My Greatest DM Fear Is Player Death – So Why do I Have It? (Part 1 of ?)

As alluded to in the short novel that was my campaign post mortem – I have a lot of strong opinions about this hobby that I am unqualified to debate about in comparison to the usual type of person who has these types of strong opinions. The good news is that this time around, I don’t have the answers. The natural follow up question to this statement is “why are you writing about this then?” and fair enough. Honestly, it boils down to the fact that I’ve researched this a ton* and no one has ever provided an answer that was 100% satisfying to me. Therefor, the idea in writing about this thinking out loud to find some nebulous shape of what I think is an approximate solution, and once I’ve gone through all the work of thinking and writing about it, I might as well hit the “publish” button.

*And believe me, basically everyone who writes about the hobby has opinions on this. It’s not that I think they’re bad or anything, it’s just that I’ve never found the idea that 1000% sat right with me.

Defining the Problem

Of course, buried in my premise is the idea that player death is in fact a problem that exists and needs to be solved. I think how player death is handled in campaigns can be generally sorted into three category, one of which it is a problem that needs solving.

  • Grimdark Style: In this style, dead is dead. There is no coming back. The GM has spoken with the players in advance and set expectations of severe consequences of any potential combat and the general difficulty that can be expected in combat. In this style, there is no death problem because it is extremely binary.
  • No One Dies: Basically the less popular reverse of the prior approach. Death is just too complicated from a player enjoyment and storytelling perspective, so it’s taken off the table. Exceptions may apply – such as if a player willingly places their character into a certain death scenario and consents to their character’s death – but similarly, in this extreme lightly toned approach, death is not a concern.
  • The Rules as Written Neighborhood: Basically, anything that resembles the rules as written: where return from the dead is very much possible and an inability to return from death is also possible. How dangerous combat is and the difficulty (or lack there of) of character resurrection very much affect things, but death is very much a problem in pretty much every extreme of these two factors.

Okay, so most DnD campaigns play inside the nebulous rules as written gray zone, and therefor, most campaigns have the problem of needing to deal with the spectre of possible player death. Even very easy combat campaigns need to anticipate this possibility due to the complex and heavily luck affected nature of the game. (at least until the godlike powers of 8th and 9th level spells become relevant).

However, the exact nature of this problem is dependent on your playstyle. Unfortunately for me, my playstyle is exactly the type that is uniquely vulnerable to this mess.

To briefly describe my game’s playstyle: it is a classic heroic adventure that emphasizes story and roleplay with very tactical, medium-easyish combat. “Critical role minus most of the 20+ minute zero prompt-pure improve talking scenes and minus the production value” is not a perfect description, but it’s close enough that you get the idea. If not, I have already discussed this in extreme detail.

I’d call this playstyle sort of the “new gen” or “popular modern” approach. By no means even close to universal, but definitely in vogue at the present time. To briefly touch on other popular play styles:

