Gygax On…Saving Characters

I’ve blogged before about our obsession with balance in today’s games and how I’m beginning to distrust the CR system. Rather marvellously, this week I came upon an intriguing section in the 1st Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide about saving characters.



But first, I must confess, I often let dice fall where they may—sometimes fate is against the PCs (witness the two TPKs in the same room that heralded the sudden, catastrophic end of my Kingmaker campaign) and sometimes it’s on the PCs’ side. After all, without the possibly of death and defeat, victory becomes somewhat less of an achievement (and certainly way less exciting).

So what did Gary say?

“Now and then a player will die through no fault of his own. He or she will have done everything correctly, taken every reasonable precaution, but still the freakish roll of the dice will kill the character. In the long run you should let such things pass as the players will kill more than one opponent with their own freakish rolls at some later time. Yet you do have the right to arbitrate the situation. You can rule that the player, instead of dying, is knocked unconscious, loses a limb, is blinded in one eye or invoke any reasonable severe penalty that still takes into account what the monster has done. It is very demoralizing to the players to lose a cared-for-player character when they have played well. When they have done something stupid or have not taken precautions, then let the dice fall where they may…There MUST be some final death or immortality will take over and again the game will become boring because the player characters will have 9+ lives each!”

Dungeon Master’s Guide, Gary Gygax (page 110)

This week, I’ve not got a lot to add to Gary’s wisdom. I think he’s pretty much spot on.

I have no qualms about killing PC, but I don’t go out of my way to slaughter them. (And I don’t play with GMs any more who try to win the game by proving their tactical dominance of the table or who clearly fudge their rolls to help the PCs).

Similarly, I don’t go out of my way to save the PCs. I much prefer for them to dig themselves into a hole so that they can come up with a plan for success! When the bloodied survivors climb out of that hole, they have earned their victory—and such achievements are long-remembered after we’ve packed up our books and gone home.

What Do You Think?

Do you save PCs from horrible deaths or do the dice fall where they may at your table? Let me know, in the comments below.

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Creighton is the publisher at Raging Swan Press and the designer of the award winning adventure Madness at Gardmore Abbey. He has designed many critically acclaimed modules such as Retribution and Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands and worked with Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, Expeditious Retreat Press, Rite Publishing and Kobold Press.

30 thoughts on “Gygax On…Saving Characters”

  1. I like to take a variant of my father-in-law’s management advice: “I’ve never fired anyone; I’ve had people who fire themselves, though.”

    Under normal circumstances, players don’t want to have their characters die. So, when they make decisions that will lead to their PCs deaths, I make sure that the player knows it. It could be the player wasn’t paying attention during a critical conversation. Or I didn’t convey the proper information (yes, it happens; we DMs sometimes assume the players see our world as we see our world). In these situations, I go out of my way to make sure the players know they will lose.

    In the cases where dice fall poorly and a character dies, I would like to have a “post-mortem” examination of the decisions that led up to that event. I try to do that in other areas of my life when things don’t work out as planned (business and military do similar exercises), and it only makes sense that we should assume a dispassionate view of the situation in order to learn lessons and not repeat our mistakes. It would take a mature GM and mature players to do this, because character death can be an emotional experience, but backing up and realizing that we should have retreated at point X will prepare us for the next time we find ourselves in that situation.

    I think this is also a case where “fate points” can come into play, although often these points seem excessive. There is a concept from storytelling games where the player can “make this one matter,” which provides the equivalent of additional hit points but at the expense of “no saving grace” — if the character dies after invoking this, that’s it. I prefer a single “get out of jail free” card that builds up every two or three levels. It doesn’t build up, and you get one time to save your character’s bacon between relatively long stretches of adventuring. If you haven’t invoked it, you get to save your character, but don’t ask again for at least two levels.

  2. As a rule, I:

    … do use CR to gauge the likely challenge involved, so I know;
    … don’t particularly care if CR even approximates APL;
    … do try to design so ‘kill everything’ isn’t Plan A;
    … don’t expect PCs to take advantage of that;
    … do provide guidance regarding expected danger if they do follow Plan B;
    … don’t fudge; if the PCs go for it and get gutted, it’s their problem.

    Mind, I also try to design adventures so no particular outcome is necessary to progress. Whether they steal the macguffin or kill the monster or die horribly in a fire is all the same to me and to moving the story forward (though in the case of a TPK, with different characters). I try to make each component hookful enough that another group could reasonably step in and carry the story on.

