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C’est La Vie
The Dungeon Master Experience
Chris Perkins

This regular column is for Dungeon Masters who like to build worlds and campaigns as much as I do. Here I share my experiences as a DM through the lens of Iomandra, my Dungeons & Dragons campaign world. Even though the campaign uses the 4th Edition rules, the topics covered here often transcend editions. Hopefully this series of articles will give you inspiration, ideas, and awesome new ways to menace your players in your home campaigns.

If you’re interested in learning more about the world of Iomandra, check out the wiki.

WEDNESDAY NIGHT. When last we left the party, Deimos (played by Chris Youngs) had led his stalwart companions into the Elemental Chaos to recover the fabled cutlass Fathomreaver, which he hopes will unite Iomandra's divisive Sea Kings under his banner.

The quest culminates in an epic fight aboard the Maelstrom, an elemental warship commanded by the dragonborn warlord Vantajar. With Fathomreaver in hand, the evil warlord cuts down Kael, the party's deva cleric (played by Chris Champagne), but it's Deimos who deals the final killing blow and slays Vantajar.

As the warlord's blood spills across the deck, the water elemental bound to the vessel is released and wreaks havoc. The elemental unleashes its fury upon the ship itself, breaking it in two. As the Maelstrom goes down in a sea of acid, the surviving heroes escape into an extradimensional space but are forced to leave their dead behind. . . .

T his week's installment tackles a question posed by "Arbanax" in response to a previous column. Arbanax's question, which I'm paraphrasing below, had to do with the untimely death of one of the characters in my long-running Wednesday night game:

"I am intrigued as to how you handled the cleric's death, seeing as he'd been part of the campaign for so many levels. I assume he had a backstory and other stuff left unfulfilled. How do you handle this?"

Fantastic question!

The characters in my campaign live and die by their own actions (although the luck of the die also plays its part). When a character is killed off, particularly at higher levels, they can leave behind a lot of unfinished business. I always give the player the interesting choice of continuing to play the character or trying something new. There are plenty of D&D plot devices to revive a dead character, and we've even built races and classes for players who want their characters to come back in a slightly different light (the revenant springs to mind).

In my group, I have players who invest heavily in their characters and are crestfallen or downright pissy when death becomes them. I also have players with very little emotional investment in their characters; they look forward to injecting new characters into the party mix. As a player, I very much fall into the latter camp. As the DM, I have no feelings about it one way or the other. In my opinion, players should be allowed to play what they want to play (within reason). I don't rule their imaginations, and there are very few character concepts my campaign can't accommodate with a little bit of forethought.

Chris Champagne joined the Monday night group in the middle of the campaign's paragon tier, and Kael, his deva cleric, actually died twice. The first time was during a Halloween-themed episode involving a killer plant and several enslaved "pod people." (As a fun aside, the other characters used a special potion to reanimate Kael until he could be raised from the dead, giving Chris the chance to play a zombified version of Kael for the extent of the adventure.) Kael's second death came at the hands of the dragonborn warlord Vantajar in the Elemental Chaos, and as a further insult, Kael's body was cast overboard and dissolved in a sea of acid.

Deva characters have a built-in rebirth mechanic, but in this instance, Chris decided the time had come to put Kael aside and try something new—this despite the fact that Kael was close to unlocking the secrets of a past life in which he was the loyal manservant of a young princess who would eventually become the Raven Queen! Now, it's possible that Kael has been "reborn" somewhere (as devas are wont to do), and so there's still a slim chance that he might reappear before the campaign concludes, but Kael's story basically ended when Chris decided to play Kosh, his infernal pact warlock with the Prince of Hell epic destiny. The fact that Kael's story is incomplete doesn't raise my hackles; in a game in which heroes die, it's not always possible to get perfect closure. You end up trading closure for shock as the surviving characters realize, "OMG, he's dead!" A sudden death might cut short that character's story, but hopefully it gives his surviving companions the newfound impetus to press on despite their trepidation.

My campaign occasionally takes a hit whenever a character dies, usually because I have storylines tied to that specific character that have nowhere left to go. C'est la vie. In Kael's case, he had found a relic (a bronze raven mask from a bygone age) that triggered flashbacks of his past life as a royal manservant, and we had just begun to explore that past life and Kael's discovery of the Raven Queen's true name. Also, one of the campaign's major villains, a rakshasa named Chan, had strong ties to the Kael character—they were enemies in a past life. Luckily for the campaign (and unfortunately for the players), Chan has made enough enemies in the party that he's still "in play" as far as I'm concerned. Had this not been the case, Chan might have fallen by the wayside.