  • Super Old School/Dungeon Delving: Back in the olden-day the expectation was that you were sitting at the table to kill monsters and acquire currency. Character was typically more a bag of affectations to add flavor to the proceedings and context to the killing of said monsters. That’s not to say that everyone in ye-olden times played this way, but referring to it as the “old school” way provides a nice short hand. Because this experience emphasizes the power fantasy aspect of the game, it tends not to be as much of a problem narratively because even extreme contrivance to get a new character into the party as quickly as possible does little to impact enjoyment for the experience. The problems presented by player death in this variety are more practical.
    • We’re two floors in to a six floor dungeon, how do we get our friend back into the game? Really, it boils down to a more out of game social question asked amongst the players. But basically, the options are the party retreats from what they’re doing for the time being so the player can be itnroduced, the player’s new character is already in the dungeon for reason x/y/z, or the player doesn’t get to play until the dungeon is cleared.
    • What level will the new character be? What kind of items will they get? This is very much an old-school concern. Nowadays, it’s generally understood that players in a party will have similar power levels and part of that in older versions of the game was the items they had. Back in the day, those items were very much a big part of the point in the experience and giving a new character on par items that were not earned could be viewed as unfair. Nowadays, i gernally assumine people just don’t even ask this question.
  • Pure Sandbox Style: Basically, a game that focuses primarily on characters existing within a world rather than any overarching narrative. Of course, this idea basically directly conflicts with my narrative oriented idea, which focuses on putting characters in scenarios they can react to rather than presenting a thing and focusing on how characters choose to interact or not interact with that thing. I think most of the issues here tend to be adjacent to the old dungeon crawler, but there are important distinctions.
    • Sandbox/Narrative is a spectrum. Most games fall somewhere within that spectrum rather than at an extreme. Therefor, the issues within this style and most of what i’m going to dive into later are somewhat codependent.
    • Unlike the dungeon delver, I think there is usually a substantial emotional investment into the character. The reason for this is a) there’s more story in this style versus the pure classical style and b) it was pretty much expected in ye-olden days (usually) and today’s emulators that someone(s) was(were) going to die. Therefor, players nowadays allow themselves more emotional attachment to their characters.
    • In fact, I think the sandbox style there is even greater potential for both the victimized player and the others at the table to be emotionally upset about this. The reason for this is that while the players may be the main characters in a narrative, the plot and high relevance npc’s do share some of the spot light. By contrast, players in this style usually tend to have their emotionaly investment in the campaign rooted even more heavily within the party and their personal character dynamics.
    • By extension, I think it’s brutally hard with this playstyle to get a new characters in the party and feel like a full member of the group. It’s definitely typically much easier from a convenience standpoint to get them in on a practical level, but because so much of that emotional investment is internal, a new party dynamic is a substantial challenge.
    • If those last two points feel counter intuitive with so much emphasis on a world, the issue is that it is, of course, impossible to fully flesh out the world and anticipate player behavior. That means that what happens actually is that the world tends to gravitationally beld to the players will as the DM reacts to the players.
      • Honestly, in hindsight, I now desperately wish I had this useful shorthand explanation back in ye olde campaign post mortem that talked a ton about my preference of narrative versus sandboxing. Sandboxing focuses on the DM reacting to the players, while narrative/linear deisgn focuses on players reacting ot the DM. As this is a spectrum of course, the vast majority of campaigns have both.
  • Funhouse/Casual Style: Most DnD groups are not just sitting there sweating bullets/doing the character voice for four straight hours, so there is therefor an element to this in most campaigns, but there is a distinction between a character being funny in a moment or a funny out of character concept versus a group whose primary solution to things is pulling someone’s pants down. I think the context of this is usually either when the gang is doing a fun one shot or when they are trying something new – i.e: too busy learning to really focus on encounter design, staying in character etc. In this case, I think death is either trivial or off the table in virtually all of these anyway. I’m actually too confused by the concept of taking death seriosuly in this sort of game to even offer any tangible opinions or advice.
  • One Shot/Gauntlet/Short term sort of thing: Basically, anything that’s too short to fall explicitly into any o fthe buckets presented. Really, although not explicitly so like the last example, death really should be in most cases either trivial or off the table for this sort of thing. The reason is just very basic and practical: your friends showed up to play, and if htey die on the second encounter, they’re missing out on 70% of the existing experience. The exception to this would be if the one shot is somehow connected to some larger world and/or narrative. In that case, sit down and explicitly plan out how death will be dealt with before the one shot as there really isn’t any opportunity to intorduce a new character or go through a length revivify process for obvious reasons.

So that’s sort of the problems and dealing with death that are possible for other people, but as established, I don’t generally fall into this camp. This is, after all, my personal masturbatory exercise to try to solve this problem for me personally.

If it’s not clear by now, “Defining the Problem” is not really an all encompassing title, because it’s not so much the problem but rather a long list of problems that may or may not exist. Luckily, I don’t think I need to go into actually explaining “if this happens, it creates that problem” because I am extremely confident* it will be immediately obvious with a bit of thinking if not immediately in the moment which problems have arrived when character death happens at the table. Therefor, I’ll just list them off , and then the bulk of the rest of this bad boy will dive into how I’ve thought about handling things

*I say as someone who has only seen NPC party members die in my campaign and only seen PC death as a player/audience.

