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I'm trying to introduce roleplaying to a few younger members of my family. I figured that the D&D 5e starter kit would be the best place to start.

A couple of sessions into The Lost Mine of Phandelver and I'm already faced with my first PC death at the hands (or paws) of a couple of wolves. This is my first experience with being a GM and with the DnD ruleset.

The party was made up of four characters (two fighters, a cleric and a rogue) and they were facing three wolves, two of which were still tied up. The first wolf managed to break its chain and had the highest initiative and so took the first attack at the rogue. The rogue was only 1 or 2 hit points below his maximum, however the wolfs attack roll took the rest of his hit points. Once the rest of the party had a chance to act, they made quick work of the wolf.

Is combat usually this brutal for a first level party? I have not modified anything from the stats provided in the rule book. Are there any suggestions on 'house rules' I can apply so that characters do not die from the standard encounters or is this expected and the player will just need to reappear sometime later in the adventure with an eerily similar character (since there are no rules for character generation in the starter kit)?

Please note that I am aware I can fluff my way in to bringing a character back to life via a number of different methods, but I would rather not be in that situation in the first place, especially for such a minor encounter compared to the rest of the adventure.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Do you know about death saving throws, or was the character dead as soon as they hit 0 hp? \$\endgroup\$ – Miniman Mar 17 '15 at 5:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ I didn't tell the player that they were dead... I just said they were 'out'. That said, I don't believe I asked for a death saving throw \$\endgroup\$ – link64 Mar 17 '15 at 5:57
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    \$\begingroup\$ D&D comes with a whole raft of expectations which may not be made explicit, even in the newest rules; which are the best ever (D&D rules) for bringing people into the game without a human guide (RPGs were traditionally transmitted orally). What you have discovered is that one of the expectations is that low-level PCs are fragile. There are other games with different expectations, and some of them make their expectations very explicit. Maybe this will prompt another question because it is easy to mistake D&D for RPGs as a whole, just as it is easy to mistake the web for the whole internet. \$\endgroup\$ – gomad Mar 17 '15 at 10:11
  • \$\begingroup\$ Also, as someone who is currently also running LmoP, notice how in the "descriptive text" you're supposed to read, there are only two wolves but in the later paragraph, it says three. I used two wolves when we went through that coz thats what I read out loud to my players. \$\endgroup\$ – daze413 Jun 13 '15 at 4:04
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D&D 5e is not as lethal as you think. The rules on dropping to 0 hit points are on page 13 of the Starter Set rulebook. I won't write them all out here, but I'll summarise the important points:

  • When you drop to 0 hit points, you're not dead yet.
  • Every time you begin your turn with 0 hit points, you make a death saving throw, which is a d20 roll with no modifiers. A 10 or higher is a success, and a 9 or lower is a failure.
  • After 3 successes, you are stabilized, and will be ok as long as you're left alone for an hour. It takes 3 failures for you to actually die.
  • Perhaps most importantly, during this time your allies are free to save your life, either by magically healing you or by using a Medicine check to stabilize you.

So, given that you said the rest of the party made short work of the wolves, they would almost certainly have saved the rogue's life without difficulty. Under the circumstances, it's probably appropriate to retcon that to say that he didn't actually die, since he wouldn't have if it weren't for your mistake.

In general, as long as you don't give your players harder encounters than they are capable of defeating, it's quite difficult for a player to die unless they make bad choices and their party doesn't try to save them.

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Low level PCs are fragile.

Depending on class and CON score they have between 6 and 15hp. The wolves can do a maximum of 10hp. This can drop a character in a single hit and even the best will only last 2 or 3. On a critical hit, insta-death is a distinct possibility. The bugbear a little bit later is even worse (max 18 damage).

This is a deliberate design decision for 5th edition; it is tougher than 4th, about on par with 2, 3 & 3.5 (at low levels - easier at high levels) and much, much more lenient than 0 & 1. With its bounded rationality aspect, PC death is always on the table when fighting monsters that can deal damage in the same order as the character's hp.

In order to die you must:

  1. Take damage greater than your current hit points (which can never be less than 0) plus your maximum hit points in a single attack/spell/damaging event. For a first level character on full hp this can range from 12 to 30 - pretty big but doable (at the lower end) by some monsters in the starter set. If the PC is on less than max hp (down to 0) this can be much easier. As the PCs gain levels their max hp increases so this way of dying becomes much less likely.
  2. Be reduced to 0hp and fail 3 death saving throws before stabilizing or being healed. Being hit again counts as a saving throw failure or 2 for a critical hit.

