Death in D&D

Wizards of the Coast

Dying in D&D is momentous. A big part of 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 come by? 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 the character comes 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 knock 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.

To subscribe, click here. You can unsubscribe any time. You can find me on Facebook at scrollforinitiative, Twitter at scrollforinit, and Instagram at scrollforinitiative.

Modding D&D

Wizards of the Coast

5th edition might be the most popular version of D&D ever. Compared to most of the editions that came before it, its mechanics are streamlined and simple: instead of totting up micro bonuses here and there on our character sheets, we now have the elegance of a single proficiency bonus. The advantage/disadvantage mechanic is intuitive and easy to use. Feats are optional, combat grids are optional, and concentration helps to reduce the number of magical effects in play, as does magic item attunement. It’s not for everyone, but, for many D&D fans, 5e was a huge improvement over 4th edition and felt like a return to a much more classic, story-driven game, like 2nd-edition AD&D. Its simplified rules go some way to explaining why it is the ruleset of choice for the most popular streams on Twitch and YouTube.

In short: 5th edition gets an awful lot right. But it is not perfect.

Fortunately, though, it’s easy enough to customize D&D to your own tastes. Indeed, the Dungeon Master’s Guide even encourages us to do so, devoting an entire chapter to optional rules, as well as guidelines for how to create our own material.

The scope here is huge, so, in this article, I have limited myself to five areas of the game which are ripe for tweaking. As always, though, your mileage may vary: it’s your game, no one else’s, so try these out – or don’t!

The ranger

Wizards of the Coast

The problem: the ranger is the most underpowered class in 5th edition. Probably.

Thanks to Aragorn, Drizzt Do’Urden, and Robin Hood, rangers are a popular character archetype. In fact, according to analysis a few years ago on FiveThirtyEight, rangers were the sixth most popular character on D&D Beyond, right after the iconic four (cleric, fighter, rogue, wizard) and the barbarian. They should be full of flavour and awesome to play: wanderers and hunters, at home in the wilds, stealthy and rugged yet also capable in combat and able to use nature magic . . .

And yet: the ranger presented in the Player’s Handbook feels decidedly lacklustre. Where paladins get divine smite and rogues get sneak attack, rangers get, what: favoured enemy? Natural explorer? Primeval awareness?

The Beast Master, though, is worst of all. Painfully, your animal companion has to be directed with an action to do anything more useful than Dodge. Its hit point total is limited to four times your ranger level (or the beast’s default hit points), and you can’t pick anything more powerful than a CR ¼ beast: no lions or tigers, or bears. Oh my. Compare this to the abilities of pretty much any other subclass and weep.

The fix: The Ranger, Revised. Clearly even Wizards of the Coast felt something was up as they have offered not one but two redesigns for the class, one in 2015 and another a year later. The 2016 article does much to fix what’s wrong with the class in the Player’s Handbook. It’s not perfect – some people now feel that it might even be overpowered – but in many campaigns, it will be more fun to play. It remains unofficial, however, and can’t be used in Organized Play.

(As an aside, Wizards released an Unearthed Arcana article in November with an extensive range of variant class features. It’s quite possible that a new supplement is in the works – something a bit like Xanathar’s Guide to Everything – and the ranger will be revised yet again. Watch this space.)


Wizards of the Coast

The problem: race is problematic and restrictive.

The concept of race in roleplaying games has been controversial for some time now, and for many reasons. The latest edition of Pathfinder, released last August, removed the term ‘race’ entirely and now uses ‘ancestry’ instead. In June this year, in the wake of the George Floyd protests and a renewed focus on the Black Lives Matter movement, Wizards of the Coast announced that they would be taking steps to address racist stereotypes in D&D. The issue is not just the term ‘race’ itself and the problematic presentation of some ‘monstrous’ peoples – orcs and drow, in particular – but the whole concept of biological determinism.

In the introduction to Ancestry & Culture: An Alternative to Race in 5e, Eugene Marshall argues:

First of all, scientists and philosophers who study race reject the concept of race as a biological fact that discretely individuates groups of people. Race is not a biological reality; rather, it is a social concept constructed and employed differently at different times in history and in different places in the world. It is not like eye colour, but like citizenship: something that is based in social relations and concepts, not biology.

