I like to imagine myself to be the J.K. Simmons of DMs -- a whiplash-styled, desk-pounding, “Life is harsh, goddammit!” firebrand who expects my players to face the consequences of their ill-planned choices. Someone who lets the cards and dice fall where they may. Story be damned. Character arcs flushed away like expired milk. Stakes will be my tool for tension and my players will learn or they will fall.
Alas, that is not me. I find it difficult to commit that heavily to landing body-blows against an unprepared opponent. A one-sided boxing match feels an awful lot like assault after all. Also I like my players. Most of the time I enjoy their characters as much as they do, if not more so.
Clinging to stakes too hard can quickly send us down a path where our players never cling tightly to a character. A player losing two characters in three sessions is a good recipe for a lackluster third character with a backstory too shallow to drown in, let alone dive into.
There’s no tension when the players don’t care about your stakes, and stakes with no investment really don’t feel like stakes at all.
So what are we to do when stakes demand we take the dark path of a meaningless character death, yet our story suggests a gentler approach?
The party fumbles against the flesh golems and what should have been an intro encounter to your multi-session dungeon is quickly endangering the lives of several party members.
An inexperienced group misidentifies a stone giant for a cave giant and decides that it’s something they can take on at 3rd level.
A trap rolls max damage and 1-shots the party wizard. No saves. Just death.
These things happen. And in these brief moments, we have to make the poor choice of a meaningless death or a reduction of stakes. I think it’s this choice that can define our table and I believe we all fall too often on the side of the “better story”. I’m going to quickly argue that this is shortsighted. A meaningless death can be the best thing that ever happened to your tale.
Currently I have a player neck-deep in a major story arc for her 6th-level character. Due to party choices, the PC very well may die next session, and not in dramatic fashion. She’ll fall a hundred feet away from her companions to a small group of chockablock monsters in a random passage in the third section of the dungeon. The arc will feel unfinished, and the dungeon may lose much of its intrigue. I’m committed to the likelihood of a meaningless death though because I believe something important can be said here, if I let it.
A meaningless death is the best tool you have for heightening all future moments in your campaign.
It may sound harsh, but you’ll get no better opportunity to raise the tension and keep it there.
Killing a character or two with an elder, black dragon in its lair feels epic and fits the beats we’ve come to expect from our tales, but killing the halfling character in a random dark alley tells us that anything’s possible at any time. Your party will never set foot in an alleyway again without someone muttering, “Remember Blueknuckles and keep your wits about you.” It may cost a lot in the moment, laying waste to your best-laid schemes, but the bang-for-your-buck ratio will pay dividends over the long run.
The best part about this is that it’s typically a once-or-twice per campaign sort of pill. It may be hard to swallow, but then it’s done and the effects can continue far into the campaign. A great example of this is found in Critical Role with the character death of Mollymauk. Nearly 40 sessions later, that lonely highway encounter is still locked in the memory of the players and characters alike.
We want our adventures to feel full of life and our players want to feel that each choice is of consequence, and this sort of death does exactly that. Sometimes I think we forget that life weighs most heavy when it approaches death, and sometimes I think we forget that our choices have consequences that maybe we weren’t hoping for or expecting.
Dungeons & Dragons is not storytelling...or at least not in the traditional sense. Your players are not there to hear your tale, they’re there to be a part of a tale and for that tale to be more fluid than any story could ever be. That’s what’s so unique about our game, and the event of a random death both highlights and underscores this advantage in a way that really nothing else can. It’s unexpected, drama filled, and raises the tension to a higher degree.
The next time you’re staring down the barrel of that meaningless death, consider pulling the trigger.
That meaningless death may end up being your campaign’s most important event.
Zac co-hosts the weekly podcast A Bite of D&D as well as traveling the convention circuit running games for hundreds of people. There's no place he'd rather be than behind the DM screen. If he could be any monster, he would choose the grey ooze.
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