  3. Having been brought up on the 1st ed. DMG, I can fully appreciate finding the balance between making the game challenging and exciting as opposed to the extremes of making it too easy for the players or running killer dungeons.

    That being said, I never “clearly fudge the dice rolls” to help the PCs. I keep my dice rolls well hidden behind the DM screen.

  4. I’ve been known to fudge potential tpks when my inexperience as a DM made things go sideways. And we all put a lot of time and effort into our PCs so we do get attached. But I don’t want to play in a carebear game. I love running and playing edge of your seat sessions where you never know if you’ll make it out alive.

    More importantly, which room/area in Kingmaker gave you two spectacular TPKs? I ran it twice but never managed that (admittedly, we came close during an owlbear random encounter, haha).

    1. It was in Rivers Run Red when the party met the Dancing Lady. The first time, of a group of four, three people rolled 1s on their saving throws (with predictable results). Sometimes the dice hate you. The second time, the saving throws weren’t as bad, but still only two people managed to stop oggling her long enough to actually attack (and of course, they had no cold iron weapons).

      1. These are the type of dice chaos moments where I like using some kind of hero point/fate-chip system. I don’t want my players stock-piling them so I only allow 1 per level – to a degree that makes them “so” important that I find my players don’t want to ever use it because something worse could happen. However, 1’s happen, and as soon as 3 players popped, I’d prompt my players if anyone wanted to cash in a hero point for a re-roll. At that point, those rare resources are best spent otherwise the TPK is almost surely going to happen.
        From my GM side of the table, the ability for a key NPC or boss to get a re-roll is also nice. Not something you want to use constantly, since the PCs are the hero’s but never the less an option that is nice to have, and if players know you’re using yours, they’re likely to use their own. Although we play PF, I like the idea of legendary actions and resistances for the toughest monsters for the same reason.

      2. Oh, that’s great. Those natural 1s just can’t helped. Our party was decked with anti-fey sentiment and weapons by then. She was a fun encounter despite that though.

  5. I try to craft a campaign that rewards smart play. I like to avoid character death when possible. Part of mitigating such a loss is that I actively encourage each player to have at least two characters. This is helpful in shedding unusable loot, for giving players a change of pace in playing a different class, and yes, having a ready-made character to serve as their primary when unrecoverable death does happen. Naturally, one drawback of such a “stable” of characters system is slower advancement. In my recentmost 3-year campaign, a TPK was avoided only by a successful backstab by an invisible rogue. I think I was as relieved as the party was!

  6. Actually, later on in his Dangerous Journeys: Mythus RPG, Gary set up a system where, if a character was killed, an alternate version from a similar reality could take his place. A few adjustments to skills for the diff and violia!

    1. And then, of course, you’ve got _Paranoia_, where you start with six clones of the exact same character that all advance in lockstep. It might take a few minutes for the delivery missile to land, but your second/third/etc. clone shows up and you carry on more or less where you left off.

  7. I’m a bit of a hard DM… monsters are scary. NPC more so. Death happens… sometimes a lot. So do miracles… sometimes a lot. The game is a game of balance and the DM sets the stage. The rules are there to guide you, not bind you. When Sturm dies… one of the most unforgettable moments in D&D fiction. If your PCs do that – death is required. Finding ways to get through the traps in the tomb of horrors… should happen – enough death awaits at the end.

    Know your players, know your dungeon(s), and remember that your PCs are supposed to be like James Bond – super amazing and vulnerable at many turns.

    1. But even in your description, Sturm dies in one of the most heroic fashions imaginable. I played in a game where we’d survived for some time, had rich and varied backstories and histories, and a PC died because he was critted on by a red cap. The things wield scythes, with a x4 crit multiplyer. The thing was a stupid random encounter the DM rolled off a chart he made and we lost our caster while we were on our way to do something actually vital to the plot. It didn’t enhance our eaperience. It made us mad that he insisted on rolling on that god damned chart.

  8. At lower levels, I generally tend to be a bit tougher on the players, as they are generally less attached to their PCs and they may not be quite as integral to the campaign at levels 1, 2 or 3. At those times, a lot of players, even the beefy fighter or barbarian, are just one or two good rolls by the DM away from death as well.

    However, if the fight is going badly due to poor rolls by the players, I may assist a bit: the blow that drops the BBEG down to 2 or 3 hit points right before his turn maybe instead drops him to -1. Or, maybe once the BBEG drops, his minions fail their morale rolls and scatter instead of continuing to fight like fanatics?

