Wednesday, October 28, 2015

When is it okay to kill PCs?

As I begin writing this post, I have just finished helping an acquaintance make his character for B/X D&D. This session took less than 30 minutes, and highlights one of the major pluses of B/X for me: speed. He has, as far as I know, never played any version of D&D before, although his participation in innumerable games of Munchkin about two years ago has evidently familiarized him with the basic concepts of fantasy RPGs.

I have no qualms about killing player characters in B/X, mainly because of the fact that players seem to be inherently less strongly attached to their characters than in the more "crunchy" games. In part, this is because the time spent creating a character is halved or even quartered. Here's the entire process we went through, start to finish.
  • 3d6 in order: Str, Int, Wis, Dex, Con, Cha. (My acquaintance actually got average to above-average scores, which is good for a beginning player.)
  • Class selection: since his highest score was 15 Dex, he chose a Thief. (I offered to let him raise it to 16 by lowering his Str or Int, but he declined.)
  • Saving throws: copied out of the table in the Basic Rulebook. (His Dex gives him a +1 on magic-based saves.)
  • Equipment: 2d6 x 10 gp. Normally it would be 3d6, but since the original group started off with almost nothing, I decided 20-120 gp would be fairer to them, while still allowing weapons and armor to be purchased. (Since this character had a -1 AC bonus from Dex, he decided to get extra weapons instead of leather armor.)
  • Hit points: d4. (He rolled a natural 4, thankfully.)
And... time! Half an hour. Since so little time was spent making this character, if he gets killed, I don't think my acquaintance would be too heartbroken; after all, he could just roll up another guy in even less time.

This is why I don't bother trying to run Pathfinder any more (not even the Beginner Box); we spend an entire session's worth of time just crunching numbers, and if the players act stupid - which they will - all that time will have been wasted. I think this is why there are so many rules in the newer iterations of post-A D&D to prevent player characters from dying.

Don't get me wrong, I will still try to give players a chance. There are two systems I have printed out for this purpose: the rule from the Rules Cyclopedia, and the one from the 2nd Edition Dungeon Master Guide. I'll include them below:
Keeping Characters Alive

If you decide to get rid of the resurrection spells, you can also adopt another rule to make it a little harder for characters to die.

For instance, when a character is reduced to 0 hit points or below in combat (or from death spells), he's not yet dead. He's unconscious and mortally wounded; if left untended, he will die.

He must make a saving throw vs. death ray every turn. He makes the first roll on the round he drops to 0 hit point; he makes another every round he takes additional damage, and every 10 minutes (one turn) in addition. If he ever fails a roll, he's dead.

If he keeps making his rolls until reached by a healing cleric, someone with the Healing general skill, or someone with a healing potion to get to him, he can be saved. If the healers can heal him up to 1 hit point or more, or the Healing skill roll is made at a penalty of -5 (regardless of whether it heals him up to positive hit point or not), then the character is alive. He's critically wounded—but he'll survive.
The reason I don't use this one is because I don't use the general skill system, and first-level clerics can't heal. The next one is the one from the DMG, and it fits easily with B/X.
Hovering on Death's Door (Optional Rule)

You might find that your campaign has become particularly deadly. Too many player characters are dying. If this happens, you may want to allow characters to survive for short periods of time even after their hit points reach or drop below 0.

When this rule is in use, a character can remain alive until his hit points reach -10. However, as soon as the character reaches 0 hit points, he falls to the ground unconscious.

Thereafter, he automatically loses one hit point each round. His survival from this point on depends on the quick thinking of his companions. If they reach the character before his hit points reach -10 and spend at least one round tending to his wounds—stanching the flow of blood, etc., the character does not die immediately.

If the only action is to bind his wounds, the injured character no longer loses one hit point each round, but neither does he gain any. He remains unconscious and vulnerable to damage from further attacks.

If a cure spell of some type is cast upon him, the character is immediately restored to 1 hit point—no more. Further cures do the character no good until he has had at least one day of rest. Until such time, he is weak and feeble, unable to fight and barely able to move. He must stop and rest often, can't cast spells (the shock of near death has wiped them from his mind), and is generally confused and feverish. He is able to move and can hold somewhat disjointed conversations, but that's it.

If a heal spell is cast on the character, has hit points are restored as per the spell, and he has full vitality and wits. Any spells he may have known are still wiped from his memory. (Even this powerful spell does not negate the shock of the experience.)
The improvised rule I came up with in our first session is as follows: a character with 0 hit points is unconscious but stable. If an attack reduces them to -1 hit points or less, they must make a saving throw vs. death; if successful, they are stable. If they do fail the save, they can still be brought back to life (unconscious but stable) by giving them a healing potion within 1 turn (10 minutes). I probably won't be using this one, and I'll have the AD&D 2e rule in its place.


  1. For my non-5e games, I use a common house rule that isn't as generous as AD&D 2nd ed, but still gives PCs a chance: they can survive until their negative HP total equals their level plus one.

    For 5e, I use the rules as written, at least until I get more comfortable with the game. I find that 5e PCs are very easy to knock down, but very difficult to actually kill... and I have mixed feelings about that.

    1. I hadn't heard that house rule before, but it makes a lot of sense. Especially considering most monsters would leave a fallen character alone to deal with the more pressing (i.e., conscious) threats, even a 1st level character would have some room to survive.

      Your observations about 5e mirror mine for Pathfinder. Whereas 3e/3.5e kept 2e's standard -10 HP limit, Pathfinder has 10 + Con mod, which (considering that a 1st-level character might end up with a starting 20 Con) seems awfully generous. I feel like there's a balance necessary; if they just die immediately, they won't stand a chance unless they're in a large group and have lucky rolls. But if the rules themselves make it almost impossible for them to be actually killed, they'll act foolishly ("Well, worst case scenario, I get knocked out, so why shouldn't I charge that red dragon with my quarterstaff?").

      I haven't had the opportunity yet to play 5e (and believe me, I want to experience it first as a player rather than a DM), but it does seem like it could stand to be *slightly* more lethal. After all, if you ignore feats and stick with the recommended equipment packs, it should take FAR less time to make a character than 3.5e or PF, so there's less time lost if one should die. (Feel free to correct me if I'm wrong on this, though.)