The death of a PC

There were a couple of interesting tabletop-game-related discussions over on Twitter the other day, branching into two related topics I want to talk about.

It all started with a tweet by JimFear138:

So, player death. That got me ruminating about my own (relatively limited) experience with D&D and other tabletops, and also about D&D in the context of the vintage SFF stuff I’ve been diving into.

I’m mostly just stirring the pot here to see what comes out of it, I think. I don’t really believe that the newer editions of D&D are closer in spirit to the pulps and classics of yore. However I do think there’s an argument to be made that for players and groups who are less interested in high stakes, high difficulty gaming, the newer editions offer a way for PCs to come close to playing as a Conan or Legolas or Merlin. Not all players, especially those you may be dragging in from non-gaming backgrounds, may be willing to invest hours into a character who can easily be mugged and deleted a couple sessions into a campaign. Some players have precious little time; some are sore losers; and some are “casuals” eyeing up that Fruit of Gaming that we as DMs are dangling seductively above our tables.


That is to say, don’t older school versions of D&D, where I’m told player (character [thanks for pointing out the error of omission here, friends]) death is a relatively common occurrence, make it a lot more difficult for characters to achieve that kind of kickass heroic status?


And the answer is: not really. Or perhaps I should say, it depends more on the DM than which game or edition you’re playing. Here’s a great thought from Cirsova:

Jeffro and Alex and others have pointed out that older versions of D&D make it much easier to roll new characters. In the newer editions, creating a character is a process. All kinds of points to distribute, feats to take, skills to research, racials traits to read about. This was the case in the games I played, all 3.5 edition. Character creation can literally take hours. So when your guy dies, you may not feel like going through all that again. These logistical concerns may be one reason why many DMs lose their willingness to readily kill off their players, even when the PCs deserve it.

Incidentally, the first campaign I DMed ended when PC death became unavoidable. There was an impending goblinoid attack on a town that the PCs had granted protection. Instead of digging in and waiting, they decided to do some recon as a group. Unfortunately they were discovered sneaking around the goblin camp and pursued. One of the players rightly decided to hightail it out of there. I’m still not sure if it was a case of unwarranted bravado or if their motivation was just petering out, but the others decided to turn on the goblins and make a stand. They were overtaken, and that wound up being our last session.


Returning to the topic at hand, the earlier versions of D&D do alleviate this concern. There are less numbers and abilities to keep track of (which can be a positive or negative depending on what kind of player you are), and so it’s much easier to discard spent characters and move on to new ones. Thus we can say that while older versions of D&D don’t limit a group to this type of roll-die-reroll style of play, they certainly make it a lot easier.

Without having actually played anything other than 3.5, I can only speculate and conjecture. And so I conject this – that earlier iterations of the game are much more friendly to minimalists, those who relish oodles of quick and dirty battles, folk who enjoy playing multiple characters per game, and those fans of roguelikes and Iron Man modes in games.

They are also probably the proper vehicles for DMs who act as antagonists to their PCs.

PA what!

Following along with Cirsova’s tweet, then, I put forward that newer versions of D&D, including 3.5, are more suited for people who enjoy spreadsheets, those who dervive enjoyment from incessant rolling of dice, fans of Story modes or Normal difficulty modes in games, or else players and DMs who want to reach that Conan or John Carter level of heroics with minimal risk of death and ruin. For if the Conans and other pulp heroes are the ones who survive, then newer versions (contingent upon the DM once again, of course, but by and large) are much more conducive to allowing the players to survive and gain that coveted status. Whether that reduced difficulty is a good thing will largely depend upon the group. After all, some people are more into the storytelling aspects of the game rather than the struggle.

Next time I’ll talk about how players and pulp heroes die.

Update: Part 2





11 thoughts on “The death of a PC

  1. I love it, asking one little question or making an innocent comment is like touching a match to a fireworks display!
    As to the subject, I think you’ve got a good point, especially with regards to 3.5. That’s the system I grew up with and I’ve never had a game (until I started delving into Mazes & Perils) that didnt take hours to create a character. With that level of investment and work, just on the mechanical put-the-character-together level, it’d be a shame to have him die the first time someone looked at him funny. And after putting in all that work, character death is seriously discouraging. Not because you dont want to play anymore, but because the effort vs reward ratio is apparently set so badly on the effort side that it just isn’t worth it to spend two hours putting a new character together for 25 minutes of actual playtime. Makes you feel that the DM just doesn’t give a fuck about how much you have to do to make a character when they should know better than anybody how time consuming it is.
    This could easily lead to a kid-gloves, character narrative arc style of play where everybody thinks they should get to start off as Drizzt Do’Urden. And with the amount of work they had to put in just to start playing, maybe they’re right.
    But after digging into something that’s basically a retro-clone, I see where the oldschoolers are coming from. Give me the M&P rulebook, a notebook, a pencil, and some dice and I can have about twenty characters rolled up and ready to go in under an hour. That kind of ease makes the characters easier to throw away, and facilitates turning the game difficulty up to hurt-me-plenty without disincentivizing the players because it only takes five minutes to roll up a new character. Also, when a character becomes memorable, it’s because they deserve to be. That level four cleric with two spells has seen some SHIT, and probably been covered in his party’s blood and guts more than once. Give him three more levels of lucky rolls and he’ll be well on his way to becoming someone that the locals, if not necessarily the people of the surrounding lands, will sing songs about for a generation or two.
    I guess it really does depend on what kind of game you like to play. 3.5/Pathfinder is far more of a “build your perfect character for two hours and then let them act out a story like a fantasy novel over the course of a campaign” type of game, while the retro stuff can be that but is more suited to the “oops the whole party fell into a pit trap and died, everybody roll up new characters” style of play.
    Personally I’m tired of the former, and in the campaign I’m gonna be running people are gonna die unless they play very, very smart. I want to see what life on the other side of the fence is like, and I need an outlet for this stuff before I start ruining the Pathfinder game a friend of mine is DM’ing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “I guess it really does depend on what kind of game you like to play. 3.5/Pathfinder is far more of a “build your perfect character for two hours and then let them act out a story like a fantasy novel over the course of a campaign” type of game, while the retro stuff can be that but is more suited to the “oops the whole party fell into a pit trap and died, everybody roll up new characters” style of play.”

