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Yesterday I DMed a session with a party of four level 1 characters: druid, sorcerer, monk, barbarian, and a level 1 warlock whose player was absent.

The sorcerer specifically is a new player (less than 12 session of play, grand total). The others are experienced (several years) RPG players but new to D&D 5e.

I played Dragon of Icespire Peak, Dwarven Excavation

The party encountered an ochre jelly and the sorcerer was hit.

I rolled for 2d6 + 2 bludgeoning damage plus 1d6 acid damage, and roll three 6, for a total of 20 damage.

The sorcerer being level 1 with Constitution 14 has 6+2=8HP, so this is insta-death.

Without resorting to some sort of Deus Ex Machina, is there a way to save it?

Apart their spells, the party only own a few potions of healing and the only NPCs presents are two commoner dwarves.

Note: since the player is fond of his character and they are involved in a long term campaign in which this character has a great intro, I did save it (in a reasonable, but not RAW, way) but wonder if I could have handled it differently.

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    \$\begingroup\$ @Hobbamok kinda agree, but I specifically used and official adventure from the starter set, and the very first phrase of this quest is :"“Dwarven Excavation” is balanced for characters of 1st level, though even characters of 2nd level will find certain elements of the quest challenging." Being new to D&D5e and to DMing, I thought using official material and playing by RAW would protect me from huge mistake such as throwing overpowered monster at the party ;) \$\endgroup\$ – JFL Feb 7 at 13:28
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Hobbamok let's not answer in comments, please. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Feb 7 at 13:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.SE! Take the tour if you haven't already, and check out the help center for more guidance. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Feb 7 at 22:13
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By RAW, that PC is dead, and there is nothing you can do to save them

The situation you describe, with that much damage being dealt to a level 1 PC with that little health, results in insta-death, as you know. There is no RAW way to prevent that, short of somehow being able to reduce the damage (certain classes may have certain features that can do that, reduce the damage taken by other party members, but it looks like none of your party would have had access to such abilities at level 1).

Even a half-orc's Relentless Endurance (the only thing I can of for a 1st level character, if the sorcerer happened to be a half-orc) says "... but not killed outright ...", showing that the intention is that massive damage will kill a character if that much damage has been received.

Avoiding death in the first place is the best way to prevent PC death

The best way to handle this, RAW, is to not hit them so hard at level 1. Level 1 PCs especially (level 2 as well) are very weak and I would recommend pulling your punches when they are still that level. After they reach level 3, they should be able to handle more punishment, but at level 1, they can barely stand up to goblin, let alone a CR 2 ochre jelly!

Looking at that quest, I'm guessing it was either area E5 or E7. For E5 it suggests two ochre jellies! Against level 1 PC? Are they trying to kill off the entire party!? That is well over deadly for a level 1 party. I'm not surprised someone died; if anything, I'm amazed it was just the one death.

In your situation, I would have probably just included one ochre jelly in area E5 (for E7, there is only one anyway so ignore this point if it was E7 in your case). I would have made it go for the barbarian, who can handle it, and I might also have fudged the damage so that it was lower than stated, even if only shy of an "insta-death" by a couple of HP.

You, as the DM, always have the option to use the average damage output of a monster, which in this case is 12, which would be unable to cause insta-death in nearly all cases (unless the sorcerer didn't have very good CON).

As the sorcerer was a new player, I'd have probably gone easier on them for such a tough fight, even mention how tough this thing is (in ambiguous terms, of course; not telling them it's CR, HP or damage output or anything like that), and would encourage them to think about where they want their characters to be positioned, so they can learn their party role.

The experienced players should know what their party roles are already, and hopefully have been coaching this new player in their party role (i.e. you are squishy, keep behind the barbarian, etc).

Slightly related reading on keeping squishy level 1 PCs alive:
my answer to "Keeping the world alive whilst PCs take a rest mid-adventure?"