Character death is and (in my opinion) should be a real and distinct possibility - nothing ventured, nothing gained. Player's should regard combat as a situation of mortal peril - this encourages them to find non-combat solutions to the problem. Players who recklessly run their characters into combat are going to die and die often.

From memory, the wolves in question are chained in a den and the PCs have several options ranging from don't go in there, to feeding and befriending them, to standing outside and shooting the wolves (the wolves can break the chain but this should still give them a big advantage).

Are you playing fair?

First off, remember you don't have to. If a player has played well and is in real trouble because of bad luck rather then bad judgement then you can, and maybe should, ... cheat.

Your role as DM is to make sure the players have fun, dying in heroic circumstances can be fun; dying because the players all rolled 1s and the wolves all rolled 20s ... isn't. Cheating doesn't have to be as blatant as changing a dice roll; if you know the next hit can drop or kill a PC then have the monster do something else, drink a healing potion, cast a protective spell, engage someone else, flee etc.

Second, as one of the comments to your question asks, are there the expected number of characters in there (4). If there are fewer than this then you should scale back the number of monsters in each encounter.

Third, "foolish play = foolish death" is a perfectly reasonable equation. Player's who a) procrastinate and dither in the face of a clear and present danger or b) do something mind-buggeringly stupid do not deserve your sympathy or care.

An example of a) would be your characters wracked by indecision about what to do with the chained up wolves. If, after you have pointed out the howling and the straining on the chains and the groaning of the metal they still can't pull their finger out then "the wolf ate you" is a perfectly sensible conclusion.

An example of b): I played with a guy who reduced his PC and jumped into a statue's mouth to see what was inside - the answer was Green Slime - really, really stupid and simultaneously really, really funny. Funny deaths are often more memorable than heroic ones.

Moving on

Sadly, the noble cleric Rumpelstiltskin was killed by a savage wolf. His companions grieved and buried him and toasted his life back at the inn.

Rumpelstiltskin's player needs a new character - fear not, he does not have to be Rumpelstiltskin's clone. The D&D basic rules cover basic character creation and are available free:

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    \$\begingroup\$ Thanks. For the record, they were standing in front of the wolves arguing about whether or not they should shoot them or just ignore them. I asked a number of times where they were having this conversation hoping they said away from the wolves but they didn't. One of them eventually broke its chain ;) \$\endgroup\$ – link64 Mar 17 '15 at 4:22
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    \$\begingroup\$ Ah! Then they were being stupid and death is a just reward. One further tip - "The wolves are yanking at their chains, throwing themselves forward and backwards, the noise of the howling and straining metal is incredible. What do you do?", if they keep procrastinating after than than its fair enough to eat them. \$\endgroup\$ – Dale M Mar 17 '15 at 5:19
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    \$\begingroup\$ I think the point about death as a result of their own foolish actions is actually quite important and would be a good addition to your answer. \$\endgroup\$ – Miniman Mar 17 '15 at 5:32
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    \$\begingroup\$ @link64: Do not forget that as a DM you have the possibility to drop hints. New players may not have caught on that being repeatedly asked the same questions is you actually trying to point out something, in this case you can use a more direct approach and call out a player individually. The tip from Dale M is one such instance, another is speaking as a character's "intuition" (or whatever) which is even more hands on. \$\endgroup\$ – Matthieu M. Mar 17 '15 at 10:55
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Welcome to being a Game Master. This is one of the hard parts.

You have several choices.

  1. Bring the character back to life in some way (there is a cleric in the town you could use for this purpose, although the spells required are outside the level of the adventure)
  2. Have the player return to the game with the same stats, perhaps as a relative of the original character
  3. Retcon the character's death, having him or her not actually die but merely be badly wounded, returning to action in a later scene

Death is a possibility in 5e, particularly at first level. Characters don't have many hit points, and the world is a dangerous place. As a GM, you sometimes have to decide whether you're going to follow the rules to the letter. This may be a time when you're best suited bending the rules to suit your game's needs.

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Death can and will happen at low levels, and early players may be ill-equipped to deal with this reality. You have a few options for this untimely but quite possible eventuality.

As the DM to new players, you can remind them that there are ways to revive low-level characters, but this should be done with care, as you don't want to make death cheap, or make the cost prohibitive so that they won't be encouraged to revive their friend's character.

