Ask a DM #2: PC Death, Non-Combat Encounters, and Taking Up the Mantle

For our second article in this series, we asked a new set of DMs a new set of questions. This time we discuss the ever-debated topic of PC death, favorite things to do in game (that aren’t orc slaying), and what it is that inspired each of our respondents to begin DMing in the first place.

What’s your attitude toward PC death?

 @ginga_ninja_mastah

I think it can be a great chance for both players and characters. It can instill the fear of consequences but also, if a player has been playing recklessly, it will give them the chance to grow and mature a bit. I haven’t encountered too much PC death in my games, but I’ve played in games where there’s a cleric there with the revivify and sometimes I’m a bit bummed because it feels cheap. On the flip side, I am running a short campaign and I worked with my players to come up with a plan that IF their character were to “die” (they are only playing levels 1-5 and their cleric doesn’t have revivify), then we could talk about the consequences—do they actually die? If the player wants to roll a new character for a very short campaign then they can allow their character to die. Do they want to live but with consequences? If they didn’t want to roll a new character (again I wasn’t trying to punish them in such a short campaign), then their character essentially is in a coma for 1d4 days and we determine when they wake up what their new flaw is. They get to pick between two problems that they’ll have to play with for the rest of the game, however they don’t know the full extent of those issues.
For example, one of my players was killed and couldn’t be brought back. So he fell into his coma, and outside of game we discussed the problems. Since he was bashed in the face repeatedly with a club by a bugbear, his options were- charisma penalties (let’s be honest, after that kind of treatment you’d look pretty wretched) or a form of PTSD: When taking massive damage, roll 1d8. On a 1, you are frightened of that creature, save ends. At the beginning of each turn, make a wisdom saving throw, DC 8+ points exceeding Massive Damage (IE massive damage = 7, player takes 12, 5 points exceeding massive damage, DC = 13).” Also, when he comes in contact with more bugbears he’s having to make wisdom saving throws to avoid becoming frightened.
I wanted to make it feel like almost passing into the clutches of death has real consequences without necessarily killing them off because it’s a very short campaign (and being honest, having to bring in a new character at level 4 or 5 when the game is nearly done wouldn’t be much fun for them OR me).

@ken_the_dm

If it happens, it happens. That being said, I’m secretly a softie.
I think I am more interested in a “story based” game and I incentivize people to write and share about their characters, so they tend to fall a bit in love. A lot of thought goes into what their characters do and/or should be doing. The more invested the game is in the character, the more likely that character will survive. It feels almost wrong to kill a player before her time.
That doesn’t mean that characters don’t die, or that there aren’t consequences to actions, I just don’t like it coming down to a dice roll or two. Death is usually at the end of several bad decisions.
I keep a list of all characters I have killed. In 3 or 4 years of DMing, I’ve killed 5 PCs (and 3 unnamed wizard interns). None have been above level 5.

 @thevulturegm

Adventuring is not a guided tour with safety rails and flotation devices. Character death is a necessary consequence of characters putting themselves in danger. I only care if a character dies when the player has a hard time with the loss. I’ve found that newer players struggle through subsequent sessions until maturing into the enjoyment of playing a new character. Maturing here means realizing that playing is what is fun and if the character dies, so be it. Death is part of the game. No threat—no fun. Know threat—know fun.
I roll in the open and the dice fall where they fall. I am ever mindful of being an impartial judge and cringe at being perceived as unfair by my players, so I tend to err on whatever ruling makes the situation most epic. There is no sense of accomplishment on my part for killing a PC as I already have the power of the universe. A tarrasque arrives and you all die… Yawn.

 @wandering_alchemist

PC death absolutely needs to be a thing. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t go around trying to kill my PCs or anything, but the thrill of adventure comes from the risks. Sometimes this could be losing something you care about or someone you care about, but often it should be a risk to your own life. Heroes are not afraid to risk death in the name of what they believe is right, so I make sure that risk is real. This risk may be more prevalent in some settings than others. Regardless, it should be something that is possible and that happens. The real question is, what you do about it? If the player is really attached to that character, give them a chance at bringing it back somehow and make that event meaningful. There is no point in including that risk if the resurrection is super easy. Does it come with drawbacks, debts, a quest? That is up to you, but a heroic death can be a story you tell for years.

What’s your favorite non-combat element?

 @ginga_ninja_mastah

Puzzles (and anti-puzzles). I love puzzles and trying to create them. I find playing in person makes this easier because you can provide props or physical elements (like the goat puzzle) where we put a 3d wood goat in a bag and as the fight went on, we removed some pieces that were “destroyed” in the fight. But unbeknownst to our players, we’d added a few extra pieces from a second goat to represent after the fight when they were quickly grabbing pieces of their goat to repair they may have accidentally grabbed a few sticks or clumps of pine needles that weren’t actually part of the goat. I’ve also used anti-puzzles (things that seem to be puzzles at first, but, to the frustration of the players and my great amusement, turn out to be nothing and common sense would have gotten them through easier). These can be tricky since they can end up spending a LOT of time and you have to feed them a lot of clues to get over the “this is not an actual puzzle” without telling them it’s not an actual puzzle, but also still try to guide them along to figure it out for themselves. They can also be “solved” really easily so make sure if you have one of the anti-puzzles planned then have additional stuff planned, it’s better to over plan and have material for the next session then not plan enough.

