How to kill a 1st level character

The gnarled gnoll stood up, a twisted stave supporting his aged, hairy frame. “Quiet!” he roared. “I call this meeting of the Adventurer Flayer’s Guild to order! We face a new threat, and need new ways to defeat it. The surface dwelling heroes are braver, tougher and harder to kill than ever before. What,” he pointed to the gathered assortment of monsters, goblinoids and undead with the end of his staff, “are we going to do about it?”

There’s no doubt about it – 1st level characters in Fourth Edition D&D are tough. Even the traditionally weedy Wizard has more Hit Points than your average Third Edition 1st level Fighter, and probably the pecs to match. Must be a result of carrying that hefty Ritual Book around all the time.

The goal with this post isn’t to show just how wicked and confrontational a GM can be (honest), but instead to give you ideas how to make your players sweat so that they, in turn, have to up their game. Running a walkthrough adventure where the PCs complete it entirely unscathed is unsatisfying for both sides of the table. Up the evil and make ’em work for their XP! While I’m focusing on 1st level characters here, the advice should scale upwards as the heroes gain levels. If, of course, they survive that long.

By the rules, all characters begin with at least 10 plus their Constitution score in hit points, depending on their class. They also have a number of Healing Surges which serve to replenish this hit point total when they’re healed, use Second Wind, tie their shoe laces or stand somewhere in the rough vicinity of a passing Cleric. Ok, I’m exaggerating a tad, but the the thing is that a Hero’s Hit Points are just as likely to go up as well as down over time 1.

Even if you do get them down to 0 hp, the heroes are far from dead. They are on the floor crying like a little girl (ok they’re unconscious, though the former is a more pleasing mental image) but far from ready to meet their Maker. Unless they’re Warforged, in which case their Maker may well be another party member.

There are two ways to make a PC really dead:

1) Get them down to negative hit points equal to their bloodied value.
2) Fail three death saves.

Number one is the easy route. Target a single hero with all you’ve got for a few rounds, use your Lucky Dice (you know the ones) and you’ll have Hero Pate in no time. That’ll wipe the smile off the Fighter’s smug face. Mark my monsters will you? Want me to hit you instead of the rest of the party? Well ok, you asked for it. Don’t blame me.

Oh, sorry. I channelled my Evil DM side there for a moment. Ahem.

A cunning route to take is to isolate one of the party before you knock nine bells out of him. Have one PC fall down a Pit Trap for d10 damage onto a freakin’ Rat Swarm. That leaves them prone (+2 to be hit, but -2 to fight back) and it’s a move action next turn to stand up, but because their space is also occupied by the rats they need to Shift first and they’re still stuck in the pit with the swarm. Until they can get out of the trap they’re in the Rat’s Swarm Attack aura which is a 1d6+3 attack and 3 ongoing damage (DMG87 + PHB292 + MM219. Look it up.) at the start of the hero’s turn. Oh, and the Rat Swarm gets the same attack on it’s turn too. A couple of rounds of that and some good (I use the term “good” loosely) rolls and even your toughest hero will be begging the other players to put him out of his misery. Or pass down a rope.

It breaks down like this:

Round 1: Fall, d10 damage. Rats attack, d6+3 damage & 3 ongoing
Round 2: 3 plus Aura, d6+3 & another 3 ongoing. Rats attack, d6+3 & another 3 ongoing

That’s a potential of d10+3d6+12 damage and nine ongoing. Your 32hp Fighter is down to just 4 hit points with average damage, and at worst is at -8, unconscious and one more Aura attack away from being rat chow. The Rat Swarm has 36 hit points so it doesn’t matter much what the victim does to them – they’ll get him well before he gets them.

EDIT: As spotted by F1337 Command, ongoing damage of the same type doesn’t stack. I missed that, my bad. Make them flaming rats or add spikes as well.

I did that particular nastiness against my group and the already injured Warlord fell in. In a single round he was down to 2hp and the next Aura took him down to negative hit points, unconscious and lost in a sea of Rats. That’s one heck of an ignoble way to die. I was so proud.

Killing a PC by having them eaten alive by rats in a pit trap – go on, tell me that’s not old school :D

Close blasts and area attacks are good if you want to share the pain around, but if you want to really bring on the hurt it’s the single-foe attacks you need to use. They’re typically higher damage than their area effect counterparts, and to make sure they don’t miss remember that monsters can use Aid Another and Flanking rules too – and minions are great for this. Rather than rolling two attacks that are bound to miss your well-armoured high stat hero, position a minion opposite their none minion counterpart and roll Aid Another (DC10) instead. This gives the heavy hitting monster a total of +4 to hit (+2 from Combat Advantage gained from flanking, +2 from Aid Another). That’s worth far more than a paltry 4 or 5 points of damage and shows the players that Monsters Know Teamwork Too.

