D&D Death Alternatives
CAPERS cover art by Beth Varni.
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Let’s talk about death! A recent episode of Table Top Babble with guest Barak Blackburn about player character death in RPGs got me thinking of the way we handle death in Dungeons & Dragons. The death saving throw mechanic can be a lot of fun and super tense, but some games put the decision to die (at least partially) in the hands of the player.
Leaving death to the dice is great for many groups, but there are some who want death to have strong narrative meaning beyond death. Dying due to unlucky die rolls during a random goblin encounter on the way to a tougher fight isn’t for everyone. There are also those players who wish for their characters to go out doing something heroic then fail to die because the dice say otherwise, which can be anticlimactic or disappointing as well. Some Dungeon Masters hold back when death is knocking on a character’s door for fear of hurting the feelings of the real person playing the character. When death is the player’s decision, that stress is alleviated.
Taking inspiration from some other games we can put death in the characters’ hands. In order to to make character death an attractive option it still needs a mechanic around it. Players must be incentivized to choose death. Barak’s currently Kickstarting zine, Strings, does just that. I won’t say how! You need to buy the product to find out (though there are hints in the podcast). Here’s some other ideas:
CAPERS is an incredible RPG from Craig Campbell. I helped design a very tiny piece of the game, which has this incredible description:
It’s the 1920s Prohibition era in the United States. Alcohol is illegal. Organized crime grows at an unprecedented rate as gangsters get rich selling hooch to a thirsty populace. Law enforcement struggles to keep up with an understaffed and underfunded Bureau of Prohibition.
You are one of a handful of people who have been gifted with super-powers!
Will you use your abilities to build a criminal empire as a super-powered gangster? Or will you focus your powers to serve the law and bring these criminals to justice?
When you are reduced to 0 hit points in CAPERS, you make a choice to be removed from play until you are healed, or to immediately take one final turn then die. This is an awesome option, which requires almost no adjustment in D&D. Lots of party members dropping? Time to blow as many resources as possible and go out like a firework destroying your enemies or covering the escape of your friends!
Phoenix Dawn Command
Keith Baker’s Phoenix: Dawn Command has one for characters to advance: death. There’s an interesting tension in gameplay, because dying makes a character more powerful, but each only has seven lives. Every challenge is faced with the idea that you COULD get one step closer to your story’s end in exchange for more power. Here’s the description:
It’s a story-driven game that combines action and mystery. You are the last hope of a world besieged by nightmares. You possess supernatural power, but you’ll never defeat the Dread unless you can unravel its mysteries. Your misions are dangerous, and you may not survive the night… but death is how you gain power. You’re a Phoenix, and you have seven lives to save the world.
This is another one that’s easy to implement in D&D. Characters level up by dying. You can set the level cap wherever you like! There is even more you can steal from this game, which you can read about in this post.
Another great game from Craig Campbell, Die Laughing has death mechanics perfect for your D&D one-shots. From the product description:
When your character is gone, you become a producer on the movie and continue to influence it and mess with the other characters right up to the end.
That’s right! You gain a little bit of control over the game after your character dies. The game rules give the producers a lot of fun and unique powers that could make a horror D&D one-shot a heck of a time!
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