  • Characters dying sucks (emotionally)
  • It’s hard to deal with the uncertain possibilty of resurrection.
  • It’s hard to get new characters into the campaign in a sufficiently swift manner.
  • It’s hard to come up with a story reason for the new character to suddenly be involved in a story that’s halfway done.
  • It’s hard to make the table emotionally invested in their new character
  • It’s hard to make the new character feel like a true/full member of the party

Characters Dying Sucks

And the worst thing is, there’s very little you can do to make the player (who is presumably your friend) feel better. The reason for this is simple:

Every character death is the GM’s fault. There are no exceptions.

And I mean no exceptions. It doesn’t matter if the players decided to yolo charge an ancient golden dragon at level 5 – you chose to have the dragon not conveniently show up with 5 hit points or retreat or choose to not spare the players. It doesn’t matter if the rules were followed verbatim as-written, because choosing the follow the rules is an active choice at session zero and in the moment – there are no DnD police who will beat you up for breaking the rules and blaming rules is without exception a cowardly abdication of responsibility. It doesn’t matter if the player forgot the fire resist 3 times in a row, you chose not to remind them and let them do something different. It doesn’t matter if the player willingly and knowingly walked their character into certain death, you chose for that scenario to exist and you chose not to intervene.

That does not necessarily mean the wrong decision was made. It just means the GM is responsible for the death that occurred – even if preventing the death would have obviously made the campaign worse as a whole.

And that’s a knife that cuts both ways, because deep down, every GM knows this to be true even if our first instinct is to deny it by wanting to tell the player they should have done x y and z instead.

Player character death sucks for the GM too.

But it is a responsibility that the GM must both acknowledge and accept if death is going to be in a campaign, and as already established, there is no cosmic force that says death must exist in the game. There are no DnD police. There is no inherent biological reality in any DnD setting as there is in real life. Hell, there is certainly a DnD-as-escapism argument that death shouldn’t exist in the game. My players are certainly regularly pushing me to move towards a more escapist direction.

So in order for us as GM’s to be able to emotionally handle our own burden as the harbingers of imaginary death, we have to justify its existence. (Or decide not to and instead take death off the table. Again, no DnD police and all)

Why does DnD have death?

As with the problem death presents, the reason for death’s existence is a list of somewhat codependent reasons.

  • It affects player behavior: This is the most commonly cited reason, but I think it’s widely misunderstood how death affects player behavior. The oft-cited reason is that it exists to prevent players from doing crazy, unrealistic, immersion breaking behavior – which is not entirely wrong but way too broad and all encompassing.
    • At most death is a small speed bump for such things. The problem is if a party decides to do something a reasonable person in the world wouldn’t do – i.e: attack the evil king in the open because that’s suicide – the GM is immediately put at odds with their players. It becomes a lose-lose decision for the GM, because they must either utterly destroy the internal consistency of their own world, which ruins the fun for them, or kill, imprison, or maim the player characters, which when done in the brutal no-chance-at-succeeding manner this scenario implies, is much more likely to just make the players rebel and do even more crazy shit because now they have nothing to lose but a second character they aren’t emotionally invested in.
    • Instead, what really prevents this is the social contract between GM and player, which should be discussed during a session zero. The GM agrees to place the vast majority of the spotlight on the players (rather than on their own world, characters and other shennanigans), and the players agree to treat the world as described to them as a tangible, real place and behave as tangible, real people would in such a world.
    • The problem is that second part is vague and further muddled by the conceit that heroes inherently are somewhat unreasonable people. That is the true purpose of death and the mechanics that come along with it. They provide some clarity to what a hero (or other variety of badass) can reasonably accomplish. Death is not a substiute for the social contract I described. Death is the ink that describes, clarifies, and binds this metaphorical contract.
  • It’s key to immersion: Similarly, a basic, often cited reason is immersion, and I similarly feel that this is widely misunderstood.
    • Death does not create immersion through realism as usually cited. Counter-intuitively, realism is usually less immersive because immersion is created when emotion overwhelms logic, and realism’s limits generally create more number crunching and less focusing on the fantastical scenario within the game while still failing to accurately emulate reality.
    • Really, it all ties into the behavior concept as previously described. Talking about players making crazy unrealistic choices sounds like i’m describing malicious behavior, but I really don’t think that behavior is malicious most of the time. The reason goes back to the river concept from my campaign lessons learned novella – the most immersive player experience is one in which the players can act as efficiently as possible and still experience the twists and turns of satisfying storytelling.
    • If the players know death is either not on the table, a negligble threat, or the GM doesn’t have the stones to actually let a character die, then it’s difficult for them to roleplay as if death is on the table even with the best of intentions because of that principle. Even if they do manage to successfuly roleplay as if death is on the table, it is immersion breaking because deep down, they’ll know they could have just saved themselves many hours of hassle by doing the reckless and stupid thing because death wasn’t really on the table.
  • It creates stakes/narrative tension: Using death as the narrative tension of a scenario or fight is bad GM’ing (at least if intending to play in the Narrative/Linear style). However, there are those classic heroic narrative/pulp fantasy scenarios – fighting the evil dragon or getting into a tense duel, which are to some extent off the table when you don’t have death as a reasonable threat.
    • And it should go without saying but in less story oriented styles like those who emphasize combat or exploration, it’s not just very useful, but vital to create tension in combat.

