Killing a Player Character

The Paladin charged heroically into battle against the menacing Fire Troll. He rolls a natural 20 and unleashed a divine smite, dealing north of 50 points of damage in a single swing. This, combined with the next attack, almost halved the hit points of the troll in one turn alone.

It’s the troll’s turn. As it regenerates his wounds, it looks the Paladin in the eye. He looks right at the character that dealt massive damage to it just a few seconds ago. It lunges forward to bite but it’s teeth unable to penetrate the Paladin’s plate armor. Then it sees an opening and attacks with it’s long sharp, fiery claws, It rolls a natural 20, slashing a deep wound under his armpit, cutting deep into the bone and inflicting fire damage to immediately cauterize the wound.

The Paladin fell. That single attack took him down to -3 hit points but the troll had another attack left in him. I rolled a die to determine if the troll would hit the Paladin when he’s down and the d20 said yes. The troll stood over the fallen Paladin and took another attack, stabbing it’s claws deep into the neck of the unconscious body. That is immediately considered as 2 failed death saves.

When the Paladin’s turn came next, everyone at the table hushed and held their breath. The player had one chance to stay alive. He rolls and as the d20 bounced across the battle mat, hitting over a few minis, he knew it was over. It was a 9.

“The searing pain subsided and the sounds of battle faded to nothing. Your consciousness drifts off and in the void of death, you see a bright, radiant light in the distance. You feel yourself slowly floating towards the light.”

And to the rest of the party, “you see the Paladin’s body on the ground, lifeless in a pool of blood. The troll stands over him, grimacing as it pulls it’s blood-soaked claws out of his neck. You see the look of glee on it’s face, knowing that it had not only killed one, but it had a chance to take another.”

The party erupted in language that I would not repeat here, but they were pumped and ready to finish the troll off. The player who just lost his Paladin said, “guys, finish this asshole.” I granted advantage to all the players’ next attack, attributed to the adrenaline rush after seeing their friend fall in battle. The Fire Troll had no chance and was quickly dispatched by an angry mob of adventurers who didn’t hold back.

After combat, the party panicked – “can we just heal him?”, “can we resurrect him?”, “what can we do???”. There was nothing. They took his body and slipped it into a nearby lake, where they drank from before the battle to gain temporary hit points. As a party, they beseeched the spirit of the lake to revive the Paladin. Even the joker in the group, who never roleplayed, spoke in character. I had everyone roll a group persuasion check, recorded the results and called it a night right there.

The group of adventurers faded and the group of friends returned.

We sat around the rest of the night, decompressing and discussing the death. I witnessed different stages of grieving, from denial (“I can’t believe what just happened!”) to bargaining (“Can someone from the tribe nearby just resurrect him?”) to reconstruction (“Maybe if we did something else instead of muck around, we could have prevented it!”).

It’s just a game, and the characters don’t exist but the emotions felt by the people playing feels very real. Everyone was shocked and affected by the imaginary events of what happened after rolling some dice on Friday night. Everyone went home but they were still processing grief in the group chat, over the whole weekend.

What happens next? I don’t know. I’m still discussing options with the player lost his character but I guess the learning here is this: when the moment comes, don’t be afraid to kill the character. As DM, we have to adjudicate how the game world plays out and holding back a killing blow might damage the verisimilitude we’re trying to create. You should be fair, and let the dice be the bad guys when it doesn’t land in the players’ favor. But when it happens, be there when the players need to process and be very open to discussing any future options. Remember, the game is imaginary but the emotions of loss and grief feels very real.

Optimize the Game

I drove home after the last session, exhausted but feeling like we had a good game.

We fought two Ropers in the Underdark, in a cavern with a ceiling filled with Piercers that attacked twice every round. The wizard got nearly bitten in half, dropping to -3 after a critical hit by a Roper’s bite. But the party eventually triumphed after a critical hit from the Paladin, smiting the Roper into a puddle of goo. But we lost the guide that was hired to take the party through the winding paths of the Underdark. The game ended when they walked into a settlement, and quickly found themselves numbered and surrounded by a group of duergar barbarians.

