To Kill or Not toKill?” and comes down on the traditional (and, I think, fairly common) compromise of not to kill much, with an emphasis on letting the dice fall where they will. (Frankly, I think that’s the actual Old School preference. Yes, the dungeon is designed to be deadly, but it’s also beatable. That’s often what Old Schoolers mean when they talk about putting “game” before “role playing.”)
That’s an attitude I have a lot of sympathy with, and it’s been my default mode for decades. Lately, however, I’ve been drifting away from it. You can see that in my Table of Death & Dismemberment; sure, there are broken bones and lopped-off limbs, but the most likely results are knock-outs.
Why is that? It’s not because death is inconvenient. I do not base my campaigns around any one character (PC or NPC), so simply killing or dying won’t derail things. Likewise, with the opportunity to hire henchmen, it’s fairly easy for the PCs to fill out the ranks of the party if there are holes in their team.
No, the real problem with death is that it’s, well, boring. You roll up a new character, the other players weave in a bit of grief and angst into their play, and you move on. And that just feels rather “meh” to me.
(Let me make an important distinction here, however; while death itself may be boring, the threat of death is not. Though this can highlight the problem even more, as the death of a character can feel horribly anticlimactic, after the threat of it has been ramping up.)
So, what other than death? Maiming, broken bones, and unconsciousness. If only one or two PCs are incapacitated this way, now the others need to figure out what to do with them. They certainly don’t want to abandon their comrades to capture or being eaten. Now the tension of the fight rises. The players of downed characters are still riveted to the game. Will the others be able to drag them away to safety? How much will those still standing risk to safeguard the fallen? This is a lot more thrilling than rolling up a new character.
It also means TPKs are far more likely. Defeat to unintelligent monsters probably means some, if not all, of the party gets eaten. (And though they were intelligent, that always makes me think of Bilbo and the dwarves, strung up by the spiders, kept poisoned and weak until it was time to feast.) Who gets eaten first? What happens to those “saved” for later?
Luckily, I love answering those questions, and usually I find examples in real-world animal behavior or the fantastic cultures I’ve created for my game. And heck, if I do get a TPK, the way my campaigns are usually put together, that means an adventure in the realms of the Afterlife.
Art by Charles-Gustave Housez and Edmund Blair Leighton.