My favorite games of Dungeons and Dragons have included stakes that felt real. These stakes most often come in the form of some horrifying monstrosity or aberration lurking just around the corner, ready to eviscerate my character. The Monster Manual is full of wonderful nasties that our lovingly created characters may, or may not, be able to overcome.
Specifically in duets, death for a primary character would be catastrophic and undesirable. But it is still something that can and should play a role in your narrative-driven game. It is likely that your primary character will be threatened with injury and death frequently, but they will also be surrounded by secondary PCs, the central party, and beloved NPCs whose demise wouldn’t derail a whole campaign. In this way, these characters are more expendable and more vulnerable in one-on-one games.
The ever-present threat of death lends a satisfying weight to the choices we make in tabletop games. We know that failing to resist the Illithid’s mental intrusions, or to not succeed in a Counterspell, can result in our character’s death. Death as a possibility makes these choices (and chances) matter. Mortality ultimately lends a sweetness to life.
A character death results not only in the profound feeling of loss that death has on a narrative, but also the perceived loss of all the time we have invested in bringing this character to life. It feels like a failure. Which is bad, right? I argue that we often need the bad to weigh against the good, each one bringing sharpness and poignancy to the other.
Of course, every table is different and your partner and/or players will have a variety of preferences in regards death. Some may care nothing about rolling a new character, while others may quit playing D&D altogether if their precious and fully-realized character perishes. In my experience, however, as long as everything seems fair and there is the opportunity to talk through everything, players agree that death as an option is a net good for the game.
I have seen Twitter polls asking DMs if their players are death-proof. The largest response was that their players were indeed death-proof (but don’t tell them). Whether your player’s characters can die or not seems like a huge thing to keep to yourself in a cooperative game like Dungeons and Dragons. It’s one thing to keep narrative secrets from your players, but they should know what kind of stakes are present at the table when they sit down. If there aren’t any, they should know. If you plan to have character death as a possibility, they should know that too.
Players are not fools. They can tell when exceptions are made, improbable deus ex machina events occur, and often when their DM is fudging dice rolls. If there is a little of this happening, in most cases no one will complain or say anything, but too much DM hand-holding can result in players feeling that their actions don’t actually matter and every choice will ultimately lead to their continued progression. This steals from them the satisfaction of things going well, which is a shame. The biggest piece of advice (maybe in D&D, maybe just in life in general) is to communicate often, openly, and clearly with your partners and players. If you let them know what kind of game you like to run and your stance on character death at the outset (including the reasoning behind it), your game won’t suffer when/if something terrible happens to a beloved character. It will instead have the dramatic (read:fun) weight of stakes.
How have you handled player death at your tables? Players, have you ever survived against all odds, or valiantly sacrificed a beloved character to save the party?
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