I dislike killing player characters.
While I consider the possibility of death an absolute necessity to D&D, and as such I do kill characters when the circumstances are unavoidable, I’ve never grown comfortable with it. More often than not, my players have had to reassure me that yes, their characters did deserve to die given the events prior to and the choices they made. They usually have to tell me to stop trying to explain why I would have avoided killing them if only it wasn’t necessary for me to bend the facts.
“Facts” being unavoidable conditions…such as the dragon has the opportunity to breathe directly at the player and the player blows their saving throw. Facts like the earthquake invoked by the mage in the narrow chasm has resulted in a rock slide that has killed everyone except the thief, who happened to be using her wings of flying at that moment. Facts like the fighter refusing to disengage from the combat though he’s toe-to-toe with a frost giant and he’s down to 4 h.p.
Would that it was always that clear cut.
To make it more clear cut, I abandoned the DM’s screen during combat years ago, enabling the party to see my die rolls and thus know that every critical was honest and ever miss was honest. Once, as a DM, I used to fudge rolls in favor of the party (that critical was a “miss”), which I could do behind the screen; I’m not any more comfortable with that than I am with killing characters. Fact is, it shouldn’t matter what the dice say, or how overmatched the party is…they should be able to figure out a way to handle it and live.
Now, obviously I’m not throwing titans against third level parties and saying, “Go at it…tough luck for you.” Though I still argue the party ought to be able to talk their way out of it—why would a titan bother killing third levels? Wouldn’t he have gotten tired of that millennia ago?
Most of the time characters get killed on account of two specific faults: an unwillingness to run, and pure folly. The former outweighing the latter at about 10:1.
I’m not really clear on why parties find it so difficult to retreat. The facts of life demand that now and then players have to accept the maxim, “Run or Die.” More often than not something gets in the way of believing it’s really necessary. Like gamblers putting everything on one more throw, players tend to believe that this time the die is going to come up with a critical and the party will get on top of these monsters.
There is a moment in a battle when you know you’ve won. When the overwhelming odds, scattering the party and pressing it back against the wall, suddenly expends its momentum. Sometimes, particularly in combats against a great number of humanoids, when there are literally scores of swinging troops all over the battlefield, the exact tipping moment passes without being fully recognized. Sometimes there’s a fabulous round which slaughters seven or eight of the enemy all at once, relieving the pressure and allowing the mage to drop out of combat again (like a quarterback, sometimes the mage must face enemy getting through the line) and resume casting spells. Either way, it’s the moment parties hope for…sometimes when they should have the brains to sacrifice their losses and run.
But they don’t. They seem to hold onto the same belief as real people that somehow, death can’t happen to them. It’s particularly true with a high level character who has diligently worked their way up from 1st level (all my players begin at first level, even if they must do so in the company of those with titles). Somehow the fact that they have lived so long and avoided so many pitfalls gives them a sense of the infinite…no doubt supported by the belief that no matter what, they have the resources to be raised or, if necessary, resurrected.
Making it all the much harder when the ship they’re commanding goes down in a storm and their body irrevocably lost…or they fail the inevitable resurrection shock survival roll (which I shall hold as required until I die and they put it on my tombstone). Everyone dies. No one gets out alive. If I had a screen, that would be a good thing to write on it. Characters might then remember that I don’t decide to kill them, their own actions bring it about.
So, am I saying that you’d better not be a ship commander or a storm will get you? NO. Before the advent of any such storm, I would give plenty of warnings regarding the coming of such a storm; there would be procedures characters could undergo to protect themselves. Having ballast aboard would help. Having room below decks, and not choosing to cram every cubic inch of the ship with sugar in the interest of profit might be a step in the right direction, thus making it unnecessary for the captain to endure the storm while lashed to the mast. I’ve had players make decisions like that, foolish decisions, resulting in the die forcing me to sink ships and smash masts and the like.
Folly, unlike the choice to flee, is a far more insidious means of having your player killed. I have seen players begin campaigns in arctic climates who failed, upon being given starting capital, to buy coats, gloves, caps or even boots…yet be fully stocked with six daggers, three hand axes and a fully equipped horse. They have bought torches with no means to light them; lanterns with no oil; swords with no whetstone to keep them sharp; arrows without quivers; plates and cups without backpacks to put them in. I’ve had players argue they could keep coins and gems in their mouths, which I’ve agreed to, only to laugh when they’ve been knocked into the water and have had to swim and breathe.
I’ve had players deliberately sleep in the rain rather than “waste” money on a tent and the means to haul it. Players who have deliberately tried to cross mountain passes in the dead of winter, without even snowshoes, believing that somehow snow and cold and hard labor don’t result in hypothermia, and that even so it couldn’t affect someone with an 18 constitution. Players who have died drinking from muddy puddles in the desert because they forgot to use the purify water spell they possessed; who have realized only after the fact that they could have avoided the whole encounter with the wraith if only they’d remembered the protection from undead scroll in their backpack; who, after time and time again having the opportunity to identify a potion, find they have to drink it and “hope for the best” because they never did.
It would be nice to think that all players are terribly clever nerds, but anyone can forget something stuffed into a backpack ten months ago, scratched hastily on page 8 of their character sheet, only to be discovered long after the item would have been useful.
And still, I hate to kill characters. I get no pleasure from it, no sense that I’ve “succeeded” in making my world a harsh, difficult place to live. I would rather everyone had a chance to make it through, to rise up to be masters of all they survey…yes, “paper masters” if it must be noted…but it wouldn’t mean anything if everyone automatically reached their destination.
It’s admirable when a party is made of participants who have all lost somebody along the way: sometimes with lament, sometimes with a sour humour (yeah, I really fucked up on that one), rarely without a thought (I did have a henchman rise as a wraith once and drain a couple of levels off the druid because the player failed to bury and say words over his faithful follower—the party buries everyone now, fanatically).
I don’t think it’s a good idea for DMs to intervene in the death of a character. I think, however much I dislike it, there is a fundamental need for me to remain separate from the misery that sometimes accompanies the game. Not unsympathetic, mind, just separate. This hand might pat you on the shoulder, but this other hand continues to hold onto the die that killed you, unremitting.