I recall hearing the first rumblings against player death in the 80s and dismissing the complaints and resistance as something we could dismiss. We can't dismiss it now; take a strange player into your traditional game and there's a good chance that if you kill their character there will be a scene. One of the key points of a "session zero" at present is to explain how you feel about player death: is it allowed? Is it common? Under what circumstances is it allowed to happen? Obviously, not when a wandering monster is encountered! And certainly not from disease or some freak happenstance.
plot armor? Of course they do. Those things sell, those things are riddled with excitement; what is the difference between those things and my character in this D&D world? It seems insane to create a character, fill it out, enrich it, spend hours and hours running it, only to then throw it away when it dies. Insane!
D&D's Achilles Heel is that as a system it's not friendly to human beings. Human beings gravitate towards comfort, reassurance, reliability or custom. In my RPG 201 course I wrote about how we seek rupture because from reconstruction we grow as people; but in most cases we seek a particular kind of rupture. One that doesn't require too great a risk; or that might amount to a real loss. Most don't want to be upset too much; and for D&D, player death is just too far.
Worse, it feels a bit too much like real death. If we're in a campaign that allows death; where rolls against death are a regular feature; then every adventure our character survives feels like we're pushing our luck. Each adventure adds to our resource of memories, our increase in power ... and in the amount of loss we're going to experience when that character dies. And we know, if we keep playing that character, if we keep pushing it, the character will die. Sooner or later, the dice just aren't going to fall our way. And then ... then ... everything we've fought for and suffered for will be gone. Just gone.
And our only option ~ in the death-is-possible framework ~ is to retire the character. Which feels like death. If only death weren't hanging over our heads. If only our beloved characters didn't have to die. Then we could enjoy playing them forever.
Except, of course, we can't. Because we, my friends, are going to die. For real. And that's really the subject here, isn't it? That is really the thing we can't reconcile; the flat out recognition that the longer we're here, the harder we've fought to get here, the less fair death feels.
Commonly, young people will look at the very old and think, "Why don't they just let themselves die? They've lived a good life. They should want to go now." But as young people get older, they turn away from those thoughts. They think they're going to hate being old, but as they roll into their 50s, 60s and 70s, it seems like a good idea not to quit. Slowly, it looks like the young people who don't appreciate what they have.
Every day, there's that underlying memory that, yes, this might be the day. We're stepping off a curb; we choke on something we've eaten; there's a strange pain in a place we've never felt pain before. Some stupid, silly, unlucky, irrational thing ... and just like that, we're gone. And if we need a reminder, we hear about Jack who was cleaning his rain gutters or Jenny who skipped getting her car tuned up last Spring, or poor Jim ... died of cancer. Yeah. Came up on him suddenly and he was gone.
And to make it worse, the older you get, the more reminders there are. Partly because everyone around you is getting old too but also because as you live and drift around on the planet you accumulate people whose funerals you might attend. Unless you're one of the unlucky ones, you don't have a memory of attending the funeral of Brenda or Britt or Brad in the sixth grade ... but you'll notice a string of funerals when you're 62, watching all three buried in their turn. It makes you think.
D&D asking you to court that, to deliberately insert that sort of shit into your life, isn't reasonable. Especially when no one should die because they went out to clean their rain gutters. That shit just ain't kosher.
So don't tell ME, they say, that my character was killed because some one-hit-die kobald got lucky with a thrown dagger. MY precious character isn't going to die because you, Mr. DM, thinks that a breath weapon deserves a shot at instant kill. That ain't MY game. That's not the game for ME.
Whether or not 5e is deliberately courting this attitude, the tone of the book clearly encourages it. While twice in the introduction there is an acknowledgement that the players "might" die, there's no paragraph that addresses it up front; no solid, framed argument in the introduction that the game is about survival; nothing that states in boldface that your agenda is to live and not die. It's all subtly hinted at, in language that we've come to connect with movie trailers and ad campaigns: Batman is fighting his toughest foe yet; this summer Katniss is entering into the most dangerous of games; this is really, truly, seriously going to be the scariest rollercoaster you've ever experienced. Yeah. We're sure.
The company knows where its bread is buttered. By far, the vast number of fresh young, dumb and full of cum players don't want a potential zero-sum game. The character is too cool to die and rolling new characters is dull ... something I've heard said a thousand times but which I have NEVER actually experienced with any person ever rolling a character in my world. Must be the people I play with.
Writing these posts about 5th Edition is an opportunity to explore these sentiments, and others, in this era of a new philosophy. If I'm vicious, or bitter, or niggling in my deconstruction, it is because I think the new game as written is failing the community. I think it would have been possible to write a good argument for player death; and to stand by it as a company. I think the position would have ensured vitality and a sense of deeper drama and risk than mere schlock characters that couldn't die. I think that the company is playing the short game ~ and that they can afford to play it because there is no competition.
It's easiest to design a game that kids will play for a few years ... or that will be interesting enough for a particular kind of player that they can keep going through the same motions for decades. Most of the staff behind the book aren't very creative, if the book is any indication. They're not good writers or thinkers, either. It is hard for them to sustain a single thought for more than three paragraphs. The language of the book paints the page like a shotgun: rarely does the second sentence expand meaningfully on the first one. Each sentence tries to introduce a brand new idea, grouped into a paragraph where each idea is about magic, adventure, dice, etcetera. There's no position; no theory; no argument; no effort to convince or elaborate. A paragraph begins with a sentence (p.8):
"Magic is also a favored tool of villains."
And then nothing explaining the sentence or why villains particularly and not others. Just a list of villain synonyms and their actions, like a list alone is all that's needed to convey an idea. Then we finish by saying the good guys ought to use magic too. Duh. It is all empty.
Without guidance, all we have is an awful mess.