Dear Dungeon Master: Making Up the Rules and Letting Characters Die

I’d like to start by saying how thrilled I am with the responses I received regarding my first Dear Dungeon Master article. I’m excited to know that there are others out there that share my enthusiasm, and I’m even more excited to offer advice! Now, I’m no “Dear Abby” but here goes nothing.

The first question comes from Cian who had some disparaging things to say about the article title:

Cringey title aside, I just read your article and I was so captivated by your passion and knowledge of the game. I also surround myself with fantasy and, in particular, dungeons and dragons “stuff” (just got the Art of Arcana book and I haven’t stop drooling since). And so naturally I’d want to start playing with my friends. However, because none of them have any D&D or tabletop experience, nor do I, I have to both teach them and myself. Also, because they don’t know how to play, I’m essentially forced to act as DM; but with no prior experience with the game, I’m kind of daunted on remembering all of the rules in the moment and everything like that. I was wondering if you could maybe lower my stress levels a bit haha. Oh and I told my friends to prepare for the beginning of a campaign by the end of this month. Thank you.

Cian, the title is rad. Not sure how you got that so wrong. Secondly, let’s talk about the rules of Dungeons & Dragons.

It is understandable that you want to be prepared for your game, but if you don’t know all the rules, guess what? Neither do your players. So, Player A looks at you and says, “I want to try and grab the goblin, pick him up, and throw him over the cliff.” You flip to the index of the Player’s Handbook searching for the rules regarding throwing small green monsters off of things. Surprise! That’s not in there. So, the real question then becomes do you spend 15 minutes trying to figure out the correct dice rolls and skill checks to make this happen for your player, or do you simply make something up? The important thing here is keeping the flow of the game going and letting your player try something fun. “Make an Athletics check.” Does their dice roll result look high enough to pick up a goblin and toss him? Does it make sense in the fiction that they would be able to toss the little beast over a cliff? Then go for it.

The rules of Dungeons & Dragons are there to keep things objective for the Dungeon Master, but some of the most fun I or my players have ever had is just making up a rule to keep the action flowing. The priceless look on your player’s face when you say, “You snatch up the goblin and make for the cliffside. It wriggles and snarls at you, but as you send it hurtling into the valley below it’s facial expression turns to one of pure panic!” will be well worth not caring what the actual rules say. Now, make a note to look up the actual rules for the next time it happens. Learn the rules as you go, but don’t make the rules a priority over the table’s enjoyment.

Also, as a fellow forever-DM, I understand your plight. I haven’t played a character in D&D since my first ever campaign, but don’t fret. Being a Dungeon Master is extremely rewarding and you get to flex some serious creative muscle.

Please don’t try and memorize all of these.

Please don’t try and memorize all of these.

Our next question comes from Travis and it touches on something I struggle with myself.

Dear Dungeon Master,

I have been running my first campaign, the deadly “Tomb of Annihilation,” for over a year. Through very strategic playing (and some good luck), we haven’t had any character deaths.

But we are now in the final chapter of the adventure, a hyper-deadly dungeon crawl. Last session, their cleric ended up on the losing end of a fight, getting mercilessly pummeling to zero HP with several more attacks about to be delivered. Because damage when you’re unconscious gives you failed death saves, his death was all but certain.

As the DM, this is when I pulled my punches. I told a nearby player he could use his reaction to step into the cleric’s space to soak up the blows, saving his life. As you know, there’s nothing in the rules that allows this.

I should have killed my cleric, but sitting behind the DM screen and looking and the party’s sad faces, I couldn’t do it. I’ve killed PCs in one-shot games, but this was different. I’ve grown as attached to these characters as the players, and it breaks my heart to kill them after they have survived so much. How much of a mistake did I make here? How do I get over my apprehension to PC death?

Before I really got into running Dungeons & Dragons, I ran a game called Dungeon World for a few years. It’s a fantasy-based roleplaying game like D&D, but with a fiction-focused ruleset and practically no crunch (e.g. no complex dice rolls, no detailed mechanics, etc.) One of the rules for the Dungeon Master is simply, “Be a fan of the characters.” I have since taken this to heart and I, too, have fallen in love with many of the characters in my games. Do I want to see them killed? Hell no. Have I killed them? Oh, yes. But, and this is important, I only let these characters die when it benefited the story.

At its core, D&D is cooperative storytelling. The Dungeon Master is telling a story where they cannot control the protagonists. This is very unique to roleplaying games and one of the things I love about them. Character deaths should be impactful. An arbitrary death of a main character generally does not exist in film, books, television, and most forms of fiction. I don’t believe it should exist in D&D either. In the situation you described, I might have done the exact same thing. It all depends on the context.

Remember in The Lord of the Rings when Gandalf slipped running along the narrow bridges in the Mines of Moria and fell to his death? Of course, not. That would be an insult to the viewer (reader, too!) Now, do you remember when Gandalf faced a Balrog one-on-one and shockingly succumbed to the beast’s fiery whip and disappeared into the abyss? The first scenario would have felt cheap and would have lacked impact, but the latter scenario gives us an epic showdown, an iconic line that I repeat on a daily basis when someone tries to cut me off on the highway, and a gut-wrenching impactful departure for a beloved character. It benefits the story, it deeply affects the remaining characters, and it fills us with emotion. Character deaths in Dungeons & Dragons should be the same.

Letting a poor cleric fall unconscious and die laying on the cold stone ground is not impactful. It isn’t a moment that your players will recall over and over again in tales of their character’s grand adventures. So, if a character is going to die, make sure it is in an important moment that shocks your players and sends them straight through all the stages of grief in one fell swoop. Make death count.

My one exception? A player doing something outright stupid. “You pick up the glass decanter from the shelf of potions. In bold letters, it reads ‘poison’ on the side.” If that player says, “I drink it,” then let them die. Players need to understand that there are consequences for their actions, and I’m more than willing to repay a stupid act with a harsh punishment. I still believe in this situation we’ve made death count, because it has demonstrated to your players that poor decision-making does, in fact, matter in D&D.

Thanks for the great questions and thanks for reading! Remember to send any of your Dungeons & Dragons questions to me over at jason@geektyrant.com! Talk to you soon.

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