In other words, the concept of race as it has been used from at least the Enlightenment forward to the twentieth century is, frankly, bankrupt. This is not to say there is no such thing as ancestry, heritage, and genetic difference, of course. Indeed, our genetics are real, but they are a function of our individual ancestry, not our race. What folks call racial differences simply do not map cleanly onto anything in our biology as simplistic as the concept of race. What’s more, that concept in the real world has been used to justify historic atrocities. Indeed, racists still use these bogus, faux-scientific justifications to support their prejudice. Because these harmful concepts have no place in our world, they need not be in the stories we tell with our friends either.

I highly recommend reading the introduction in its entirety.

There is also, of course, a more gamist justification for rethinking race in D&D. By giving races ‘baked in’ ability score increases, we end up (inadvertently) reducing the range of characters that are fun to play. Sure, you could play a dwarven wizard . . . but would a gnome (+2 Intelligence) not be more ‘optimal’? You could play a halfling barbarian (no Strength bonus, no heavy weapon proficiency) . . . but would a half-orc not be more fun? And from a storytelling perspective, D&D races can quickly seem a bit stale if they end up getting pigeonholed into the same stereotypical roles, time after time.

The fix: one option, of course, is Ancestry & Culture, as mentioned above. You could go even further, though, and remove racial ability modifiers entirely. This is the approach taken by GabeJonesGames in their excellent pay-what-you-want Class Modifier Module, where ability scores at 1st level are based on class, not race. Wizards of the Coast themselves have hinted that this will be an option in a future product, due to be released later this year but as yet unannounced.

Arms and equipment

Wizards of the Coast

The problem: there are limited ways to upgrade their equipment in 5e, and characters end up with lots of gold and nothing to spend it on.

OK, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with arms and armour in 5e D&D. Sure, it’s an ahistorical mishmash of the Renaissance (rapiers) and the medieval (chainmail), and studded leather is a silly concept (Gygax was maybe thinking of brigandine), but for most groups, it’s fine.

However: wouldn’t it be fun if you could upgrade your armour and weaponry somehow? This is one of the things I love about video games like Tomb Raider, Call of Duty, and The Last of Us. It’s fun to make decisions about where you spend your money and watch your rudimentary equipment improve over time. It’s almost like your equipment levels up with you.

The fix: The Complete Armorer’s Handbook. I cannot recommend this enough. It offers excellent mechanics for upgrading your equipment overtime, and the revised armour table feels like it should be the new standard for D&D. My group loves it.

Death saves

The problem: dying in combat is mechanically boring.

When you get knocked out in 5e, you could end up spending the next five turns rolling death saves. That 50/50 roll is all you can do. It’s essentially a coin-flip. It’s better than some of the systems in previous editions – I like the fact that a 20 puts you back on one hit point but a 1 counts as two failures – but it’s not interesting mechanically or narratively. Rather than being climactic or harrowing, it tends to lead to players getting frustrated or zoning out, and who can blame them?

The fix: Death Saves Revived. ThinkDM published this last week, and it’s such a neat little tweak. By making each death save meaningful, it gives players the chance to keep telling the story and recreates the feel of slipping in and out of consciousness.

Heroic resolve

Wizards of the Coast

The problem: 5e has some nasty condition effects which remove player agency.

As DMs, it can be easy to forget that the players only have one character each. If a character is stunned, frightened, charmed, or paralysed, that player is going to be locked out of the action: potentially, for some time.

The fix: Heroic Resolve. This is a simple house rule from Sly Flourish which presents players with a choice: put up with the effect and make a save as normal, or fight through it and lose hit points instead (1d6 psychic damage per CR). As Sly Flourish points out, taking away character agency is almost sure to be a bad time for the player, and as DMs, we should be fans of the characters, not their adversaries.

Which of these rules would you use in your game?

To subscribe, click here. You can unsubscribe any time. You can find me on Facebook at scrollforinitiative, Twitter at scrollforinit, and Instagram at scrollforinitiative.