This only works if you’re using monsters who are likely to fight intelligently and co-operatively – or using Zombies, who are notorious for grabbing foes while the rest of their fellows eat braaaaaiiiiins. The Zombie Grab attack (MM274) is tailor made for this – +4 vs Reflex and you’re grabbed and at -5 to escape. That means you’re immobilized and it’s only a minor action to sustain the grab so the holding Zombie gets an attack his turn. Add another Zombie drawn by the captive victim standing opposite for Flanking Combat Advantage. And another two opposite each other, and another two…… soon, that poor victim could be surrounded by flesh-eating Zombie and be really wishing he had a chainsaw right now. Down he goes – unless the other PCs react quickly enough to help out while they still can.

The second way to kill a PC is for them to fail three death saving throws after they’ve hit zero hp or below. This involves the player rolling 1-9 three times on a d20 as their hero slowly fades toward death. They don’t have to be consecutive turns but if your hero rolls a 20 (or more) and have at least one healing surge left they can spend it to recover back to their surge value in hit points. Effectively they’ve been to death’s door, decided they don’t like what’s through it and returned with a strong will to survive. If they don’t have any surges left then as with if they roll 10-19, they’re still unconscious but no closer to death.

I have never seen this happen in play as it depends too much on an encounter continuing round-by-round long enough for the hero to slip away without help. It’s a rare and callous group who won’t do everything in their power to help a fallen comrade – unless they’re somehow prevented from doing so, of course. Again, divide and conquer is the key. Cages rising from the floor or terrain that requires an Athletics check to cross safely are both good ways of stopping or delaying the other players while the poor victim fades away.

In some ways hit points in 4e work more like adrenalin – they represent the heroes’ energy and strength of will to carry on as much as they do physical damage. As I’ve said before Healing Surges are the new Hit Points as these more truly represent raw bodily punishment. When those drop to zero, the PC is really in trouble! That means anything which reduces their number of remaining Surges brings them closer to death – and that includes Healing! Put it that way, and a Cleric is just as deadly as a Wight.2 Be over-eager to spend your Healing Surges during Short Rests or call on the Cleric’s services too much and you might end up being too short of them just when you need ’em.

After an Extended Rest the heroes regain all their Healing Surges and hit points and are back to fine fighting form. It might not be realistic, but it is movie-istic. Just like Van Damme, Stallone and Bruce Willis, after a good night’s sleep and a fresh pot o’coffee your heroes are ready to give and take all the punishment all over again, no matter how many cuts and bruises they’ve gained along the way. If the GM can interrupt their Extended Rest so they don’t gain the benefit of a great night’s sleep you’ve got them on the ropes already. The most evil cursed item a GM could bestow is one which gives the poor hero traumatic nightmares so they never get the sleep they so desperately need. Role-playing hooks that have a direct mechanical impact in the game? You bet!

They might survive 4 encounters without downtime, but how about 6, 8 or 10? Eventually, their lack of healing surges will take its toll.

Unless, of course, they’ve upped their game too……..

Good gaming!

  1. Your home is at risk if you do not keep up repayments, however
  2. Best to kill the Cleric before he kills you, I say. Just to be sure.

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16 Responses

  1. EltonJ says:

    Way 3:

    Use Arms Law from Rolemaster Fame.
    .-= EltonJ´s last blog ..What the Hey? =-.

  2. Maybe it’s just me but I’ve seen, and been many a dead 1st level PCs in 4e.

    4e pcs being unkillable is definitely a myth
    .-= Mike(aka kaeosdad)´s last blog ..The Hybrid Universe is now a part of the RPG Bloggers Network =-.

  3. wickedmurph says:

    I use “sandbox” encounters, which include waves of enemies in an area, who all respond to player actions. That way, I frequently have 4 or 5 encounters worth of monsters all engaging the PC’s, often without them being able to take breaks. To make it even more exciting, they often have a timed objective as well – rescue the prisoners, save the village, that sort of thing.

    I’ve never seen a party pick up their game as fast as these guys did, and most are new to 4e (although not to RPG’s – they’re my 20-year gaming group). Cranking up the challenge is a damn good way to get players to really work together.

  4. Elda King says:

    Another damn good way is giving the monsters a very random damage. Once I changed the damage of a monster (a brute) from 1d10+3 (average 8,5) to 2d8 (average 9) and reduced its bonus to hit. Balanced, I thought.
    Until it scored a critical hit against the Warlord in the first round of combat, just after it was hit by a trap – taking it down to 0 on the first round (surprise round, actually). The party not only was deprived of most of the healing, but needed to heal the warlord as well.

