AvocaD&D and Tabletop Gaming: Yig Snake Granddaddy, Part 28

Welcome back to the weekly D&D and Tabletop Gaming thread!  Here’s a place where we can talk about Dungeons & Dragons or any other tabletop games that you nerds might be into.  Tell us about the games you’re playing, speculate about future expansions, recruit your fellow Avocados into new groups, whatever you want.

Part of what makes adventure RPGs like D&D exciting is the real possibility that your character could die over the course of the story that you’re telling. Adventuring is an inherently risky business–your party can expect to be tasked with anything from sneaking into a war camp full of hostile hobgoblins, to retrieving lost treasures from a cursed tomb, to delving into an abandoned mineshaft in search of some missing villagers, to saving the world from some vengeful evil deity. Traps, monsters, curses, or even just the natural world itself could all easily be lethal.

Of course, 5e D&D mitigates the risks a bit by making PCs pretty tough to kill outright (at least after level 3 or so). When a character is brought to zero hit points (eg, from a monster’s attacks or damage from a trap), the character isn’t instantly killed.1 Instead the PC is said to be unconscious and dying. On each of the character’s subsequent turns, the player makes a special d20 roll called a death saving throw. A roll of 10 or higher is a success, and anything less than 10 is a failure. Once three failures are accumulated, the character succumbs to their wounds and dies. One the other hand, if the character can accumulate three successes, they stabilize–they remain unconscious but are no longer actively dying.

The death save mechanic is designed to give the other players time to help their fallen comrade. Any effect that can restore at least 1 hit point to an unconscious character brings that character back to consciousness and resets the death save counters to zero. At the very least, any character can also choose to use an action to attempt to stabilize a dying creature by rolling a Medicine skill check, needing to meet only a DC of 10 to succeed and keep the creature alive. Of course, excessively cruel or smart enemies can also make things harder. If a creature at zero hit points takes any damage, they immediately automatically fail a death save, and if the damage comes from a critical hit, they take two failed death saves. To make matters worse, any melee attack on an unconscious creature is made with advantage and if the attack hits, it counts as a critical no matter what number was rolled on the die.

Even if a character does fully die, that doesn’t mean the player should necessarily start rolling up a new character. There are some spells or effects in the game that are designed to bring the dead back to life, and even if the party doesn’t have access to those spells yet, there could be an NPC in town they could go to for help. But what happens if more than one character is killed in a single battle? The worst case scenario is the TPK, or “total party kill.” Sometimes the bad guys win and the heroes are defeated. This can be a dramatically satisfying end to a campaign, but I think more often it happens because of unlucky dice rolls and/or DMs who overestimate what the party can handle.

As a DM, how do you deal with an unexpected TPK? Is it just the end of the game, or do you try and find a way for the party to “fail forward”? Maybe the party isn’t actually killed but taken prisoner by the goblin army instead. Or do you step in and retcon things to give the players another chance? As a player, have you ever had a character die, either individually or as part of a TPK? Was it a heroic final stand where you sacrificed yourself to protect everyone else, or was it just dumb luck that caused you to fall into a bottomless pit? And as bonus prompt: How do other games handle the possibility of character death and how does it affect the tone of those games?

Players and Characters

Wafflicious is back in the DM’s seat this week to continue our 5e Cthulhu Mythos adventure. Our players include:

  • JosephusBrown as Anton Illinois (Human Inquisitive Rogue/Fighter), a disgraced archaeology professor who has turned to seeking arcane rituals
  • CleverGuy as Bastian Updelver (Deep Gnome Alchemist Artificer), an eccentric local potionmaker
  • TheHayesCode as Hazel Green (Dhampir Spirits Bard), a flapper, séance MC, and aspiring spiritualist
  • Spiny Creature as Ku (Kenku Twilight Cleric), a local priestess of Bastet, goddess of protection
  • The Wasp as Leah Zann (Tiefling Great Old One Warlock), a professor from Miskatonic University who accepted a deal with Yog Sothoth to get an advantage over her male colleagues
  • The Ugly One with the Jewels as Minty Rocksmasher (Dwarf Berserker Barbarian), survivor of an eldritch accident which decimated her tribe

TheHayesCode brings us another entry from Hazel’s diary for this week’s game recap. Thanks, Hayes!

Picking Fights With Elder Things

All right, Diary, it’s time for us to get serious about smashing that last serpent statue right in its ugly mug. Unfortunately we’ve been goin’ in kind of blind – Ku tried getting in mind-contact with Shorty, but she just got back some kind of garbled fuzz, so we didn’t really know what we might be walking into – but we spent an evening looking over the old manuscripts we found and managed to eke out a little more info on these creepy-looking beasties we’re running into every other day now. Specifically, some of the little tricks they use to make these poor dinosaurs dance to their tune! If you ask me, these Yithian are an awful rotten bunch.

And the “Elder Things”, as we’re calling these floating squid gooberdoodles, aren’t much better. We ran into one while making our way south all sneaky-like between the river and a cliff. I wove a little spirtual veil around Anton so he was able to sneak up and tear into it invisibly, and Ku dropped a pocket of silence on the thing to keep it from peppering us with spells. It still had some nasty tentacles, though, and nearly strangulated Minty before she slipped out of its grasp. Finally, it had enough and tried to fly over the cliff and flee into that ‘Karstlands’ nonsense.

Well, I was having none of it. Diary, I’m pretty proud of this one! I grabbed Leah, yanked us both through the fabric of time and space (well, okay, just space) and we came out on top of the cliff. Then I just aimed Little Miss Creepy in the general direction of that thing’s five-way mug and fired her off. Easy peasy, and down it went.

How’d we get down, you ask? Well, I grabbed her by the collar and jumped. Of course I can slow down my fall, but it was a little funny for me to be the one scarin’ her for once. (Don’t tell her I said so!)

By the way, it was around this time we started noticin’ that the vegetation was gettin’ … how shall I put this?… distinctly prehistorical-lookin’. I’m talking real antique. No flowers or birds or anything like that, just a lot of oversized ferns and real weird animal noises. It’s all right for my hay fever, but maybe not so great for the part of me that doesn’t want to be eaten by a lot of long-ago creepy crawlies.

The next night another one of those weird-looking ghouls just hung there and watched us for a while. Ugh! And I thought the peeping toms back in the old neighborhood were bad.

Anyway, a while later we ran into a whole parade of people we knew, including Shorty and the Rockbreakers, all held captive by an Elder Thing and its dinosaur buddy and being marched north for no-doubt nefarious purposes! We decided not to respect out elders and gave this one a whupping, too, though it didn’t go as smoothly as before. I guess I did lose my composure a little when that tentacled T-Rex grabbed me, and then again when it exploded into a writhing tentacle mass. But really, those were just battle screams, you know? I was excited!

And now we gotta figure out how to bring Shorty and the rest of the gang back to their old selves… before anything else happens!