    However, while I may be just as tough later on in a campaign, at higher levels, the players usually have more ways to mitigate death. Revivify was very popular when I ran a long running 3.5E game – so, I do not mind throwing everything including the kitchen sink at the group. I had a large group for that 3.5E game, and they got hit with Finger of Death, Time Stop, Maze, Trap the Soul, Horrid Wilting, Evasculate, Meteor Swarm, Implosion, Blasphemy (by a higher level cleric than the party), etc, etc. It was a high five moment for the group when the Barbarian tank got hit with a Maze spell by the lich, and then rolled a natural 20 at the end of her first round there. (She had no intelligence modifier, so needed a natural 20) Since the lich was immune to magical metals due a buffing spell, the standard steel swords were ineffectual in the beginning, so the barbarian’s huge stone club was needed!

    That said, when they got to higher levels, there was usually one or two NPC allies with the group that a player could run if their PC was incapacitated or killed by a Save or Suck/Die spell. My old group made their rolls on the table, though, and had a remarkable record of Saving versus Save or Die spells. The only memorable fail was the dwarf fighter failing a Fort save when he needed a 4 or better. (The dwarf later earned the nickname of “Unkillable” after he was dropped, Revivified, Healed up, then killed outright, and resurrected via Miracle (+5,000XP variety))
    So, I can say I generally am pretty tough

  9. I agree with you and the late Mr Gygax.
    I need to add that for me, DM’s who see the need to “beat” the PC’s at this game fail to see the point of this game. and their role in it.
    as a Player/DM I see how easy it is to think that the DM’s monsters are his minions and he is some literal Dungeon Master but if that is what they want then perhaps they should buy a Computer and play the Strategy game “Dungeon Master” instead. or some other table top game that is about playing the DM v the PC’s
    D&D in all it’s flavors is not that game. that said, this is what I take from the game, others may see it differently, though I am unlikely to play at their table in such cases.

    1. I do like the idea of finding other ways to harm a player in the longer term. Maybe roll 2d6 and have a table of awful disfigurements, injuries and lost limbs until they can get proper regeneration. Possibly a 3 or 2 is death.

      But if a PC is slowly dying and the party let it happen as the negatives mount up then its down to the players to save him.

      Good topic Creighton.

  10. I spend too much time developing background hooks for each character that become relevant in the later campaign arc to let any of them die, barring willful stupidity.

    But they don’t know that. I continuously fudge HP/strategic choices/reinforcements (up or down) as needed to keep things right in that zone of excitement. I don’t adhere religiously to a number on a page or a given die roll when making another choice would result in a more exciting, fun, memorable session.

    1. My mate is a top DM in so many ways, he runs great monster combats and is creative. But after a couple of years I could recognise when he was fudging. We never lost a character and the game began to lose its lustre. Decent players will spot that they can push the envelope even further than they should – and begin taking risks that devalue the game.

      I wouldn’t worry about slotting one or two, it sends shock waves through the players and makes them much better in combat. Crikey – Creighton used to kill PCs in the Temple of Elemental Evil because his monsters fought to survive. It also made any success much more satisfying.

      Maybe by introducing an element of scars and serious injuries when PCs fall to low negatives then they will treat fighting as more dangerous without risking so many deaths? I like that idea because at the moment healing wipes the slate clean even if my players are on -11 with 12 Con.

      1. See I always find this argument to saving PCs false. If I save your PC to continue the story, and you start pushing, I will fucking end you for your arrogance. I can always turn the murderous GM gene right back on.

  11. I have no problem with having a wandering NPC “find” the destroyed party and resurrect/reincarnate them. Reincarnation can be SO much more fun!

  12. IMO, spells like Resurrect or Miracle make death irrelevant. The character can always come back- even if it takes some time and effort. One of the biggest reasons a dead character is so frustrating is because it interrupts play. The group has to decide what to do. Does the player want the character brought back? Do they want a new one, or need a new character while they get back the dead one? If they are in the middle of a good story, and are invested in the situation, it feels like having a good book taken away from you while you’re still reading it. I think a GM needs to be more than just a dice-rolling referee. They need to be narrators with an understanding of how to use life or death situations in the most dramatic way, so it adds to the story instead of detracting from it. I’ve GMed and played games where players were on the edge of their seats sweatin’ bullets over an encounter. They weren’t anywhere close to dying, but they felt like they were. After all, the game is about ideas- not realities. I think there are other issues at play here. Maybe the GM needs to improve their skills. Maybe the players are burned out. It can be important to know when to change GMs, or even stop playing for a while. The prospect of death and defeat is not the only thing that makes the game exciting. To kill or not to kill is a good question, but even the perfect answer won’t solve those deeper issues.

