A Walk in the Dark A look in to the mind of an RPG designer


An Alternative to Player Death

I've run my share of campaigns and, as far as I can remember, I have never had a PC die.

Having a PC die is actually a problem for me, because the plot line in my primary campaign kind of demands that the original five players survive (at least until Chapter Three, that is). So if one of them dies it's somewhat of an inconvenience and "breaks" the story.

So I thought of a special way to handle it: give the dead player a chance to come back, perhaps even as a servant of the BBEG.

The following is a skill challenge concept I put together only a day or two ago, and probably still needs a little tweaking. I'm open to suggestions as to how to make it better. Anyone?

The Dark Offering

If a player dies after a certain point in the campaign, he is transported to something similar to a dream sequence where the "big evil" attempts to persuade the player to join its side. As DM, you are welcome to roleplay this in any way you see fit. The primary thing to remember is that the voice will attempt to recruit the player to go against the other players and the enemies of the BBEG in the local village. The voice may not be particularly sincere of its offer, though.

Skill Challenge: Complexity 1 (4 successes before 2 failures)

Primary Skills: Arcana, Bluff, Diplomacy, Intimidate, and see below

Victory: The player is restored to life as if the Raise Dead ritual was used, but the penalties persist only until the first milestone is reached.

Failure: The player dies. If the player is later revived with a Raise Dead ritual, all the penalties are -2 (instead of the usual -1) and he gains vulnerable 5 necrotic for the next two milestones.

Arcana, Moderate DC (1 success, maximum 2 successes): You focus your mind and resist the voice’s influence.
Bluff, Hard DC (1 success, maximum 2 successes): You manage to convince the voice that you will his bidding if your life is restored, knowing full well you don't mean it.
Diplomacy, Moderate DC (1 success, maximum 2 successes): You speak with the voice and try to talk your way out of the difficult situation.
Intimidate, Moderate DC (1 success, maximum 2 successes): You rebel against the voice in the darkness, stating you are not one to die so easily.
Attack (1 success, maximum 3 successes): You retaliate at the voice with violence. All attacks are made against a defense of 10+Level, and it could be any form of attack (melee, ranged or burst) and target any defense.
Surrender (automatic failure): You would rather die than become a servant of the dark.
Embracing the Darkness (2 successes, maximum 4 successes, with special conditions): You accept the darkness, realizing that the voice’s offer is quite enticing. Using this method at any point grants the player additional bonuses if the skill challenge ends up a success.

Note: The player that died must do this skill challenge alone; he cannot get any assistance from other players.

Upon a victory, if at any point during the skill challenge the player agrees to accept the voice’s offer and embrace the powers of darkness, the player gains the following conditions:

  • Player gains the "shadowtouched" keyword.
  • Resist 5 necrotic.
  • Vulnerable 5 radiant.
  • The player will be able to identify any and all creatures that have the "shadowtouched" keyword.
  • +1 to attack and damage rolls against creatures that do not have the "shadowtouched" keyword.
  • +2 to attack and damage rolls against other players or creatures that would normally be considered allies, or at least are enemies of the BBEG.
  • If the player makes any burst attacks, all other players and allies in the area of effect are treated as enemies.
  • The player gains a special "shadowtouched" power (which I will not elaborate on here for spoiler reasons).
  • No creature with the "shadowtouched" keyword will willingly attack the player in any way.

These bonuses remain until:

  • The BBEG is defeated.
  • The player makes an attack or threatening gesture against a creature with the "shadowtouched" keyword. The attack does not have to hit the target; the mere act of rolling the attack is sufficient.

Once the effect ends, the player must make an immediate saving throw with a -5 penalty; on a failure, the player loses two healing surges. If the player does not have any surges, he takes damage equal to his surge value for each surge that he is missing. If the player drops to 0 HP or lower as a result of this attack, the player dies and the BBEG will make no further effort to recruit him.

If the player embraces the darkness, at any time the player can turn against the BBEG as a free action. If they do, the player loses the conditions and two healing surges as described above without a saving throw.

As far as skill challenges go, I don't think it's that difficult, and it at least gives the players an opportunity to come back.

So anyone out there have alternatives for handling player death?


Skill Challenge: The Interview

POSSIBLE SPOILER WARNING: If you are participating in my campaign, or intend to participate in it, you may not want to read the attached PDF.

Skill challenges have always been my heroic flaw. I don't think I've been able to run a skill challenge correctly yet, but I'm getting there. A boatload of online resources and posts on other blogs surely helped me get it together, and I suggest everyone to look those up if they're having as much trouble as I.

The first scene in my campaign isn't an encounter... It's an interview. The five players are brought before the rulers of the village of Solis and essentially interrogated for the job of "village protectors". Depending on how they respond, the nobles might like them (in which case they'll actually support their efforts) or despise them (in which case they don't really care if the players die painfully).

In concept this was perfect for a skill challenge, but the mechanic didn't quite fit as it was designed. There were a few concerns:

  1. The party wasn't doing this as a collective; each person was being interrogated one at a time. They may be able to assist each other, but they can't speak out of turn.
  2. There were two people asking the questions, and they were both radically different individuals: one was a soldier and war general, the other was a mystic. The DCs should definitely not be the same.
  3. It was an interview to gauge the ability of the players... Should the players' reactions be restricted to a handful of "primary" skills? Almost anything should be fair game (I had a hard time figuring a way that Stealth could be used, though).
  4. The two people asking the questions have a high degree of bias for certain races and classes; there are certain types of people that they will be more sympathetic to, and others that they will have a seething hatred for. For example, they're elves who worship Corellon... so God help you if you're a drow.

Here is "Chapter 1, Scene 1" from my upcoming campaign, edited slightly to remove the really major plot spoilers (no "Conclusion"). You'll note a few changes to the skill challenge mechanic:

  • Number of failures is irrelevant; only successes count. Furthermore, a PC has the option of not doing a skill check at all. If you're no good at being diplomatic or talkative, you don't have to force yourself to succeed. You simply don't do anything (you can speak, but it doesn't have to be a rolled skill check). In fact, if the players never fail they get bonus XP.
  • There are two sets of DCs, depending on who the players are responding to: Laris or Lia. The warrior reacts better to feats of strength and endurance, while the mystic reacts better to diplomacy and intelligence.
  • There are a whole boatload of modifiers depending on the player's class and race. You'll probably do great if you're a shardmind psion, but you're pretty much screwed if you're a drow rogue (you're lucky if they talk to you at all).

So here you go... The first scene in my upcoming campaign! Hope you enjoy!

Chapter 1, Scene 1: The Throne Room (PDF)