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Character Death, Party Wipes and Popping your Cherry

We have a term in my games for when a player has the first character die ever. We call it "popping your cherry". Crude, but it allows players to joke about how characters die - sometimes in a funny way.

My games are exciting. Battle is bloody and deadly. PCs get injured, sometimes they die because they make foolish mistakes. And I don't pull punches as a DM, if a PC does something suicidal they are going to get themselves killed.

Like the time a character wandered off to explore a cave during combat and found some traps... decided to run through the traps and got very injured. And then decided to run through the same traps again. So he died alone, far away from the party who was still busy killing some undead.

His death was no fault of mine. The player decided he wanted to run through the traps. I warned him that they looked dangerous. But he did it anyway.

Another time years ago the party was exploring a maze when they found a nice room with an old water fountain that still worked. The water was clean and clear and it was a good place to rest, and the party was already injured and low on spells from an earlier fight with a wyvern. But for some reason they decided to not rest and continue onwards... and found the undead minotaur boss monster. They then began to run away from it and the minotaur killed them one by one as they fled. One character managed to get away (same player as the first example) and would have been the lone survivor when he came to a pit trap the party had previously went around and avoided. So he decides to jump it... rolls badly. He uses a reroll. Still fails. And dies. Clearly that player should stay away from traps.

And this is just two examples from my campaigns which I have been running for 18 years now across 2nd edition, 3rd edition, 1st edition (boycotted 4th and decided to go retro), and eventually back to 2nd edition again. There has been many more character deaths and party wipes over the years.

A few things I have learned...

  • Combat is more exciting when death is a possibility.
  • Players roleplay their characters more realistically when they know the DM doesn't pull punches.
  • Players sometimes make all sorts of foolish mistakes. Things like not using a safety rope when climbing a steep cliff.
  • Players eventually wise up and start thinking and planning more, and learn to make more calculated risks as opposed to reckless suicidal actions.
  • Nobody has ever accused me of killing characters on purpose. They all died by accident or because they did something foolish.

For example... you know the lightning sword of a balor and how it electrocutes whoever picks it up? Character death right there during a fight with a balor. They thought it was a potential loot item. I showed the player the entry in the 2nd Edition Monster Manual so they could read for themself what happens.

Fortunately by the time PCs are fighting a balor death becomes more of a temporary problem. Permanent character death is really only a problem at low levels.

One time I ran the Vecna chapter wherein everyone plays a powerful wizard investigating a tomb wherein Vecna is trapped. So the team of wizards goes through the tomb, solves every problem and then arrive at the room where Vecna is sealed in. They break the seal open and release him... at which point Vecna stops time and begins killing them, as per the original module, and it ends up being a complete party wipe. (My version of Vecna is called Xorek instead and is a powerful Chronomancer, which works perfectly since Vecna tends to use chronomancy spells.)

That party wipe of powerful wizards sets up the whole adventure later on with normal PCs and allows the players to realize just how powerful and deadly Vecna/Xorek is.

I also used a demilich version of Xorek in Tomb of Horrors, in place of Acererak. Xorek has many clones and versions of himself scattered through the centuries and different timelines. As an undead chronomancer he is walking undead time paradox.

However here is the thing about Tomb of Horrors and when my players went through it..

They didn't have a single character death. After years of being in a deadly campaign, playing 1 potentially deadly session every Friday night for years, they had all wised up and had learned how to deal with traps, monsters, and constantly looming threat of death.

They survived Tomb of Horrors and the funniest incident they encountered was that teleporter that takes their clothes and crosses their gender.

Also I didn't tell them it was Tomb of Horrors until after they defeated the demilich. To them it was the Tomb of Xorek. Well... one version of Xorek.

After defeating the demilich Xorek, the other Xorek clone was activated and that triggered the game session with the powerful wizards investigating a different and more powerful Xorek tomb.

And eventually those characters and that campaign was retired and I started a smaller sandbox style game where the same players are now playing children in a village in a valley much later in the timeline... and the characters slowly age up. Currently they are teenagers. Eventually they will reach adulthood.

But soon, this Friday, the teenagers will find a book titled "The Many Lives of Xorek"... and the players will all laugh/groan at the reference.

Note - None of the teenagers have died yet. Not because I am not still running a deadly campaign, that has not changed. The big change is that the players are wiser and roleplay better now. They take precautions. Closest thing to death they have encountered so far is a near drowning and a few encounters that surprised them.

So will characters die? Who knows. It has been years since that party wipe. Maybe they will make a mistake.

Lately I have been researching old school traps... like you see a rope dangling from a ceiling in the middle of the room. You yank it and the ground in the whole room collapses. No saving throw, but the onus is on the players for not checking for traps before yanking the rope.

Also working on a teleporter puzzle wherein the party has to get from A to B across a room full of squares that teleport to other squares but has to figure out how to best do it. Some parts of the room has walls of force with a monster in them. Some has a pit trap there so they are teleported above a pit trap. So their challenge is to walk from teleporter to teleporter and find the correct way across. The puzzle will be deadly because of the traps, but should make a good challenge for a low level party.

So as long as they don't make any foolish mistakes...

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