    And, about the Wizard, it may have a lot of hit points – but it’s the Warlock the HP devil. Using Con to make attacks means he’ll likely have a constitution score unmatched.

  5. deadmeat says:

    As a player (so far lvl 4) I’ve never felt the constraints of healing surges. I mean, in a single encounter as a group we can’t spend more that 2 healing words + everyone’s Second wind and even my lousy rogue has more that 3 surges. And we take an extended rest after almost any fight to replenish other daily powers that are essential to our survival. Essential as in “if we do not take extended rest our fighter can no longer take 110+ points of damage but only ~80”. And when the fighter goes down, it better be over in 2 rounds, or it will be over for ever.

  6. deadmeat says:

    And about those rats – I had that happen to me. 3 rounds inside rats while laying prone because of goblins with crossbows also shooting at me. Did it almost kill me? Sure thing. Was it fun? As fun as I-think-I-will-die-so-I-will-just-attack-something-not-that-my-actions-make-any-difference-now. If you want that for your players, go ahead.

  7. Neuroglyph says:

    I have to agree with several of the posters – 1st level PCs feel almost as fragile to me in 4e as they did in previous versions – they just take a couple extra attacks before going down in a bloody heap.

    Unless you throw only minions at your 1st level heroes, every monster out there is at least as tough and nasty as they are. Almost every combat I ran in my two 4e campaigns ended with 1-2 PCs making death saves by the end, and everyone bloodied.
    .-= Neuroglyph´s last blog ..Review ā€“ The Plane Below: Secrets of Elemental Chaos by Wizards of the Coast =-.

  8. greywulf says:

    @Elton Hmmmmmm. Integrating Arms Law with 4e D&D. Now, there’s a thought…….. :D

    @Mike A myth, indeed. That’s what I’m all about right now – bursting those silly stupid forum-bred myths about Fourth Edition D&D. A lot of folks will already know the truths, but there’s still an annoyingly sizeable number out there who Just Don’t Get It. They will, one day.

    @wickedmurph You bet! I love the idea of throwing waves of monsters at them to really make them sweat and up their game.

    @Elda I’ve found that too. Warlocks are tough (and incidentally my favourite class to play in 4e too!).

    @deadmeat Your GM lets you take an Extended Rest after every combat? Wow! No wonder you don’t feel any loss from Healing Surges. I’d put a stop to that kind of bevahiour right away. The minute your heroes step into a Dungeon you’re in enemy territory. That’s no place to bed down for the night after a little blood is spilled. Your GM needs a Serious Talking To, methinks.

    And watch out for the next part to this post where I turn things around and talk about How to Survive as a 1st level Character. Don’t quit when the going gets tough – fight smart!

    @Neuroglyph A quick question – does the difficulty level keep you on your toes and feel like your heroes are being challenged every step of the way? If the answer is yes, you have a great GM!

  9. EltonJ says:

    Hey don’t forget: Heat Critical Strikes, Cold Critical Strikes, Impact, and Electricity from Spell Law. They need to be in there too for fun and profit (and balance).
    .-= EltonJ´s last blog ..Writing a D&D Adventure is Easy! =-.

  10. by_the_sword says:

    4th edition 1st level characters take longer to kill but they are not necessarily hard to kill. That 20 HP wizard still has a crappy armor class and has to stand in the back and lob spells. Several kobold minions who hurl their javelins at him would pose quite a threat.

    Also, it is not necessary to beat a PC down to their ‘bloodied’ score as a negative integer Just get him below zero and then start working on the next party member. A monster who walks around during a raging fight trying to coup-de-grace helpless enemies will likely get himself dead in short order. Pay attention to the ones who can do damage.

    Standard soldiers often have as much hit points as the PC’s. A Kobold Dragonshield has 23 Hit points. I remember the look on the party’s faces when the dwarf paladin nailed his kobold opponent for 16 points of damage and the kobold shrugged it off. This ain’t your granddaddy’s D&D.

  11. drow says:

    wizard? crappy armor class? only if he’s neglected his Int. a 1st level wizard should have an AC of at least 13, possibly as much as 16, 18 vs. opportunity attacks. not too shabby, and not nearly as crappy as in previous editions.

  12. deadmeat says:

    @greywulf
    I would *love* to be able to take an extended rest after 3 fights and not 1. But there is no way we can do that when almost every fight damagewise takes us *beyond* TPK and only our daily healing keaps us floating. An alternative would be for DM to go easy on the encounters. And that is not going to happen any time soon.

  13. greywulf says:

    @deadmeat Here’s hoping this post helps you out then.

  14. @deadmeat You take an extended rest after almost every fight?! My players stopped trying that after I taught them a nice lesson about why you can’t take a nice 8 hour nap in a dungeon :)

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