System Neutral – On Failure, Character Death, and Party Wipes

November 7, 2013 Tyler Rhoades 4619 2 Comments

Every RPG player will experience failure. It will happen when you least expect it. It will happen when you absolutely cannot afford it. It will happen. It is… inevitable.

Most failure is banal; your character misses his save and spends the combat unconscious because wizards are annoying as hell. Or maybe your trap-springer accidentally springs a trap and eats a poison dart. Or maybe your cool-ass barbarian screams a battle cry and charges his opponent, only to trip over the branch that he didn’t see in his blood lust.

But sometimes the failure is so colossal that an entire campaign is irreparably broken. That’s what happened to our group, one fateful night in 1996.

Like most large D&D groups with adult members, our group had a serious problem with scheduling. My brothers hosted a regular game on Friday nights, but life has an annoying way of interrupting fantasy play-time, and players were infrequently available.

Initially we tackled this problem by setting up multiple groups, and each week we’d pick a group based on player composition, but this presented a serious continuity problem.

Some really fun groups wouldn’t get played for months at a time, and the first hour was spent trying to remember where the hell we left off.

Finish your milk has to slay some orcs
Finish your milk sweetie…dad has to slay some orcs

Some interesting campaigns would only get one or two sessions and then never get played again, because they featured unusual player combinations or left out players that were usually available.

The groups with our full contingent of players would get played a lot, but the action would undoubtedly get bogged down…as often happens in groups with a large number of people.

In response to these problems, one of our DMs proposed a campaign that would work on a mission-by-mission basis, kind of like Shadowrun, but using 2nd Edition AD&D instead. The campaign was known as the “Thieves Guild.” People could play one character across multiple sessions, or introduce a different character each time, or even play multiple characters on the same night. Because it was mission-based there was no need for group consistency but we were still able to gain experience and our characters slowly grew in prominence within the guild. It was great, because every session was like planning and executing a heist, which was crazy fun.

Our setting was a city whose puppet government was propped up by a sadistic Blood Cult, and we played revolutionaries attempting to subvert the regime. Our DM did an excellent job scaling missions starting with simple burglaries or shake-downs, and eventually moving on to more nefarious assignments like assassinations and sabotage. We were doing great, and not only were our characters progressing but the guild was starting to make some headway against the regime.

That is… until our last mission.

It was a relatively easy job. Our crew had been tasked with intercepting an item of power being transported between two temples, guarded by a low-level acolyte and three temple guardsmen.

We had four men for the job. I played Mutt, a nimble street-rat halfling thief. With him were Raven, a mysterious elven combat mage, Marik, a ledge-walking cat burglar, and Tomas, a muscled street thug who had just joined the guild.

We totally looked something like this
Kinda’ like these dudes

We set up an ambush point. Marik was going to garrotte one of the guardsmen from a rooftop, taking him out of the action immediately. Mutt was going to backstab another, hopefully doing enough damage to kill or seriously wound. Tomas was going to pummel the third, and Raven would cast a sleep spell on the acolyte, hopefully catching at least one of the guards in the process.

We get into position.

The caravan arrives, right on schedule.

Marik lowers the garrotte…

And it slips out of his hands, coiling uselessly on the ground at the alarmed guard’s feet.

Whelp…so much for that idea.

Mutt slides out of the shadows and preps a devastating strike, aiming his shortsword between the shoulder blades of the unsuspecting guardsman.

He strikes.

The attack glances uselessly off of the guard’s chain mail shirt.

Raven whispers arcane words and blows a handful of sand at the group. The acolyte collapses, snoring loudly. But the spell is weak and no one else is affected.

Tomas calmly walks up and mashes the third guard with a mace, momentarily stunning him, but not killing him.

Next round.

Mutt’s guard turns and slashes with a long sword. The blade cuts through Mutt’s boiled leather armor, streaking red as the edge splits through leather, skin, and muscle.

Mutt’s clumsy counter catches in his loose cloak; he barely maintains a grip on his blade.

Tomas also takes a hit from his opponent’s long sword. He bashes his attacker with his mace, doing light damage.

Raven, lightly armored, is run through with a long sword from guard number two. It’s a critical injury. Raven stumbles back and fires two arcane bolts at his attacker, wounding him slightly.

Marik throws a dagger from his elevated perch. It misses everything, clattering uselessly into an alley.

Protip: maybe don't grip the pointy end
Protip: maybe don’t grip the pointy end

Next round.

The guard towering over Mutt raises his long sword. Mutt feebly raises in short sword to parry the blow, to no avail. The guard’s blade digs into Mutt’s shoulder, grinding to a stop somewhere in the middle of his adorable little chest.

Mutt slumps to the ground, mortally wounded.

Tomas dodges the swipe from his enemy. He spins and mashes the guard’s face with his mace.

The guard collapses, dying.

Raven is run-through a second time, sustaining a mortal wound, though barely managing to keep his feet. He turns and runs, clasping futilely at his fatal puncture wounds.

Marik throws his second and final dagger. It misses. Again.

