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In the campaign I'm currently playing in we have had a lot of character deaths occurring recently, almost (if not every) session. The party are 13th–14th level and are taking on significant opponents.

The party has:

  • a Rogue/Ninja/Scout/Shadowdancer/Shadow Hunter
  • a Bard
  • a Warlock
  • a Fighter/Ranger/AvengEx/Occult Slayer
  • a Ranger/Wizard/DuskBlade/Unseen Seer/Spellwarp Sniper
  • a Thri-Kreen/Cleric
  • a cohort Bard/Cleric.

For the run down on our adventures they are located here: Helsmuth Campaign.

General tactics employed are: Rogue hides in plain sight and sneak attacks, Fighter engages opponents in melee, Bard inspires the party then provides other assistance, Warlock uses ranged attack or Chilling Tentacles, Ranger casts area attack spells or provides ranged attacks (or polymorphs), Thri-Kreen Cleric buffs party, Cohort Flame Strikes and is ready to Revivify.

The party gets around the deaths by using a (DM condoned) combination of Revenance and Revivify to avoid level/Con loss in most cases. However there are still times where that isn't possible and a character then faces Raise Dead or Resurrect.

Is it normal in D&D 3.5 for the level that the party has reached to have someone dying and requiring some form of "back from the dead" magic about every session (for us that is around 8 hours of real time)? Or is it time for our party to look at how it approaches combat and have a rethink?

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5 Answers 5

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No, that is not normal, it's an unusually high kill rate in my experience. When I've been in parties that hit those levels, there have usually been one or two kills per campaign that require resurrection (though more close saves with resurgences and whatnot).

It may be due to bad player tactics, weak characters, or the GM runs things tougher than the average GM - either "higher CR" or just "better", some GMs (like myself) manage to squeeze a lot more kill per hit die out of opponents. Sometimes a GM runs a harder game, which is fine.

But of course the thing about high level D&D is that you have multiple levels of defense against death, so as long as it's not impacting the fun, there's nothing really wrong with it. You get to play croquet with the angels on a regular basis, heck, that could be part of the plotline (Order of the Stick, anyone?)

If you do want to do something about it, and don't want to embrace the Dark Side and become character optimizers (please don't), I would review the results of combats with the rest of the group and see if the deaths were preventable - do party fighters repeatedly charge recklessly into combat, ruining the ability of mages to area effect; do you get spread out all over the battlefield where the cleric can't effectively help you when you're in trouble; do characters not participate well (the tank fighter who hides in the back, the cleric who's too busy fighting to heal)?

Tactics In Depth

I had to coach one player group that was getting demoralized about how tough combats were going in one D&D campaign. In general they didn't have any coordination - they'd open a door and see bad guys. One guy would run in (before the mages could cast damage or battlefield control spells), others would back off, people didn't have mobility or line of sight. They'd decide to run, except most of the group would retreat, but one guy would want just one more round of full attacking, and then be cut off, and then half of the rest of the party would keep fleeing but the other half would come back and help them, and get cut off themselves... I taught them to do simple things like NOT go in the door, but back off and form an inverted triangle around the door and let them come to the party (for dumb melee opponents of course) so that they are the ones getting surrounded and losing actions and being separated. One PC that was taking on a leadership role took it upon themselves to "call the shots" in combat so that a retreat or attack was performed by the whole group. There's a lot of D&D-specific ticky combat tactics stuff, but I always see the greatest difference being made by system-independent "having your crap together" kinds of basic techniques. Have patience, don't get split up, coordinate maneuver to take the fewest attacks but deliver the most, concentrate fire.

I remember in one five year long 2e campaign I ran, the team leader went so far as to run IA drills and basic response plans. When they would come into contact, there were set formations they would move into automatically. The shouted command "Blue" told PCs to close their eyes to avoid the mage's Color Spray. The only PC death in that campaign came from PC on PC action.

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If you have a video camera available you can tape an encounter or two so you can revisit it and review your tactics... –  wax eagle Apr 20 '11 at 12:52
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The drills are a very neat idea. –  Joseph Weissman May 12 '11 at 0:58

Your party does seem like it's blundering around to a degree, and there are a couple of ways you can handle it. As far as how frequently it should be happening, well - in a perfect world this would be their fault, but given the biases inherent to the hobby you'll never know for sure.

Do you feel as though every situation they're in should be winnable without casualty? If so, maybe they aren't as tactically adept as you're requiring they be, or maybe you're having trouble accepting tactics or problemsolving that fall outside of what you'd planned for. Give it thought.

Now, on to how you can fix it - and like I said, you've got options.

  • If you've got NPCs that the characters respect in the game, you could have them tell the players that they're being too reckless, or what have you. This could come from a military commander, fellow adventurers (or what have you,) or even romantic interests. Depending on your group, this one can be really effective.
  • Take the game in a less combat-oriented direction for a while. Downtime - even if in this case "down" only really means time spent exploring, solving puzzles and doing character development - can be a powerful tool, and lets your players reset. Even if the death rate stays roughly the same after you return to action-packed games, you will have broken up the rhythm enough that the players won't be rolling their eyes at the "daily death."
  • Start nerfing the encounters, subtly. This works best in combination with another method. Even if the players only think they're changing their tactics and playing smarter, the drop in difficulty will be less obvious than it would if you dropped it on its own.