I got home and read “Excellent game” and “great game! I’m weirdly happy our guide died”, and what followed were an endless stream of what-ifs: “I could have casted Sanctuary on him”, “The smite was awesome and it saved the wizard!” and “if only he (the guide) knew this path was dangerous, he might still be alive!”

The lesson this week is important: know who you’re optimizing the game for. The lore, the encounters and the monsters doesn’t exist but the players and their emotions are real. Your best laid plans might fail and the encounter you planned might not even happen, but as long as your friends at the table are having a great time, you’ve done your job as a DM. Optimize for that and everything will fall into place.

The House is on Fire

In the last game, the characters were attacked by two pyromaniacal shapeshifters in a farmhouse. This was a great opportunity to try some homemade fire mechanics 🔥

First, determine how many grids are on fire and how intense the fire is. For my game, one of the shapeshifters threw a bottle of alchemist fire. I made the attack roll (which missed), then rolled the 1d4 and got a 3. So I took three d6s and placed them around point of impact, with each side showing a 3.

Secondly, add “Fire” to the bottom of your initiative tracker so something happens before the next round.

Lastly, grab another d6 because this is what happens when it’s the fire’s turn:

1. Every fire dice increases it’s value by 1. This symbolizes the fire growing in intensity.

2. Roll a d6. Any fire die that has a matching number to your roll replicates itself in an adjacent square. So if you rolled a 4, any die faces that are 4 spread itself as another 4 to an adjacent square. This is the fire spreading.

3. Any dice that is a 6 automatically spreads. Add another die, with 1 face up, to an adjacent square.

This gets deadly because if you rolled a 6 in step 2, all dices with 6 spread then each 6 adds a new 1 to an adjacent square.

To make things more complicated, you may a few optional rules like having players make Dexterity saving throws as they move through the fire, taking the full damage equal to the die value if they fail. You could also add a mechanic to put out the fire, making each pail of water a d6 which is rolled and subtracted from the value on the fire die. The possibilities are endless and it’s a lot of fun to add to a combat encounter, in a farm house that is burning down.

Oh, in the end, the farm house burnt to the ground but they defeated bad guys then had a fundraiser in town to raise money for the poor homeless farmer.

The Three-Clue Rule

In the last episode titled, The Tillage People, the party arrived at a little farming town called Felderwin. When they arrived, they found out that there’s been a recent spate of arsons in the tillage surrounding the town. The party picked up the cue and dived straight into investigation mode.

I was careful to make sure that for every conclusion they need to make, there would be three clues pointing them towards that. I learnt this from The Alexandrian (highly recommended blog for any aspiring game master, btw), so here’s how I set up the clues that led them to conclude that there’s a shapeshifter in town:

1. One of the halflings told them that he thought he saw someone twice a few nights ago when he was out drinking. He wasn’t sure if it’s just his imagination, but he was a little spooked when that happened.

2. While shopping in an apothecary and interacting with the shop owner, the door opens behind them and the shop owner walks in, causing the former to run out the back door.

3. They spoke with the starosta (kinda like the mayor of the town), only to find him gagged and tied up in a barn elsewhere in the tillage.

The three-clues rule works because most players don’t pick up clues like you would imagine them to. There is always information asymmetry at the table and this rule ensures that they won’t miss out anything you absolutely need them to figure out. This is an essential to running any mystery scenario.

Campaign Diaries

I started running a campaign about 3 months ago and we’ve been playing regularly almost every Friday evenings since. I thought it would be fun to post campaign, not just as a recap for myself but also to maybe reflect on some of the things I learnt in each session.

TL;DR: We are a party of five (called “The Outlanders”) playing in the Wildemount setting and we are about 9 sessions in. The characters are (already) level 5 and they’re making their way from the Dwendalian Empire towards Xhorhas. The current party is a Dwarf Barbarian (Ancestral Guardian), Drow Wizard (Chronurgy), Kenku Rogue (Soulknife), Aasimar Paladin (Devotion) and a Firbolg Druid (Circle of the Moon).

With that out of the way, let’s start unpacking some of campaign and see if we can learn some things along the way.