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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- An ally can administer a healing potion to the unconscious, dying character as a standard action.
- Use a class feature or power to bring the unconscious person back (many cleric, paladin, warlord powers would suffice).
Well, I'm considering toying with the following changes as house rules:
- 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.
- You get one chance to spontaneously stabilize, not three.
- If you are knocked unconscious, once revived, you are either weakened, dazed, or both until the end of the encounter.
- 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.
 The inset image was taken from the 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons Players Handbook, and was illustrated by Dan Scott.
 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.