October 7, 2008

My Players Just Won't Die!!!

My current campaign is set in 3E Forgotten Realms using the 4E ruleset. So far, the campaign has been going extremely well: everyone is having fun and there have been some nice surprises along the way as well. Due to the way the story line unfolded, the party is now in a classic dungeon crawl (which is actually unusual at my game table) in tomb complex that is connected to the Underdark. Suffice it to say that 1) there's a heck of a lot of fighting going on; and 2) the players are in over their head.

Or are they?

Now, as the DM you generally want a avoid the total-party kill (TPK). Balancing the risk of a TPK with the more common reality that 'the players always win' is often tricky to pull off. At its best, the balancing act provides a real sense of fear at the game table that the party is going to die. At its worst, the players feel invincible and the Rule of Fun begins to erode. The same is true for individual player death. In fact, the best game tables create a sense of individualized risk that extends to the group; thus players fear for their own death, and for the demise of the group. The fear guides character actions and creates an exciting, tense atmosphere. In short, it can be a blast!

Now herein lies the problem: my player's won't die!

Case in point: Five Level 3 characters (fighter, warlord, wizard, warlock, and a rogue) woke up the dead in a narrow set of catacomb corridors. There were Spear Traps everywhere (L2 traps), a Hulking Zombie (L8 Brute), four Corruption Corpses (L4 Artillery), four Zombies (L2 Brute), and an Ashgaunt (L7 Soldier Leader; p.46 Dragon #364). The party was expected to flee, but they stayed and kicked ass. It was awesome fun, the wizard was dropped three times during the fight.

Its not that I'm trying to kill them either. I've simply ramped up the encounters to the point where two or three (of five) characters have dropped during combat, but ten minutes after the combat is resolved everyone is ready to move on without any hint of injury. I do believe that I've discovered something about 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons I hadn't realized before. Basically - its an all or nothing game. It is exceedingly hard for an individual player to die, and the only real threat is the total party kill. Now, I'm not trying to make this post about comparing editions of D&D, but in 3E there was a more pronounced risk to individual failure.

Allow me to explain.

In 4E, you fall unconscious when you drop to zero hit point or below. Once unconscious, there are multiple ways to stabilize and not die
  1. You have three chances to spontaneously revive yourself (and not die). Roll d20, if the result is below 10, you fail. If the result is between 10-19, then you remain unconscious (no change), or if it is above 20, you spontaneously spend a healing surge and revive yourself. If you fail your save 3 times, you die. Nonetheless, there is only a 9.1% chance you will fail three times in as many rounds. The chance to die jumps to 24.2% in four rounds.[2]
  2. An ally can use First Aid to allow the dying character to use their Second Wind (assuming they still have one), thus bringing them to zero + their healing surge value. All the need to do is roll a Heal skill check and beat a 10 to succeed.
  3. An ally can stabilize the dying by using First Aid via a Heal skill check. Roll d20 + Heal skill, if the result is a 15 or higher you succeed in stabilizing your ally.
  4. An ally can administer a healing potion to the unconscious, dying character as a standard action.
  5. Use a class feature or power to bring the unconscious person back (many cleric, paladin, warlord powers would suffice).
Taken all together, all these options make it simply TOO EASY to live. Not being able to die encourages risky, heroic behavior - which is a good thing - but if everyone is risky and show-stopping heroic all the time this also encourages the total party kill - which is a bad thing. So, what to do?

Well, I'm considering toying with the following changes as house rules:
  1. You can't make an unconscious person drink anything. OK, maybe a spoonful - but not a whole potion. Healing potions would be removed from the lists as possible solutions.
  2. You get one chance to spontaneously stabilize, not three.
  3. If you are knocked unconscious, once revived, you are either weakened, dazed, or both until the end of the encounter.
  4. You die once you reach the negative value of your healing surge (not your bloodied value). To me, there's an argument for this since monsters generally ignore characters once they have dropped anyway.
If you wanted to increase the level of individual risk to players, but not to the whole party, what changes would you make to the 4E rule set? Leave a comment and let me know!

[1] The inset image was taken from the 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons Players Handbook, and was illustrated by Dan Scott.
[2] 0.45^3 = 0.091; 0.45^3 + 3(0.55*0.45^3) = 0.242. Haven't checked my math - but these numbers seem to be correct.


  1. I think you might be mistaken on the death saves rule...it's not "you get three chances to roll 10 or above"...rather, it's more of a "3 strikes, you're out" sort of thing...you keep rolling until you're brought back to consciousness or until you fail your stabilization roll and die...the 3 strikes rule is a lot more frightening because it conveys a sense of urgency and creates tension over little rolls...

