Written by Bryan Fazekas
This article was originally published in & Magazine Issue 1 in May 2012.
A common lament among Dungeon Masters (DMs) is the difficulty of keeping low level parties alive. Some DMs seem to kill off party after party, which can dampen the fun for both the DM and the players. There are three questions to answer:
This article addresses these questions from the DM's point of view. There are things the player can do to avoid death, but that is ground not covered in this article.
Please note that this article presents nothing new, nothing revolutionary. It is the collective wisdom of numerous DMs accumulated over the nearly 40 years since the original D&D was published. What this article does is present a fresh look at the possible options, collected in one place, so that DMs can pick out anything that appeals to them to try in their campaigns.
Why worry about keeping the PCs alive? A lot of DMs don't. They cheerfully kill off entire parties with a grin. Some players are fine with rolling up one or more new characters every game session. If everyone is satisfied, nothing is broken, so don’t fix it.
But not all players are happy with that. Some perceive repeated character death as a mistake on their part, which it may well be. Others feel like they are getting no place. D&D is designed for character advancement and most players want their PCs to advance in level, which of course happens only if the PC isn't killed off. Some players may feel like they are in competition with, or being treated unfairly by, the DM.
Having character after character killed can be depressing or aggravating, producing a sense of futility. It's easy to visualize countless players walking away from D&D after failing repeatedly to keep a PC alive. Driving players away, inadvertently or otherwise, is not in the DM's best interest.
This is a problem for the DM as well. If the players all walk away, the campaign folds. Even if they don't, the DM never realizes the opportunity to DM at higher levels since the party keeps getting reset to level 1.
So everyone in the campaign, DM and player alike, probably has a vested interest in keeping the PCs alive. Remember, D&D is a game, and the point of a game is to have fun.
What is so hard about keeping 1st level PCs alive? Let us count the ways!
Having only a few hit points means that a single attack with an axe, long sword, or broad sword that may inflict as many as 8 hit points of damage is potentially lethal. That kills magic users and thieves outright, kills most clerics and more than half of the fighters. This point isn't hard to understand.
Poor armor class is common for low level PCs who do not have the funds to buy better armor and have not acquired magic items. Again, this point isn't hard to understand.
Unless the players are lucky or the DM uses a generous character generation method, the party probably does not have much in the way of damage bonuses from strength. As with armor, the party probably hasn't acquired magic weapons or items to increase their damage potential. The longer it takes to kill a monster, the more likely it will kill one or more PCs. We're batting 1,000 on the "not difficult to comprehend" score board.
Point number 4? Yes, poor and/or suicidal choices by players certainly contributes to PC death. However, player actions aren't addressed in this article – this is all about actions the DM can make to improve their campaign, so we'll skip this point.
Limited resources and abilities? The DM must keep in mind that the PCs have few magic items, few spells, and their class abilities will have a relatively low success rate. They will be unlikely to have simple things like silver daggers, making some minor monsters unkillable.
The last point (#6) is the hardest one to get across to some DMs. They have players at the table so they don't believe they're making any mistakes. Yet even if they don't lose players they receive grumbles about frequent PC death, lack of campaign progression, and other player irritations. The DM should look at the situation objectively to determine if they have a problem. Any idiot can kill PCs – the DM is invincible in their campaign and has an infinite number of monsters to throw at the PCs. Challenging the players requires DM ability. This may require the DM to play the role of coach as well as referee to help players (not PCs) increase in skill.
The easiest way to keep PCs alive is to go easy on them. Ignore die rolls indicating hits on PCs, reduce damage, play the monsters stupidly or cowardly. This keeps the PCs alive and enables the campaign to progress to higher and more exciting levels!
But at what cost? Mostly long term fun, assuming that the DM doesn’t stop pulling punches as the PCs progress in level. Eventually the players realize their PCs can't die. The sense of risk dissipates and the games become just die rolling, a video game without the screen. For many players and DMs – boring.
Should the DM never pull punches? That debate is a fierce one with little middle ground. It is the author's opinion that pulling punches on occasion is fine as long as the players do not realize it is happening. This is typically done when one or more players are having a real run of bad luck, or when the DM misjudges an encounter and makes it more difficult than expected.
It should not be done to rescue the party from poor play. If the party wants to repeatedly perform foolish actions? Let them! It's it not the DM's job to keep the PCs alive if they don't want to be. On the other hand, if one player is acting suicidal in a way that threatens the remainder of the party, pulling punches on the party but not the offending player may be the right thing to do.
PC death or the real threat of it should happen with some regularity. Why? Without risk, without the chance of PC death the game is a bunch of dice rolling. With the risk of PC death comes the sense of fear, tension, and adventure that makes the game far more interesting.
