Sunday, May 13, 2012

Death, Dying and TPKs

Poring over the excellent Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG I came upon rules for saving ostensibly dead characters:

Bleeding Out: There is a chance of saving a dead character by healing him very quickly (such as with a cleric’s ability to lay on hands). […]

I’m sure you are all familiar with similar rules. As the Swords & Wizardry White Box notes

[...] many referees allow characters to be ‘unconscious at 0 hp and not actually die until they reach some pre-determined negative number.

Whether one uses the ‘death at 0 hp’ approach or ‘dying’ rules has serious ramifications.

Most notably, ‘dying’ rules decrease individual risk but actually increase the chance of a TPK.

If the party’s fighter goes down after a brutal crit the best strategy might very well be retreat, i.e. cutting one’s losses and running. But if Bob’s character can still be saved the other players may want to continue fighting in the face of unfavorable odds.

In the latter case, the decision to fight or run is a tough one. I like confronting the players with tough choices but it bears pointing out that in this case, social pressure (whether overt or not) may well be involved.

The upside is that if the other players try to save their fallen comrade the players will almost certainly bond (or deepen their bonds) - regardless of whether they succeed or end up losing their characters as well.

The downside is that the atmosphere at the table might be seriously impacted if the player of a PC left behind harbours hard feelings.

The DM has to make some tough calls, too. Realistically, many monsters will concentrate their attacks on a fallen PC. A pack of ravenous wolves, for instance, will likely try to drag off the body of a not-quite-dead PC or tear him apart on the spot (i.e. start feeding).

But Bob’s already having a hard time and if the DM decides the monsters go after his poor PC he might feel picked on.

I think the best practice is to decide on – and communicate! – such behavior beforehand and/or to let the dice decide.

I'm not condemning 'dying' rules at all, but for DCC, I’ve cooked up the following house rule:

Damage and Death p. 93
PCs die at 0 hp. Period. 

More precisely, PCs are fatally wounded at 0 hp.

A PC who is not yet at -10 hp may continue fighting for a number of rounds equal to his level. He is considered to be fatally wounded. Neither medical attention nor mortal magic can save him. When his time is up, he dies.

For more of my DCC house rules, click here


  1. Great observations, especially about in increased chance of TPK. I've noticed that tendency as well.

    My own B/X house rules are save versus death at 0 HP to determine whether a character was slain or just incapacitated. I think it avoids some of the problems with drawing out dying while still giving PCs a potential second chance.

  2. I'm thinking of adding a save, too, though only to determine whether a fatally wounded character just drops or goes into "Last Stand" mode. =)