Death in D&D

Wizards of the Coast

Dying in D&D is momentous. A big part what makes the game fun is creating a character, investing in them, breathing life into them, and watching them grow from session to session. You don’t ‘win’ D&D by killing things and gaining XP: you win when you have stories to reminisce over with your friends. So when you watch a character die before their time – when you realize that you are never going to play them again – that can be a surprisingly moving moment. And it’s important, therefore, that it’s handled properly.

Talk it through

Character death can be unpredictable. It can be caused by a nasty trap, a stupid decision, a dragon’s fiery breath, or insurmountable odds. But it can also be truly random. I’ve seen low-level characters get killed by an animated broom.

If you’re running a session zero (and you should), have a conversation about character death. How do characters feel about it? Is it off the table? Is it part and parcel of adventuring life? Does it make for a good story? Are there means of bringing characters back to life? If so, how easy are they to obtain? Perhaps the characters simply ‘respawn’ like they might in a video game; perhaps they need the aid of rare and powerful magic or divine intervention. Plenty of great characters in fiction have come back from the dead – Gandalf, Harry Potter, Jon Snow, Sherlock Holmes, Kenny McCormick – but it’s usually an important and memorable moment, so savour it. Consider whether they come back changed somehow, either spiritually or physically.

It’s important to have this conversation early as 1st level as the deadliest in the game. A single crit from a half-decent enemy can send a character unconscious, and crits happen five percent of the time. It can also be an important conversation to have if you’re running some of the deadlier campaign adventures. Rime of the Frostmaiden and Lost Mine of Phandelver both have some very deadly encounters at low levels, and Tomb of Annhilation even recommennds a ‘meat grinder mode’.

Tomb of Annihilation | Dungeons & Dragons

Wizards of the Coast

Perhaps your players are divided: some want embrace the risk, while others seek the assurance of playing the same character session after session, even if they make a really bad mistake. D&D is meant to be fun, so don’t force something on the group if they’re not happy with it. Perhaps you can agree on some alternatives to dying (see my ideas below). Perhaps you decide that, in some situations, it’s OK for the DM to make a judgement call: if the death is heroic, fitting, memorable, or just, then the character dies permanently, but if it’s anticlimactic, ridiculous, inconvenient, or unfair somehow, then perhaps the DM comes up with an alternative.

What might those alternatives look like?

Cheating death

Sometimes death isn’t the right option. Below are some variants you might want to use.

  • Casual difficulty. Instead of dying, a character gains a level of exhaustion. (What happens if they reach six levels of exhaustion, though? Something to consider.)
  • War wounds. Instead of dying, a character gains a random lingering injury from the table in the Dungeon Master’s Guide.
  • Revenant. The character is spared from death but returns to earth on borrowed time. The ‘Hollow One’ rules in Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount work well here.
  • Taken out. This is adapted an idea from Fate. Essentially, it’s a way of recasting what ‘death’ means. Instead of ‘dying’ , you are ‘taken out’ and the DM gets to decide what happens next to your character. Torture? Imprisonment? Transformation?
  • Nine lives. Roll 1d8 when a character dies to see how many lives they have left. (I borrowed this idea from Gnome Stew.)
  • New-U station. Perhaps it is possible to respawn but it costs a percentage of gold and/or XP.
  • Marked to die. For some reason, you don’t die – this time. But death is coming. At some point in the future (perhaps when the player rolls a 1 on their Initiative score), the character’s nemesis appears as if summoned, and they will die permanently if the monster cannot be defeated. A fiend, celestial, grim reaper, yeth hound: something wants them dead and they can’t escape.
  • Doppelganger. That’s right: the character wasn’t really who you thought they were! Perhaps they were a clone, an imposter, a psionic projection, or something else. Be careful not to overuse this one.
  • Came back wrong. The character returns to life, but they’re not . . . right, somehow. Perhaps they now register as undead to spells and spell-like abilities, and cats hiss at them in the street.
  • Harrowed. A brush with death is traumatic. The character returns to life, but roll on the long-term madness table in the Dungeon Master’s Guide.
  • Soul transfer. Perhaps the soul survives but finds a new body. Something on their character sheet changes (race, class, gender, age) but everything else stays the same.
  • Unexplained revival. The character doesn’t die – and no one knows why. Their return from the brink becomes a story in itself. Is it a prophecy? A twist in the fabric of time? The interference of the Raven Queen? Tell a story from it.
Shadowfell | Artio Wiki | Fandom

Wizards of the Coast

The undiscovered country

Some DMs take a very adversarial, old-school approach with their players, and character death is common. Others try to make sure that the same characters are there from one session to the next, and see character death as a terrible mistake. For me, character death is an opportunity for fantastic storytelling, but it needs to be given the attention it deserves. If the death doesn’t feel ‘right’, then think carefully about whether it’s something you want to go through with.

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Player Surveys: Talking to the Team

Wizards of the Coast

In this post, I am going to look at feedback surveys as a way of hearing from your players. They don’t need to be done frequently to provide a useful insight into how the game is going.

D&D rests upon good relationships. People put a lot of themselves into this hobby: not just time, money, and energy, but potentially an element of personal vulnerability, too. If you’re giving up three or four hours a week to sit at a table with your friends, building stories together, you want to have fun while you’re doing it.