@ken_the_dm

I have two which have been consistent help throughout my career.
First, if you learn nothing else from me, use the Savage Worlds interlude system. Players love talking about their characters, and they all finally role play a bit. They also, unknowingly, hand you eleventy-thousand plot hooks. As the DM your job is to write down what they say and ask questions. Fill in the gaps for them (or yourself). Give XP for good stories. This method has saved campaigns.
Second, get your players to journal and share it with the group. Reward their efforts with a small bonus (inspiration, a bonus die, action point, whatever). It doesn’t have to be excessive, just a paragraph of two. Give them large latitude on what their stories can set in the world. By doing this you create player investment in the campaign setting, and keeps them thinking about D&D instead of focusing on their normal daily life. I will accept any type of art as long as it was a good faith effort generated by the player. Drawings. Audio files. Anything. I give assignments if I need something particular.
The real bonus of both of these methods is that they lessen the burden of DMing. Yes, you lose some creative control, but in the end you create a vibrant shared world with player investment.

 @thevulturegm

For starters, a group of players will always outsmart me because they are 4-6 people and I am one. In that vein, I enjoy presenting them a problem and listening to them work through the solution. The longer they talk amongst themselves about how to solve it without my input the more successful I am. For example, the party travelled to the plane of shadow to save a dead PC’s soul and later returned to the prime material plane only to discover a time warp occurred and they had returned a week before they’d left. The players debated for over an hour if they should go warn or stop themselves or not and all the potential consequences. They decided to avoid their past selves (smart move).
I also enjoy reading other game systems rules and figuring out the logic of how those systems work in case I ever need to port those rules into my game. As an easy example, I took the luck stat from Dungeon Crawl Classics, gave it some properties of hero points from Pathfinder, and added that into my D&D 5e house rules.

 @wandering_alchemist

Hands down it would have to be unexpected amounts of role-playing. Sometimes it can be difficult to tell when or if the group will decide to spend a lot of time outside of combat. It may take some time to search for things, make purchases, plan, and argue. When they decide to visit someone specific or take part in a festival, things go off the rails and they are tons of fun. If a player wants to do something random, let them and play up the NPCs. They could become regular characters that the party interacts with. Don’t be afraid to ham up random NPCs too, as that could draw out a great roleplaying session from everyone. When a group is suddenly talking in character to each other without pause, no one says anything out of character for most of a session, weapons aren’t drawn, and few dice are rolled…that’s the best non-combat element of any game.

What made you pick up DMing in the first place?

 @ginga_ninja_mastah

I wanted to try it. I had friends I wanted to get them into the game and I wanted to see if I could do it. It’s rewarding, nerve-wracking, exhausting, fun, and exhilarating all at the same time. There is a lot of amazing content out there that you can start with (which I foolishly did not), or you can take a stab at something of your own creation. I apparently did a good enough job because my two friends that I introduced have gone on and are now both DMing their own campaigns, and we’re doing a podcast on D&D. I like the planning and prep, I get to pick out monsters, puzzle, story pieces. I have to try to plan for multiple branching plans (often I plan 3-4 different options they COULD choose, and they someone choose the 5th) and then have a “be ready to wing it attitude” when we sit down. The hardest part of DMing I find is “people management.” Having to schedule folks and getting your players’ sheets in time for game (we are playing my game virtually so I have them email PDFs) or if someone can’t play you have to decide—NPC their character, play a one shot, play a different game, or just skip that session etc.—but just in general managing people tends to be the hardest for me. I like creating the story, I like playing through with everyone and seeing their reactions, and I like having to be o my toes for about two hours every week while they throw as many curveballs at me as I try to throw at them!

@ken_the_dm

No one else would do it or bother to learn the rules. At this point I’m not sure I would want to be a full time player, though.

 @thevulturegm

When I was a young lad playing first edition D&D with my friends, a few of us rotated through DMing, so I took playing for granted. I didn’t realize then how big of a deal DMing was until I was serving in the military. Some of the guys wanted to play D&D and no one knew how to Dungeon Master. None of them were as obsessed with gaming as I was, and if I didn’t do it no one would. So I volunteered and ran a few games. Fast forward 20 years and not much has changed. I became a DM because I wanted to play, was obsessed, and was willing to invest the necessary time and effort. I continue to DM because I want to play, I’m still obsessed, and my friends keep showing up. I enjoy prepping the session and wondering how the players will turn my plans upside down.

 @wandering_alchemist

I have two answers to this: necessity and stories. Growing up my father told tales of Baron No-Nose, escaping lizardfolk, giant golems, and the brothers Dhum. It was all from his games when he was younger, most of which he ran. He had issues of Dragon Magazine, which I still have, that I could look through and see pictures and read about Dungeons & Dragons. Lucky for me I was at the right age to wander the mall while my mother shopped and could peruse what used to be EB Games. They had a little shelf of 3rd Edition books that had just come out. I of course looked through them a lot and asked for them for my birthday or Christmas. Then it was a matter of introducing the game to my friends. Since I had grown up on the tales of D&D and no one else had (and I had the books), it would be up to me to run the games. I was perfectly willing to run the game just to have a chance to play. The rest is history.

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Thoughts?