Alright, so while those might be compelling reasons, the list is substantially shorter than the problems list. Now, I would argue that stakes and immersion are among the most important things we can strive for in our game, so solving a long list of problems is worht it for those very real, substantial benefits. However, for the sake of fairness, I do think it’s important to acknowledge solutions for those don’t feel comfortable with this very weighty responsibility.

Here are the best solutions I can conjure that maintain at least some of the benefit of having the legitimate threat of death in a campaign without actually having that.

  • A threat that is death adjacent/almost as bad as death: It’s not easy to find a consequence that strikes the balance of being grave and/or substantial enough that players still behave as though they fear it but not worse than death (from the players perspective). Additionally, it still creates some of the same problems, and it can potentially create new problems as well. However, for those deadset on not having to deal with introducing a new character or possibly leaving a character arc incomplete, there are potential options.
    • Permanently Wounded and/or Maimed: In real life, there is a wide range of negative consequences of combat other than death, but DnD’s mechanics explicitly ignore this outside of little-known optional injury rules that basically don’t do anything. Death can be subsituted with instead a grevious injury to the character – a lost hand or eye, some horrid mental or psychic block. However, for this to have the desired effect, it needs to be enforced mechanically. Losing a hand can’t just be an aesthetic feature or something easily reversed with a restoration spell – it must come with mechanical consequences like a penalty to dexterity and/or an inability to use two handed weapons. This mechanical peanlty must strike a balance between being substantial enough to feel significant while not being punishing enough that the maimed character is a second class citizen in combat compared to their allies. The reason this mechanical enforcement is needed is it serves as a constant reminder of what happened. Even if the mechanical disadvantage posed is fairly minor, the player will still feel the loss of the skill they previously had every time they want to do something roughly equivilant to what they could before with greater effectiveness.
      • I quite like this solution, but it does have the problem of needing to be extremely player and character specific even more so than solutions to player death need to be. For example, losing a hand might be devastating to a barbarian but complete irreleavnt to a wizard.
      • Not only does this need to be specifically individual, it pretty much has to be purely homebrewed. Not a problem for a maniac like me, but a problem for most sane GM’s.
      • While it maintians that fear and respect of present threats, it does so less than death does. Players will still fundementally know death is off the table, and having your movespeed reduced by 10 is substantially less than losing a character. I don’t think this is game breaking as long as players are making a good faith effort to act as though their character is an individual who has some fear or concern of death, but there is still just that fundamental truth that this takes death of the table, and there are limits to how well a player can roleplay that will still remaining immersed.
      • It also has pretty rapidly diminishing returns. Losing your hand once and taking a -1 dex penalty for the rest of the campaign is scary and makes you not want ot die again. Dying a third time just means you’ve accepted playing a wimpy character at this point – basically, once you’re used to dealing with the consequence, it has far less effect – whereas death is always unique to circumstances and character even in settings where returning from the dead is somewhat commonplace.
        • It’s also has rapidly diminishing returns because these penalties when stacked on top of each other can pretty quickly lead to being a fate that is worse than death, which thereby defeats the purpose of going out of your way to not have death – and this of course also snowballs because even marginally weaker characters are more likely to die.
    • Some other terrible non-death consequence: Most commonly, GM’s will allow the character to be resurrected somewhat (or very) easily, but this resurrection has a consequence. The resurrector now has control over the player, essentially placing them in their moral or magical servitude. Someone else the party cares about has to die and take their place.
      • This more or less has the same benefits and downsides as maiming the character, but it has to be even more individualized to a campaign and its setting.
      • While this can ensure characters are able to be fully explored, this approach does have downside even more spectacular than simply letting characters stay dead because it often involves disempowering player’s agency rather than just simply slightly disempowering a character’s brute mechanical strength. Players undoudetly dislike having their agency and ability to impact the world around them challenged even more than their characters dying.
