Consent in all things… including character death


I saw a random bit floating about the interwebs from this social media post on le internet about character death in D&D. As a person who is into all the narrative things, I have some thoughts about death in games.

Some points I agree with, but others seem to just be shaking an angry fist and those young whippersnappers who don’t game the way we used to back in the day. I flipped a euro I had on my desk and it landed on tails, so I guess we’re gonna talk about what I thought was good in this thread.

The good part

Like I said, there were some ideas that were a wholehearted thumbs-up from me. For example, the idea that PC death is a failure on the part of the DM is, in fact, a ridiculous take. The communication about your choices as a player versus the consequences issued as a DM is a dialog and, like every dialog, there will be breakdowns in communication if everyone involved doesn’t do their part.

“I saw a take that said PC death is a failure of the DM, and I think it’s a ridiculous take.”

That includes things like the DM telling you, “Hey, death is a possibility in this game. Make good decisions.” If you ignore that as a player and get atomized from a Statue of Oblivion™ in the hall, then that is your fault.

Seeing at the end of the thread that expectations were clearly set about what the game was about and that the players bought into that vision and are enjoying themselves? Top marks. A+. Correct.

This is the way.

The not good part

My personal tastes aside, posts like these always seem to draw people that go “Why didn’t you just bring five characters as backup? Also, why should I have to talk to my players about how they die, when they die, and all of that? The game is the game.”

But here’s the thing: no.

If you look at the game of D&D, you have a game that asks you who you are and what background you have. That alone should tell you that the game isn’t about making characters you just throw away or that you roll up to the table without having any investment in what becomes of them.

Sure, there’s a lot of stuff for spells and weapons. Yes, this game is primarily a wargame. There’s a lot of ways to approach a game having all of those things and still having a bit of narrative substance as well.

The meat grinders are valid, but the long narrative romps – whether silly or serious- are valid, too. People in war have feelings and stories and things they love and hope for.

Additionally, the game has been out for more than 50 years now and with that time things have changed including the audience of people that play the game. We’ve already had the era in which DMs believed themselves to be gods and the final word in everything about the game with no player input. We’ve heard the stories of DMs who just punish players with impossible puzzles, nonsensical traps, outsized consequences, and so on. We’ve had the players who come in with hostile intentions to make DMs miserable.

We’re beyond the need or want for any of that contentious nonsense and we should stay that way.

Synxiec is squinting at the camera with a confused expression which intensifies as he leans slightly forward. He is wearing a black, sleeveless t-shirt with a yellow image and white text. Furniture and pictures are in the background.

Do you need to communicate everything you want to do point-by-point including death? That depends on your context, for example:

  • Are you playing this live?
  • Are you recording this for audience viewing at some point?
  • Is this only between you and people you know well?
  • Are you playing with people who don’t know your DMing style?
  • Have you explained how you run games?
  • Is the game you are playing one in which death is frequent or danger is imminent and often unavoidable?

Moreover, why do we have to get ourselves worked up over having to get player buy-in before doing things in game or taking things in a certain direction. That’s what session zeros (and beyond) are for.

So yes, death and/or levels of lethality should be a thing that you talk about.