D&D is not a video game. The players should not save at a good point, dive in head first and get blown away, restart at the saved point. While it might be fun for a while, the lack of risk to the PCs causes the fun to pale and erode. Conversely, killing PCs off every session is eventually counterproductive. It shows the risk is real, but it prevents campaign progression and often puts the players off.
The obvious choice is to provide the party with some encounters they can win through good play. Make them think and use the tools at hand to succeed. If they fail to play well, PCs may die. If they do play well, PCs may die anyway depending upon the whim of the dice. But the players will gain the sense of accomplishment that comes with good play.
The AD&D Players Handbook (PH) recommends that PCs have at least two ability attributes of at least 15. Given that most attribute bonuses start when the value is 15, this makes sense. For most classes, having a high value for the prime attribute means the PC has a better chance of survival. Fighters have hit and damage bonuses so they finish opponents quicker. Clerics get bonus spells, magic users have a better chance to know spells, and thieves gain bonuses on their class skills. Having a high constitution, dexterity, and charisma score directly affects PC survival. Constitution bonuses give extra hit points, while dexterity affects both armor class and to-hit with missile weapons. High charisma gives the PC better chances of interacting with NPCs in a desired fashion.
What can the DM do? Choose a character generation system that produces good PCs. Give the PCs a better chance of survival by giving them the opportunity of generating a PC with better attributes. If a PC is generated that doesn't have two 15's, discard that character and start over.
The in-game rationale for such superior specimens? Exactly that – the PCs are superior specimens, definitely above average in some ways, so the high attributes are appropriate.
The more hit points (hp) a PC has, the better his/her chances of survival. Stories circulate about having a fighter with 1 hp. Is there anything more ridiculous? Any hit from anything renders the PC unconscious or dead. Such a PC would never survive training much less an adventure.
One solution is to award maximum hp at first level. This gives the PCs a better chance of survival, even the magic users who now start with 4 hp plus constitution bonus (if any). Some DMs go as far as awarding maximum hp at each level, and that certainly enhances PC survival.
Others don't award maximum hp but instead award hp that are at least half of the class' HD. For d4 the award is always a 3 or 4, for d6 the award is 4 to 6, for d8 it's 5 to 8, and for d10 it's 6 to 10. This also gives the PCs a good chance of survival. Add in a constitution bonus and the odds of long term survival are greater yet.
The in-game rationale? As with attributes, the PCs are superior specimens, and their training gives them better physical conditioning, stamina, and luck.
The original idea was that PCs died when they reached 0 hit points. This rule ensures a high PC mortality rate since there is no wiggle room between life and death. When the PC hits 0 they're dead, roll new character.
AD&D introduced the idea of death occurring when hit points reach -10. A common ruling is that the PC is unconscious but stable when hit points are between 0 and -2, and at -3 or below the PC loses 1 hit point per round due to bleeding, shock, etc. Administering a Healing Potion or Cure spell, or simple binding of wounds by another character stops the hit point loss.
This change greatly reduces PC death without making anything easier for them. It also produces role playing situations where the conscious party members must break off combat to tend fallen comrades, and in the post combat time must tend their hurt party members. A further optional rule is to allow the PC's hit points to go as low as the negative of their constitution score, e.g., if the character's Con is 18 their hit points can go as low as -18 before death occurs. Depending on typical party constitution scores this will even further reduce PC mortality.
An important part of starting a new character is provisioning that character. Dice are rolled for each class to determine starting cash. For fighters a low roll indicates a lack of means to purchase better armor and weapons. This is the same for clerics. For any class it means no funds to purchase protective things such as guard dogs.
The obvious choice is to set a minimum threshold for starting money, and any roll below that value is automatically increased to the minimum or re-rolled. Alternately the DM may award maximum starting money for each class. Regardless of method used the PC starts with sufficient funds to provision themselves with the best that is available.
One way of avoiding death is for the PC to hire/buy a 0-level non-player character (NPC) or a guard animal such as a dog. The idea is that the hireling/animal will assist in combat and will absorb some or all of the damage that would otherwise be inflicted on the PC. Starting money will impact this option as the PC must have sufficient money to hire or purchase.
In addition the DM must authorize the purchase. Some DMs feel, for whatever reasons, that the PCs need to work on their own and disallow the hire/purchase. Like the options described so far, this generally increases the PC death rate. Allowing the hire/purchase will reduce the re-rolling of PCs.
The use of magic items certainly changes the odds in favor of the wielder. Some DMs grant the PCs a chance of starting at first level with a minor magic item appropriate for their class. This will typically be a minor item – a weapon, armor, scroll, potion, or miscellaneous magic.
