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Death-Defying D&D
The Dungeon Master Experience
By 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. In their quest to retrieve the fabled cutlass Fathomreaver, the adventurers took their ship into the Elemental Chaos. The vessel cast itself into a swirling vortex, emerged atop a frozen sea, and skidded sidelong across the ice until it came to rest at an angle, tilted on its keel. Trapped in ice all around them were other ships sheathed in glittering white frost, and trapped along with them, a small island bearing a frozen assemblage of ships' hulls that someone had turned into a stronghold.

Not long after the party arrived, an army of frost giants and fire giants marched across the surface of the frozen sea and began laying siege to the stronghold in the hopes of retrieving an artifact that some pirates had stolen from them—an iron flask containing a trapped god named Tuern. As the giants began pummeling the stronghold with chunks of ice and balls of fire, the heroes stepped out onto the frozen frontier and confronted the threat head-on.

Garrot, a human fighter played by Mat Smith, stood toe-to-toe with the fire giant boss. The fire giant pounded Garrot into the ice repeatedly with the anvil-sized mallet of his mighty hammer, but each time Garrot dropped to 0 hit points, his epic destiny or some healing power would kick in, and he'd spring to his feet . . . much to the fire giant's chagrin. Round after round, Garrot would do exactly what epic-level defenders do — draw attacks and soak up damage. And every time he came close to dying, more hit points would magically appear out of nowhere to keep Garrot in the game.

The giants were eventually defeated and driven off. By Mat's reckoning, Garrot took somewhere in the neighborhood of 650 points of damage that night and survived. Speaking as the DM, I don't think I could've killed Garrot if I tried.

A Dungeon Master can sometimes forget that the player characters aren't enemies to be destroyed. Rather, it's the DM's job to create challenges for the heroes to overcome — to play the role of the benevolent adversary who secretly roots for the PCs even when the monsters roll critical hits against them. Creating a worthy challenge is a tough tightrope to walk, and believe me, I know it can be frustrating to see the PCs run roughshod over adversaries who should've posed more of a challenge . . . to see a major villain fall in the first round of combat without so much as a memorable one-liner. As the characters advance in level and power, challenging them can be a difficult and frustrating experience. When faced with a seemingly unstoppable party, a DM might begin to wonder whether the system simply breaks down at a certain point. I don't buy it . . . but then, I'm not the sort of DM who blames the system for a poor experience. I would rather build encounters differently next time.

I can tell you that, after running epic-level campaigns both in 3rd Edition and 4th Edition, it's HARD to kill high-level characters. They have so many healing options, resistances, temporary hit points, and ways to pump up their defenses and saving throws that the only sure way to kill them off is to flat-out cheat, or so it can seem. And I can't recommend doing that.

Many DMs struggle with seemingly indestructible characters not because they long to kill them off but because it's damn hard to make them feel threatened. For example, my Wednesday night group includes a goliath battlemind named Ravok who gets a staggering number of temporary hit points every time he drops an enemy to 0 hit points, which basically means that I'm actually doing the party a favor whenever I throw minions onto the battlefield — and y'all know how much I like minions. I might as well throw healing potions at Ravok instead; he'd get back fewer hit points, and there's a slim chance he might slip on one of the potion bottles and break his neck. The party also has a warforged warden named Fleet, who's a walking tank with seemingly endless healing reserves. I honestly can't remember the last time he fell in combat.

Of course, not all of the characters in the Wednesday night group are as invincible as Ravok or Fleet, but the defenders do a great job of sheltering the physically weaker characters against threats from all quarters. And let's not forget the party cleric, Divin, who has healing up the wazoo. I've run gigantic battles that take entire sessions to play out, and I've seen the party lose thousands of hit points without feeling like the battle might be lost. The only time they get scared is when they're down a player or two, and the party has fewer defenders or leaders to rely on.

So how do I deal with death-defying PCs?

I'm glad you asked . . .

Lessons Learned

There are worse things than death in D&D, particularly at higher levels when death is more of an inconvenience than a character-ender. One of them is the risk of failure.

In their quest to find Fathomreaver, my Wednesday night heroes braved the dangers of the Elemental Chaos and faced off against a major campaign villain who had the weapon in his clutches. The villain and his crew were defeated, but unfortunately, the cutlass was hurled into a sea of acid and lost. As fate would have it, one of the PCs perished in the battle as well, but what stung the players most was the loss of that sword. They had failed in their quest, and that loss would echo throughout the rest of the campaign.

A lot of players assume that the DM wouldn't give them a quest without expecting the party to succeed—even if it takes a little "DM intervention." After all, the DM has a vested interest in ensuring the party's success, since completion of a quest makes players feel good and often helps move the campaign along. Humbug, I say. Victory is hollow without a genuine risk of failure. If the party fails in its task, maybe their hometown is pillaged by orcs. Maybe the king is assassinated. Maybe the evil demon prince is released from its ancient prison. Maybe the artifact they seek is destroyed right before their eyes.

For a long time, I struggled with creating worthy adversaries for my nigh-invincible player characters until I realized that my time was better spent coming up with interesting quests that couldn't be completed simply by slaughtering everything in sight. When I sit down to create an encounter or adventure, I'm not the least bit concerned with how tough it might be or how likely I am to kill off one or more party members. I set out to create encounters with memorable antagonists, plenty of roleplaying opportunities, and a smattering of complications that add surprise and tension to the proceedings. I also present moral dilemmas and problems that can't be hacked with a greataxe or blown away with a spell. Failure (unlike death) cannot be undone with a Raise Dead spell, and that's scary. Failure (unlike death) can have campaign-rippling consequences.

What's fascinating to me is that my players would rather face death than failure, and that fear of failure makes them take greater risks that put their death-defying characters in harm's way. That's more than a touch ironic, wouldn't you agree?

Until the next encounter!

—Dungeon Master for Life,
Chris Perkins

Previous Poll Results

Hey DMs: Speaking of evil, what alignment are you?
Chaotic evil. My players never know what havoc I'll wreak from one session to the next. 107 9.1%
Neutral evil. As long as I'm having fun, I don't care how many characters die. 69 5.9%
Lawful evil. A little tyranny at the game table isn't a bad thing. 343 29.1%
Evil curious. I fudged a die roll once, turning a monster's normal hit into a crit. 171 14.5%
I'm not bad. I'm just drawn that way. 319 27.1%
None of the above. 168 14.3%
Total 1177 100.0%

The Dungeon Master Experience: Poll #84

 When your players realize their characters are doomed, how do they react?  
They accept their fate and leap to their deaths with flair and/or aplomb.
They fight tooth-and-nail to turn certain death into a fighting chance to survive
They accuse you of trashing their favorite characters and explain why you have no friends.
They let out exasperated sighs, crumple up their character sheets, and roll up new doods.
They flip the game table and storm out of the room.
They throw golfball-sized dice at you, leaving little 1’s imprinted on your skin.
They accuse the cleric of not fulfilling his or her role, then vote that player off the island.
They chant, “Death is but a door. Time is but a window. We shall be back.”
They say, “Thank you, Gary Gygax, may I have another?”

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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