I recently played in an Open Legend game called The Hive, in which the Party faced a terrible loss. It was an incredibly emotional and evocative session, in which every Player reached tears (aside from the DM, of course!) and it got me thinking about death. Don’t worry, this isn’t an existential rant about our own mortality. Instead, let’s consider Death in D&D.
It struck me that thinking back on the many campaigns that I’ve played and DM’d, the Death of Player Characters and NPCs are some of the moments I remember as being the main focus of Conflict in them. Memorable funeral scenes jumped to mind, as well as the pang of loss when thinking back on a favorite PC. Comparing this to great fiction & film, while Death is still a focal point, a myriad of other conflicts are explored. Nearly everyone has lost someone close to them, and so the theme of death can be easily related to by Players. But there are other things that as Players we want to connect with through games like D&D. From love, betrayal and separation to bonds of fellowship, family relationships, even prejudice and discrimination, there are so many other dynamics of human life to be told. Not that we don’t explore them in D&D, it can just be harder to.
Death can feel like a blunt tool to pull on the heart strings at times. Don’t know how to add some drama to the campaign? Kill someone! That will get some emotions out! I’ve been guilty of doing it too, and I look back and think how lazy that storytelling was. When everyone & everything is dying, the fear of Death is lowered in exactly the same way that Reincarnation Spells can. It cheapens it. I think Players can become desensitized to loss in a campaign when it’s too commonplace. I’ve recently been trying to challenge myself more, and on our Actual Play Podcast Adventurers Anonymous I’ve been trying to construct a narrative that focuses on more aspects of human life than just death (though I promise you it includes that, too!).
AA Spoilers: One of the characters, Rodrick, was taken in by a Fagin-figure after he was caught pick pocketing him. He had ran away from his abusive father, and grew up with his best friend, Jayce. Rodrick was determined to return to his father and confront him. After receiving nothing but abuse once more, Rodrick & Jayce plotted to frame his father for murder. Just before the deed, Jayce looked Rodrick in the eyes and told him that after this was over, he had something he needed to tell him… After a long parting look, Jayce left to begin the plan. He led a nobleman with unsavory intentions into an alley at night where Rodrick was waiting. He killed the nobleman (yes, death!) in a messy knife fight. Jayce returned to the father’s house to plant the murder weapon there, but was caught by the guards while breaking in to the property. With murder weapon in hand, Jayce was arrested along with the father and sentenced to a lifetime of imprisonment. The torturous knowledge that Jayce’s imprisonment was his own fault, and that there was nothing he could do about it, has stayed with Rodrick forever. The fact that there is another dynamic there, perhaps of love that would never be explored, made the story more powerful for us all.
Alright, so enough tooting my own fucking horn. I’m not suggesting that no one should die when playing D&D, and I’m not saying that my experience in The Hive was bad storytelling. It was incredible, some of the best I’ve been a part of in a long time. It’s a testament to how good the game was that it drove me to think this much about it. Death is inevitable, and an important part of why we play the game, and why the stakes remain high for Players. When used correctly, it’s a thought-provoking and amazing narrative tool, but when it is over-used it loses it’s power. Just consider how we, as storytellers, can strive to keep creating interesting narratives for our players to connect with.
I’m taking a hipster stance on the matter in order to start some conversation and to get us thinking.
So you tell me, is Death over-used in D&D stories?