I have DM’d various RPG systems (mostly of my own making) since I was 15 years old. I’ve DM’d for twenty three people, and thirty two characters. In thirteen years I shepherded those players and characters deathless through dungeon, swamp and pocket dimension. That is, until the last session I ran.
PC deaths are something I think I’ve always, subconsciously, avoided. I generally, in my life, avoid conflict, and the idea of having to tell someone that the character they’ve spent time building, levelling and fighting with is gone, possibly forever, horrifies me. I bring them to the cusp, hell I don’t even mind death saves, but they always get the better of that skull-faced, chess-loving, scythe wielding reaper of souls. But this, in itself, is an issue. I knew that no matter how difficult the fight, I’d always make sure the monsters lost. I’d fudge rolls, introduce NPCs, give the players an out of some sort. Fights ceased to be threatening. Now, maybe I’m alone in this, but I find that as the DM I’m as much a party of the party as the players. I may not participate in the planning, the combat (on their side anyway), or anything practical, but i share in their highs and their lows. I feel the same rush of adrenaline when a monster crits, or when a breath weapon DC is too high for half the party. Not confronting death in D&D began to suck away the vitality and the danger, and left combat beginning to feel hollow, for myself at least.
So, a little context. The party have had six months off pirating, looting or searching for ways to resurrect their companion animals from homeless wizards in the Castle Ward of Waterdeep. The Midsummer festival rolls around and the party go, separately. In the midst of the fun the Master Illusionist of Baldur’s Gate, Dexter Halebrakt, put on an uproarious show…which was quickly replaced with screaming as mothers discovered their children were now missing. The party were given a cryptic riddle by a dying soothsayer, and found their way into the Undermountain, on their way to Skullport.
Here I introduced my first gambit; the unwinnable fight.
My players were introduced to Aragauthos (who should sound familiar to anyone who has read Ed Greenwood’s classic ‘Ruins of the Undermountain), an ancient, though malnourished, blue dragon. Held there by the Mad Mage, she believed the only two ways to escape were to dispel the magic keeping her there, or to place 72 perfect human skulls on the throne in the cavern (this, of course, was a lie to to her by the Mage himself). All my players were level 5-7 (though there were nine of them turning up regularly), and had no chance. Their only option was to talk to the dragon and attempt to help it. Thankfully they managed to do this by casting a ritual form of dispel magic, then fluking the roll, setting the ancient Aragauthos on a path of revenge which would take her straight through Waterdeep itself. Their other option? Scattering very quickly and hoping some of them made it across the cavern to the river. It really was a TPK situation in 80% of the outcomes.
But, they survived. They annoyed a number of the Skulls of Skullport, met the 14th Skull, and killed NPCs designed to be their allies by keeping the leader stuck on the first floor fighting a 10ft tall goliath paladin who decided to knock the front of the house in. Oh, and they threw a 17 year old prostitute out of a window, killing her. They bumbled their way to their destination, and here we pick up the story. There are four players in particular we are interested in; Djakka, Rinko, Maljape, and Francis Ridge (better known as Fridge).
The party, after some searching, discovered the safe house belonging to the Reforged Ring, a slave trading organisation now controlled by the Ulitharid believed to have taken the children. Fridge approached the door and inspected it for traps. Finding nothing, he stepped back as Djakka, the colossal paladin tank of the group, stepped forward. Inside the door was a small, bizarre looking creature. It looked Fridge straight in the eye, and vanished. Immediately Fridge began to feel a burning, and wispy yellow flames began to seep from his eyes and fingertips, stealing the magic from the air around him, and hurting anyone who came too close. After some worry, and even more searching, the party found themselves in a very small basement, with Djakka (being 10ft tall and wearing bulky plate armour) stuck in the trapdoor down into the room.
