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I'm planning to DM a D&D one-shot to get my friend group into D&D. Since they're new, I want them to be able to really have fun with this, and I think dying in D&D can really turn a newer player off.

I'm planning to use a self-made adventure, unless I find a good and short premade one-shot.

How can I avoid character death in this game?

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    \$\begingroup\$ I think I have an answer for you but need some info to make it less broad. What edition are you playing? Are you planning on using a premade adventure or one of your own creation? \$\endgroup\$ – zane brain Sep 27 '18 at 16:14
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    \$\begingroup\$ Have any of these new players played a video game and not had their character die? I ask simply because it may not be as big a detractor as you might think. \$\endgroup\$ – Slagmoth Sep 27 '18 at 16:59
  • \$\begingroup\$ Do you want to avoid character death, or do you want to avoid the not fun parts of character death, e.g. having people sit at the table being bored? \$\endgroup\$ – Mark Wells Sep 29 '18 at 0:15
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Lethality is typically an issue that can be discussed in a session 0

You know, this pre-game session where players talk about their expectations or the limits they want to set in the fiction (it goes from tone to emotional security). So just ask them and roll with the answers (session 0 doesn't need to be a specific session, you could do that during diner just before play).

There are rules to cheat death, but you could also prepare an opposition that doesn't want/need to see the PCs dead.

Beasts would be tricky, so use sentient monsters that have goals that are not "total destruction" or "end the world". They could even have an interest in keeping the PCs alive (slavers?) so defeat would only mean... more adventures!

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5th Edition mechanically wards off death as a mechanic.

Since it's a lot less likely that characters will instantly die in combat, it's less likely you'll have to deal with it as a DM. Here's a few reasons why:

Player HP Pools are higher

The smallest hit dice in 5e are d6 for unarmored spellcasters (Sorcerers and Wizards, specifically), and higher for everyone else. Along with monsters (generally) dealing less damage than they used to, this means player health pools tend to be less fragile than you might be expecting based on other editions of D&D. I don't know how it compares to non-D&D systems.

Death Saving Throws tend to make survival a lot easier

The way that falling to 0 hitpoints works in 5e is different to other editions. Here's the shorthand for the rules:

  • If you fall to negative hitpoints equal to your hp total, you die instantly. (i.e., a level 1 character with 6hp takes 12 damage, drops to -6, dies instantly. If they took 11, they wouldn't instantly die)
  • Negative hitpoints are truncated to 0, characters never persist at negative hitpoints (technically, negative hitpoints don't exist, but the rules are easier to understand if you pretend they temporarily exist at the moment you take damage, and then go away before the damage source concludes)
  • While at 0 hitpoints, you roll a d20 at the start of each turn. 10+ grants a "save", 9- grants a "failure".
    • 3 saves, and you're "stable" and no longer at risk of dying. No more rolls are made after this point.
    • 3 failures and you die
    • any healing in this state brings you back up, wipes all saves (succeeded and failed)
    • a nat20 heals you for 1 hitpoint
    • a nat1 inflicts 2 failures at once

The consequence for this system is that it's pretty rare for a character to straight-up die to one bad attack. It happens more frequently at low level, but as DM, you have the power to control the attack strength of your creatures, meaning it's unlikely anything will deal enough damage to one-shot anyone, even on a crit, unless you give them large damage dice. And since even the smallest amount of healing is enough to stave off death and get them back up, players don't need to use their most valuable healing resources just keeping a player alive. Paladins are especially good at keeping players alive, between giving bonuses to their Death saves, and having a pool of healing power they can spend in discrete, tiny chunks to keep creatures alive.

There's more options to revive dead players

At level 5, Clerics get access to Revivify (level 9 for Paladins, level 13 for Artificers), which can bring back a dead player so long as they died within the last minute. This gives access to revival magic a lot earlier than they would normally get it with Raise Dead (9 for Clerics and Bards, 17 for Paladins) or Reincarnate (9 for druids) or Resurrection (13 for Clerics and Bards), with the downside that it's more limited than any of those other spells.

