Sunday, September 28, 2014

Death of a Player's Character

Dungeon Masters are powerful. They are so powerful, in fact, that they can create or destroy anything within their game at any moment and at a whim. Keeping this in mind, this post is about how to deal with the death of a player's character.

We've all been in a situation where a character has died in our game. Sometimes it's expected and sometimes it's a surprise. The question I always ask myself, as a DM, when it does happen is "Was this death worth it?"

Before I continue with my analysis of how I would answer or have answered this question, I'll address the inevitable, yet unfortunate, question "Why bother asking this question?"

Well, it's all about one's definition of winning. There are two broad categories of DM winning.
  • The first is the victory kind of winning where the DM is playing against the players, i.e. trying to kill their characters. The DM that wins this way is the one who will ask the latter question. I began this post pointing out the power of a DM and this should hint at what I'm getting at.  A DM can instantly kill any player character, or all player characters, at a whim.  Not fun, IMHO. As a player, this ends my association with a DM...instantly.  It will also be only a matter of time before this DM has no one for whom to DM.
  • The second is the success kind of winning where everybody wins. The DM gets to tell a story with the help of the players. The players' characters advance and find treasure. And, everyone looks forward to the next adventure, not dreading the next beating. As a Dungeon Master, I DM campaigns. I have a campaign setting that I've been working on forever and I want it to live and grow. The only way to get this win is to collaborate, not discombobulate.
Having cleared up why to ask this question, let's answer it.

"That Was Inevitable"

I mentioned that some character deaths are not a surprise.  These are pretty easy to answer.

Arranged with the DM

This case usually involves the situation where a player can't play anymore, usually through no fault of their own. Life happens. When this occurs, I'll discuss with the player what to have done with their character, if possible. Sometimes killing the character is the solution. It's not just announcing at the next session that so-and-so isn't returning and their character is dead. The adventure includes the character, run as an NPC or by the player if possible, and within the events of that unfold, the character dies. The intent is to have the character go out in a heroic or some other meaningful way that makes sense within the context of the campaign. Sometimes the player may go and the character becomes an NPC, but I'll discuss this in a future post.

Played to a T

Sometimes the player of a character sets themselves up for their character's death due to role playing. They role play their character right into the situation and they die. I admire this in a player. Any time this has happened, it has been fun for all involved. Of course, I have a one-on-one with the player to determine the finality of this death. As you know, D&D and other fantasy RPGs have a lot of means of resurrection. It's also a vital part of epic fantasy to have a protagonist come back from death (Conan after crucifixion, Gandalf after defeating the Balrog, etc.) Sometimes the player opts to have his character come back from the dead. Other times the result was so appropriate that they stay dead and a new player character is usually introduced the next session.

Sorted out for Cheating

This is a very rare occurrence.  In fact, it has only happened once in my many campaigns. When the problem was discovered, everyone knew the character was dead meat. I made it appropriately gruesome within the context of the adventure and the player learned a valuable lesson. I don't remember if the player returned with a new character afterward, but everyone makes mistakes and had or would have had a second chance.

"Did Not See That Coming"

Below are the surprise categories of player character deaths.

Damn Dice

A really bad night at the table with a set of dice, or two sets of dice if the DM is hot, can easily cause one or more characters to leave corpses on the battlefield. However, I run campaigns that need to have characters survive, so my DM dice are rarely ever going to cause an outright death of a character.  I'll fudge them to knock them out if this is an unexpected situation. Their bad luck may still kill them, but again, there are many ways to survive dying in D&D. One way or another the character will survive if the player wants it to.


Miscalculation can happen on a player's part, the DM's part or both. In this category, I'll focus on the DM.  The next category is usually where the players get into trouble. Sometimes an encounter is too powerful for the characters and it isn't immediately apparent. Hopefully, the players will realize soon enough to extricate themselves, but the DM can usually tone it down on the fly to allow the characters to retreat. Should one or more characters die, there are ways to fix this. In all my years, I've only had one time as a DM where I killed the whole party. The encounter in this situation was too powerful and even though I tried, the characters still went down, but the players didn't help a whole lot.  I'm not placing the blame on them, they didn't have a lot of options and they really expected to survive, which leads me to the next category.


DMs are often considered the players' worst enemy, but sometimes they are their own. Players create their own characters for the most part and know them inside and out.  They come up with unique ways to thwart DMs and survive...or at least make the DM think about how to challenge the characters better in the future.  This leads inevitably to the DM succeeding in challenging them too well and the characters not retreating when they probably ought to.  Usually this only kills one character, but as I mentioned above, it led to a TPK once.

Player character deaths are a part of fantasy RPGs and DMs as well as players can be faulted for them.  This doesn't mean that they have to meaningless or even permanent. However, as long as they provide value for all involved, they are a good thing.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Trying To Get Started...Again, for the Umpteenth Time

For all of you Dungeon Masters, Game Masters, Storytellers, etc. out there, having a creative block is something we have all experienced. I've had many, but none like I've had the last several years. Yes, years.
So, in an effort to, yet again, try and break out of this funk, I'm blogging.  If for no other reason than to get back into the swing of writing, I'm hoping that I might get some feedback (provided I can get this blog posted, so the audience I hope to find will read it).