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    \$\begingroup\$ Fun facts: just before "killing" the sorcerer the jelly nearly put the barbarian to 0HP, he was only saved by the Relentless Endurance you cite since he is half-orc. Also fun regarding your analysis: I encouraged the players to go to this quest first, since it is written "is balanced for characters of 1st level" rather than to “Umbrage Hill” which "is balanced for characters of 3rd level or lower." \$\endgroup\$ – JFL Feb 7 at 12:27
  • \$\begingroup\$ @JFL Hmm, that is a strange coincidence that you have a half orc barbarian, given the examples I chose to use! But yeah, since I've recently been looking this adventure over with intent to run it for someone, I have noticed how hard these opening quests are; "Umbridge Hill" does look like it should wait, but then they throw ochre jellies at level 1 PCs! I'm not sure I agree with their assessment of "balanced for characters of 1st level". 2nd level I could just about believe... \$\endgroup\$ – NathanS Feb 7 at 12:33
  • \$\begingroup\$ "I would have made it go for the barbarian, who can handle it".. hm this is the (half-orc) barbarian that confronted the jelly first. No luck he has only a great axe and a short sword and the jelly is... ...immune to slashing damage.. Only after the jelly put the barbarian to 0/1HP did it turn to the sorcerer that was burning it with Burning Hands and then I rolled too good... But I agree the solution would have been to use the average damage output. Unfortunately I announced the dice result without realizing it would outright kill the character. \$\endgroup\$ – JFL Feb 7 at 13:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ @JFL Ah, so the sorcerer made the choice to run up and try a spell? I agree that does change things a bit. I will point out that a short sword does piercing damage, so the barbarian should have still been able to damage the jelly with that, at least... Just for future reference. \$\endgroup\$ – NathanS Feb 7 at 13:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ Just sayin': a Cr 1/8 Bandit has an average damage of 5. If they crit, that d6 hit die wizard is probably dead. \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Feb 7 at 16:58
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The Sorcerer is, RAW, dead.

It's OK for PCs to die. Rolling up a new character isn't that hard once one has done it a few times. (When this happens, for the rest of the session I often invite the player make the dice rolls for the monsters and keep track of their HP, so that they have something to do to stay engaged with the adventure).

You and your friends create epic stories filled with tension and memorable drama. You create silly in-jokes that make you laugh years later. The dice will be cruel to you, but you will soldier on. (PHB, p. 4) ~ Mike Mearles {Italics Mine}

While I agree with the other answers' points about a DM-option to use average damage, I'll not base this answer on it.

The core problem was (1) tactical amplified by (2) "cruel dice"

The party didn't use a tactic appropriate to the ooze; some of that can be attributed to how often many of us who have played CRPGs or video games just wade in to slaughter monsters as a default behavior. (Been there, done that ...) Those habits are hard to break, in terms of forming a tactical approach to an encounter with unknown monsters.

Way back when dirt was new, and so was D&D, we didn't just wade into fights. We were tactically oriented on trying to set up a fight to our advantage; not doing so usually got a PC killed; using ranged attacks or long reach weapons, or obstacles and terrain, to keep some monsters at bay was something we strove to do. Teaching players to keep that kind of tactical thinking in their menu of options can take some coaching.

A related problem: the adventure was meant to challenge a party with the idea that the party would need to use their wits and good tactics to defeat a very hard monster (CR2 is a handful for a level 1 party), or to avoid it. Whether or not this is clear in the published adventure, or in guidance to DM's, is a matter of opinion. For new DM's, it is my opinion that both the Starter Set and this adventure could use more "How to DM and how to coach new players" guidance.

DM as coach

I have found over the years that part of being an effective DM is coaching new players. There are a lot of ways to do that. A few points to ponder as you present the party with more challenges in the coming sessions are where a little coaching is called for, and how to drop clues and hints about what is in front of them so that they have the information they need to (1) form tactical plans and (2) to "see" the situation more clearly.

There is a nice Q&A here about signalling danger.

Fighting an Ooze usually involves kiting.

What is kiting? Using your advantage of faster movement to attack and then move away from the ooze {or any monster}, usually using a ranged attack or a ranged spell attack. Some players need to be taught this.

While your new player won't necessarily know that, your more experienced players might have had some ideas about doing that from other games. (More on that in a moment).

Here are a few salient points about the Grey Ooze from the stat block.

Ochre Jelly
Speed: 10
Senses blindsight 60 ft. (blind beyond this radius)
passive Perception 8

When you combine the immunity to lightning and slashing damage, the tactical approach to defeating this monster is to used ranged attacks and to stay out of its reach at level 1. The party should "kite" it ... but how do they (the PCs) know that? They generally don't have stat block information in front of them.

The stat block information is meta-game information; as a DM, consider how to drop clues to the players that this thing is slow, and that the Barbarian's axe was not hurting it. Your description of what is going on is a key to them picking up on what the game world, and the monsters, are doing.

Clues and Ability checks; anyone can try any check

PCs grow up in the game world. While they don't have access to the MM or the DMG, they all grew up and learned various lore, stories and legends of the world that they live in. What they know is incomplete; just as with education in our world. They are wandering out into the unknown, so the sense of danger of not 'knowing it all' is part of the fun of adventuring.

Let's look at your party and see some ways on how to drop hints and clues.

