You carefully made sure that the PC was flexible and empowered, took the monster’s specific damage per turn and the overall action economy into account, and yet, here you are, sitting across the table from your duet partner, asking them to make a death saving throw.
By the rules, if they roll a 1, that’s it!
What if no one has revivify? Then what?
We ran into a similar situation in our Tales of Eldura game not too long ago—an encounter was more difficult for Garreth, Jonathan’s PC, than I had anticipated, and without his relentless endurance trait, he would have been making death saving throws.
We think it’s important for everyone playing in a one-on-one game to have a conversation about what happens if the PC dies. We’ve written about how to deal with PC death before, and for the most part, we recommend avoiding it if at all possible—not necessarily the death, but at least the character staying dead. You can read that post here.
For us, it comes back to the Rule of Fun: What’s the most fun outcome in this scenario? Would it be more fun for us to find a way for the PC to come back than for them to be gone forever?
Below, you’ll find a few additional avoidance strategies for preventing PC death as well as some considerations for when to make an exception one way or another.
Option 1: A Plan with Stakes
As a general rule of thumb, I think it’s helpful to have some sort of a plan in place, or at least the understanding that you’ll figure something out, if something terrible happens to the PC in your campaign. That peace of mind can keep emotions steady in the moment and give the GM a chance to figure something out without stressing out the player.
In our game, for instance, if my PC dies, I know that her companion characters will bring her back. However, there will be larger, negative consequences in the world in their absence, so someone, story-wise, will pay the price. I think this makes for a really great compromise, and the assurance that if something happens to my character, I’ll still get to play her is really comforting.
Option 2: Fudge the Rolls
This is one of Jonathan’s favorite avoiding-PC-death strategies to suggest. If you’re like me and don’t have a very good poker face, this plan might be harder for you to pull off. (I get caught every time!)
Let’s say for this scenario that a combat is more difficult than you intended and the PC can’t run (remember, escape is almost always an option!). As the GM, you can either make the monsters miss, decrease the damage of the individual attacks, or both!
Keep in mind strategies for scaling encounters here as well. As one example, in our most recent Tales of Eldura game, I didn’t let any of the bearded devils summon additional fiends as they were already 3 vs 3 against our party. I also had one attempt to run at the very end—our combat was functionally over (though he might have killed my GMPC), but he definitely would have died if he had stayed.
Bonus: Bring in Reinforcements
As a bonus option, you can bring in a surprise NPC or a larger creature than the one the party is fighting and throw off the balance of the encounter in the party’s favor.
Option 3: Spell Bumps
Once the party hits 5th level, consider finding a way to ensure they have access to revivify, even if it’s not in one of the character’s classes. Maybe after a boss fight, they find a stone of revivify or something similar so you have a do-over option if needed. If you want to be more hard-core, perhaps it’s a one-time use item.
We also use Matt Mercer’s revivification rules so that someone can’t automatically come back. Even though I’m talking here about how to avoid PC death, we still like for there to be stakes for our characters.
Considering Story Stakes
When it comes to fudging the rolls or manipulating a combat, to me, it depends on the story stakes for that particular moment in your campaign. For instance, if my character were trying to save a friend and died in the process, believing in what she was doing, that’s a lot easier to take than a random monster who ended up being more powerful than the DM anticipated killing her because they rolled a nat 20 and then max on the damage dice.
I was discussing this topic with a reader recently, and they and their partner were both very opposed to fudging dice rolls. I think that’s totally legitimate, but I would suggest tempering any table-policy of that sort with a GM-oops clause: If a fight isn’t going the way you planned or a creature is more deadly than you realized, you could try one of the strategies above, like having someone swoop in and intervene, or at least make it really clear that the PC should run!
Basically, GMs, give yourself a do-over or the opportunity to tell the player you made a miscalculation and rewind a bit in the encounter. Remember, Rule of Fun!
At the end of the day, when it comes to PC death, we suggest the primary question be: “What is the most fun?” as opposed to: “what do the dice say?” But it’s a balancing act, and we recognize that having intense stakes in the game is important too!
The rule we made for our table was that we would find a way to bring the PC back because playing that character is the most fun for us. I’m certain you’ll figure out what works for you! We’d love for you to share any special rules or strategies you have around this topic in the comments below!
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