Sunday, April 5, 2009

"Whoah, that was a close one" -- life, death, and heroes in D&D

This is an idea for more heroic style campaigns. The goal is to increase character survivability at higher levels, without taking the fear and danger out of adventuring. The solution is to steal a page from Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay but put a decidedly D&D twist on it.

Here's how it works:

When a character is killed, be it through loss of hit points, failing a saving throw versus death, through poison, spell, or treachery, the player may opt to have the character lose a level instead. The DM or player can then describe a suitable "close call" that almost took the character's life, but that they escaped by the skin of their teeth. The character is still taken out of action for the rest of the encounter and suffers as much loss as possible, short of death or permanent disability. 

The level loss is permanent. The character must earn back the XP to regain the level. If the whole party falls, they'll surely be robbed, and quite possibly enslaved or imprisoned for ransom in addition to the loss of a level each. 

I like this system for a couple reasons. First, it allows for a little more continuity of character at higher experience levels. It makes heroic characters more robust, but it doesn't mean there are no consequences for deadly encounters. It is also tied directly into the D&D level system, meaning it can be used with a minimum of fuss. Unlike WFRP (a game I love deeply, I should add), the fate point mechanism isn't a separate pool. 

The system also has interesting implications when viewed in the context of level draining undead. The touch of a vampire is as bad as being killed twice, and I like that. The more soft-hearted DM has fewer worries about introducing deadly poisons and "Save or Die" effects in games with beloved characters, but the players still aren't free to take these kinds of threats lightly. It turns levels into a slightly more fluid resource, something you can expect to gain and lose from time to time. It'll take longer for many characters to reach higher levels, but at least they have the possibility of getting there without relying too much on Raise Dead spells, which could themselves be quite rare. 

First level characters are still in the same horrifying danger they've always been -- they just don't have any levels to spend. This means that 1st level remains the gauntlet. If you make it through, you've established that you're "hero material." If not, you were just another desparate bastard who tried. 

Optionally, you could rule that a first level character has the option of losing a level and becoming a "normal man." Having experienced harrowing encounters in the otherworldly halls of a dungeon, the character tries to get out of the dungeon as soon as is (safely) possible to retire to a peaceful life of farming and telling his tale to village youths and passing adventures at the local tavern. 

I'd also restrict the system to PCs (hirelings wouldn't have access to it). It might be extended to the greatest of villains and monsters, which would allow for recurring foes, but I'd actually be hesitant to use this much (if at all). As DM, I have plenty of other tricks up my sleave, and it's usually more interesting to let the chips fall where they may. This "fate point" system already has a high potential to create recurring villains without allowing villains access to the fate point effect. Eventually, at some point, some villain or monster may well score a TPK. The characters will each lose a level, all their worldly goods, their pride, and perhaps their freedom. When they recover, it'll be up to them whether to pursue vengeance against their enemy or not, andif so, when. Also, I don't feel that giving the PCs access to extra "lives" is necessarily just a perk for players. The DM's increased ability to throw "Save or Die" effects around with greater impunity is already a nice perk. And if it means more buy in on characters, and less need to cross "Thorgo" off the character sheet and write "Thorog, Thorgo's brother" on the top, I'm happy with that too. 


  1. Interesting variant.

    But what would happen if a PC has already been "left out of combat", and an enemy crushes his skull into bits, turning his brain into a formless jelly, while on the floor?

    - Zulgyan

  2. Yeah, that's definitely an issue the ref would have to deal with. A similar issue arises with a TPK by a predator. Wouldn't it eat the PCs?

    I can think of a couple ways to deal with this. For intelligent foes, the prospect of slaves or ransom should be sufficient justification in most cases for them not to crush skulls. And since I'm running the enemies, I'd also probably just tend not to have them "finish" downed foes. There are usually plenty of good possible justifications. For animals and monsters, maybe they already ate and were fighting out of fear, so they leave the bodies or drag them off to eat later. Maybe something came along the spooked them off. Maybe the magic items the characters are carrying simply makes a lot of animals skittish. Who would want to eat something radiating strange auras?

    Et cetera, et cetera.

    Now, if this is how things are usually done, it could then be turned around to make some monsters even more frightening. Maybe orcs, the jack-booted thugs of the armies of evil, always do stomp skulls to bits. Well, then, orcs are scary. Even high level characters don't want to fall in battle if orcs are around. Sure, you can take dozens of them. But if you go down, you go down for good. Or maybe the party falls in a fight with a bulette. Looks like the halfling is lunch.

    If the players know ahead of time that certain creatures and villains have a reputation as stone cold killers, they may approach those particular creatures and villains with a certain amount of fear, regardless of level.

  3. If the players know ahead of time that certain creatures and villains have a reputation as stone cold killers, they may approach those particular creatures and villains with a certain amount of fear, regardless of level.

    Oh, now that's juicy!

  4. Glad you like it! That's one of my favorite side effects of the house rule, and I picked orcs for a reason, too. I like to think of all the goblin races as the twisted workings of mad wizards and wannabe Saurons, and orcs have a special place in my "taxonomy." Goblins are the base, and I imagine some evil overlord type using twisted magics to combine goblins with men to produce orcs. But the orcs turn out to be too fierce to even serve as good soldiers for an evil overlord. They're black-hearted killers of the worst sort.

  5. Some animals will just lash out and maul you, and when you stop moving they move off. A bear for example might not be too interested in eating you. Then again, maybe he would. I think it would be appropriate to have the PC dragged off to the bear's lair and wake up there, as in Luke and the Ice Yeti Thing on Hoth. Back up to full HP, so death doesn't happen again immediately, but down a full level.

    Do you drop the PC to the bottom of the next level down? What if he only had 10 XP left until the next level? I think bottom of the level makes mechanical sense, as you don't want the PC to immediately pick up the level again (even though he did lose a ton of XP).

  6. Yeah, we've just played it as dropping the PC to the bottom of the next level down, regardless of current XP total. It's worked out pretty well. Simple and easy to remember.

    Over time playing with this rule in effect, we've also had an interesting effect develop -- a certain morbid comedy that arises when a particular PC gets "killed" multiple times in the same session (thus losing more than one level), or survives certain doom only to meet some other accursed fate. In one game, one of the PC's was killed twice by the same trapped chest. In another, a halfling character "survived" getting killed by a green slime by invoking this rule and saying the slime latched on to the pies he had in his backpack (the player had indeed made a big deal out of buying pies earlier in the session). Then he opened a door into the next chamber and was zapped by a spell that withered one of his arms up into a little vestigial thing. And you can't buy that off with a level.

    Dungeons & Dragons.

    Good times.