  2. @ Mike : Yes... I was thinking correctly, but sort of muddled the text. Thanks for pointing that out - I've changed the text of the post to correctly reflect the way it works.

    Maybe I'm missing something here then... becuase it just seems too hard to die. Or, am I just a mean DM?

  3. You know, I don't have my books so I can't check now but I'm fairly sure that the 3 strikes don't reset after stabilization. IIRC it's after an extended rest (Actually I thought they didn't at all ,but my GM who I was aiming with thinks it's after an extended rest). That's actually fairly deadly.... if that wizard had failed one check each time he went down he'd be permanently dead... and given it's only slightly better than 50/50 each time you roll that you won't fail one going down isn't sunshine and rainbows.

    Course we could be full of misinformation...

  4. @ anonyos : The PHB says "Stabilize the Dying: Make a DC 15 Heal check to stabilize an adjacent dying character. If you succeed, the character can stop making death saving throws until he or she takes damage. The character’s current hit point total doesn’t change as a result of being stabilized."

    So, the stablizing thing is as i understand it. However.. you make an excellent point about the saving throws and the NOT reseting. This is a clever angle I admittedly had not thought of...

    "Lower than 10: You slip one step closer to death. If you get this result three times before you take a rest, you die." which is to say that if you drop again - you're previous tally of failed death saving throws is retained.

    AHAH! OK.. well, that does make things a bit more deadly. I guess I overlooked the "before you take a rest" part.. even after reading it about 100 times.. weird. THANK YOU for pointing that out.

    Even so, I still think my players have escaped death too easily... mwhahahahaha

  5. What's the issue, when you boil it down?

    If it's you want to set up scenarios that make the PCs feel overwhelmed, increase the difficulty of the encounters to actually impossible levels. Make it so far above them you're not even using the monsters' rules, and just having them casually cast characters aside and using Page 42 to adjudicate damage.

    If you want challenging combats on the edge of being beatable, sounds like you have that nailed already.

    For what it's worth, there have been a few threads on EN World discussing just how deadly they thing 4e is.

  6. you could just tell them that once they're down they have 3 rounds left. That'll get them out of the fight mighty fast. If you insist that stabilisation with first aid take at least a minute (it takes the ambulance service longer than that!) then they have no choice but to waste healing spells or get out fast. Just don't do what the rulebook says.

    Of course PCs in 4e are hard to kill - they have healing surges and huge scads of hit points. Make healing surges an encounter power and you'll solve half of that problem!

  7. @Dave the Game : Hey hey there! To boil it down? Well... while using the RAW for building encounters I found that the stock encounters were simply not difficult enough. So I ramped them up - then I ramped them up again. Then again. Now my stock encounters are fully 2 levels above those of the party, e.g. 5 level 3 characters routinely run into 5x L5 creatures (a standard L5 encounter).

    This post was not meant to be a rant by any means. I was simply looking to get feedback since I felt like some character death should have occurred already, but had not, and I was afraid of ramping up the difficulty level yet again to accommodate this. I suppose the comment from Anonyos about THREE death saves max per encounter is spot on - that alone will no doubt increase the threat level. I guess I get to wear the knucklehead DM cap again for having miss read that sentence in the PHB.

    @ faustusnotes : Welcome back! making healing surges an encounter power... hmmmm... that would be devilishly evil, but I'm thinking it might mess with the game balance a little too much since so many powers and effects depend on using or having healing surges.

  8. I agree that it's tough to kill a character in 4e. I'm continually upping the challenge level, particularly on boss encounters...I have had a little success with killing those pesky players:

    * Players generally don't die when they're out of hit points, they die when they're out of healing surges. So it might take a handful of encounters before they're ready to drop. A standard adventuring day is 4 or 5 encounters; take steps to discourage resting between them.

    * "Focus Fire" is the most basic tactic out there; there's no reason why hobgoblins, orcs, and kobolds wouldn't use it. Have the leader call out a target, and have all the monsters try to attack that target. Just don't make it the same character every encounter; players feel picked on if you do that for some reason.

    * Don't be afraid to take a Opportunity Attack or paladin damage to get to the squishies. Squishies have more fun if they get to use their avoidance abilities because a monster is coming at 'em. Let the tanks tank half of your monsters, send the rest straight for the squishies.

    * I haven't had much luck with minions; the wizard and ranger mow through them and they rarely get any significant damage in. I've had the most luck with minions with ranged weapons.

    * Monsters generally ignore dropped targets, but poison, ongoing damage, and auras sure don't. They are your best friends. Set an adventurer on fire, you keep him warm for the rest of his life, yadda yadda.

    Hope this helps. A frightened party is an excited party. Good luck and happy killing.


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