And again, how normal this is - I've seen games where irreversible character death happens that frequently, so even if it's not my cup of tea I know it appeals to some people.


Edit: Totally didn't get that you're the player here. Sorry! Let me add, then:

The most important thing you can do as a player is to talk to your GM. Communication lets both of you know what to expect, when things are going well, and (even more important) what is amiss. It might turn out that your GM is just as concerned with the way things are going as you are, and just doesn't know how to approach the issue.

Your resurrection situation is unusual, and suggests to me that the GM is aware of the problem but at a loss as to how it should be fixed. There's a lot you can do by nudging your party, but sometimes a GM will interpret party success as a lack of challenge instead of as an indication that the players are playing well. This is again an issue that should be talked over. Be pleasant and non-confrontational, which I'm guessing you're good at.

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+1 to everything Kerin said. I also think it depends on the style you and your players want. If they enjoy "hardcore" mode, give it to them, and don't hold back. Not every group likes this style, though. Some players like winning more than losing, and don't like to see their characters get flattened. Ask the group openly which style of game they prefer. Make sure you're being fair to the characters, and rewarding ingenuity. As a DM, you should not enjoy "beating" the players, or feel discouraged when they win. Let them win. Make the monsters go after the tank more often, instead of the wizard. –  RMorrisey Apr 20 '11 at 12:42
    
The poster is a player, not the GM. –  mxyzplk Apr 20 '11 at 12:43
    
More notes... be sure that you're giving out the prescribed amount of treasure for encounters, and encourage the PCs to buy potions and the like to prepare. When you start an encounter, if they're stealthy about it, let them get the jump on the monster, instead of the other way around. –  RMorrisey Apr 20 '11 at 12:45
    
@mxyzplk: Oh, my mistake. In that case, talk to your DM =) –  RMorrisey Apr 20 '11 at 12:45
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Whoops. My mistake too, it seems. For what it's worth, this is a really detailed question and I'm not used to players giving so much thought to what they're doing - OP is an inspiration to us all. ;] –  Kerin Apr 20 '11 at 13:43

In my experience, I've only lost 2 characters in my D&D adventures. In fact, I don't think my group (gaming together for 15 years now) has lost more than 5 characters in that time. Definitely time for a re-think, or you are 13th level characters fighting 17th level challenges.

FWIW, the 2 D&D deaths (both mine, btw) occurred in 2e. One was "planned" in that I made up a character that didn't work with me, so the DM allowed me to roll up another character that was more suited to my style. The other? Dice hosed me one session. I think I critical failed every saving throw in one combat. Then he walked into a trap, and his one HP did not help him much against the 30 points of damage it dealt.

As for the other (maybe) 3, none occurred in any d20 setting. One was a Vampire game (which can be quite lethal), I think there was one in a Shadowrun game (silly mage, you have no dermal armor!), and there has to be one more in there somewhere... but I can't remember.

One potential problem is the amount of multiclassing that has occurred. (I know, it's too late to close the barn door after the horse gets out). Is the multiclassing taking a concept and advancing it every level, or is it embracing the newest and shiniest thing that comes along for a level or 2? Sure there are folks who make that model work in the real world... but they don't fight dragons. There does come a point where trying to be a "jack of all trades" makes you "master of none".

As for the characters; the tactics I'd use for each (based on my understanding on the various multiclasses):

  • Rogue/Ninja/Scout/Shadowdancer/Shadow Hunter:
    Should be a stealthy guy. If s/he ever gets in a stand up fight, the first action should be to withdraw, the second should be to retreat, and if there's need of a third, it should be to soil his britches while running full speed.
  • Bard
    I've never played a bard, but the one I saw get played was a back-line character who predominantly played music to make the rest of the party fight better. But part of that character's concept was that she was a coward plain and simple.
  • Warlock
    He should be a strong damage giver, but should also not be on the front lines. Maybe right behind the fighter? 13d6 damage? Wow. Either this guy can't hit the broad side of a barn, you are fighting fire-immune enemies, or I misunderstand the character.
  • Fighter/Ranger/AvengEx/Occult Slayer
    If the fighter levels are significant, you have a front-line fighter with some cool extras. If not, see below.
  • Ranger/Wizard/DuskBlade/Unseen Seer/Spellwarp Sniper
    Looks to be a caster. Needs to have a someone protect them while casting spells.
  • Thri-Kreen/Cleric
    Caster? Fighter? I know the Thri-Kreen are a race, but depending on the god the cleric worships, this character is either a healer, or another (secondary) fighter.
  • Bard/Cleric
    again, not front-line fighter. Very interesting concept for non-combat roleplaying (and I want to play this character, btw).

If the fighter/ranger/avenex/occult slayer only has a level or 2 of fighter, then your party does not have a fighter. There needs to be someone in the front line who can hold off the bad guys while the magicians are casting spells/praying/playing music.