Next round.

The two remaining guards advance on Tomas. Tomas puts up a valiant defense but is quickly cut to pieces by the guardsmen.

Marik runs away, having contributed exactly nothing to the fight.

Mutt bleeds out on the ground, moaning quietly as he dies an adorable halfling death.

Raven makes his way to a rooftop and tries to stop his bleeding.

He fails, and dies quietly under the moonless night sky.

The acolyte wakes up. Mutt’s body is piled on the cart, along with Tomas and the dead guardsman.


The blood priests reanimate Mutt’s corpse. Mutt had achieved a fairly high rank within the guild. His corpse reveals the guild members and locations.

The members of the guild are systematically hunted down and killed by the Blood Cult.

Character dead.

Campaign over.

The end.

I found myself quite depressed after this game. To this day Mutt is my favorite character…so much so that I had to bring him back to life in a different campaign a few months later.

I still get a little frustrated thinking about that battle. Dozens of hours of fun gameplay were wiped out after a single night of horrible rolls. When this happens in a video game you can just reload your last save game or start from the beginning of the quest. But there are no save games in D&D.

I couldn’t blame the DM. It was a winnable fight. The guardsmen were roughly on par with our group, and we had the element of surprise.

I couldn’t blame the plan either. If just one of those guardsmen had been neutralized earlier, either by the garrotte or the sleep spell, we would have won.

I couldn’t blame the dice because in spite of what most players think they are just random number generators, not magical totems that you can bend to your will.

This kind of stuff just happens sometimes. And thank God it does.

Well… shit

Death, dying, and failure sucks…and it sucks for everyone involved. It sucks for the players, because they built, grew, and inhabited the characters that just met their gruesome demise. It sucks for the DM too, because the fun campaign they obsessed over is now gone forever. And starting from scratch is hard.

That said, we must not fear failure, so long as it’s fair. I’ve seen both sides of the spectrum. One of our DMs had a rule named “hazy death,” where deceased characters never actually died; they were just put “out of commission” for a while. Another DM had no problem brutally punishing the natural curiosity of the players. “You want to descend into a large hole to search through the ruins of a sunken city? Fine. The city is full of trolls and you’re all dead now. Maybe don’t go into a big hole with no easy escape route next time.”

For me, I never really liked winning. I can’t recall any time where my character did something particularly brilliant or rolled an amazing roll. Or a campaign where we finally beat the big bad, rescued the damsel, and defended the realm. But I can tell you about every one of my characters that died, and the round-by-round detail of that death. I can recall all of the failed missions, the missed opportunities, and the party wipes.

People are drawn to RPGs for different reasons. For some it is escapism — to finally be the badass that is buried beneath layers of social ineptitude. For some it’s socializing — a chance to hang out with friends and play a fun game. For others it’s a creative outlet — a chance to tell stories and build memories.

Me? I’m in it for the poontang.

Kidding. The poontang is nice, but it’s not why I play. I play RPGs so that some day, when I’m sitting at my computer 15 years after a single gaming session, I have the ability to recall the precise details of one hour of my life. I couldn’t tell you any other single memory from that month in my life, and I’d be hard pressed to come up with a detailed account of any single night of that 16 year old’s sad little existence.

But I’ll never forget the day Mutt died at the hands of the Blood Cult.

So how about you guys? Can you remember a spectacular failure? Well I want to hear about it, damn you. Let’s all commiserate, and relish in the joy of our collective failures.

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2 Comments Leave New
tdsmobile November 7, 2013

Oh, wow, that was a goooood campaign. And that was definitely the mission that snapped its neck. No doubt.

I blame Don, though. He was the one who tried to hide himself in the chimney to evade the guards and, when confronted with the sounds of his cohorts gasping their last breath on the street, wedged himself just a little deeper into the chimney. That was cold. Ice cold.

Hey! It was also Don who pulled down the rope, stranding the entire group in the troll hole to be ripped to pieces!

A pattern? I think so!

Clearly Don lusts for total party kills, and manipulated us all into feeding his addiction. I feel dirty now.

BTW, I heard he did the same thing when he got a chance to ref — four hours behind the screen: boom, all dead! Thanks for coming! Leave the snacks…

So let’s let the blame for Mutt’s death fall where it belongs: on Don’s shoulders, not mine.

Yeah, wow. That was a *good* campaign.

… let’s see. Best death for one of my characters … hmmm.

OH! Totally my best death: final encounter, dragon, dragon hoard, my bard failed his saving throw against fire while wearing a just-acquired Helm of Brilliance, causing a cascade failure that completely annihilated everyone else in the party. But not the dragon, because it was immune to fire. Yeah. That was epic. The DM was like “wait, the helm does what if it fails a save?”

As I recall, that resulted in the largest loot pile ever recorded, with all of the group’s gear on top of the hoard. But, like, melted all together and stuff. So kinda hard to make off with it.

Tyler Rhoades November 7, 2013

The crazy thing is Don’s character survived both of those campaign-enders. Not a coincidence.


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