Fear of Death: Which Monsters Finish Off Dying Characters?

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The core rules and DM’s Book both tell us most monsters do not finish off fallen, dying heroes in the middle of the chaos of battle.   

Ah, so some monsters do?  Who are these truly wicked, vile or reckless monstrosities of the D&D world?  What are their cruel and merciless motivations?  You’ll find some of these unsettling answers here – and bring back the reality, fear and horror of character death to your game! 

We’ve all been there, on either side of the table in 4e.  A character, a hero or even antihero (thanks, Heroes of Shadow!) goes down, hits the dirt, cries out, sprays or vomits up blood, and starts bleeding out.  His or her dreams and soul about to fade – to the Shadowfell, and if they’re lucky, beyond. 

It’s a scary time.  Or is it? 

If 4e needed a movie title to describe how character death works and how common it is, I’d go with either Hard to Kill or Die Hard.  Maybe both for the gratuitous violence and witty, sarcastic confidence.  In prior editions of D&D, character death was more common.  Characters were naturally more fragile, especially at 1st level compared to 4e.  Sure, monsters hit harder (especially in books like MM3 and Monster Vault), but there’s still a much bigger character death buffer.

Or rather, character dying buffer, never mind the actual death buffer.  Once your character finds that nuisance of a 4e state, the infamous trifecta of death, dying and unconscious, you still have three strikes or “skulls” to accumulate before death becomes reality.  Sure, it’s intentionally designed this way, because in the past character death was the ultimate price – both in the story and the game.  The costs were significant, and it greatly interrupted adventure pacing.  Well, obviously.  Someone very important died! 

Unless every single party member is in the dying state however, the true risk of a total party kill (TPK) is very low in 4e.  Any amount of healing (via spell, prayer, second wind, potion, etc.), or something close enough like First Aid through a Heal check will save your heroic character from death.  Just like that.  Pretty trivial.  Fear of death in D&D 4e?  Not so much, honestly.  And again, when a character is simply dying, most monsters won’t make that extra effort to finish them off.  Most!

Here are some truly wicked monsters and situations to consider to make your world more believable, immersive and deadly:

  • Orcs.  Check the lore on this classic monster, and you’ll see they’re all about savagery and destruction – they fight to the death.  Most monsters value their lives more than anything, but not orcs.  They may die, but they’ll take you with them – in a bloody, gory mess upon their axe blades.
  • Demons and Devils.  There’s evil, and then there’s true, wicked and classic evil.  The stuff of nightmares.  Demons and Devils transcend D&D in that way.  While Devils’ machinations are typically more complex and cruel, a dark agenda in play, demons are much like orcs in that they just want to cause pain and kill for its sake.  It makes them happy!  What enemy is more terrifying than that?
  • Villains. Recurring enemies develop tense and unsettling relationships with the story’s main characters over time.  They outwit, trick, and punish the heros, often escaping their clutches, and add suffering to both their little world and often, other people and parts of the world.  Once they’re done toying with the PCs though, and realize they might actually be a threat to them and their plans, true villains will realize the importance of not only dropping, but killing their archenemies outright.
  • Criminals.  Deviants who are pursued by the local law are criminals for a reason – they often have little moral compass and will steal or kill for the right price, whether it’s gold or power.  An assassin for hire will pursue his mark to the end, ensuring the hero has a blade through the throat or even the head of the PC as proof to collect his payment.
  • Intelligence.  High intelligence, wisdom or charisma scores may indicate a well-traveled, well-read or otherwise tactically sharp mind, whether the game is politics or deadly combat.  If they don’t kill you themselves – as it’s sometimes a bit barbaric of them, isn’t it? – they’ll certainly arrange to have powerful servants, thugs or assassins snuff you out.  They’ll paint a picture, not only in their own minds, but in others’ of the PCs’ stature as dangerous enemies, and instruct their minions, servants and network of contacts to make sure your PC is dead.  Intelligent killers may be the deadliest of all, as they may go beyond the kill itself and go to great lengths to make even coming back from the dead via power, ritual or even divine intervention difficult or impossible!
  • Desperation.  The desperation of hunger, hopelessness, madness and other extreme life and emotional situations may drive certain monsters or intelligent adversaries to cold-blooded murder.  These dark souls may be just about lost, and they may not even care about their own lives due to their dire and myopic needs, desires or straits at the time.  Desperation, in many ways, can be more dangerous than wicked or destructive evil.
  • It’s Personal.  Not all enemies of the heroes need to be villains or have an elaborate scheming bent or high intelligence to them.  Sometimes, it’s simply about vengeance and delivering punishment for a singular dishonor, slight or sin.  You killed my only dragonling child?  I’m going to eat you slowly, limb by limb, and savor every bite while your friends watch – and yes, in the middle of battle.  Only your long, painful death matters to me.  I want you to truly suffer while I kill you!  See?  That’s one dragon whose child you shouldn’t have slain – you can bet your eladrin wizard or human fighter friend is going to have a heightened sense of fear in that battle.  Especially when mother dragon delivers on her promise!

One word of advice: like most important pieces of information, it’s important for the DM give out clues throughout a campaign, adventure or encounter.  A roleplayed, venom-filled promise, like the dragon’s above, is a great way of executing the clue that the dragon is going for the kill and is likely willing to risk it mid-combat – going beyond the pedestrian trifecta of dying, unconscious and helpless.  The same principle applies with orcs’ common lore about their savagery and willingness to fight to the death, a criminal’s history of violent and heinous behavior, a villain’s reputation for ruthlessness, or the rumors of an adversary’s seemingly desperate or hopeless situation. 

This approach which combines foreshadowing with a warning is critical, adding to the drama of the unfolding story while also warning the party of especially grave, grizzly and decidedly mortal consequences.  Weave in those story bits so that the encounters with these adversaries feel more immersive, organic and believable – especially when they come for the kill!

7 Responses to “Fear of Death: Which Monsters Finish Off Dying Characters?”

  1. Man-eating monsters are another category that could be added to your list. Any monster interested in eating a character could be happy with trying to escape the fight with a single snack rather than wasting energy and risking its life fighting the characters that are still on their feet. That category covers everything from large carnivorous animals to ghouls, vampires, and mind flayers.
    Glimm the Gnome recently posted..Javelin BomberMy Profile

    • Kilsek says:

      Great category of monster to add, Glimm, thanks! It’s true, some things want to eat, not out of desperation so much as, well, that simple overriding desire to eat.

  2. Tourq says:

    Yesssss. I am all about the reality of combat.
    Tourq recently posted..Dungeons and Doctor WhoMy Profile

    • Kilsek says:

      Then you’ll be happy to see a series of articles on character death coming up on Leonine Roar, Tourq! More than anything, character death can be a rare, great storytelling tool and minor setback in 4e, rather than a severe punishment like it use to be in prior editions. More on that soon!

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