Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Squirrel's Death: A Lesson in Dungeoneering Fundamentals

We had our first PC fatality last night in Rob's D&D 5E campaign. One of our mages, Squirrel, went back to check out a room we had previously cleared, and the rest of us went separate ways as well. When our enemies attacked again, Squirrel was set upon by multiple foes. He rolled poorly for initiative, the enemy rolled well. The bad guys went first. They made good attack rolls. Squirrel took multiple hits. The villains rolled well for damage. Squirrel had a crap CON score resulting in low hit points to begin with, so he dropped like a sack of potatoes. Squirrel then proceeded to throw three failed death saves in a row and he croaked. So why did Squirrel die?

Squirrel died because he was alone.

Or, in other words, we – the rest of the party – killed him. Where was Vognur, my fighter, while Squirrel was being cut down? I was more than a full dash move away north of Squirrel's position. Where was everyone else? I don't know. I should know, but I don't.* I was alone when I heard Squirrel scream. And when I did hear the scream, I was the first to arrive at Squirrel's position. So everyone else was at least as far away from him as I was, if not further.

This is not a new lesson.


It's easy to say. The principle's validity has been proven – the hard way – again, and again, and again, in myriad campaigns since 1974.

But the rule is hard to stick to sometimes, even for us veteran players. We get lazy. We get impatient. It seems so restrictive, trying to go methodically through the dungeon. It can sometimes be boring to have most of the party simply standing guard keeping watch down empty corridors, while one character gets the fun job of looting the room. And as players we're tired. We had a long, tough day at work. It's late in the evening. So we get lax. "I'll check this room, you go check that one."

And then Squirrel dies.

The dice rolls certainly didn't help. Squirrel's low HP total wasn't an asset either. And it's admittedly true that if we'd all been together, he still could have been killed. That's always a possibility in any circumstance.

But if the party had stayed together, Squirrel's chances would have been far, far better. He wouldn't have been outnumbered. It's probable that at least one of us would have had initiative over the bad guys. It's likely that one of us – with better armor and HP – would have positioned himself between Squirrel and the enemy. The enemy's attacks would probably have been spread out across the party, instead of all being directed at Squirrel. And who knows? One of us might have killed off one of the foes before they got a chance to attack. And even if Squirrel had still gone down, with the whole party there, we could have immediately tried to stabilize him.**

Instead, Squirrel died alone.

*We use dynamic lighting and LOS in Roll20, so when a party member leaves your LOS, you have no idea where he is.
**In the event we did manage an attempt to stabilize him, but not until he'd already failed two death saves. And the one and only medecine check failed.


  1. Bah! D&D trope and nothing more. We split our parties constantly, and have for over thirty years. It's how you do it, why you do it, and what genre and system you're using.

    I feel a blog post coming on. I will definitely redirect people back to this one Chris.

    1. Point taken. I think the key words in your comment are "how" and "why" -- implying a reason and a method. We (myself included) were just careless last night, and split up for no particular reason, and with no particular method or plan in mind.

      So maybe "never split the party without a reason and a plan" might be a better rule.

  2. You guys didn't have the professional looter with you. To direct the traffic. I'll be there next week and I'll get back to direct the looting.

  3. I think that it points something really great out. You know why we we were split up, alone, etc? because roll20 with dynamic lighting created a situation where we could just move our characters around, see what you see, and deal with the consequences.

    In talking with the DM post-game, there were a few things we considered. first I had a reaction shield spell I should have used. my bad. Secondly, I had initially declared my desire to ninja (stealth) my way through, which would have possibly afforded me surprise and an opportunity to retreat. I didn't re-declare it once I had met up with the party, and again, that's sloppy play on my part. I've always been a proponent of letting the dice fall where they may, I enjoyed the evening. Squirrels death definitely kicked up the games intensity up a notch or 3.

    I have to say again, I love the roll20 dynamic lighting. it's one of the first things that gaming on the computer has provided that exceeds standard play (around a real table).

    1. I agree -- and the dynamic lighting itself makes it even more important, IMO, to keep together and not go wandering off separately (without a darn good reason), because of the imperfect knowledge each individual has, and because it forces us to deal with the consequences (which is what it should do after all).

      That reminds me of an idea for another post though. Dynamic lighting not only gives you perceptual realism (you see what you see), but it also means we may need to think about going "old school" and map as we go. I started doing this in the last session -- by hand on graph paper -- because with the dynamic lighting on, you don't get to see areas of the map you previously visited on-screen. I found my hand-drawn map very helpful in terms of having a broader context for what's going on in the little patch of dungeon I can see. Though of course, there's no quick and easy way for me to share that hand-drawn map with the rest of the group during play, so for a group benefit in planning tactics and such, you'd really need everybody to draw his own map as we go.

    2. While Roll20 doesn't help, the Google Hangout we connect through is able to share images.

    3. Good point -- I didn't think of that!