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?