      • Unlike a physical or mental impairment, which can be iterated on multiple times, most versions of this can really only be done once before the fictional plausability is pretty much utterly shattered.
  • Shrodinger’s Death Saves: A concept I have shamelessly stolen and linked for convenience – the concept is simple. Death mechanics work exactly as written but with one key distinction, the player makes their death roll in secret, “behind the screen” if you will, and no one – absolutely no one but especially not the dm – gets to look at the dice. But one may ask “but wouldn’t that tempt players to lie?” and that is very much intentional. Essentially, at any point when a character approahces the character’s unconscious body, the player will say whether their character is alive or not. The idea is that you are ultimately completely shafting the responsibility of player character death in most cases and moving it onto the player.
    • This is very much an idea that won’t work with all parties. Some players are so by the rules strict that this is essentially a useless mechanism for them, while others are so laissez-faire (or unwilling to entertain the idea of their character dying) that this will essentially be the same for them as if you just completely took death off the table (see advantages of death in a game above). However, I think the vast majority of players fall in a happy enough medium between these two extremes where it is an acceptable option.
    • What this does is give players the agency to prevent the worst kinds of player deaths – the ones that happen in some random first floor of a dungeon zombie encounter because they miss 6 straight attack roll, or the ones that happen two sessions before they were going to propose to their NPC boyfriend. Meanwhile, deaths that feel fair or appropriate, dying to the big bad boss or in a desperate struggle for survival, can stay.
    • Pretty much eliminates the GM/player contentiousness that is easily sprouted from this topic.
    • The biggest advantage by far, however, is that the system gives players a unique ability to tailor their own personal experience at a table without (in theory) affecting others’ experience in a way the structure of the game doesn’t generally allow.
    • There are two big problems that stem from this, which is why i’m ultimately am unlikely to ever try this for myself.
      • Like I said, this largely eliminates animosity between GM and players, but it can very easily create animosity between players. If one player does the death rolls, grits their teeth, and accepts their fate because it was a fair death and they would feel guilty about internally perceived “cheating,” and then they watch another player get knocked flat on their ass 4 straight times and be completely fine, it will utterly shatter their personal experience.
      • The other problem is that there is the constant temptation to eventually slide into the “i can’t die” mentality i descirbed all the way at the top.
    • And more of a personal problem for me, it takes a major component of control away from the GM. Not a problem for a lot of people, but my style is highly predicated on planning. Mostly just wanted to mention it because it was cool and unique enough to be worth mentioning.
  • Make combat easy/just lie to your players lol: At the top i’ve already alluded to the idea that “DnD is too complicated to firmly predict,” and really, what that statement should have said was “it’s too complicated to predict assuming you’re generally following the guidelines for desinging encounters and handling out valuables.” Because I categorically reject the common wisdom that it’s impossible to guarantee combat will be easy and no one will die.
    • If you don’t simply state at the top “combat is going to be crazy easy,” simply faking having death on the table is very easy. You are God, and you have many tools to ensure things go smoothly. You’re already tracking all the enemy HP, it is literally the same exact action to just also track the heroes HP on hostile turns. You don’t have to track them exact or anything.
    • There are a bevy of psychological tricks to make combat feel harder than it is – have something hit really hard but die in two hits, have something hit really hard only right before it’s going to die, etc. etc.
    • And of course, due to the aformentioned lack of existing DnD police, no one says your encounters have to be balanced. It is very easy to just make most of your enemies tissue paper.
    • Combine all these things, and you can keep the ruse up for a long time. The problem is that if you try this it is very much a tactic of diminishing returns. Even newbies will eventually catch on that there’s not any actual serious threat of death, even if they haven’t put 2 and 2 together and realized this is on purpose.
    • And while i’ve covered in detail while difficulty as your main tactic to make combat interesting is bad design, the majority of combat needs to at least some semblance of difficulty to engage. Otherwise, you’re just better off LARPing in general.