If my Wednesday night campaign has one structural flaw, it's that many of the big story arcs hinge on certain lynchpin characters. No offense to Mat Smith, but if Garrot the fighter was crushed to death by a falling tarrasque, the villains steering the campaign wouldn't even slow down to take a picture. Some characters are defined more by their personality or abilities than by their narrative importance. On the other hand, if Deimos died, the entire focus of the campaign would shift, as the party's impetus to unite the Sea Kings is mostly driven by Chris Youngs' character.

(But you know what? As I write this, part of me is so excited by the very idea that I'm half-tempted to drop a tarrasque on Deimos just to watch the campaign cartwheel off a cliff or take one last unexpected turn in the back end of epic tier.

Of course, that would be wrong.)

That said, over the years I've encountered the odd character I've wanted to kill off—usually because the character was unlikeable, unbalanced, or underwhelming in the personality department (much like those poor red-shirt-wearin' sods in Star Trek). I try to resist the urge, since that's the DMing equivalent of "bad form" and is usually counterproductive—the player just rolls up an even more asinine or useless character.

Lessons Learned

Much has been written on the topic of "coping with character death," and at the risk of throwing more wood on that fire, it's only the DM's problem when the player is left feeling unsatisfied. Your campaign will survive and metamorphose regardless, but will the player want to continue partaking of it? If the player wants to continue exploring the facets of the character or feels that there's an untold story left to tell, then the DM's task should be to make the player happy. If the player shrugs his or her shoulders and starts talking about a cool new character idea, then your challenge becomes how to make this new character feel like he or she belongs in your campaign.

  • The decision to revive a dead character should fall to that character's player. If you can't think of a clever way to bring back the character, there's always the Raise Dead ritual.
  • If the player decides to "move on," be kind to the dead character's memory: Let the character's heroism echo through your campaign.
  • Your campaign is stronger than any one character. When a character dies and leaves unfinished business behind, declare "C'est la vie" and move on.

Kael died protecting his friends in the greatest battle of the Wednesday night campaign to date. Chris wisely believed that Kael would achieve no greater death, and so he let the character go. My responsibility as DM is to keep Kael "alive" by evoking his name from time to time in ways that make his sacrifice meaningful. A saddened NPC might remark on Kael's absence, an emissary from the Shadowfell might reassure Kael's companions that their lost cleric has taken his place by the Raven Queen's side, or a campaign villain might remind the heroes how weak and vulnerable they've become without their deva cleric to back them up. It's also a tasty bit of irony that the party's escape from the sinking ship was facilitated by an exodus knife which Rodney Thompson's character lifted from Kael's corpse, so the party has a useful memento mori to remind them of their bygone friend.

As a final aside, Kael wasn't the only character who perished in the climactic battle with Vantajar. Many of the characters came close, but a human pirate named Armos (played by Nacime Khemis) also died a player-imposed "permadeath." Armos had been introduced several sessions earlier after Nacime's primary character—a warforged warden named Fleet—was abducted by Vecna cultists wishing to study the "living construct." I'm pretty sure that Nacime knew Fleet would be back eventually and that, at some point, he would be playing two characters. Armos wasn't around long enough to win the hearts of his companions or carve out a major character arc for himself, so it remains to be seen whether his death has any lasting impression. Years after a campaign concludes, it's perfectly natural for DMs and players to remember certain characters more readily than others, much as our real-world history judges heroes as popular or unsung.

Until the next encounter!

—Dungeon Master for Life,
Chris Perkins

Poll 09/08/2011 Results:

Hey DMs: When was the last time a non-evil NPC lied to the player characters in your campaign?
Last session, in fact. 502 28.4%
Several game sessions ago. 466 26.4%
I honestly don't remember. 338 19.1%
It's been a while. 334 18.9%
Never. 126 7.1%
Total 1766 100.0%

The Dungeon Master Experience: Poll #31

 As a DM, what do you think of Raise Dead rituals and other death-ending magic?  
I like them as simple and effective ways to undo character death.
They're okay but should come at greater cost or consequence.
They're okay but should only be available at higher levels.
I like them for reasons not articulated in this poll.
I dislike them because they make character death trivial or meaningless.
I dislike them for reasons not articulated in this poll.
I have no opinion.

Christopher Perkins
Christopher Perkins joined Wizards of the Coast in 1997 as the editor of Dungeon magazine. Today, he’s the senior producer for the Dungeons & Dragons Roleplaying Game and leads the team of designers, developers, and editors who produce D&D RPG products. On Monday and Wednesday nights, he runs a D&D campaign for two different groups of players set in his homegrown world of Iomandra.
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