Druid, sorcerer, monk, barbarian - and a level 1 warlock whose player was absent. {My note: Too bad, EB could have made short work of this ooze, kiting from range}

As the encounter opens, if the PCs withdraw and the ooze pursues them, they may notice how slow it is going. (I'll share an experience with that at the end). But they only will "notice" if you describe that slowness to them. If they move away from it and it can't keep up with them, they can attack from range: cantrips, thrown spears or daggers, thrown javelins, arrows, etc.

If the barbarian hits it with the axe and he notices "I don't think I am hurting this thing!!" that realization may need to be emphasized by the DM
You notice that you don't seem to be hurting it!
That means a change of tactics is called for. Or, you may want to have him roll for a Perception or other check to grasp/see that "I can't hurt this thing with my axe!"

Likewise, consider an ability check for the druid or the monk, or even the sorcerer: a History or Nature (Intelligence) check may, if passed, permit one of them to recall a factoid about the creatures known as oozes in this game world. I'd pick a DC between 15-20, depending on how much "common knowledge" of "conventional wisdom" or "Lore" is floating about your game world on stories of monsters: the true, the partially true, and the false.
Typical Difficulty Classes (Basic Rules/PHB; CH 7)
Task Difficulty______DC
Medium__________15
Hard____________20

They may, nor they may not, pass that check. If they do, you can offer some clues on the nature of this horror! Example: "You recall from your mentor," you tell the druid, "that gray oozes are immune to electricity!"

Enough on that: the "charge in and kill it" habit is a fine way for level 1 PCs to earn a PC death or a TPK. Coaching players on how to use terrain, and to think tactically, is sometimes necessary.

Even experienced gamers can screw up the tactics

Experienced gamers like me. I've been playing D&D since 1975, with a few breaks, and I made the same kind of tactical mistake that the sorcerer player made recently.

A bit over a year ago, my level 1 Ranger in the jungles of Chult, with a cleric, a barbarian, and a paladin in the party ran across some evil vines that, had either of them hit me, would have done enough poison damage to kill my character outright. I was engaging with sword and shield because one of them had grabbed/engaged our paladin. The two vines had slowly crept up on our encampment and then struck. (They passed their Stealth check, eh?) The CR of these vines was 3; a deadly + encounter for a level 1 party. As the battle commenced, I did not pick up on the DM's description about how the second vine was moving so slowly toward where we were fighting the first vine. I was in a position to get PWNED except that the cleric's player (@Shalvenay) called out "They are moving slowly! Get away from them, we need to kite these things!" He was thinking tactically.

I got myself out of melee range (Disengage). We eventually defeated the vines by moving and shooting: kiting them. It took a few rounds.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Good answer. A lot of new players are learning the hard way just like old players did long ago. I don't think I'd rely on checks as much (if you slash the jelly and it glues itself back together, I doubt you need a perception check), you hit the nail on the head saying essentially that prep work should be done before the fight. Coaching players to do it is hard though, just look at how many video games have trash tutorials. Nice story too. \$\endgroup\$ – gszavae Feb 7 at 15:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ @pwi Thanks. I have one group where I use checks to do stuff like that in combat; it's when I DM in my brother's shared world (he's the prime DM, I DM when he can't.) Since he does that, I do it so that the players get the same kind of rhythm. In the other games that I DM for, I mostly use description and answer player questions on "what do I see/sense/smell" etc. I think it does depend on the group. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Feb 7 at 15:44
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There isn't an override to massive damage

But that doesn't mean you are without resources. As you've noted, by pure RAW the character would die. Fudging rolls is always an option. I'm generally not a fan of doing that, but I have used it at times because the consequences were greater than I had planned and it didn't seem reasonable for my story to use the dice as-is. But in general, I really don't like doing this (I always roll in the open, etc.)

But 1st level characters are extremely squishy. Bad rolls could easily lead to character death and I'm not a huge fan of letting random chance be the ending factor for my PCs (if they're going to die, I'd prefer if it was because of their own decisions).

What I've done in the past is use the death as part of a plot point and then leverage the high cost of resurrection (which most 1st level PCs can't afford) for driving the plot forward and building relationships with NPCs. It gives the players a decision to make (likely at a cost), but offers a chance for the players to bring back their friend's character.

I did this in a game where my 1st level players happened to be on a mission from a guard captain and one of them died. The death was mostly caused by poor decision making regarding healing vs attacking, but the player was invested in the character and I had the guard captain offer to pay for resurrection - but that they would owe her certain favors to be named later. Those favors would drive a plot point for me.

