Death is pretty awkward. At least in DnD. I can’t say from personal experience.
All that hard-earned experience is gone in an instant. And as if that weren’t bad enough, any personal story the character had is left hanging… It’s like if Frodo took an arrow to the neck after stepping out of Shire… it’s a very sudden awkward end. Everyone is left standing around, unsure of what to do as Gandalf wastes no time stripping the dead hobbit of his +1 Mithril vest.
Damage and hit points aren’t the only way to make a player hurt.
Punishing Players with… INJURY
“You’ll beg for death once I’m done with you!” The torturer sneers as he proudly unpacks the tools of his trade…and he’s right!
Not all enemies will fight to the death, especially if the players, in their higher levels, have garnered some renown. Enemies might capture them, humiliate them, torture them for information. Being captured allows characters a chance for escape…though they will never escape the scars of the slave brand on their neck, a severed ear, a blinded eye. Short term penalties to dice rolls and ability scores might be the result of disease and malnutrition, a curse that ages the character or cripples the joints.
Especially cruel setbacks might result in a long-term Ability score penalty.
Perception disadvantage for a lost eye. -2 Charisma for the throat corrupted by potent poison. -4 Dexterity for a severed hand. The penalties might lessen as they grow accustomed to their disability but curing it altogether it is a life-changing moment. Make them feel the pain. Revel in the gory detail of their loss and the wonderous joy of finally returning to their former self. It’s important to remind the players that, in a world of magic and opportunity, all setbacks can be overcome. But this recovery takes time, and sometimes a short quest or gold can remedy it.
Punishing Players with… THEFT
Most intelligent enemies, if they see they have the upper hand in a fight, might wish to simply loot a defeated character. A handful of gold or potion if they’re in a hurry to get away. A more precious trophy if they have time to rummage through an incapacitated character’s belongings.
Mindless creatures like Undead and Constructs, however, are more inclined to fight to the death, even relentlessly attacking the dying. Warn your players that such creatures show no mercy.
Punishing Players with… MADNESS
Let’s face it, the D&D world is horrifying.
The stress of an adventuring life will eventually take its toll on most. Brushes with death leave their scars, a lot of them phycological. Every Rotting Zombie discovered, every disembowelled gut and mind-withering enchantment… I’m surprised that “therapist” isn’t one of the core classes.
Madness effects aren’t always permanent, though the more stressful the ordeal, the more punishing the effect should be.
For short-term madness effects however, whether players have drunk spoiled mushroom juice or are recovering from a fairy’s hex, I’ll usually roll a premade table.
James Gifford’s Table of Madness!
- …You will dissolve in water.
- …Hats steal your thoughts.
- …A certain race tastes delicious.
- …You can cast spells / Magic doesn’t exist and is only imagination.
- …That all (Insert monster here) are people too and deserve love and respect.
- …Everyone is entirely trustworthy and believe everything you are told.
- …No one can see you when you’re naked.
- …The next person you see, you fall madly in love with.
You cannot resist but to:
- …Express the opposite of your emotions. Laugh, when you are sad…etc
- …Clean everything, especially yourself.
- …Pronounce everyone’s name incorrectly.
- …Touch people before you speak to them.
- …Dance when witnessing hostility and violence.
- …Throw precious items onto the floor…The more fragile the better.
- …Hoard mundane objects.
- …ALWAYS have the last word in a conversation.
Of course, a DM can make their own variation of this table. Whack a -2 Penalty to Wisdom score, and this will give the players something to roleplay. Even if it’s a simple as a phobia of whatever it was that traumatized them so, make it a reminder of their past actions.
Give players the option to seek out a cure for their affliction. But don’t make this too easy, it is a punishment after all! The severity of which, you determine.
IF NOTHING ELSE…
Sometimes, no amount of Ex-Machina can help a situation. If death truly is inevitable, have a heart.
Give players closure. The chance to act out one final heroic scene, a monologue or dying breath, purely for roleplaying sake.
Hold a funeral. Talk with the player privately how they want to continue with any loose end quests their character might have. Just because they’re dead, doesn’t mean the party can’t honour Bernard the Barbarian’s quest to find a cure for the plague in his homeland.
Even if they don’t take up that torch, let them encounter the consequences of his unfinished pursuit. Let them stumble upon a village, decimated by the disease, a few survivors desperate to hear what became of poor Bernard. To which the group’s bard is all too eager to share the gruesome tale.
Whether it’s a memorial statue, a tavern bard singing of the hero’s deeds, or even a shopkeeper cursing his name; It’s these small details that will remind the player of the deeds their character accomplished.
And In the end, isn’t that what we all want? That and Phat Lewt.
James Gifford – Author and Illustrator of Dungeon Diaries