*deep breath*

I’ve explored why death ideally should exist in most games that strive to provide challenge, stakes, tension, and/or narrative immersion. To me, the alternate consequence fix is more one that I would potentially apply as a very campaign specific gimmick – not something that I feel is broadly applicable. Shrodinger’s, as mentioned, is not compatible with my preferences and style. And “toss one of the pillars of gameplay mostly into the garbage” to me is just not really viable.

As for the maimed instead of dead idea – I don’t hate it. In fact, it would be a substantial weight off my shoulders in some ways – my players tend to push me in a direction that is more lighthearted and escapist. However, I ultimately lean toward it because while the maim/wounded solution does provide a proximity to the needed elements in the game that death does, it is ultimately less. How much less? I have no idea. I imagine it varies a lot from player to player. All I know is that the massive increase in convenience is not worth the loss of immersion and stakes for me personally as a player, and to really, fully justify death existing in my game as a GM (which you may recognize is not the same thing as being a player), i have to tell a really long anecdote about the campaign I played in that worked this way.

Mason’s Long Anecdote About Playing In A Game Without Death

Most DM’s are cursed to be the ForeverDM, so I am very blessed in that my friend group not only has two main DM’s, but other people who regularly express interest in DMing in smaller doses. This means I actually get to play as a player on a regular basis. I was originally just going to call this other person OtherDM, but that’s a lot of typing, so let’s call this person J.

J’s deathless campaign is by a substantial margin the best campaign I have ever played in. This is very important to say at the top because a lot of really diving into why I came into “my game needs death” conclusion involves nit picking specific moments in J’s campaigns. J’s campaign was set in an alternate telling of the Star Wars prequel saga using the SW5E system – a fantastic setting altered version of 5e with a miraculously well designed website that makes numerous substantial improvements to the base 5e game itself. Because Star Wars is a world where a character survived being melted in a volcano while de-limbed, J made the decision that anyone who wants to not be dead doesn’t need to be dead – they just become a cyborg or whatever instead.

We all thought this was really dope because it felt very in line with the Star Wars setting. Furthermore, it felt like a nice fix to a problem we had with prior campaigns. J really, really didnt’ want anyone to die in his campaign. This was due to a combination of all the aformentioned problems J was very familiar with, as well as a prior legacy of teenage us playing dnd and being over the top ass holes/edgelord and then also whiny babies when things didn’t go our way. However, J didn’t want to just say “no one dies lol,” and J’s solution was the aformentioned tissue easy combat and (i assume) “lie to the players lol.”

This had been a problem to an extent for awhile, but the campaign before Star Wars really devolved into a pure meme campaign. Heads of state were regularly cuckolded (metaphorically speaking) by low and mid level players. Multiple players just changed their character because they were bored. The campaign ended with us exploiting a homebrew class’s fire immunity to essentially nuke a city and skip straight to the final boss. That’s not to say the campaign was devoid of value or fun – it was still dnd with friends, but J and I in particular I feel were profoundly unsatisfied with the experience.

Reintroducing the stakes in a way that shielded J from the responsibilties allowed J to create combat that was once again difficult enough to be engaging. This created a massive trickle down effect in both story and other gameplay that resuled in I think 4 of our firend group’s 7 favorite dnd moments. There was, however, one stinky sock that was pretty much my fault.

It was a great scenario that really reenergized enthusiasm that had lulled over the last few sessions (largely for out of game/schedule conflicty reasons). We had successfully taken over a proto-star destroyer for PlotReasons™ largely via subterfuge, but the on board military personnel was now aware their ship had been taken over. Great scenario that forces us to be creative. I had the great idea of opening all the air locks since we had taken over the bridge, which would solve our problem – only that doesn’t entirely solve our problem, because not everyone is in a spaceable location. That’s fine – preferred even. Now we have a tense cliff hanger to leave that sesion off on – and a situation ripe for J to prepare a glorious desperation stand for us against the several dozen soldiers who didn’t get spaced.