Why, Why, Why?

Why has this block been so long and so hard to get passed? Several factors likely play a part in it.  I'll list what I've been thinking and feel free to criticize me, constructively, for being an idiot on any of these points.  I'm making excuses most likely on all of these, but they all are on my mind.

Burned Out

  • I was running a fabulous D&D 3.5 campaign in my own Almebezbik campaign setting with a great group of players from all over North America, which lasted for three years and was by far the best documented campaign I've ever run thanks to Google Apps and Fantasy Grounds. (see
    • There was great participation from the players who advanced their characters to epic level
    • The group completed a long running quest dreamed up by myself and shaped by the players
    • Got through the climactic "end-game" adventure and then just couldn't bring myself to continue, exacerbated by other points below
  • I was running a table top campaign hosted at my house for a local group of friends
    • Was D&D 4e (not my strong point)
    • Dynamics between a couple of players (cousins, I think) was distractedly competitive
  • I was the organizer of the Milwaukee Dungeons & Dragon Meetup Group (now The Metro Milwaukee Organized Role Playing Guild) and the West Bend Dungeons & Dragons Meetup Group (now Kettle Moraine Gamers) for several years
    • Had to ban a member from the Milwaukee group who seemed to have lost his mind
      • Damaged my reputation
      • Damaged my psyche
    • Became too hands-on and then too hands-off
    • Handed over the Milwaukee group to new blood
      • Expanded beyond D&D
      • Doing very well

Resistant to Change

  • Wizards of the Coast/Hasbro is a typical, misguided corporation serving its shareholders and not its customers, IMHO
    • They basically handed D&D 3.5 to Paizo to become Pathfinder (several poor business decisions led to this, again IMHO)
    • D&D 4e and now D&D Next are NOT improvements to the imagination-expanding, flexible D&D 3.0/3.5. They are, in fact, huge steps backwards compared to what D&D 3.x was to 2nd Edition AD&D
  • Find it too difficult the get players to play D&D 3.5 (my favorite rule set of any kind)
  • Spent thousands of dollars on D&D 3.x (as well as the other d20 offerings such as d20 Modern and Star Wars Saga Edition) and no longer inclined to buy any more game systems

Distracted by Others' Creativity

  • Facebook
    • Was playing eight different games at once, daily on Facebook
    • Finally kicked this habit at the beginning of this year after reducing to two for several months
    • Thought dropping this entirely might be the solution to relieving the block...nope
  • Wizard/Pirate101
    • Clever, well done
    • Currently my pastime


  • Banging my head against the wall daily in an IT position where the "business" refuses to spend any money to get/stay modern, and continues customizing best-of-breed applications to the point of un-usability
  • Finding that I need to be more social than technical, which is a challenge I intend to overcome

Who, What, When, Where, How?

So, it's been well over three years and many attempts have been made to try and get back into the swing of DMing...all failing miserably.

Take a Break...and Another...and Another

I initially resolved to take a break from DMing. However, I became consumed with Facebook games. Nothing destroys creativity like mindless clicking.  I ran out of options in some games and others were pulled.  The lull lead me to my next point.

Develop New Campaign Idea(s)

I have dozens of ideas for campaigns floating around in my head, so I picked one (or two) to develop. I quickly found I still didn't have any interest in working on them. The drive still wasn't there...another break?

Post on Google Group 

One of my ideas stuck in my head and one day I posted it to the Google Group I created for my campaign setting, invited all my close gaming contacts that weren't already members to it and posted the idea. Work took my attention away from it and I never drove it...another break.

Novelize Previous Campaign(s)

I have hoards of material for multiple novels based on the campaign setting I've been working on and the campaigns I've run in it for almost four decades. One particular novel I've been working on (more thinking over than writing) for over twenty years, I made an earnest attempt at writing.  I tasked myself with writing at least a page a day (modest, but attainable).  I kept that up for a few weeks...and life happens.
It was good life happening, though.  The Suzuki instructor with which my daughter takes violin lessons offered me a slot in his schedule to really, finally learn how to play double bass, one of which I had been letting dust accumulate on for years. I've been a "bass" player (tuba, electric bass, double bass) about as long as I've been playing D&D.

Keep Playing

One thing I have managed to keep doing, once a month since ending that last glorious campaign, is playing my iconic eladrin wizard in the D&D 4e system.

In Conclusion

DMing is a challenging and rewarding pastime, but not if your brain is stuck in park, neutral or even low gear. Hopefully, this latest attempt at getting going again will produce some favorable results. Considering it took me a week to write this first post bodes well, because I've been writing and editing it daily and even updated Fantasy Grounds and worked on a module for my campaign setting. 
Any encouragement and advice will be greatly appreciated.