One common complaint about Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition, aside from incoherent rants about it being a video card miniatures game that wants to punch grandmothers, is that the characters are so darned hard to kill. What happened to the good old days when the average fighter would have 10 hit points and the average magic-user, bless his fragile heart, would have 3 hit points, and could be felled by a particularly deep splinter?
Across our current battle maps, there are:
- Defenders: Blocks of hyper-magnetized steel who not only lock down the biggest bads, but also are invulnerable to most attacks with their high AC, oceans of temporary hit points, self-healing, and resistances out their heavily armored wahoos.
- Strikers: Highly mobile death-dealers who eviscerate solos in a tornado of blades and blasts, often causing so much damage on a single turn that the player requires a calculator, an abacus, and a team of accountants.
- Controllers: Comparatively delicate, these minion-erasers and battlefield grand masters lay down zones of pain and sadness on the enemies, stripping defenses, amplifying agonies, all while cowering behind their unyielding allies.
- Leaders: Semi-toughs with ouchie weapons and scorching rays whose real strength lies in the bubble of healing and support with which they surround the party, closing wounds, augmenting defenses, and guiding attacks, bettering all party members.
Typically, each of the characters in the party has a single brain running it, choosing an optimized course of action that is unimpeded by complexity or distraction, while the DM juggles settings and environments, traps and hazards, motivations and strategies for dozens of enemies, all while managing the blizzard of chirpy questions from the players: Can I move here? How do runes work? Why don’t I have line of sight? Can I use History to find secret doors? Are you sure I already used my action point? My second wind? My daily power?
All of this conspires to turn good DMs away from the sunshiney Say-Yes path, and down that dark and rocky Eff-You trail. They become frustrated by round after round of monster misses, irritated by earth-shattering attacks that are easily shrugged off, infuriated by sing-song taunting from the other side of the screen, “I didn’t take any damage in that battle, ha ha!” And the DM Jekyll gets his raging Hyde-on.
The changes can start small and are often well within rules, innocuous alterations to “challenge the PCs,” such as bumping the average level of the encounters. “My group breezes through fights, so I try to throw an extra brute in there, or I’ll put a controller out of reach on a balcony, or include a couple elite soldiers.” If this doesn’t work (and good groups are excellent at adapting), the DM might haul out some extralegal techniques, like the occasional dice fudge (“Another critical!”) or the block-text handicap (“You surrender your weapons and magic at the Black Gate, and then find yourselves standing before the Troll King.”)
After this, your other options are house rules and streams of intractable No-no-no’s.
And to what end? Why this unappealing evolution? If the purpose really is to engage in collaborative storytelling, why would a DM choose to put in his gaming teeth and be Francis Dolarhyde to the PCs’ Freddy Lounds? Perhaps it’s because players just aren’t as scared as they used to be. They scoff at danger, they laugh at death. Where is the fear? Where is the tension? Players need to respect the nothingness, the void, which lurks about every gaming table and inside every DM dice.
And so the Dungeon Master, the creator of all things, the beginning and the end, the alpha and the omega, oh yes, this Dungeon Master will make you fear death.
Way back who-knows-when, I played AD&D with school friends, and death was a funny little occurrence that meant, “Yay, I get to roll a new character.” But this hardly ever happened, since the DM recognized that we were happy with our party, and we were all having fun. From there, I jumped into a new group, my older brother’s classmates and their college age friends, and this was a campaign that had been going on for years, which lent the whole affair a sense of permanence and gravity.
You can imagine my surprise–or perhaps the better term is “heart-stopping terror”–when one of the PCs did something stupid, and the DM… just… killed him. There was no hesitation or prevarication. “This is a lethal game, and now you can’t play it anymore with that character.” I was shocked. This DM was buddies with the player, but there was no quarter given. Tear up that character. He’s done now.
It’s not the same game I play today, but I’m not sure if that’s a bad thing. For the purposes of drama (or horror), you can try to make the protagonists as close to “regular people” as possible. When a regular person is pursued by death in a hockey mask, we in the audience experience fear because we can so easily imagine ourselves as the victims. “What would I do? Where would I run? Could I get away?”
However, this isn’t a fair comp, since the characters are not supposed to be “regular people.” They are supposed to be superstars, superheroes, super-amazing. They are supposed to laugh in the face of death, sneer at the nose of destruction, and giggle at the ears of annihilation.
Also, permanent obliteration is not nearly the punishment you think it is. By removing any sort of reliable restoration in your game (I’ve heard more than once, “There’s no resurrection or raise dead in my game!”) or by introducing lasting punishments like “wound effects,” all you’re really doing is saying, “I’m going to punish your characters for being effective, cool, and dangerous.”
DMs of the world, hear my voice: don’t bend and fold and mangle and mutilate the game to deliver your perception of difficulty. Let the game go and grow as it will, and if the players really have a problem with it, trust me, they’ll let you know. There is a social cost to dropping in combat, and it’s not that you will never again play this half-elven bard you’ve had for the last couple years. No, the punishment is immediate and acute: you have to sit there at the table for a time while the other players have fun. That hurts way more.