Ultimately, do what works for fun at your table. If the decision is fun for all, then it was the right decision - whatever it is.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ +1; the first two paragraphs in particular are exactly my feelings on this (I generally don't fudge, but would have in this case, and level 1 PCs are squishy). \$\endgroup\$ – NathanS Feb 7 at 13:39
  • \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch Would a Half-Orc's racial trait Relentless Endurance not be an exception to this, regardless of the amount of damage taken? \$\endgroup\$ – Senmurv Feb 7 at 16:27
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    \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch I think you meant to link this: What does getting 'killed outright' mean for Relentless Endurance? \$\endgroup\$ – goodguy5 Feb 7 at 17:13
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By RAW they are dead.

But death doesn't have to be the end. Don't fudge rolls, let the party figure out what to do. The party have a lot of options available.

It's not deus ex machina for the party to take the corpse to a local church and pay for revival. If they don't have money, maybe the church will do it for a favor or on credit.

Facilitate their plan if it is reasonable, but death is their problem, not yours.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ @JFL I added clarrification about the rules & focus on the players taking action, shifting focus away from death as "the end" and more to "death as part of the story" \$\endgroup\$ – gszavae Feb 7 at 12:25
  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for confirming I have the correct interpretation of the rules. I also agree that in general the better option would be to figure out how to resurrect the character, even if for this specific group this would be challenging. \$\endgroup\$ – JFL Feb 7 at 12:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ @JFL Remember it is only as challenging as you, the DM, wants it to be. You can always have the challenge come after--a corrupt cleric approaches the party resurrects the sorcerer straight away, but now they expect the party to pay them back with favors. IMO this is better than having the party do a quest first, because the poor sorcerer is sitting around waiting to play. \$\endgroup\$ – gszavae Feb 7 at 13:21
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I want to focus on the moments just before death.

Consider character health when preparing for encounters

Honestly, I wouldn't generally send a CR 2 monster after level 1 characters (even if an adventure calls for it), because they're so squishy and prone to dying. I'm sure there are exceptions I'm forgetting, but as a rule, I baby them at level 1, because they're effectively babies.

But I also pay pretty close attention to how likely a particular creature is to actually kill any of the players.

Use Average Monster Damage Values

Monsters in 5e are listed with average damage values; in the case of the ochre jelly, it's 9 bludgeoning and 3 acid. These values accomplish several things, but the important one for this answer is that they make combat more predictable on the DM's side.

If I look at my party's hp values, and I know that the sorcerer has 8 max hitpoints, I'm going to look for things that have average damage values under 16.

It's much easier to plan a combat when you know what impact you're going to have against the party. (And yes, crits happen)

Alternatively, choose more predictable attacks

I know this doesn't quite apply to your particular question (premade adventure), but a bandit captain has the same CR as an Ochre Jelly and has no risk of killing your sorcerer (unless you're trying to); 6 damage, 6 damage, 5 damage in three attacks

Modules aren't always perfect.

I find it laughable that this adventure poses:

"Dwarven Excavation" is balanced for characters of 1st level, though even characters of 2nd level will find certain elements of the quest challenging.

3 Ochre Jellies and a band of Orcs are hardly appropriate for 4 level 1 characters to face in a day.
The level 1 deadly xp threshold is 400; 1 Ochre Jelly uses 450, two uses 1350, and four orcs uses 800.

You won't always need to make adjustments and your adjustments aren't always going to be right, but it's an important tool in your DM toolkit. You're the *lightning crashes* DUNGEON MASTER and you're not bound by the silly rules of any module book written by mere mortals (unless it's an AL game). Make sure to skim ahead so you can plan any changes and be willing to adjust things on the fly.


As for after the character is already dead

There is no level-appropriate way to save them

There are a bunch of higher level spells (revivify being the lowest at spell-level 3) that can bring them back.

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    \$\begingroup\$ "Modules aren't always perfect." - In fact, virtually every non-random encounter I've seen in a published adventure (and several of the random encounters) has been deadly, by WotC's own encounter-building guidelines. I'd definitely encourage tuning down the encounter slightly or giving the party ways to make it less deadly, especially at level 1. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Feb 7 at 22:17
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Yes

There are lots of ways to save a character that has died. NPCs can provide restorative services if the body is brought back to town, for example, and the PCs could take on a debt if they don't have enough money to pay for the spell used. The party could find a Scroll of Resurrection if you felt like being heavy-handed about it. Your afterlife could function in such a way as to restore the character. They could become a ghost. Their deceased spirit could travel back to the material plane and work with the party to earn enough money for a raise dead or other higher-level spell. The party could get TPKed in the next room and the campaign could pick up in the afterlife. There are many, many ways to handle a character death that do not result in the character leaving the story if you as the GM use your powers therefor.

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