the player who goes, “You’ve got 21 hit points, you can last another round or two before I have to heal you?” With the werewolf, there’s the implication that the creature understands the death and dying rules; there’s also the fact that a character with 1hp is just as effective as one with 100hp.

    If we run our monsters that way, why should we not expect our players to play the same?

    Where do we draw the line between diegetic (in-universe) knowledge possessed by our NPCs and having the same expectations of our characters?

    • PK says:

      Oh, come on. The monsters know that someone on the ground who is still breathing is not dead, and that attacking them further will kill them. Even a goblin is capable of this, it’s the most basic level of both tactical and instinctual thought.

      Of course they understand how death works- that’s an in-universe “rule”. They don’t know the fine print of the dice rolls behind it, they just know that attacking people who are dying makes them die faster. This is a well known phenomenon even in the real world. If healing magic is also well known, then attacking the dying opponents becomes strongly justified. They don’t need to know how HP works to know that attacking dying things makes them die faster, either.

      • I take it you’ve spent much time fighting medieval-style battles?

        I don’t disagree with the point you’re making: clearly, some NPCs should know these things, just as some should not.

        What I’m questioning is the implication that it’s appropriate for NPCs to act upon certain knowledge of the game’s “in-universe rules” while it’s inappropriate for players to do the exact same thing.

        • PK says:

          Ok, let me be clearer. Attacking dying things makes things die faster. This is known.

          I’ll agree that not everything should be aware of how healing magic works to revive unconscious foes unless they are experienced in fighting groups with healers, or see it happen. If that’s what you’re questioning, I actually agree with you! But the general principle of attacking enemies who are dying to make them die faster should be well known to literally anyone who fights for a living, and almost everyone who doesn’t.

          If a monster wants to kill, it doesn’t need to know the rules to justify attacking unconscious foes.

          • It’s also known that injuring an opponent makes it harder for them to meaningfully threaten you. Yet the rules don’t reflect this reality.

            Should this affect the choices players make?

            I’m wondering if David’s comment about affecting players’ choices (because of metagaming) isn’t somehow misleading (unintentional, of course): if maybe it’s drawing attention away from a simpler solution.

  6. PK says:

    Yes. Tell your players it will be a lethal game where the enemies will go for deathblows if they have the opportunity to. Actually go through with it. From the beginning. If you don’t, they’ll think you were just setting a tone but weren’t going to go through with it, and the lethality will feel personal again. But if they opt in, if you’re honest about what’s going to happen, it *should* be fine.

    Ideally, also play a system with quicker chargen than 5E, or have the players make 4 characters up front.

  7. Jean-Francois says:

    We’ve been playing Lost Mine of Phandelver for almost a year now and the only time i used the killing blow rules was when the group fought hobgoblins. In my mind, the Hobgoblins are soldiers used to tactics and know that when advancing toward an enemy, you finish those on the ground because you dont want them coming back up behind you.

    It scared the players because it was the 1st time they saw this rule in effect but they also understood that some creature are more ruthless than others.

    Might also use that rule for feral beast that are happy to have a meal…

    Oh, and my group decided to not have any healers in the group. They do have a paladin with lay on hand and the Cure Wound spell but he’s not using it much and another character proficient in medecine…

  8. Dicebro says:

    Just tell them to use a new character because this one has assumed room temperature and isn’t a part of the game right now. No need to mention the D word.

  9. alphastream says:

    It’s all about telegraphing the strategy, as you mentioned. Some of the most epic moments in my 5E campaigns came when a foe announced that they would finish off an unconscious PC. Great heroics ensued. Similarly, there have been tragic moments when a PC was in a trap, unconscious, and no one could get to him in time. It was a sad round as player after player came up short, but it meant we had time to process it.

  10. Ilbranteloth says:

    The answer to your question, obviously, is yes…but.

    It depends on the expectations of the players. One of the reasons we allow the players to determine if their PC dies is specifically because it removes any question whatsoever if that player is OK with the character dying, or at least dying right now. Of course, we also talk about this outside of the game so as a DM I know what the group, and individual players, think.

    At the same time, I let them know what sort of game I run, that is, gritty, dark, and dangerous. So they know what to expect going in.

    But I’d also like to point out a very, very common misconception that it’s harder for a PC to die in 5e.

    In AD&D, when you were reduced to 0 hp you were unconscious. You could optionally be reduced to -3 hp with the blow that dropped you to 0 hp. After that, you lost 1 hp per round until you reached -10 and died. It could be stopped by any other character administering aid for a round. No checks needed, it was automatically successful. That’s 7-9 rounds for somebody to help you.

    You didn’t get death saves, that is, unless somebody provided help you WOULD die. There was no rule at all for finishing blows (which was added later as an instant kill).

    What does differ significantly are the consequences of your near death experience. And this is where I think 5e has made it much less of a thing. In AD&D, if you were reduced to 0 hp, then once you were restored to at least 1 hp with mundane OR MAGICAL means, you were in a coma for 10-60 minutes. Then you had to rest for a full week, minimum, other than to move slowly to a place of rest, east and sleep. You could not do anything else. A Heal spell was required to avoid this period of rest.

    That is, there was a significant consequence already built into the game for “dying” and we avoided it because it generally put the adventure on hold. Head back to town to rest and recover.

    In most cases, it also meant nobody was out of the game. The entire party went to town to rest and resupply, and of course you didn’t have to play that out. So it was a short, “we failed,” moment, requiring them to come back and continue. In most cases, you just continued from that point, but in many cases things could change, and even become more difficult after you failed the first time. So there were still lingering effects to the “death” after the fact.

    Now, the common internet advice is, “don’t waste your healing magic until somebody is reduced to 0 hp.”

    If this one rule was still in effect, then the risk of “death” is back, without having to kill any PCs. And it also has the effect of reducing the risk of actual character death because players try to make sure they aren’t reduced to 0 hp.

    The AD&D rules weren’t really deadlier in combat. Where they were more deadly were in save or die effects, particularly poison.

  11. Ben Butler-Cole says:

    It’s not just smart monsters that can deliver killing blows. The other week in a campaign’s finale battle, I ruled that the stirges that had put a character down would keep on sucking while there was still blood to suck. (I felt I was being generous in counting only one attack for all three of them, but with a failed roll it was enough.)

  12. Beoric says:

    It’s easier in a campaign with henchmen or other NPC party members. After a couple of times seeing berserk gnolls decide to stop fighting and start feasting on the bodies of an unconscious NPC, the players usually realize how life is.

  13. Abelhawk says:

    I make it so that whenever a character drops to 0 hit points, they gain a level of exhaustion. So no working the system and using unconsciousness as a tactic while healing. I also give dying characters one permanent death saving throw failure, so that they succumb to death more easily in the future, and if they get 3 permanent failures, they’re dead for good.

  14. Ajax Plunkett says:

    It WAS easier to die in AD&D. The wack-a-mole of 5th edition looks similar to the first whack into zero or negative hit points of 1st edition except the new game forgives and the dungeon/wilderness crawl continues. In the old game it’s the 2nd onward whack that kills. And don’t forget spells are lost. And even a cure light wounds spell can fail to bring a PC conscious because the negative ( hp ) numbers are real and need filled with positive hp’s.

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