The details of this stand escape me, but things went swimmingly well except for one key oversight – that oversight left me facing like 20ish soldiers on my own in a crowded cooridor hallway. An extremely desperate situation where i’d have to pull out every little trick to even have a chance at survival. Meanwhile, the rest of the party tried their hardest to get to me in time.

By the time they arrived, I had taken down all but one soldier. Unfortunately, the last man standing did manage to bring my HP to 0. What’s the problem? one may ask. Sounds like I had a great time, and I did. But as mentioned, death was very much laid out as “optional” rathern than explciitly “off the table,” meaning deciding whether my character would die was my burden. I decided my character would die before rolling the death saves, but that was rendered ultimately meaningless when I made the saves.

Or rather, it would have been rendered meaningless if I didn’t then declare that my character dies of his wounds.

As the party gathered around my character’s last few mortal moments, I delivered a few brief, emotional sentences to a completely unengaged and unreacting audience. Judas Nebula, my favorite creation, expired with a fart. I can only describe J and the party’s response to my decision and then attempt at pathos as profoundly unimpressed. I think we ended up taking the next week off, and then J and I finally got around to talking about what happened. We both agreed that how I described it – a deeply unsatisfying experience – was in fact accurate. Further, we got into the flaws of why I did what I did – the idea that I was focused way too much on treating the experience like a story instead of a game. And ultimately, we decided to fully retcon the decision and have my character survive as they would have if the rules were followed as written. We have both agreed in hindsight that this was very obviously the correct decision for a whole bunch of reasons – namely that the finale was suitably epic and that me simply putting the PC lable on an NPC for the last 4 sesssions would have been a pitiful subsitute to what was received.

But even in elaborating on that resolution – i’m still to some degree dancing about the why. Or rather, I put an explanation that seems to have nothing to do with anything, and you may have guessed from that I don’t really think that was the reason I made such a wierd decision.

Ultimately, I think, it’s that I was chasing the dragon. I wanted to be punished for my fuck up, and then when I was unable to win and saved by the grace of the dice god – I rejected their gift in anger.

I think I ponder this moemnt on a weekly basis. Therefor, i’ve had an enormous amount of brain power dedicated to the philosophy of what happened. It’s honestly worth its own entire article. But for the sake of brevity (very relatively speaking), what it boils down to is the campaign had dragged, I had become addicted to the emotional stakes of earlier story beats, and lacking those, I attempted to create my own and failed miserably.

And that is why for me, personally, as a player, I feel like I need death as at least a faint whisper of a threat on the table.

Ok, but didn’t you just say you’re pondering this as a DM? Why does your player experience matter?

There is some schools of thought that suggest being the GM is very much a a position of servitude – not dissimilar to what the idealized verison of a politician as public servant is supposed to be. I think this idea is a bit of an overcorrection to the very old-school idea that the GM/player relationship was inherently adverserial where the GM was meant to cook up some dastardly scheme with the explicit intent on making their players suffer. I don’t think this idea is some wild scourge on the dnd community, but there is enough of it that I think it’s worth addressing.

The short verison of this is that the DM is also a player – meaning they have a right to have elements in the game that stimulate and excite them as well. Of course, the basic idea is good enough to explain why the idea of servitude is flawed – but it’s not really true is it. The DM is inherently a position of authority – because someone has to decide what happens when player x asks what would happen if they try to build a molotov cocktail, and since someone already has that authority – the vast majority of groups assume other out of game responsibilties like scheduling, venue, snacks and admittance to the gaming must also fall on the GM. I think that’s very much an idea woth interrogating, but it’s outside the scope of the very long post – so for now, let’s accept the current reality that the vast majority of tables have a central authority figure.

