Hello fellow traveler of the internet. Welcome once again to the weekly Nerdarchy Newsletter. This week Nerdarchist Ted has picked the topic of death in D&D. Before jumping into the meat and potatoes of the newsletter I’d be failing in my duties here on the Nerdarchy Newsletter if I didn’t remind you about a recent new video up on the channel — Bad Dungeon Master, Bad D&D Player, or Other.
Delving Dave’s Dungeon
Death can mean many things in D&D. You can find an Avatar of Death in the deck of many things. As a player you might face off against a death cult. As the Dungeon Master you may send your players on a quest into the underworld to bring back a queen who has recently passed from this realm. Those are just a couple of ideas without even getting into character death.
Here’s an D&D idea for DMs:
Let’s explore the idea of an adventure to return a queen back from the dead. I know what you are thinking — “But Nerdarchist Dave, in D&D there is divine magic. Spells like raise dead, resurrection, and true resurrection make bringing the queen back a simple casting of a spell.
Perhaps the king has assembled the most powerful clerics in the realm, but alas the queen didn’t return. One of two things may have happened. Someone or something is blocking the queen’s spirit from returning to the land of the living. Or the queen has refused to return.
Why would a kingdom desperately need the return of their queen? What might convince the queen to return? Perhaps there is a prophecy the queen is meant to fulfill. In the first scenario the players must overcome the obstacle to the queen’s return to her kingdom. In the latter a whole adventure could revolve around delving into the depths of the underworld.
Either the players must retrieve the spirit of the queen or convince her to let the kingdom’s clerics call her back to the land of the living. Will the knowledge that her people need her be enough to sway her? Perhaps she will require the characters to undertake a task in order for her to agree, spurring even more adventuring in the underworld.
Maybe a totally different scenario takes place. The king has gone mad with grief and is executing a cleric everyt ime one fails to resurrect his wife. His soldiers hound and persecute those of the faith throughout the land. One way to stop his madness is to return the queen to life.
These are just few suggestions on how to incorporate more D&D death into your game without killing your players.
From Ted’s Head
Death comes in many forms and many ways in D&D. I can remember my first real character death and while it was a long time ago I can still tell you where I was in more detail that I should probably remember. I was in college and Nerdarchist Dave was the DM. If you have watched a lot of our videos you may have heard the Tale Greven the Beardless Dark Dwarf. He died in a game by an acid arrow. Back then zero hit points was dead. No cleric in the group lead to one very emotional 19 year old.
I actually left the table to deal with the emotions for a character that was not played for all that long in comparison of characters for years to come. I lost another memorable character Matoya the swashbuckler in a third edition D&D game in a TPK because we all kept playing despite being tired and not listening to the DM’s warning about not going this way. Seems Dave has done most of the killing of my characters.
But I have learned quite a lot about death in having characters die. These day when I run I am not opposed to characters dying. I hope and plan to provide challenging encounters. Doing so leads to death as a possibility. But what other type of death is there?
In my curse of Gnar-Kee’Tis game I used a custom death tyrant. I gave him an awesome lair, max hit points, unique spells, and lair effects with 4 legendary points a turn. It was one of my most memorable encounters.
I find there are many monsters with death in the name. But sadly I feel that none of them should ever be used straight out of the book. As I did with the death tyrant, a death slaad or death knight should have a name and a story. They are powerful and should really have a multisession arc about them. The legend of what they have done, a prophecy about their coming or how they can be defeated. When death is added to a name it should strike fear into a character, potentially the player as well. Tov make the encounter memorable drop or kill a character so that the players see that the name is rightly earned.
From the Nerditor’s Desk
Full disclosure: my personal experience with death in Dungeons & Dragons is extremely limited. In the 30+ years I’ve been playing D&D, I’ve only had one character die and it was just a couple of months ago. As a Dungeon Master, death has come to the player characters in my games just a handful of times — also only within recent memory.
Worth noting, despite having a pretty sharp memory it does gets pretty fuzzy too.
Experience with D&D death is so limited, I’ve yet to face or utilize a death kiss, death dog, death tyrant, death slaad, or Kraul death priest. Never cast feign death, death ward, circle of death or finger of death. Haven’t played a Death Domain cleric or Way of the Long Death monk. Never completed the quest to end the Death Curse. Never pulled the Skull card from the deck of many things and fought the Avatar of Death. You get the idea.
I did run the Death House adventure, and my character death was caused by Instant Death, and I have both used as a DM and fought as a player a Death Knight. Not just any Death Knight either — THE Death Knight!
All that death aside, a recent article from comicbook.com took a look at handling character death in D&D, and hand it to D&D’s own Chris Perkins for a terrific perspective on what to do when a D&D character dies.
“I really leave it up to the players,” Perkins said when he spoke with Christian Hoffer in 2018. “If a character dies, and a player wants to switch out their character, I’m all for it. That’s a case where more power lays with the player instead of the DM. The DM is there to facilitate letting the story continue with whichever character the player wants to play.” — Chris Perkins, speaking with with Christian Hoffer in 2018
As a Dungeon Master I’m interested in any opportunity to help the players tell the story of their characters, and death is the ultimate adventure! Perkins’ perspective is such a simple, elegant approach to handling death in D&D. Regardless of what level the characters are, what sort of magic they can wield or have access to, a character death doesn’t mean the end of their story. When it becomes a player, and possibly group decision through conversation, unforgettable campaign stories emerge.
When I pulled a group favorite character, Mesmogdu the drow charlatan Enchanter, out to play through Waterdeep: Dragon Heist the rest of the players were happy for the visit from an old friend. And when he died very early in the campaign, everyone was a little bummed — everyone but me! The DM was sheepish in the moment, like they’d done something wrong, and the other players were somber. The DM explained we might have enough good will with one of the factions to possibly get Mesmogdu raised, but I wasn’t interested. I did appreciate the whole group was willing to shift their focus to raising a fallen comrade, but I was satisfied with his short adventure and excited to play a different character.
If you’re a DM handling death in your D&D campaign, you could do a lot worse than following Chris Perkins’ example and putting the choice of where to go next in the players’ hands. And for players, think of character death in D&D as simply a dramatic change in that character’s story. There is an afterlife (quite a few different varieties!) in D&D and a character’s physical body expiring doesn’t necessarily mean the end.
Whether you go on an epic quest to revive a fallen friend, lay them to rest and continue on with a brand new character, or (and this is a delicious opportunity for a DM) find yourself face-to-face with a resurrected — and now antagonist to the party — former character, there is no finality in death. Instead, it’s the beginning of a new story unique to your group.