At-Will Employment, D&D Style  

Posted by Michael Donaldson in

Monte Cook recently posted in the Dungeons and Dragons blog about the lethality of our genre, and asked his readers to vote on how they perceived death and how often they felt it should affect the PCs. While there is no clear consensus in his poll, I did notice that a mere 5% of those polled responded favorable to one of the "death shouldn't really happen" options. Everyone seems to more or less agree that they welcome the possibility of death with open arms as a risk of their "trade", so to speak, and eagerly delves dungeons knowing each step could be their last.

That is, until their character dies. (continued after the jump)

I have begun to notice that while most gamers actually are good sports, many profess Gamist enthusiasm but fail to embrace the penalty of failure - the fact that death is the risk they are gaming against. They will react quite negatively to the death of their character. I recently heard a story of a player becoming quite incensed in such an occasion, laying accusations of targeting and preferential bias at the GM's feet after their character succumbed to poison in the encounter. The entire session was disrupted, and only after the intervention of a third party was the aggrieved player able to be convinced that they had not been targeted by the GM for out of character reasons.

The situation played out a little something like this: The monsters were using poison, and had a variety of different poisons. Some were stronger than the others. The most devastating poison, a CON damage affliction, was thrown towards the aggrieved player's character. The party was very taxed to the limit of their resources, with the paladin on strict healing duty whilst the party consumed their entire stock of restoration potions. The dying wizard risked his life to throw one last fireball. Ultimately, the poison caused the untimely death of the angered player's character, at which point the player began to openly question the GM's choices for the actions of the monsters. The player began to argue that the GM did not like them, and had specifically chosen to target them with the worst of the poisons in a overt attempt to kill their character.

The GM, of course, denied any ulterior motives. He probably defended his decisions to the player, and the discussion took a rather heated tone about the merits of the monster's actions - whether or not they were justified by the situation at hand. The entire flow of the game and the enjoyment of the activity was at stake.

As a DM, you must resist the urge to argue with players about your actions. This is even more important during a session. Tell the player that if they wish to discuss anything about the game and how you are running it that they can feel free to approach you after the session. As long as you are not actually a horrible passive-aggressive GM (which I assume you are not, fine readers) you have nothing to gain from entertaining a heat-of-the-moment passionate dispute over the events of the game. Furthermore, the reaction may just be a reflexive displeasure over the loss - some time to cool down and absorb the loss may be all that this player needs to find "closure" and avoid aggression. Allowing players to debate your actions as a DM opens up a floodgate that you may find difficult to close. As long as you endeavor to keep everyone's enjoyment as the main goal of our hobby (which it always should be), you are the final gatekeeper of the universe your players navigate.

An apt metaphor would be an at-will employment. I read a summary that explained things a little like this: "An employee was fired when the boss spied her lighting up a cigarette in her car and incorrectly assumed it was marijuana. She asked the lawyer if she could take legal action against the employer for firing her on the basis of something that was not true, and the lawyer responded that she was unlikely to get far at all because her boss was capable of firing her for no reason at all, and so an untrue reason worked just as good as any. If she had been fired for her race or sex, she would have a case, but a reason of nothing was not protected by the law."

As the DM, you have the right to kill players for no reason at all. I can't think of any way that could meaningfully contribute to the enjoyment of a tabletop RPG, but when your players start angrily nitpicking the individual actions of a well-designed, challenging fight it can sometimes be helpful to keep things in perspective.

Rocks didn't fall, after all. Roll up a new character and keep enjoying the game.

This entry was posted on March 7, 2012 at Wednesday, March 07, 2012 and is filed under . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .


I must say that I've had players become irate from dying but honestly I would rather just not play with them anymore. Being a DM is the hardest job at the table. I am there to provide a story and I work hard to make it interesting and entertaining to the players. I want them to be interested and invested in it. I make changes to things they show interest in and dump what they don't like.

But, the rules are there to reward smart play and punish dumb play. If you take a chance and die well that's the way the dice fall. I also don't feel it necessary to explain how my monsters think. If my players question the actions of a monster (which they have) I simply say that their character has no idea why X monster did that. Perhaps they were under instructions to kill said player above all else, or damage the groups magic abilities, etc.

I feel no need to explain my monsters but I also feel a need as a DM to make sure my monsters do have some sort of motivation that makes sense to them.

Anyways just my two cents.

March 7, 2012 at 2:23 PM

I personally don't game with anyone that acts like that either. I can sort of understand if people have an emotional reaction but people who get angry over the game itself need to reanalyze what game they're playing imo ;)

March 7, 2012 at 6:47 PM

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