Character death has always torn Dungeons & Dragons between game and story. The threat of death makes the game exciting, but actual death brings a character’s story to an unsatisfying end that can disrupt a campaign.
Without characters facing the potential of dying, the game lacks tension and stakes. Decisions lose consequences because however characters act, they emerge unharmed—stronger thanks to experience. At his crankiest, D&D co-creator Gary Gygax railed against players who wanted campaigns that never threatened characters. “How I detest namby-pamby whiners that expect to play a real RPG without threat of character death or loss of a level, stat points, or even choice magic items! Without such possibilities, what it the purpose of play, a race to see which character can have the greatest level, highest stats, and largest horde of treasure? That is just too flaccid for words.” (See The Game-Design Trends That Turned D&D Into a Game Gary Gygax Disliked.)
My favorite D&D sessions came in the D&D Open, tournaments where long odds made casualties almost inevitable. (See Why the Awesome Dungeons & Dragons Championship Should Return.) The peril adds a weight and urgency to play that made ordinary game sessions pale. In D&D campaigns, the threat of death makes the characters feel like heroes because they brave real risks that can end their imaginary lives.
But while the threat of character death adds excitement and vitality to D&D, actual character deaths usually sour the game.
In those tournament games, dying meant dropping from the session. One player’s fun ended. In campaign games, death proves much worse. We players invest time in our characters. Creating one takes a half hour or more of effort to build, and then to invent a history, personality, and so on. Playing a character to higher levels demands hundreds of hours. A dead character seems to waste that investment. (Funny how we simply stop playing characters without feeling the same loss.) We become emotionally attached to our characters. We imagine story arcs for them where they grow and change and reach a meaningful conclusion to their journey. Death stifles those plans. Losing a character hurts.
Character deaths can also hurt campaigns. Today’s roleplayers foster connections between characters in a party. Dungeon masters strive to link a campaign world and its conflicts to characters. A death cuts all those connections and stalls story threads without resolution. The group faces the problem of introducing a new character into play and possibly reviving broken plot threads.
Through the years, D&D’s designers coped with the problem of death by making characters harder to kill. Originally, in the Blackmoor campaign that led to D&D, a single hit killed a character. “It didn’t take too long for players to get attached to their characters,” D&D co-creator Dave Arneson said. He introduced hit points. (See The Tangled Origins of D&D’s Armor Class, Hit Points, and Twenty-Sided Die Rolls To-Hit.) In the 1974 D&D game, a character reduced to 0 hit points dropped dead, beyond healing. By the release of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (1979) characters fell unconscious at 0 hp, and only died at -10 hp.
Even in original D&D, spells like raise dead often made death into a brief setback rather than a permanent loss. In the Dungeon Master’s Guide, Gary wrote, “Death due to combat is no great matter in most cases, for the character can often be brought back by means of a clerical spell.”
Resurrection magic spares characters from dropping out of play, but to hold some stakes, death must keep enough sting to make it feared. The original raise dead forced characters into two weeks of rest. In busy campaigns like Gary’s, that sidelined a character and forced players to bring one from the bench. (See Dungeons & Dragons and the Dream of the Grand Campaign.) Still, a two week break rates as a trivial setback, especially when few campaigns keep a calendar. AD&D added a risk of failed resurrections and a limit to the number of resurrections. Third edition features the best version of raise dead: Revived characters lost a level. This consequence adds enough fear of death to lend tension to the game, while limiting the chance of removing a character from the game.
AD&D’s reincarnation spell rates as the worst example of resurrection magic. Players would have characters kill themselves until they reincarnated as an ogre mage. Clearly, those campaigns featured very little role playing.
Fifth edition suffers from D&D’s most namby-pamby version of raise dead. After a long weekend, resurrected characters shake all the effects of death. Further, most characters can afford resurrections without a loan. (See Dungeons & Dragons Stopped Giving XP for Gold, but the Insane Economy Remains.) This lack of risk can drain the game of excitement. No wonder the designers of the Tomb of Annihilation adventure felt a need to make death more threatening. The circumstances of the adventure temporarily blocked raising the dead and imposed a risk of permanent death. Gary would be proud.
While raise dead can benefit the game, resurrection magic must give D&D novelists fits. How do you place characters in peril when rules-savvy readers know how easy resurrection should be? I’m told most D&D writers just ignore such easy miracles in their tales. Who can blame them for looking away and whistling past the empty graveyard?
Fifth edition’s forgiving rules for character death make characters above 4th level just about impossible to kill. Because fallen characters usually survive if anyone stands to revive them, total party kills have become more common than individual deaths.
In modern D&D, only new characters typically die. The designers embrace this quirk. To them, a new character represents a small enough time and emotional investment to feel disposable. Still, new players typically play new characters, so the design risks distressing potential converts by dealing abrupt deaths. (See Sly Flourish on Building 1st Level Combat Encounters. Hint: Have a kindly priest cast aid on your players’ 1st-level party.)
While the risk of character death has shrunk, the threat of death has always remained part of D&D. Despite ranting against players who failed to risk characters’ lives, Gary saw the tension between needing death in the game and the pain of actually losing characters. In the Dungeon Master’s Guide, he writes, “It is very demoralizing to the players to lose a cared-for player character when they have played well,” and then he suggests ways to avoid killing a character. But in the same paragraph, he warns DMs to never tamper with the system shock roll that a character must make to be successfully raised from the dead. “There MUST be some final death or immortality will take over and the game will become boring because the player characters will have 9+ lives each.”
Next: Death, stakes, and bargaining. How letting characters opt out of death might improve a D&D game and its story.