The D&D campaign that we just finished up last week featured a significant amount of character death in the last several sessions. The entire campaign went for about 20 sessions or so, and in the last third of that there were four PC’s killed (in a party of five players). (That doesn’t include the final session in which four of the five characters were killed when they acted like cowards with a red dragon around.) I’m not a stranger to character death, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t take it’s toll on the narrative arc of the campaign. Parties embark on certain paths that are determined by the characters involved and they put into motion story lines that have to do with those decisions and motives. Which is great. And then those characters die and are suddenly replaced by new ones that may not have the same agenda. It creates a problem. So what’s a DM to do in that situation?
There are a lot of options that I am not going to get into right now, though I would like to explore them in the future. But I did dream up with something the other day that sort of got me thinking about what to do in this situation. What’s even worse than having a character die? How about having your character die and then not being allowed to make a new character and join the game again! I know, it’s totally rotten, but I would like to play around with this idea of a knockout/survivor type of campaign. Essentially when you character dies you are out of the game. “Sorry buddy, we’ll call you in a couple of weeks.” Obviously everyone would need to know this ahead of time and be on board with it, but it could be a nice change of pace for everyone involved. And as a strange side effect it also allows a player to sort of “win” dungeons and dragons. Which, as far as I know, is otherwise impossible.
So how would this work? For starters, it would need to be setup to be a shorter term game since the number of players would be growing less and less with each session. And I don’t think it makes sense to play until everyone is dead, that has a certain Sisyphean quality to it that seems overly morbid. No, the goal here is to survive and that denotes that there can be an actual ending to it. Similarly, the game would need to start with a larger number of players than what one would typically run a game for. For me the sweet spot of players is usually four, but for this I think that starting with six or seven makes sense. And yes, I know that the primary rule of roleplaying is that the game is supposed to be fun for everyone involved over everything else, and this sort of flies in the face of that. Yeah, well, fuck that. This could be sort of fun for a little bit. I mean, we’re not talking about life and death here. Okay, we are. But it’s make believe life and death.
The first thing that came to mind when I thought of this is that characters would generally act like cowards for fear of getting killed. No one will want to be the first one through the door or to open up the trapped chest. But at the same time this is supposed to be a “heroic” group of people who have chosen adventuring, one of the most dangerous professions in all of the world. They can’t actually be cowards, it doesn’t make any sense. So I think the driving force behind this needs to be individual rewards. Experience points won’t be divided evenly among all survivors and treasure needs to be disbursed in a different manner. Bravery really needs to count for something since the result of character death is a little more severe than in other games. If your rogue just wants to hang out in the back and play it safe, they are not going to be as rewarded as well as the barbarian that charges into battle knowing fully well that the ogre with an enormous club could easily swat him down. Same thing with weapons and other treasure. If you charge into battle and strike down the enemy with a gutsy move, then maybe that sword of yours just became magical. I think this could work! The same would apply to roleplaying at the sake of one’s own survival. The first example that comes to mind is a cleric and their cure spells. Common sense says they should horde those spells for themselves, but if you actually spread the wealth and help some people out there should be a reward in it for you.
Normally I am very against this, but for this style of game I would also advocate that all dice rolling be done out in the open. It just seems more fair this way. A game like this would naturally lend itself to a competitive environment among the players and it does seem fair that everything should be on the up and up. I’m not saying that as a DM I’ve cheated, but I’ve certainly misread the dice a couple of times for the sake of the story or just because I thought it made sense at the time. I think it would actually be somewhat liberating in a game like this to be freed of the burden of secrecy when it comes to the dice.
I suppose that a game like this isn’t without precedence either. In a lot of ways it’s like a tournament style game in which players do receive points for surmounting obstacles and making it to the end. And in a short game, like a tournament, dying once usually means the end of your day anyway.
I guess the big question about all of this is why. Why set up a game in this manner? In a way it’s sort of a strange, meta way of running a game. There is some inherent knowledge that we possess as players that our characters can never really know, essentially that they are just pawns in our elaborate game of tabletop fantasy. As characters, death should always be treated as something to be avoided at all costs. After all, it is death and that’s sort of the end of everything. But as players we know that’s not the case. We know that at the end of a bad roll or a tough break is a brand new set of dice and attributes waiting to find stats. But what if there wasn’t? What if the game ended and you lost? If you knew that the game went on and you weren’t going to be a part of it, would it change everything about how your character acted? How would you feel if you could actually win dungeons and dragons? Would you go for it?