Your party looks a little weak on the combat front. But the magical/bardic/clerical mayhem you can bring to the party, you should be trying to get your fights in ambushes as much as possible. Hit the bad guys hard (assuming you are the good guys), kill/wound/incapacitate as many as possible in 3 rounds or so, then get the heck outta dodge. Of course the bad guys will probably want to follow you. Run faster than they can until the next ambush site. Repeat. Sooner or later you will take care of them all, or you will get backed into a corner. Again, use the terrain to your advantage. You should almost never fight in an open field.

One final idea is that maybe the DM knows your weaknesses and is exploiting them. If this occurs when you are encountering random combats, I'd cry foul. If you are fighting a given faction, then I'm guessing fair-game because you and your abilities should be known to the enemy. But it's also a two way street. Find their weaknesses and exploit them. Going into the plane of fire? Bring all the ice/cold magic rods/wands/staves/scrolls you can pack.

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Our Rogue is actually one of our best fighters. He can hide in plain sight, has a reach weapon and extra AoO's. He is usually why we don't end up with a total party kill. –  jsecker Apr 27 '12 at 12:43
    
I said in a stand up fight. Stand Up Fights rely on brute force, armor, and the pointy end of a sword (or other weapon) to knock the other guy down. Your rogue does not get into the stand up fight because 1) Hide in plain sight and 2) the reach weapon means his lower AC is not a hindrance. The Extra AoOs are an ability that can be used in or out of a "stand up fight". –  Pulsehead Apr 27 '12 at 20:58

I won't answer in terms of of the system, but in terms of RPGs in general.

The lethality level of a game is part of a number of factors. There is no right and wrong level of lethlity; there are disconnects between the players and the GMs sometimes. So your question, "Is this Normal or should there be a rethink" is best answered with, "If the players think it is abnormal, then there needs to be an Out of Game conversation first"

In other words, before we worry about the in-game rules or tactics or setting, we need to see if everyone is on the same page. I've run most of my games where long-term survial was considered a badge of honor and not a given. But not every player likes to worry about that. Do the Players thingk their deaths are unfair, or do they share the blame is another important question.

Again, outside of the game for a second, before I worry about the classes and abilities of the characters, how would you rate the abilities of your players? What are their strength's and weaknesses. I could care less about the abilities of the characters if the players don't use them properly; or if there are leadership issues.

After you have this outside stuff taken care of, you can start looking at the in-game stuff. It sounds like you, at least, are having an issue with the mortality rate. If this is the case, you need to figure out how much is the player's fault (tactics, mistakes, lack of teamwork) and how much is the GM (too many encounters, improper warning or expectation, extra clever creatures, etc). (Please note I do not mention CR. I believe that EL and CR set up expectations in RPGs that destroy both immersion and use of in-game logic. I have seen enough games where use of CR was the reason PCs used certain tactics, because they could not believe the GM would place X creature in a game, no matter how much sense it made).

I would also say that allowing the PCs reliance on consistently available return after death could be part of the problem, as well. Consequence is a reinforcer. PCs play differently when their actions have more permanent consequences. Not saying that you are doing it wrong, but just that you might want to look at it.

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CR/EL is and should be a tool for the DM to judge whether or not he's throwing his characters a cakewalk, or certain death. I think it may get abused a bit if players also DM or read the monster manual, but yes, a 10th level party should expect CRs from 1-30. most (90+% should be between 8 and 12). –  Pulsehead Apr 20 '11 at 14:15
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I should really clarify this elsewhere; but I agree that it has a place as a tool. I just see ruleset after rulest place CR/EL in nearly holy writ, where I like to build my adventures based on pure in-game logic...the same logic I want my PCs to be ablt to use. –  LordVreeg Apr 20 '11 at 14:45

For 3.5, yes, it is a bit on the high side... but that's also very GM dependent.

I've heard of 3.5 games with a death a session, but never played in one. The guys who did, however, knew that keeping a character alive was an accomplishment in that game.

I've also seen 3.5 games that went years without a PC death.

The average I hear about is 1 PC death per 2-3 months of 4-hour weekly sessions...

The important question, which you are not answering, is, "Are y'all having fun?"

To explain the relevance of that... I had a neighbor, known as Creshnar. Serious case of "Lethal GM" going on, and running the highly lethal Rolemaster. Rolemaster characters take at least half an hour to generate... often as much as an hour. And he was killing off 2-3 PC's per 4 hour session. Of an 8 player party. And no resurrection magics in the party. And standard RM rules, with very few of the options.

Now, many would think, "How can that be fun?" They said they were. Some would even think, "My, they're having wrongbadfun and mus be stopped!" To them I say, "No, let them have their wrongbadfun, so long as it doesn't involve small furry animals." And of course they'd retort with, "Creshnar has a cat, Catnar." To which the response was, "He's not a SMALL furry animal!"

His game, brutal as it was to PC's, lasted a year or so. And many memorable stories of near-thing escapes, and PC's dying valorously.

If you're having fun, don't worry that the game is highly lethal.

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