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The Killer Campaign and Character Deaths

To those DMs and D&D Players who have ever ran or been in a killer campaign, you know there is a special kind of mix of fear/relief/joy when your character survives a deadly encounter or trap.
I have been in both, having had multiple PCs die in killer campaigns and running a 5 year killer campaign.

Here are some of my observations:

Most character deaths happened between levels 1 and 4.

By the time PCs get to levels 5 to 8 they have smartened up and take less suicidal risks with their characters.

TPKs really only happened at lower levels.

After 5th level raising the dead becomes more financially viable.

After 9th level even if a character dies, they get raised fairly quickly in game time.

We referred to a player having their first character die as "having their cherry popped". This oddly enough helps them to get over the sting of character death, because we consider it a rite of passage.

While it is possible for players to get upset about character death, we haven't had that problem. I think this is because my group are older players in the 30s, 40s and 50s. In my experience getting upset about character death is something people in their teens or 20s do.

Sometimes characters would die doing foolish things. To which we would joke about it. Eg. "The only thing that can kill Bogdan is Bogdan."

Other times a character might die in a funny accidental way and their character name becomes a joke. Eg. "Remember Zlatgar? He was nice and all until he got squashed by that dead mammoth and became Splatgar."

At higher levels character death becomes very rare. The players have become very cautious and canny about traps. They know how to prepare for the potential for danger. They have gotten really good at tactics and at problem solving.

When I ran Tomb of Horrors in 2016 they got through the entire dungeon without a single character death. Looted the whole place. Killed every monster. Aced it.

Being in a killer campaign for 5 years changed the players. They are wiser. More experienced as players. Veterans.



...

In my current campaign (started in August 2016) I have actually taken death off the table. They are playing children now and going through an origin story similar to Batman Begins / Smallville / Gotham.

By starting as children they have lower stats, but since they don't know I have removed death from the table I find my players behave no different. They channel how their previous characters responded to traps and danger. They still behave like experienced and cautious adventurers - like they are reincarnations of their previous characters.

My goal in this new campaign is to let them go through the aging process using downtime between adventures. The characters are bonding via childhood friendships. Part of this is I introduced Childhood Nicknames as part of the character sheet, which was an important part of their character design and identity. They also chose the professions of their parents, which allowed me to integrate them into the village population. As they age they will become local heroes, but at some point my goal is to have them realize that their actions have consequences for their families - via family death they will realize that they need to wear disguises or masks. If I manage to do it correctly they will come up with this idea on their own. Thus the end goal is that each character will later need to add a codename as their characters become more like Zorro, Robin Hood, Batman, etc.

Only when they reach adulthood will I be reintroducing character death. By then they should have already have donned masks, capes, and disguises.

Two sessions ago they found a crate full of fake wigs and fake mustaches. So the seeds of disguises has been planted. Given time and subconscious hints they will eventually come up with disguises on their own...

And then with the deaths of their fellow villagers the need for them to wear disguises will become clear.

It will be a truly rare and unique thing I believe to run a campaign in which PCs go through their origin stories and enter a new phase of the game where they are not adventurers per se, but masked vigilantes instead.

Some of the players think the game is more like Harry Potter. But what they haven't realized is the dark twists and turns ahead - including possibly party death and the death of NPC villagers they have become attached to - and how these deaths will influence their need to keep their identities a secret.

For now the villagers are having the Annual Catfish Derby this Friday. During which events will be set in motion during the festivities... including a murder.

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