I just released a session of Thunderspire Labyrinth to RPGMP3 in which one of the characters dies. Now I have been playing fantasy games long enough to realise that a death in the party does not really impact the players too much. Either they just drag the corpse to the nearest priest and pay a huge amount of cash or they just leave it (or if the poor fool is lucky, bury it) and move along after some simple words to whatever deity they are ripping off for powers.
In most cases the character in question has fallen to an unlucky blow from some huge creature or has died poking about in a trap or saving the rest as they fled from something nasty. But it was not what happened here...
Let me set the scene, it is a pretty standard encounter with some dueregar. The party have fought a similar group already and came out pretty well. They know all about the immunity to fire and the perchant for disappearing and popping up to crossbow them in the spine. There is a named duergar in this fight but essentially he is just a tough hit point machine rather than any real danger. More of a speed bump to drag out the combat a little more (I am still not seeing this streamlining I was promised BTW).
Anyway, the fight ensues and there is lots of running around and jumping about and the party manage to split themselves up between two doors rather than all rushing in through one and targeting their attack. I thought they had learned this lesson previously when they managed to TPK becuase they thought attacking from different sides was a good idea only to find that their movement was insufficient to close the ground and that the enemy has anout a gajillion hit points in 4e. That was mistake number 1. The Cleric, the Ranger and the Wizard fought in the northern room, while the Fighter, the Rogue and the Warlock took another. Unfortunately, the Warlock had encouraged the Fighter to kick the door in and not wait for the Rogue who was busy looting a nearby storeroom.
For some reason the combat with the Cleric, the Ranger and the Wizard took forever but no one really took many hits. The Ranger hates to get toe to toe and spends most of the combat dancing about like a fairy and occasionally peppering his enemy with arrows (when he can roll well enough). The Wizard complains bitterly about being in combat again and managed to conjure a Burning Sphere (as he is a fire specialist) and just make it a little warmer for the fire resistant dark dwarves and more tactically difficult for his mates. The Cleric runs in and toe to toes the bad guys and does a decent job.
The other fight is a lot more interesting. This is the room with the aforementioned hit point machine - lets call him Bob. So Bob's monkeys run in and start to fire their crossbows and dissapear as the scout type dueregar tend to do. The fighter starts to close the gap to Bob who is at the other end of the room and gets bogged down on some speed bump combat types with decent AC. The Warlock follows him in as he wants to move around and get his concealment bonuses for Shadow Walking. The Rogue is still stuffing his face with cheese and beer and just barely hears the strains of combat that have started without him. Sneaking becomes not an option and combined with indecision as to which combat to enter it takes him a good 3 rounds to get anywhere useful.
At some point in this fight, the Warlock takes a hit that knocks him down below 0 hit points and he starts making Death Saves. I don't think it was anyone special, just a standard guy with a standard attack. With the Fighter and the Rogue engaged with Bob and his cronies and the Cleric, Wizard and Ranger in a totally different room this put him in a position where rolling over 10 each round became a necessity for survival.
Now you might think that this Death Save busines might be exciting, "Ooooooohh, will his survive, will he not?", but it really isn't. As it is just another save at the end of the turn, like any other save, there is nothing special about it other than the consequences. Essentially the Warlock got knocked down by some faceless mook and bled out on the floor. I mean where is the heroism in that? I like my combat towards the realistic side but it just feels like a huge downer to me as a DM when this happens. I feel like I have not served the player well by giving his character such an ignominious death. I was surprised by how I felt to be honest.
I thought that in a system that seemed designed for cinematic combat that death would seem more of a big deal but it looks as if most characters are just going to bleed out on the floor. Just seems a bit of a let down really - I mean death saves are so 1970s :)
You can listen to the whole situation over at RPGMP3 as part of Thunderspire Labyrinth Session 5.
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