Variant: Cinematic Death
The following rules make it much more difficult for PCs to permanently die, for two big reasons:
1) In fiction, main characters only die when it is meaningful to the larger story. In fact, surviving a near-death experience is a key part of the archetypal Hero’s Journey in myths.
2) In tabletop roleplaying, players have many hours of emotional investment in their characters. Understandably, a meaningless death can be very upsetting, and can cause some players to lose interest in the game entirely. Real-life friendships have been strained or lost over in-game deaths.
That said, meaningful death is still an option, and there are significant consequences for reaching 0 hit points.
If a player openly uses these rules to act invincible, just politely ask them to play within the spirit of the game.
In fiction, the main heroes rarely fall in combat. When the odds are turning against them, they often rely on a last bit of luck and willpower to cheat death at the last possible second.
To recreate this feeling in the game, Death Saves are replaced with Death Points.
Instead of giving PCs a safety net after they have fallen, this variant provides it while they are still standing.
When a PC takes more damage than they have HP:
- They are knocked prone or are otherwise forced into a disadvantaged position. e.g. If they are near a ledge, they fall over and hang onto the edge!
- They are reduced to 1 HP.
- They take 1 Death Point, marked with an 'X' on their character sheet.
- They automatically avoid any other damage until their next turn.
When a PC takes 3 Death Points:
- They are Incapacitated until the end of combat.
- When combat ends, they are automatically revived by the other PCs.
- They can not be revived in the middle of combat. Healing may add HP but it does not revive them.
- They permanently lose 1 HP from their maximum HP.
- All members of the party lose 10 XP from the total XP they would gain from the adventure.
When a PC is revived:
- Their Hit Points are set to 1 HP.
- All Death Points are removed.
All Death Points are removed during a Long or Short Rest.
For dramatic purposes, a player may choose for their character to die instead of being revived. They can give their last words before passing on.
If their death is aligned with their background, or their sacrifice is meaningful to the overall story, their soul earns an eternal place in the Land of Legends.
If all of the PCs are Incapacitated or are about to be defeated — don’t let the story end!
Here are a few options to keep the game going:
- Everyone is captured and eventually wake up. The enemies have decided that the PCs are more valuable alive than dead. Now the party must figure out a way to escape!
- Everyone is revived and saved by a deus ex machina — a sudden intervention by some character or event. e.g. a wizard hears the battle and comes along to save the party, or the enemies retreat for some mysterious reason.
- You can “rewind” the story back to the point before combat, while retaining the XP penalty. While this is a bit “gamey”, you can add some narrative spin (e.g. “But here’s what really happened...”)