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Howling Tower: Heroism and Lethality

Howling Tower: Heroism and Lethality

Ruined TowersSome of you might be aware that roleplaying game industry veteran Steve Winter has started writing blogs about Dungeons & Dragons and other topics that interest him. His site, Howling Tower, already has some great posts that you should go read. As a special treat, we’re working with Steve to make some of his thoughts and experiences regarding roleplaying games available here on the Kobold Quarterly site. Please do give Steve a warm kobold welcome! And now we present his first column on the Kobold Quarterly site: Heroism and Lethality.

Here’s a simple question: what’s the life expectancy of a D&D hero?

Recent editions of the game run the XP table up to level 30. Does that mean characters are entitled to a 30-level career? The speedometer in my car goes up to 150 mph, but I know for a fact that the needle will never see the top of that scale.

Player character mortality was unquestionably higher in early editions of D&D. Anyone who’s listened to old-timers complain about how D&D players have gone soft since the 1970s has heard someone declare “we didn’t even name our characters until they reached 2nd level.” I’ve said it myself, mostly because I like the sound of it, but I can’t tell you with any certainty to what extent it’s true.

What is true is that characters served a different function in those early games. PCs were highly disposable because they were simple interfaces to draw players into the action and the unfolding story, which was all about the dungeon, the setting, and the players, not the characters.

As the game evolved, the rules and the players grew more sophisticated, and characters’ stories gradually became more important than players’ stories. Players didn’t start investing more in their characters because PCs were living longer. Rather, PCs lived longer because players were investing more effort and emotion in them; the rules and individual DMs recognized that players wanted to form long-lasting bonds with their characters and eased back the risk of arbitrary, early death.

Within that environment, it’s still valid to ask whether players should expect their characters to enjoy long careers and happy retirements. Are they entitled to expect that as an integral part of the epic story they envision for their carefully crafted characters?

I say the answer is an emphatic no—not if the character in question wants to be seen as a hero.

To put it simply, if there is no risk, then there is no heroism.

For there to be risk, the player needs to believe that he or she has something to lose. In D&D, the only loss that matters is the character itself. Gold and gear can be replaced, and even stat points and levels can be regained. Unique, character-defining magic items come close; players will go to great, sometimes ridiculous, lengths to protect those. But in the end, the threat of irrevocable death for a treasured character is the only “real” danger the game offers. Characters whose lives are never really threatened have no claim to heroism.

The threat of death in D&D takes two forms.

The first comes about through a mistake, usually the result of greed, carelessness, or hubris. It’s OK for a DM to shield players from their own foolishness a few times—at least until they get the hang of the game. DMs are obligated to ensure either that their traps and encounters are fair, or that anything too tough for the characters to handle comes with cues to that effect. Beyond that, no one should weep for characters who die from reckless mistakes, and DMs shouldn’t insulate characters from blunders or apologize if a character falls to one.

The second type of character death is heroic sacrifice. This happens when a character sees the danger and braves the risk because “someone needs to do it.” The real-world stereotype is running into a burning building to save people. Here the DM’s obligation is different. Characters aren’t walking into this danger for the sake of gold, magical treasure, or pure adventure. Something bigger is on the line.

Few DMs would make this a no-win situation. More importantly, they shouldn’t make it a no-lose situation, either. That cheapens the experience for players and makes a sham of their mettle. If players are willing to put their characters in harm’s way for a larger purpose, then shielding them from harm is disrespectful to the players. Just like in real life, a character who dies in these circumstances should be celebrated as a hero.

I believe that DMs are obligated to create these situations. Most D&D players want their characters to be heroes. They should be given the chance, and when they are, the danger to the characters must be real.

In the end, adventurers who lead successful careers wind up just like everyone else. They put away their weapons and armor and retire to their castle, tower, or manor house to finish out their final years in quiet dignity and comfort. Gradually their reputations fade until they find themselves mocked by teenagers who have no idea who they are or what they accomplished. But those who fell with honor will be heroes forever.

About the Author
Steve Winter has been involved in publishing Dungeons & Dragons in one capacity or another since 1981. Currently he’s a freelance writer and designer in the gaming field. You can visit Steve and read more of his thoughts on roleplaying games, D&D, and more at his website: Howling Tower.

7 thoughts on “Howling Tower: Heroism and Lethality”

  1. Great article. I’ve been enjoying your blog and it’s good to see it get even more attention. My players and I (as well as others online, etc) have discussed this topic a number of times, and I absolutely agree with what was said here.

  2. I was pleasantly surprised by this article. When I read the blurb I was all set to nerd rage. Very well thought out and I agree death should be a threat. I just don’t think it should be the DM’s goal.

  3. I’m not saying I disagree with the general intent of the article, but this quote, I disagree with:

    “In D&D, the only loss that matters is the character itself.”

    Unless you play unconnected dungeon after dungeon, this is simply not true. Characters in which time and back-story is invested have goals, motivations, friends and even dependants. Death is not the *only* loss possible.

    For example: failing to stop a certain ritual in time will mean that a characters niece is sacrificed to summon a demon. If that isn’t a loss for a character, you’re not playing an rpg.

  4. A look through the age tables that set normal life expectancy for characters in the AD&D DMG is an interesting read especially in light of prestige classes, etc.

    In fact, the whole idea of ‘Name Level’ represents normal career peak, and B/X/C/M did an interesting take by expressing high-level PCs as either gaining levels as lords playing at realm admin or as travelling character types, so the background is out there to play it any way a table deems appropriate

    I’d like to see age used in conjunction with a +/- power system to model 1st level but older characters… *almost like Raistlin was advanced for his level*
    …and any sort of development that would involve age-based +/- powers, feats, skills

    ie: like the weapon master character who is a GrandMaster but way, way past physical prime and only survives by wits, skill not sheer ability …like Thom in Wheel of Time

    ~anyways, great to see you on KQ~

    best regards

  5. My group does not, and never has allowed characters to be brought back from death. For us, death is final. It adds a very real threat to the game. We also use random “Arms Law” critical hit effects when a confirmed crit is followed by a six on a d6. These crits add great drama to the game as there is always a possibility that you or the big bad evil guy will die from a single hit. The odds are long, but they are there (most of the Arms Law crits are marginal). Probably one third of character deaths occur as a result of one of these enhanced critical hits.

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