      Bingo! That’s my somewhat uniformed conclusion, as well.

      Good luck with the new campaign. You’ll definitely have to keep us updated and share your thoughts. A comparison with the other style of play would be especially interesting to me.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. A quick fix to 3e if you don’t want to learn a whole new system, just tell your players that you won’t be using feats or skills. If they want to keep the racial bonuses & whatnot, sure, fine, but allocation of feats & skill-cheese are most time-consuming elements of the 3e family. Anything normally left to skills, come up with a throw based on a stat or let them roleplay it.

    The thing I’m liking most, though, about my friend’s system is that the difference between a new character and a veteran character are not so great that it throws the game completely off the rails when a character who survived since day one dies and is replaced by some Don Knotts rube.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. If I were to play 3.5 again (hey, I’ve got all the books), I’d probably be tempted to take your advice and do something like that to simplify it.

      And you touched upon another good point there that presents a potential hurdle to systems that don’t account for it (like vanilla 3.5) – what to do when you have a group of adventurers with a few experience levels’ difference between members. Don’t want one or two characters hogging all the glory and action, or to have encounters of a difficulty level that only they can survive. I suppose one solution is just to roll up higher level characters, rather than starting new at level 1. Your friend’s system, where the power difference between the levels isn’t too great is another good one.


  3. Bear in mind that there are two different ways of generating stories. One is emergent and one is imposed.

    The old crew favored stories that emerged through play. You start with a blank slate and suss out the character’s story and personality as the game goes on. Joe Fightingman got in a lucky streak and killed an ogre singlehanded at first level, so naturally it turns out he is brave to the point of recklessness. Maybe you’ve got a thief who rarely succeeds in his climb walls checks, and so he must be a fat bastard. You expect blank dungeons that slowly emerge in play – that goblin shaman in the red cloak that escaped was un-named but after he pops up in two or three locations the DM realizes he’s the secret master behind the campaign. Who knew?

    The new style is to impose stories on the game. You create a character and plan out an arc with the expectation that the DM will prep situations and obstacles for you to overcome so that you can play through the (largely pre-written) story you had in mind at character creation. You start with a wizard…that’s a necromancer…that wants revenge for this backstory you wrote. Now put it in the game, DM!

    I’m not going to claim that one is better than the other, but I will say that my personal preference is for the former rather than the latter.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know that some great stories have come from emergent play, so I see why you prefer that. I think I’d tend to agree with you.

      For my part, I think I DMed from somewhat of a middle ground, sometimes soliciting PCs for info about themselves or trying to come up with cool story tie-ins for them, but often just crafting a scenario and letting them find their place in it.


  4. I wonder if the advent of videogames helped bring about the change in attitudes towards death in D&D.

    1) Low cost of failure. When you can immediately reload from a bad decision…that kind of attitude could easily creep into D&D. Of course, you cannot save and reload in at the table, by making characters more powerful and complex, the character is less likely to die. You get the same effect.

    2) Pre-packaged stories. As much as I love the Infinity Engine games (Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale, and Planescape: Torment), they have pre-set stories in them. Instead of the players/characters creating their own story on the fly (like Jon M. mentioned), modern players expect a videogame-style story to be given to them. Thus, their characters are already special because they are videogame-style protagonists in a videogame-style story.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a good question. I’d wager video games do shape the attitudes and expectations of newer players. Kind of building off of what Jon said, I’d imagine that back in the older days of D&D, there was a lot more of the DM plopping the party down into an actual dungeon and rolling up random monsters and rooms and treasures and letting stories develop somewhat organically.

      These days there’s probably more expectation for at least some kind of story framework to be in place. I know the few campaigns I played in, there were stories going on that we were kind of forced to take part in. When you start off as a prisoner and get swept into thwarting a world-threatening scheme by the Big Baddie, you only have so much choice. Walking away and doing our own thing didn’t feel like an option. But that also didn’t feel like a bad thing. For some players and some types of games, having rails keeps things on track (excuse the pun).

      I’ve also found as a DM that having too much openness and choice paralyzes some players. They want to be told where to go and what to do. I’m a little less convinced that’s exclusively due to the influence of video games, as my sister was such a player and she hasn’t ever been a huge video gamer.

      On the other hand pre-packaged stories aren’t really new or unique to video games. Though of course there are more options (theoretically unlimited?) given to PCs, adventure modules like Castle Amber (see and have been around for decades.

      Liked by 1 person

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