In a book, you can write a character who is smart enough to know that a farm boy recently turned hero shouldn’t charge into a fight with the Imperial Guard. But if it’s one of your players making that choice, the last thing you want to do is fudge the rolls to let them win but if you don’t kill him how will the player ever learn?
We can’t predict all the choices the players will make, but it never hurts to consider some alternatives to killing off the characters. In some game set ups, death is barely even a setback. I know in my experience, the reflex to a crazy plan by the players is as often throw a monster or some other obstacle at them to slow them down until I can think of something better.
Back to our farm boy.
That Imperial Guard is made of veteran elites who by definition will be able to take down the PC with no problem. To suggest farm boy will win at this point in the story is going to set that expectation from this point on. Killing farm boy doesn’t advance the story, but clever you, you knew somebody was going to pull this so scribbled a few notes on a post-it note:
- Leave the PC in a heap but stable and soon to be found by the party, an abject lesson of what happens when you mess with the Imperials.
- Throw the PC in jail for the night and his release comes with a plot hook – he (and the party) must go to the haunted windmill to retrieve an item or else the farm boy gets to be imprisoned or executed for his crime of assault against the Imperial Guard. Toss in a few rumours to be overheard while he cools his heels in the slammer for a night or two.
- One of the Imperial Guards is a member of the Underground who seeks recruits (or a sneaky way to set up a distraction later on with the PC as a catspaw), convinces the fellow guards to let the farm boy off with a stern warning but secretly slips the PC a note to meet with a mysterious contact later. As GM, that contact can be as honest or underhanded as you need for getting the party back on to the main story.
If this were Blades in the Dark, there likely would be a clock started with notation of “Guards know your face” as a consequence. In FATE you would probably gain a new aspect with a similar name. D&D lacks these mechanics beyond something scribbled down (but nothing stops you from grabbing mechanics from somewhere else, just saying …). Two out of three of these alternatives come with hooks that pull the players further along a story. One of them at least keeps the party going, but doesn’t do much to advance things. Failing forward is a wonderful thing.
What about if the almost the whole party gets into biting off more than they can swallow? Could be a bad choice by them, maybe bad dice on some crucial rolls, or even the GM underestimated how lethal this encounter might be.
- Captured and must either break out or be rescued.
- Killed, wind up being raised by a powerful individual who needs them for ‘reasons’ (might be a demon lord who needs agents to counter another demon lord’s plot, might be a cranky cleric who is doing as Fate dictates but it comes at some great personal cost being bound to this cause).
- Something bigger and meaner chases off their enemies, takes most of their stuff. When the party eventually awakens, they must choose between question after their own stuff or giving up on that and surviving long enough to get more stuff for now. The party themselves might even wake up in the lair of the Bigger Meaner Creature and have only moments to act before they return or the egg pods hatch into their faces!
True story from my table – the party charged in through the front gate of a small village that had been taken over by cultists and their monstrous allies. Some unfortunate rolls led to all but one player character not being dropped to 0 hit points (she ran away). This was at a high level point in the campaign. The party had been through some serious encounters, destroyed a couple of major bosses, and even acquired some serious magic items by this point. To lose almost all of them would have been a serious setback. Instead, we put the game on pause for the rest of that evening and made up replacement characters at a lower level than the original party. The story was they had been doing their own battles against the Big Bad Forces (and picking up some of those side quests that the main party had not) and now they had been recruited by the one survivor with the intent of a rescue mission!
There was a great deal that I loved about this solution. This was a break from the characters we had played for over a year and a chance to try something new and different. If one of the original party died, there was a back up ready to level up to be on par with the rest of the party. Heck, if the player wanted to retire (or take a time out from) their original PC and replace them with the alternate, the set up was already in place. And finally, the rescue trope is one that seldom gets a whole party working together as one or more of them are stuck being captured and don’t have much to do during that session. Importantly, I had buy in from my players.
And there are some systems that handle long term consequences better than others –
- Call of Cthulhu as a genre of game is full of short term and long term consequences like madness, insanity, and major wounds that edge the PC ever closer to death. It is baked into the game DNA that the PCs are very vulnerable and squishy.
- Games like Legends of the Five Rings and Star Wars have their own separate statistic that can change as a consequence of PC action, reflecting either social standing or morale choices. Early versions of D&D carried experience penalties for deviations from alignments but in this current game, I doubt we would see penalties from a system that tends to provide rewards and carrots like inspiration for playing that alignment or making good choices.
- Blades in the Dark has a whole death spiral of its own as a the PC pushes things too far, completing consequential clocks that come hunting down the character, the inevitable decline by way of permanent harm, and the mini games of Heat and Reputation that force the hard downtime choice of working off that Heat or seeking medical treatment or taking time for that all too important vice to reduce the Stress.
- There are plenty of grimdark home brew rules for many versions of D&D that describe ways to have long term consequences for going to 0 hit points, but unless you’ve got some house rules on magical healing, even those lost fingers and mauled leg can eventually be dealt with. Honestly, the average player in a 5E game isn’t in it to play a mighty warrior who lost half their face (and take penalties to charisma checks) a month after that fight with that dragon’s acid breath. Far easier to drop a curse of some sort on them.
So before you choose death for your party of player characters, give a few moments of thought to how defeat can be measured in other ways than hit points and hit them where it hurt