In an attempt to help him, the Dragonborn demolitionist set off the explosive trap in the floor, collapsing the ceiling onto an unconscious Djakka and Rinko ( the Yuan-Ti bard). The two rolled death save after death save while the party struggled to free themselves of the rubble. The cleric healer failed to extricate herself, and only ended up collapsing more rubble onto herself. Finally, by the time anyone was out and able to help, both Djakka and Rinko were dead, crushed and suffocated by the weight of the rocks.
Now, let me land here for a moment. This last event, the cave in, took place over two sessions, with the cave in ending one session, and the beginning of death saves beginning the second. I’d forgotten that Rinko was down, and so planned the next session in my mind thinking only one person needed to be stabilised. I planned difficult DCs for getting out and freeing them, only to find out that the effort would be twice as difficult as I’d imagined. Throw a natural 1 on Rinko’s save, and some other bad rolling, and we were left with two dead players fifteen minutes into a four hour session. Thankfully, the cleric had Revivify prepared, and so the two were brought back quickly, at the cost of the cleric’s only really useful spell slots. The party brushed themselves down, and moved on. Myself, I was amazed. Poor Jagoda, the player behind Rinko, had only had her character a week, and the look she gave me as Rinko’s death began to sink in told of a real pain. It was a sad, touching moment.
At this point we’ll skip ahead a bit (this post is already 1057 words long). The party have stumbled on a large cavern, as well as Dexter Halebrakt. He has turned himself into a illusory dragon, and the party fight it. A number of players went down, and the cleric (Mercy) spent most of her time casting healing spells at players rolling death saves.
In all the confusion, at the height of the battle, the Ulitharid appeared to watch his foes’ defeat. After a number of failed encounters with the monster, and with Spellfire now cascading from him, Fridge climbed, grappled the monster, and screamed the howl of the damned into it’s face.
For anyone who has not read Ed Greenwood’s first Forgotten Realms novel, here is a description of Spellfire:
The Fire That Burns
It can lay low a dragon or heal a wounded warrior.
It is the most sought-after magical power in all Faerun.
Spellfire is magic, untamed. It consumes magic, and is fuelled by it. It also, if left unchecked, consumes the wielder. Fridge was dying, and he knew it. In his scream he unleashed his Spellfire and exploded, vaporising both himself and the Ulitharid. He flung the dragon, at this point beside him, from the platform they were all standing on. The platform vanished and Fridge’s two allies, Maljape and Djakka, fell to the rocks below. Djakka was knocked unconscious again, but Maljape was not so lucky.
Mercy arrived as the smoke cleared. Nothing was left of the platform, Fridge or the Ulitharid. Maljape lay dead, his gnomish body lying crooked against the sharp stones. Worse still, Mercy was left without sufficient magic to raise the poor man back to life. Stumbling, unsure of what to do, the religious members of the group, Mercy and the newly awakened and healed Djakka, simply prayed.
As an aside, Fridge’s sacrifice is one of the most incredible moments I’ve ever DM’d. It was cinematic, heartfelt, and likely saved a good few more deaths. Now, faced with another player death, I gave the players a final out; pray that your gods look favourably upon you. I had the cleric roll a d100, and gave him a 2.5% chance (rounded up) per religious party member assisting. He rolled, and the players held their breath. In the most wonderful, and lucky, way, Maljape was brought back to life by the power of distant gods.Had the prayer failed then yes, Waterdeep lies above and magic aplenty resides there. But with a blue dragon around, the chances of resurrection would not have been high. But I’d had my first taste of player death, and I was prepared to let it stand in this instance.
So there you have it; my very first player deaths. After none in thirteen years, I had four in one night. And it’s something that, while I will never deliberately seek a PC death, I’m not afraid of any more. It created the most memorable moments of the campaign (the dead prostitute, and a 10ft tall goliath breaking through both a door and the wall of the first floor not-withstanding). So, if you’ve ever been afraid to allow a character to die because they made a silly decision, or they weren’t prepared enough, or because things simply didn’t go their way? Fear not; so long as the time feels right, and you don’t feel it’s too harsh or damages the story, roll with it.