The problem is, different players enjoy different things, and in a game that rests on personal relationships, it’s not always easy to bring this up. What if you want a game like Critical Role – immersion heavy with lots of roleplaying and storytelling – but your DM is more interested in wargaming over five-inch battle grids? What if you want something light-hearted and humorous, but everyone else wants to take the game a bit more seriously?

Emotional intelligence and the ability to read the room are key qualities in a good DM, but even the most perceptive DM is going to misread the players sometimes, especially if you’re playing online. It’s very easy for DMs to get caught up in their own personal experience and forget that the players might be looking for something different.

This is where a feedback survey can be, literally, a gamechanger. If it’s done online, it can be anonymous, unfiltered, and personalized: a chance to speak openly about how things are going. That does mean, of course, that you might get feedback you’re not expecting. But that’s kind of the point.

Breaking down the feedback survey

Tomb of Annihilation: Hex crawl procedure – Technoskald's Forge

Wizards of the Coast

So, how often should you ask your players for feedback, and what sorts of questions should you ask?

Some DMs do a quick survey after every session. Personally, that seems a bit overkill to me. You might end up with more data, but it’s not going to be as rich, potentially. You might be able to track whether players enjoyed a particular session, for example, but will the survey tell you why they enjoyed it? For most groups, a survey two or three times a year is probably about right.

I try to avoid textboxes as it helps keep the answers anonymous (and makes it quicker to complete). I tend to start with a couple of more ‘administrative’ questions (eg, session length, session frequency, preferred online platform, etc) before moving on to questions about playstyle. Here are some of the questions I would usually ask:

  • Do you prefer gridded combat, theatre of the mind, or a mix between the two?
  • Do you think the ‘three pillars of adventure’ (combat, exploration, and social interaction) have been balanced?
  • As a player, which activities do you enjoy most and least? (I use the activities on page 6 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide.)
  • Is combat too easy, too difficult, or about right?
  • Do the players want to use any variant rules?
  • Are you happy with your character?

This year, I’ve included a couple of questions about DM issues and player issues. The players can rate each issue based on how much it has been a problem: ‘never’, ‘seldom’, ‘some of the time’, or ‘most of the time’. If you’re using something like SurveyMonkey, you can score each answer based on player responses: ‘never’ would be +0, ‘seldom’ would be +1, and so on, up to +3. It helps you see what the group consensus is, and whether it changes over time.

Here is my list of DM issues (adapted from a similar list by Sly Flourish):

  • Forcing the story
  • Taking away player agency
  • Being too adversarial
  • Ignoring the desires of the players
  • Inflexibility
  • Lack of creativity
  • Unfairness
  • Impatience
  • Not listening
  • Rules knowledge
  • Humourlessness
  • Lack of preparation
  • Poor description

And here’s my list of player issues:

  • Being uncooperative
  • Spotlight hogging
  • Not paying attention
  • Metagaming
  • Rules lawyering
  • Cheating
  • Not taking the game seriously
  • Whining
  • Impatience
  • Taking the game too seriously
  • Not preparing enough
  • Lateness

Your own list might be a bit different. Keeping your questions the same, though, gives you the chance to track over time whether there has been any kind of change or improvement. Earlier in the year, for instance, my biggest issues as a DM were ‘inflexibility’, ‘impatience’, ‘rules knowledge’, and ‘poor description’. When I ran the same survey last week, my scores had gone down from two ‘seldoms’ to one, and only one issue, ‘lack of preparation’, had got worse.

I like end with the simplest but most important question: Overall, how much do you enjoy playing the campaign? Again, I give options like ‘always’, ‘most of the time’, ‘sometimes’, ‘never’, but you could use other ratings.

Responding to feedback

D&D's Statement Regarding Zak Smith | Dungeons & Dragons

Wizards of the Coast

If you’re happy with the feedback: great! It might be that there are no great surprises: that you know your players well and can read the room. It’s still good to check.

On the other hand, there might be some unexpected negativity. If so, try not to take it personally. DMing is hard, and people get better at it over time. In fact, it’s very difficult to get better at anything without constructive feedback. Perhaps go back to your group and ask for more detail. You could talk to them separately or do another survey with the option to include fuller answers. See if there are one or two things you can focus on, like speeding up combat or prepping more efficiently. Alternatively, perhaps take a break from DMing for a while and come back to it when you’re feeling more positive.

Other surveys

What's in the Bag? | Dungeons & Dragons

Wizards of the Coast

Finally, it can also be good to do a questionnaire at the end of a campaign or before starting a new one. These will be quite different, potentially. Before a campaign, you might want to find out what sort of campaign people are looking for. Do they want a short campaign or a long one? Which campaign setting do they want to use? Do they want to use a different system?

At the end of a campaign, you might want to combine the feedback part of your survey with a jokey ‘awards’ ceremony. At the end of our Tomb of Annihilation campaign, for example, we gave out awards like the Sean Bean Award for Best Character Death and the Matt Mercer Award for Best Roleplaying. D&D might not be a game about ‘winning’, but when you replay these moments with your friends, you come pretty close.

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