In reading through many gaming blogs recently, I’ve noticed two attitudes concerning PC death that I consider to be somewhat extreme: one largely represented by old school players and one largely represented by new school players.
Some old school players almost seem to take pride in killing off the PCs. When you read their session reports it’s as if they feel their job as a DM hasn’t been accomplished if they don’t somehow manage to achieve a near TPK. For them, the presence of monsters guaranteed to kill players or insta-death traps are a badge of honor which proves to their players and readers alike that they are card carrying Gygaxians. I was listening to an episode of the Roll For Initiative podcast recently in which they were discussing deadly traps. One of the hosts, Jayson (a more or less by the book kind of DM), asked another, Vince (a self described “evil DM”), about how he handles situations where his players cleverly figure out how to avoid a death trap he’d placed in a dungeon. Vince’s response? He just changes it on the fly to ensure it does what he’d originally intended. In addition to that being all too “railroady” for me I find the PC death philosophy behind it somewhat objectionable. Players aren’t there just to be killed off.
However, there’s another extreme in the new school which I find equally frustrating. This philosophy makes PC death almost impossible. Not only do new school rules typically allow a player to take much more damage before dying (with stat inflation, allowing them to go into negative hit points before real death, etc.) but DMs in the new school have become so accustomed to fudging rolls in favor of their players that death in the game is only something that applies to monsters or NPCs put into the party for just that purpose.
As far as I see it, there’s a happy medium here. I’m not there to kill the PCs but I will if they do something foolish or if the dice fall that way. That most commonly happens with low level PCs but it’s always a danger. Still, if I set out to get a TPK, I can. Every time. Even if it means fudging in favor of the monsters/dungeon. But let’s face it, that’s not fun for the players or the DMs (at least, not for me). Play the game, let the dice fall where they may, and let your goal be having a good time not being an “evil DM” out for your players’ blood.
By the same token, taking the threat of death out of encounters simply neuters the game. Adventuring is supposed to be dangerous. To a degree, casualties are going to happen without a DMs “help.” To consistently fudge the rolls in favor of the PCs is just as bad as consistently fudging them for the monsters. Let the polys fall where they may and let the players learn, through trial and error, through life and death, what they can and can’t do. I find that this style of play is much more enjoyable for everyone.
Still, it’s your game, play it as you will!