All revival spells have a material cost associated with them, but by the time those spells are accessible, their associated material costs are (usually) plausibly accessible as well, depending on what sort of loot you distribute as DM.

You can always Deus-ex-Machina your players out of death

This is always a last resort, but if you make a mistake as DM (sending creatures that were too tough), you can find ways to undo death. Bring in a high-level mercenary to bail them out before the killing blows get struck, or have a celestial take pity on your characters. The more creative you are, the less contrived those moments will be.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Minor correction: On death saving throws, the PHB says that you pass the save on a 10 or higher, not 11 or higher as written. That edit is too small for the me to suggest the edit, though. A side-effect of this is that you are more likely to pass (55%) your death saves than fail (45%) them. \$\endgroup\$ – BBeast Sep 28 '18 at 13:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ @BBeast Fixed. Didn't have the PHB in front of me when I wrote it, had to work off memory. \$\endgroup\$ – Xirema Sep 28 '18 at 13:48
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There are lots of options for how to resolve the issue of death:

Have characters at 0 HP automatically stabilize

As some have suggested, you can just setup parameters before the game and say that the characters do not die when they drop to 0 HP and instead are just unconscious, waiting to be helped up by their comrades. It's simple but risks taking a little of the thrill out of the game.

Don't kill the characters in the first place.

Part of the reason the DM has a screen is so that s/he can fudge the rolls for monsters. This is critical if you accidentally throw too difficult an encounter at your players. They can't see your rolls so you can turn monster crits into normal hits and normal hits into misses or weaker hits.

Have encounter enemies run away

If a battle has been going on for a few rounds and it's clear that the players are losing, you can have a leader of the enemies call out "Enough with this rabble. We've got more important things to do" and have the foes leave the field of battle. If players pursue, just knock them unconscious by using nonlethal damage. Or take hostages.

This can be REALLY good for creating a primary/recurring villain for the story. Just be sure that the players learn the villain's name before the bad guys run off. They'll remember it.

Use a Mitigating Homebrew Mechanic

I saw this one watching Acquisitions Inc. play at PAX. The DM can lay out a limited number of tokens on the table. At any time they choose, such as when a character is taking lethal damage, a player can grab one of the tokens which allows them to narrate an alternative result.

If a low health player gets hit for their last HP, they could grab the token and say "I hear the whistle as the skeleton's sword slices through the air and duck just as it passes over my head, taking a lock of hair instead of my life."

This mechanism really helps to involve the players in the story telling.

Alternative Penalties for dropping to 0 HP

If you want to maintain an incentive for players to avoid actions that would normally cause them to make death saving rolls, you can inflict lingering wounds on characters that go down.

For example, the character survives but now has a massive scar. Maybe the scar gives disadvantage during certain persuasion checks but gives advantage for intimidation checks.

Or maybe their arm is crippled and attacks or checks made with that arm have disadvantage until the limb is healed.

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It probably isn't as big of an issue as you fear.

Death in an RPG can be emotional and frustrating, but the possibility of it adds a lot to the game for some players by creating stakes. Also, unless your players are investing a lot of time into creating backstories each time, it is generally fairly fast and easy to just bring in a new character. For new players, this lets them explore a lot of different classes.

You are the GM, you can ban death.

Unless you are involved in some sort of organized play, you can adopt any and all house-rules that your players accept. I routinely ban death. I encourage my players to invest a lot of time in creating a backstory, but in return I ensure that character will last as long as they want it to.

There are various ways of preventing death gracefully within the rules. And you didn't specify your edition, some editions make death easier to avoid naturally within the rules than other. But you can always take an approach that a character merely passes out when they should die and make that a house rule. If you don't want that house rule, then Deus Ex is always an option. If you are playing DnD in most settings having one of the pantheon literally intervene to save a character is available, and might come with interesting consequences later.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Sep 27 '18 at 20:41

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