Furthermore, the GM is putting in the most work by far on a week to week basis – outside of very avante-garde rotating gm west marshes style games – it’s the same person preparing the week to week content. What makes this complicated is two things: 1) that does not mean “what i say goes” is remotely a sound strategy as a gm and 2) GM enjoyment is adjacent to as-a-player enjoyment but not identical.

But ultimately, the weeds of this are not super important. The reason maximizing my emotional engagement in addition to the players is important is that it’s damn hard enough to have consistent quality content prepared on a weekly basis, and loss of enthusiasm just makes that much harder.

The other thing – which is actually important, is what I would call The Artist’s Dilemna. I’m not sure whether GMing even qualifies as art – but you’re creating the bones of a story in preperation and in improved real time – so i think it qualifies as at least art adjacent.

The Artist’s Dilemna is that creator is creating their art with the intent of being consumed by an audience. However, art that is made which focuses primarily on pandering to what is popular or explicitly demanded of a desired or pre-existing audience is usually garbage because it comes from a robotically executed place of cynicism instead of vulnerable, human passion that is (usually) needed to actually compell people. DnD is a particularly messy version of this as your audience is 3-5 people who are also your underling artistic collaberators.

In other words, you have to trust your own creative process enough to not just resort to asking everyone what they want, but you have to respect your players as collaborators to enough to not simply disregard audience demand. And of course, on top of all this is the explicit conceit in the vast majority of games that what actually happens is often out of your control (and as mentioned above, relinquishing this control is a choice meaning you are still responsible for what happens when you aren’t controlling what happens.

Enough Talking in Circles – Should I have Death?

In short, there is a very long list of non-standard experiences for which I would absolutely recommend just taking it off the table. This includes:

  • Having new players: As mentioned, the problem with many of the anti death solutions is diminshing returns as players develop the x ray vision to see behind the curtain. Great way to ease new people into the hobby when they have yet to grow weary of such tricks.
  • Being a new DM: A great way to practice at something new is to make doing that thing easier. As mentioned, there’s a massive list of practical problems that comes with death being on the table. No shame in making your job much easier the first time or two around the block.
  • One shots: People show up to have fun and play with their friends. You can’t really introduce a new character during a one shot. For this reason, i would pretty much always be inclined to take death off the table for 1-3 session adventures unless a very heavy combat approach or lore relevance was discussed well ahead o ftime.
  • Learning a new system: Similarly, if, god forbid you actually take the time to try something other than 5e, I think it’s appropriate to remove death from the table unless it would be wildly out of tone or be incompatible with established mechanics. Removing complexity from new things is good.
  • Intent to a more casual/low stakes tone: Nothing wrong with goofing off and having a meme campaign.
  • Emotional Safety of your Players: Getting into why pretty close to the worst thing that can happen to a human being – death – is almost always substantially less upsetting to people than spiders is a bag of worms way, way, way beyond the scope of my concluding thought exercise. But, there are situations which happen in life that do cause people to be emotionally triggered by death being on the table in general or to their fictional self either temporary or permanently, and it should go without saying emotional safety in something as deeply immersive as dnd is paramount.
  • Your campaign is specifically built around non-death: There are plenty of premises that avoid the aformentioned issues wih death at the very core. To list a few examples:
    • Groundhog Day/The Edge of Tomorrow: Basically, any time loop story would immediately bypass all relevant concerns.
    • Afterlife Campaign: Although you run into the issue of “then how are there any stakes in combat,” you could very much create a campaign setting that leans all the way in to players and characters alike knowing death is not remotely on the table.
    • You wake up Campaign: Some variation of when characters die they wake up and the drama of the campaign is in dealing with the ramifications of people finding out they can’t die and/or the time and events that pass while they are dead.

So that’s a very long list – long enough one could quite reasonably argue that the majority of campaigns/adventures would be better off taking death off the table.

But there is that still ever elusive idealized vision of a dnd campaign that is a fantasy tale as epic and engrossing as fiction but that you get to actually experience through your character avatar, and that evergreen pursuit of perfection does ultimately require death, and so I will continue to chase the dragon.


There is one massive elephant in the room. Resurreciton – or specifically, how the rules and world of DnD muddy things to such a degree as to be its own wild wrench that needs to be solved before we can even get to sovling the more practical concerns, which means that this is just a part one.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s