Another option is introducing a new character for the player. If they are using pre-made characters, you can use an unused one (if there are any left) or slightly modify the packaged one they were using to be slightly different. Be even more careful with this solution, as it can make death seem even cheaper, and character personality mutable. If you think they can handle the change though, it's a good way to keep a player going without too much interruption from their participation in the game.

If you don't think either of these will work, or if character death becomes a repeated incident, you always have GM Fiat to back you up - you can houserule out death entirely by declaring 'dead' characters are actually just knocked out until the end of battle, or offer some easy way for players to revive characters, so long as at least one party member stays alive (TPK is much harder to recover from).

In the end, each play style is valid, and it's your decision as GM which would be the most fun for your players, if and when their characters meet an untimely end.

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First off: ahahaha, my party lost a guy to those wolves too.

We also lost another player in the same session, who was quickly replaced by the character's younger sister. I mention this because though you acknowledge ways to fluff your character back to life, you may not have considered other ways to "fluff in" replacement characters. :)

The actual answer: Rest assured that the danger-level does indeed become a bit easier to manage as your party grows in power. Increased HP gives you more wiggle room, but honestly more important is how many more options characters get. As characters level they get access to additional class mechanics, like sorcerers' sorcery points, and higher level abilities and spells. These dramatically expand your ability to escape danger and/or bring the ruckus when something absolutely needs to die right darn now.

That said, things die much faster than in 4ed. You'll never have quite the same freedom to use your face as a danger assessment tool. This of course cuts both ways.

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Actually, the wolves encounter in the starter kit is a very easy encounter. They are chained and hungry and it takes time for one of them to break free. There are too many options to avoid or overcome that encounter. Some are:

  • PCs can leave the area, the module says the wolves will calm down once the PCs leave them alone or feed them. But the barking and howling can alert the bugbear in the next chamber.
  • PCs already have ranged weapons. They could focus on the first wolf before it gets free, and they will have advantage.

Talking in game terms, it is nearly impossible for a wolf to kill a full hp PC with one hit. Besides, even though a wolf can drop a PC, there are still 3 death saves to fail before death. It takes at least 2 rounds. In this time other PCs have means to save the fallen character. Cleric's Healing Word spell is a life saver here, and it is a bonus action. You did nothing wrong in the whole scene. As a DM you don't have to feel obliged to save the characters after they die, but remind them of their abilities during the fight and warn them about the danger before damage occurs. In your case, since they dispatched the wolves very quickly, I guess that your players just ignored the unconscious rogue to die in 3 rounds. Maybe they didn't like him? This is a role playing game after all, it happens.

On the other hand, you said your players are young, so I take it they are very inexperienced in D&D. They will do lots of mistakes. That is fine. Try to teach them the rules before game sessions, give hints about how to use abilities and features of their characters in serious situations. As a DM, when teaching new players, I love creating one-shot encounters and test the players. I give them pre-made characters and run an encounter. In this way they learn the mechanics pretty fast, they become familiar with the rules and class features and more importantly, spells.

D&D was once a game that was really lethal especially in low levels. But the 5th edition dramatically reduced the possibility of death. You can see it in the rules. A few bad rolls are not enough to die. It takes a lot of bad rolls and also a string of bad decisions.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Dying in one hit is possible - you don't always have 3 death saves. \$\endgroup\$ – YogoZuno Mar 17 '15 at 6:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ As it is already said, rogue had 7 hit points at the time. This means the wolf needs to hit for 16 dmg to kill him instantly. Since the wolf can only deal 10 damage, it is only possible if the wolf makes a critical hit. It is 4d4+2 (12 average). So basically the wolf needs a natural 20 and then needs to roll 14 in a 4d4. Yes, it is possible but a very very distinct one. (somewhere near 1/1000) Pack tactics for advantage won't work, since the other wolves are still chained. \$\endgroup\$ – DMoftheAges Mar 17 '15 at 7:20
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    \$\begingroup\$ @DMoftheAges: 1 in 5120 to die in one hit, but recall there are multiple attacks per round, and multiple rounds, and novice players. \$\endgroup\$ – Mooing Duck Mar 17 '15 at 17:16
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    \$\begingroup\$ @DMoftheAges - regardless of this specific situation, it is generally possible to be killed by a single blow, meaning you can't always rely on 3 death saves. Not to mention Nat 1s can reduce it to two death saves. In addition, there is nothing preventing the players from moving into the cave to engage, meaning more than one wolf attacking, meaning advantage. \$\endgroup\$ – YogoZuno Mar 17 '15 at 21:14

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