Time for a confession: I hate killing characters.
Truth be told, I get attached to the personas that explore my imaginary world and help to breathe life into what would otherwise be a lonely illusion. I root for them as they confront dangerous monsters or try to puzzle out a fiendish trap. After all, if they succeed, they earn experience, advance in level, and gain more power. That means I get to add even more neat stuff to my world and I get to play with new ideas and build more interesting sites for them to explore. Therefore, it’s in my best interests if the adventurers survive.
On the other hand, I’m not a big proponent of the “Everybody gets a trophy” school of thought either. Better minds than mine have argued that when everybody’s a winner, winning means nothing. That’s an attitude which I’m very much in agreement with. I’ve worked damn hard for the things I’m most proud of in life—which is the reason I’m so proud of them in the first place. Our recreational activities should be no different. There is really no point in playing if you’re assured victory because, for me at least, avoiding defeat is half the fun.
I’ve learned to balance these two facets of my personality by simply giving the players enough rope to hang themselves and then waiting to see what happens. This is exactly what happened last Sunday.
If you’ve read the recap, you’ll know that four members of the party died at the hands of fungal zombies when they delved into an undercroft beneath the temple complex. While I can’t say that I planned this, in the interest of full disclosure, I can’t say I’m surprised either. That room was purposely assembled as an object lesson and it did exactly what I hoped it would.
The primary purpose of that encounter was to serve as a litmus test to see how greedy and cocky the players and their characters could get. The answer was too much of both for their own good. Everyone seems to have forgotten the First Rule of Zombies: “They’re no sweat when there’s just a few, but if you let them overwhelm you, you’re screwed.”
The party had no trouble knocking them down when they were popping up in twos and threes. Before long, the entire chamber was crowded with zombie bodies. So many, in fact, that one of the players asked if I wanted him to start removing the knocked over miniatures from the grid map. He should have suspected something when I said, “No,” but that’s all part of getting comfortable with a new group: you have to learn what everyone’s capable of in their roles as players and referee. I bet the players will take notice in the future if I start leaving “dead” miniatures on the board.
When the zombies started springing back to “life”—first one half of them, then the other—the players started cracking jokes about staying down there and “grinding XP ‘til we hit 5th level.” That plan changed once the PC with an armor class of 1 got torn to pieces. Of course, by that time, the way to the single-file ladder that exited the chamber was blocked by a horde of toadstool-sprouting zombies. I hope that my second purpose for this set piece of an encounter was sinking in at that point: “Although boldness pays off in D&D, sometimes it’s best to quit while you’re up in chips—even if it means possibly leaving a bigger pot behind.” More of the PCs could have escaped if they hadn’t been so determined to make sure all the loot had been found.
Although not intended, I think it will be some time before we start splitting up the party again, even if it’s just “We’ll be in the next room.” The fact that half the party was upstairs when the zombies sprang back to life was bad news to those guys still down in the hole. However, this development did teach me a bit about the players and their characters. I learned who was brave enough to risk death (and in one case, find it) by rushing in to help their comrades-in-arms when it would have been easy to stay upstairs where it was safe. I’m always on the lookout for such selflessness and usually reward it on a later date in some manner.
I usually place one or two of these object lessons/set pieces in any dungeon I construct at the start of a campaign. This is especially true when I don’t know the players all that well and would like to learn more about their individual play styles and such, as well as showing them what kind of game they can expect from me as a referee. The fungal zombie room was one such encounter and I hope the players learned something from it. I know I did and I intend to use that knowledge to customize the campaign so that both myself and the players get as much enjoyment out of it as we can. I think such a noble aim is worth a few dead PCs at the start of the campaign. Hopefully everyone else will too.
Despite what some people might think, you don’t need to be playing some "new school" role-playing game that features drama points, constructed narratives, flashbacks, cut scenes, dice pools, etc. to both instruct and learn about the players. Sometimes a big room of fungus-covered zombies and a fistful of twenty-siders works just as well.