    1. I absolutely agree. There are no spell versions of resurrection in the game I run. Only gods and similar powerful entities can do that.

  13. My group has always favored story over pure game mechanic. I tend to expand on Gary’s advice in my own game. I have a list of consequences that can be stacked on a PC instead of death, and I use it mostly when I feel that the permanent death of the character would lessen the story. Now this is the important caveat. When fighting the main villain, his lieutenants, or facing a side quest of consequence (say, delving a dungeon to get a special sword to slay the dragon or what have you) death in those scenarios has to be a possibility, because they’re what is call “tentpole” moments. Random encounters or smaller encounters are not fitting deaths for the main characters of a story, which is the approach my players and I take to game. Our focus has always been on character arcs, plot development, and the fleshing out of themes. The dice in my game are arbitrators of the story, and add an element of surprise. Killing a character because of bad dice rolls during what I’d consider a small encounter doesn’t serve the aim of the table. Now this is my table. There are many and some are run very differently and there’s nothing wrong with that. Many gamers prefer gritty realism and don’t want story (at least not if the film or novel type) as much as they want to feel like it’s a simulation of life in a fantasy realm.ive seen and been a part of such games and had a blast, but I have much more fun at my table, both in the game I run and in the one I alternate with, run by one of my other players.

  14. Years ago, in the late 80s, I got the chance to sit in on a panel that included Gygax in which this very topic game up. The question was around guns in gaming and their affect on heroism. It was a Top Secret panel; the game, not the security clearance…)

    During the panel Gary said, “If the player insists that his character rush across the open ground too attack the two thugs armed with machine guns… Well… No act of stupidity should go unpunished.”

  15. I always let the dice fall where they may. Saving a character or killing them, fudging dice rolls is cheating no matter how much to candy-coat it. GMs who do so are eventually found out and the players realize they no longer have anything to fear. It also takes away all risk, making the game essentially meaningless.

    Better a TPK than a cheated victory or even survival.

  16. As a GM myself, I run Games for my family (2 Twelve year old girls and my wife). My girls haven’t played much and never played before coming to live with us. I have Only had one near kill but she saved vrs death. I do Fudge JUST a wee bit. But it’s because of the lack of gaming exp. as they get more game time in, that fudging will go away.

  17. I think the only time I would consider saving a PC is if I had cheated an encounter for toughness. If PCs are cutting a swath through a dungeon and I’m wanting at least one challenging encounter, there might be a little kick up in difficulty. If that is done and I’ve over done it then the PCs will likely have some form of Deux Ex Machina happen for them.

    Otherwise, the death dice rule.

    That said, when running an extended campaign with earth shaking quests, character deaths can be a real drag. I tend to make resurrection magic available in various forms. I’m pretty skilled at keeping encounters balanced so unfair party wipes rarely if ever happen.

  18. When I was younger (25-30 years ago), I used to secretly track PC HPs and quietly fudge behind the screen if things were getting too dangerous, but not now.

    I do all my DM combat rolls in the open. I am happy for players to see bonuses, etc. that an opponent can do. I figure if they can see it as a player, then in character they can role-play that their PC understands what they are up against.
    I wish my players luck when making saving throws, or I am about to roll a massive amount of damage against them (and I mean it!).
    I don’t worry very much about balance, but try to live by the rule: the more likely it is to kill you, the more obvious it should be (foreshadowing, clues to its approach, etc.).
    If they survive something extremely dangerous, I praise them for it.

    When my players roll up a PC, they must roll up a back-up character. If we are doing 5E, then backstories have a word-limit. My policy is: by all means care about your PC, get attached, but if your paper person dies, that’s part of the game too (and can be a source of fun in itself).

    So long as that’s all broached at the start, I think it’s a pretty safe philosophy to live (and die!) by.

    I played a game recently where the DM told us in a session zero that he didn’t like player death, and it wouldn’t happen unless requested by the player as part of the story. That was not really enjoyable.

    1. “I played a game recently where the DM told us in a session zero that he didn’t like player death, and it wouldn’t happen unless requested by the player as part of the story. That was not really enjoyable.”

      Absolutely. If the characters can’t die, what’s the point in playing? With no danger comes no sense of achievement.

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