I killed my first Player Character last night. I killed three, actually.
Playing as a Dungeon Master in Dungeons and Dragons has always been one of the most challenging gaming experiences in my life. It is the DM’s responsibility to create a balanced and fun gaming experience, with “fun” being a highly subjective concept to begin with. I have long felt that the idea of a “Total Party Kill” wherein the players fail in a way that causes every character in the party to die, means that the DM has failed. The challenges created by the DM should be balanced and always have a way for the players to survive. One or two character deaths is okay, but if every single player dies, that’s a problem. Sure, the DM can throw an impossible challenge at the players, but it’s the DM’s responsibility to communicate to the players in some way that the fight is unwinnable. But what happens if the DM does this, and the players still choose to fight? Should the DM find a more obvious way to let them know the reality of the situation? Should he fudge the dice and allow the players to narrowly win the fight? Should he just go with it and kill all of the players? These are the sorts of questions a DM has to deal with very often, and it’s not like the DM has time to sit and really think about what to do; these important questions usually come up in the midst of a session where the DM has to make these choices on the fly.
Well, last night I was faced with a similar choice. Here’s the situation: The players found a dragon. They were, understandably, quite intimidated! This is a group of level 1 players who thus far have encountered a group of zombies, a few orcs with wolves, and a band of kobolds. That is the entire extent of their adventuring career! The dragon was supposed to be deeper in the dungeon but they found a shortcut of sorts leading in to its lair. Despite a warning mechanic involving ghost descending in to the lair followed by a loud roaring noise, they decided to check out what was in there. Minutes later, the group’s healer found himself nose to nose with a young black dragon. Because there were only 4 characters who had only found one magic item so far, I scaled the dragon’s stats down a level that I felt would provide a difficult, but possible, challenge. I expected a character to possibly die during the encounter, but for the players to kill the beast. The players would have none of that however and decided to run away from the room they were in, backtracking to a room they felt would be safer. To get there they had to move through a narrow corridor and thought that the dragon might not be able to follow them. I guess none of the players were aware of the “squeeze” action, which allows any creature to become half his “space” (while granting combat advantage) in order to move through a small area. When the dragon did end up moving through this cooridor, they paniced. Instead of recognizing the immense tactical advantage they had because of the geography of the room they were in (there was another small cooridor they could have used as a choke point, forcing the dragon to squeeze if he wanted get at them, or go around the long way which would waste valuable actions) they thought it would be best to run through a door they had never before entered, hoping to shut it behind them.
Both my co-DM and I were screaming “no!” to each other (we’re playing online, so the players can’t hear this) when they were discussing the possibility of opening the door. We thought that surely one of the players would point out the foolishness of opening a door leading deeper in a dungeon that they had not explored yet and thus far had had monsters lurking around every corner! Surely they would realize that a dragon is not as bad as a dragon plus more monsters! Surely they would realize that closing a door is only going to possibly prevent the dragon from getting at them for a round or two at most! Sadly, they did not, and open the door they did. This was when my co-DM and I had to quickly decide what to do. We had designed the dragon to be a winnable fight, especially given the layout of the previous room, but we knew that if we introduced the entire extra encounter that was behind this door, the players would die. This was one of the hardest decisions I have ever had to make as a DM. Do I put the kobolds in this next room as designed, knowing that it will definitely kill at least some of the party, or do I cheat by clearing the room or lowing the stats of all of the monsters involved so that the dragon plus kobolds still equals the challenge of one encounter? Or maybe I could have the kobolds be hostile towards the dragon so his attention gets split, perhaps making the fight easier?
In the end, I decided to run it as designed. An easy mistake a DM can make when running a game is to make the players invincible. No matter what the players encounter, they will always win regardless of whatever bad decisions they might make along the way. The DM fudges the dice where needed and rebalance the encounters as neccesary to ensure the players always come out victorious. For some groups this might actually be fine! If the objective of the game is to tell a story of heroes conquering challenges, then what is the problem with them succeeding? I feel, however, and I think most players feel, that the game is more fun if there is an actual risk of failure. We’re playing a game and as such it is possible to lose this game if you do not play it well enough. In the end this is why I decided that the decision of opening a door deeper to an unexplored dungeon was a big enough lapse in judgement that the players deserved what was coming to them. But listen to me! That makes me sound like the bad guy! Maybe I am, this time.
I decided to scale back the difficulty a bit to give the players some extra time to retreat if they so chose. I figured after a few rounds of seeing the dragon not get bloodied while the players took significant damage, they would definitely choose to retreat. They did not. Despite me not using some of the dragon’s more nasty powers (such as the ability to retaliate against any enemy that misses it in melee combat) the players started to drop like flies, yet they still stood their ground. Several rounds later, 3 of the 4 players were knocked unconcious and the fouth decided to make a run for it. Having previously used a daily power that granted him considerable extra speed, he was actually able to outrun the dragon and leave his new friends behind.
We called it a night and everyone went home. It was past midnight and I was sleepy so I went to bed. However, I didn’t sleep. As I mentioned, this is the very first time I have ever killed a player in my DMing career and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Did I do the right thing? Will the players still want to play if they have to roll new characters? Did I value the game mechanics over the fun factor (which is expressly forbidden in the Dungeon Master’s Guide?) These questions and many more were torturing me as I tried to reconcile what had happened. There are many ways I could have saved the players. There are many ways I could still save the players. Perhaps the dragon wants them kept alive for some reason? If I do that, am I essentially just going back to the “it’s impossible to fail” situation I wanted to avoid in the first place? I am still not sure. I went over all of the ways I felt the players could have done better in my head: Someone should have made a knowledge check after hearing the roar to see if they could identify the creature. They should have fought the dragon in the tight spaces where it would have been at a disadvantage. The defender should have used more marks to draw the dragon’s attention and give him a penalty when attacking the other players. If the players did choose to run, they should have run towards the entrance to the dungeon instead of deeper in. I also thought of the things I could have done better: Maybe I should have prompted the players to make the knowledge check? I don’t like to do that but these are still new players who often don’t remember the little things that are possible. Maybe I should have locked that door they tried to go through to make it harder for the players to entire a dire circumstance. Maybe I should have outright warned them of the danger of going deeper in to an unexplored dungeon? Maybe I should have reminded them about the squeezing rules so they would have known the dragon was going to follow them?
In the end, I feel that I made the right choice in the way I ran the events. I somewhat regret not giving another warning or two against possible courses action, but at the same time I am not sure that I should have.
What do you think?