Used wisely even a minor magic item may turn the tide of a battle, snatching victory from the jaws of death. Here the DM must choose wisely to avoid granting the PCs too much power. Items should be relatively minor or with limited charges, say a Wand of Magic Missiles with 5 charges that fires 3 missiles per charge expended. The wielder must conserve the wand for real need or be without the item when a truly dangerous encounter confronts them.
Many DMs do not start their campaign at 1st level. They may choose to start the PCs at 2nd level, which doubles their hit points and gives them additional abilities include spells. Some start the PCs at 3rd or 4th level, which grant even more initial hit points and class abilities.
Editor's Note: see Starting at Level One ~ Why Bother? by Andrew Hamilton, printed in this issue [Issue 1].
This idea is the author's least favorite of all the methods described in this document, barring the idea of going easy on the PC. There is a "magic" of playing that 1st level character with so little margin between life and death. But if the campaign has excessively high 1st level fatalities it may be in the best interests of the campaign to start at a higher level.
Alternately, some campaigns start intentionally at even higher levels, even name level. The idea is to play a higher level party and may have nothing to do with avoiding death at 1st level.
Ok, all DM tactics failed and a PC is killed. What next? One answer is to roll up a new PC to replace them. Another is to make available Raise Dead or Resurrection.
In many campaigns the availability of such higher level magics to low level PCs is nil. Some feel that it's a "get out of jail free" card and gives the players too much.
Restoring a PC to life doesn't have to be easy, simple, or cheap. A common tactic is to require a high payment in either gold or magic items. Such may exhaust the party's funds, forcing them back into a dungeon to score more loot. A better choice for the DM is to require service or a quest as part or all of the price of the Raise Dead or Resurrection. This makes it more expensive for the PCs, and more importantly, gives the DM a solid hook into the next adventure, possibly several adventures. It also gives the PCs an option for a mentor, friend, sage, etc, which can be exploited for many role playing situations by a smart DM. Just as importantly, the players give their DM a solid rationale, a priceless thing. A smart DM will capitalize on such gifts from the players.
While the preceding ideas are all valuable tools for the DM, nothing surpasses good judgment on the part of the DM. While some advocate total randomness on the part of the DM, the author believes that is laziness. It requires no thought or skill to roll the dice, and the DM is as likely to produce an encounter far too easy for the party as one too hard. The likelihood of generating encounters that are in a sweet spot of the range between just a bit too difficult or too easy is low.
It is a mistake to make every encounter a "killer" encounter. The party either runs from everything – which is hardly fun for the DM or the players – or the party suffers a constant high mortality with the consequences already listed.
Some encounters should be easy for the party although it is a good device to make the encounter appear more difficult than it really is. Such encounters often produce interesting role playing situations where the party may back down from or bribe an inferior monster that they do not recognize.
It is also useful to confront the party with encounters they cannot defeat. The phrase from Monty Python and the Holy Grail – run away! – should be considered a good tactic by the party in some situations. This produces interesting role playing situations where the party may flee, throw down distractions such as food or valuables, or attempt to bribe a monster to not kill them.
But the DM must provide the players with a possibility of successfully dealing with each situation. Please note that "successfully dealing" with a situation does not mean defeating the monster. It may involve that, but it may just as easily mean treating with a monster, bribing a monster, or running like the wind. If the DM does not provide that "out", PC mortality increases.
PC death makes the play more exciting for everyone, but pulling out a victory from the jaws of defeat is even more exciting. It's a fine line that the DM must walk.
Each DM has their own opinion and tolerance for rules which will reduce PC mortality at low levels. The above ideas are a collection of ideas used by a wide variety of DMs – it's not likely any DM will use all of them, nor is it recommended. Each DM needs to find their own comfort zone of which rules to implement, which to ignore, and should remember that trying a rule doesn't mean it has to be a permanent fixture of the campaign. Rules that don't work should be discarded in favor of ones that do.
When isn't it ok to keep the party alive? When they are playing poorly or when one or more PCs is performing actions likely to result in PC death.
This depends heavily upon player experience. With beginners it may be appropriate to pull punches, to ask questions like, "are you sure you want to stick your head in that thing's mouth?", to provide a bit of foreshadowing as a warning. With experienced players it may also be appropriate to ask the questions and give foreshadowing, to give the player a chance to re-think an action.
If they proceed anyway? As comedian Ron White says, "you can't fix stupid". Don’t save the party from their own folly?
What if one player is derailing the campaign by repeatedly doing suicidal things? Same answer – let them do it and face the consequences. But avoid spreading those fatal results to the remainder of the party. If a player keeps getting themselves killed, but no one else is harmed? Ideally they'll learn to play better or will quit.
Copyright 2013 Bryan Fazekas