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Death and Dying in D&D
Legends and Lore
Mike Mearls

My name is Mike Mearls, RPG Group Manager for the D&D Research and Development team. Welcome to Legends & Lore, a weekly column where I write about various topics on D&D’s history, how the game has changed over the years, and where it’s going in the future. One of the things I want to do is pose questions and topics to D&D players across the world, because my real purpose is to understand what you think about D&D. Once I know that, then I can better understand the game.


Having written about clerics these past two weeks, it’s a short leap to write about the terrible fate all those cure light wounds spells try to fend off: death. Character death has been a part of D&D since the beginning. After all, without some sort of risk then the rewards we earn in the game are cheapened and made hollow.

Raise the Dead

In AD&D, the raise dead spell was available to clerics of 9th level or higher. To give you an idea of the power of such a character, the cleric’s advancement table only spelled out the first 11 levels—so reaching 9th level was clearly considered quite an accomplishment. The person being raised had to survive a Resurrection Survival percentage chance, as determined by their Constitution; but, so long as they hadn’t been dead for more days than the cleric raising them had levels, they’d be fine (albeit weakened from the ordeal). 2nd Edition added one more small wrinkle, the loss of a point of Constitution, to the process.

3rd Edition kept raise dead at the same level, but added more drawbacks to the spell. In AD&D you had to make the Resurrection Survival check to see if the character was able to be raised, and then the character was too weak to act for one day per day spent dead. In 3E, the caster needed a 5,000 gp material component to cast the spell, while the recipient now lost a level. Arguably, that’s a softer penalty than the permanent loss of a point of Constitution; then again, due to how ability score bonuses worked in 2nd Edition, plenty of characters could lose a point of Constitution without really noticing it.

In 4th Edition, raise dead became a ritual that required 500 gp to cast. In addition, the target suffered a –1 penalty to most d20 rolls for six encounters of adventuring. It’s interesting to see how death became less of an obstacle in 4th Edition, after 2nd and 3rd raised the penalties for it. That said, it’s important to remember that 2nd, 3rd and 4th Edition extended the levels of expected play, with 2E and 3E plotting advancement to 20th level and 4E to 30th (though, while 2E did extend to higher levels, like 1E it primarily focused on levels 1-12, with most adventures topping out at around 7th level).

I’m Not Dead Yet

Oddly enough, the process of dying remained largely the same in 1st and 3rd Editions. Characters knocked down to -10 hit points died, and characters dropped to 0 or fewer hit points lost 1 point per round until reaching that threshold. In 1st Edition, a character so incapacitated was forced to rest for a week and lost a limb (or suffered some other permanent injury) at -6 hit points or lower. 2nd Edition was far more draconian, with death at 0 hit points (as it worked in Basic D&D), but with the 1st Edition rule available as an option.

4th Edition extended the death threshold to a negative number equal to half the character’s maximum hit points. In addition, rather than lose hit points each round, a character must make a death saving throw. Fail three of those, and the character dies.

For an added wrinkle of complexity, 2nd Edition added a rule for instant death when a character took more than a set amount of damage from a single attack. 3rd Edition also preserved this rule. 4th Edition removed it.

Thus, aside from 2nd Edition (and frankly, I think most people used the optional rule), death remained fairly constant in D&D until 4th Edition. In 4E, it is now harder to die from damage as opposed to failed death saving throws.

Some Observations

First of all, I have to admit that I was completely surprised at all the little changes to death, dying, and raise dead through the years. I knew that Basic D&D killed off characters at 0 hit points, but otherwise I would’ve assumed that the AD&D rule was consistent from 1st to 3rd Edition. I also assumed that the loss of Constitution was another 1st to 3rd constant, and I never would’ve guessed that the 2nd Edition default was death at 0 hit points. I’d like to think it’s because I’ve rarely had a character die (except for my elf wizard Dayereth Sunstar; curse you Jim Cirillo!). More likely it’s because it’s easy to let rules that look similar blur into each other over the years.

So what is it with death? Why all these little tweaks and changes? I think it boils down to this: Death is really DM dependent. Some DMs like slaughtering characters by the truckload. They dare their players to delve into dungeons, battling through fiendish traps and endless hordes of monsters. Other DMs find losing a character to be an enormous headache, especially if they have plots and plans surrounding them. Eoden the Chosen makes a fairly poor champion of Helm if a gnoll stabs him to death outside Baldur’s Gate before he can complete his prophecy.

I’ve talked a lot about how D&D players are a diverse bunch, with their own sets of priorities and preferences when it comes to the game. That extends to DMs and game designers, too. Recently, R&D went back and played every version of D&D ever produced. While the changes in the rules were interesting, what caught my attention the most was the adventures. Playing Basic D&D in an adventure that emphasized exploration and strategic thinking was far more enjoyable than using those same rules to fight monster after monster in a dungeon. In comparison, we played a fairly combat intensive 3E adventure and had a blast.

The rules of D&D and the adventures designed for it have a clear effect on how people play and perceive the game. Death and dying play a big role in that feel—from a gritty, harsh game of survival, to a story-driven game where the players know that resolving the plot, not living or dying, is the point of the campaign.

Legends & Lore Poll Results: 05/03/2011

What do you do?

  • Search the western wall: 61.6%
  • Head south: 20.1%
  • Return to the northern intersection and head north: 14.5%
  • Return to the northern intersection and leave the dungeon: 2.0%
  • Return to the northern intersection and head west: 1.7%

Poll Time

1. What do you think of character death in D&D?

What do you think of character death?
Character death should be a regular part of the game.
Character death should happen once in a while.
Characters should die only rarely.

2. What do you think of characters returning from death in D&D?

What do you think of characters returning from death?
A dead character should stay dead, with no options for return.
A character should come back at a heavy price that encourages most players to abandon a dead character.
A character should come back at a moderate price, one that most players will pay.
A character should come back easily, like recovering from any other condition.

3. What should drive character death?

What should drive character death?
Random chance; any fight or trap might kill an unlucky character.
Bad choices; smart players can avoid death if they plan well and pay attention.
The plot or the story; a character should die only if the DM sets that up to happen.
Any of the above; a DM should have options to introduce any of these situations into the game.

4. Continuing our adventure from last week, as you inspect the wall you note that it is clearly of supernatural origin. As you examine the stones in their checkerboard pattern, they give way to your touch and the lantern pulses a flash of white light. The wall disappears, revealing three shambling, rotting figures beyond it. With a moan, they shuffle toward you. What do you do?

What do you do?
As a rogue, I throw a dagger at the nearest one before it can react.
As a fighter, I draw my sword and charge.
As a cleric, I brandish my holy symbol and turn these obviously undead creatures.
As a wizard, I draw my wand and unleash a burning hands spell.

Mike Mearls
Mike Mearls is the senior manager for the D&D research and design team. He has worked on the Ravenloft board game along with a number of supplements for the D&D RPG.

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