Player Unrest in the DnD 5E Campaign

Last night I ran my in person game, as I do every Tuesday night.  There was an undertone of unhappiness by one or two of the players displayed last night overall at the rules system that DnD provide and I saved a players character as he outright stated that he did not think he would make another character when this one died.  I do need to give some background to the unrest as the dynamic of how we run the game is partially to blame here.  So let me start with…

In the beginning…

Last night was our 220th game of my in person group.  I know this because I number each game that we play.  It was a mate of mine and my daughter that started this with 4th Edition DnD just before we moved into Pathfinder.  We played on Tuesday nights, and ever since have always played on Tuesday nights.  Sure we have moved it a little here and there because of life but whatever else happens, Tuesday is the main stream game.

upset dungeon
The dungeon in its entirety that the players were in

In time our band of two grew to three when my mates brother joined us and then the numbers began to go up and down as some people came and left.  Currently we have a game that includes five players and myself as GM.  There is my daughter, a couple of new friends from nearby on the coast, my mate and his brother.  There are issues with the way the game runs now however that impact on the way that I am able to plan for a game and this in turn reflects on the players raising and lowering the difficulty for them.

Last night (and the week before) one of the players has hurt his back at work and is laid out.  He will be out for a couple more weeks and so they are down a Paladin.  My mate that started it all with me so long ago organized to take his children to self defence class for bonding and the like but chose a class that operates on a Tuesday night.  That is his choice to make, of course, but it causes issues as he can not turn up before 8 and so only sits in on a portion of the game – in other words his character is there, then it is not, then it is, then it isn’t and so forth.  His character is a berserk barbarian and really does manage to swing battles.

I know that some of my readers are probably telling me to play Dungeon World (DW) and the like which would solve this issue of being able to plan, because there is little to no planning needed in DW.  The problem is that some of my players, while they like the new systems I run as a one off, prefer a D&D styled adventure.  They have that style game ingrained in them and they want to play D&D or Pathfinder for their long term game.  Which is their choice and I respect that.  I think we can all agree that I am probably a bit of a systems hobo as I fall in love with a new one every week.  But the other side with me is I love the planning that goes along with Pathfinder and D&D.

So the unrest came about because…

The Dungeon I have/had been running was the one I was talking about a few weeks back.  It is the first dungeon I designed using the random dungeon creator in the back of the DMG for D&D.  I designed it specifically because I knew my mate was coming back to the group (he had taken some time off after the birth of his new daughter) and I knew that he was lower level than the rest of the players.  I did not want to just say “Go up a couple of levels” so I dropped them in a dungeon that was catered by varying difficulty levels.  An initial section designed for quick injection of XP from many low-challenge critters, then on to an intermediate area where things would start to test them and finally a harder area with a big boss.

It was working very well BUT because his self defence class seems to have shifted an hour further forward he is missing half of the game and the rest of the players are becoming badly depleted because they are dealing with encounters that I can’t necessarily reorganize quickly and so he generally comes in just as they are all in a hopeless spot and helps clean up in experience and battle.  I do reduce difficulty where I can but there are just some situations where it is not possible.

This combined with the fact that the party tends to do one encounter and then want to take a long rest.  I took them to task over this last night.  I told them that it is not realistic that a group would move through a dungeon, one room at a time, sleep and then wake up the next day, do a room, sleep and so forth.  D&D makes the long rest a completely attractive idea and so we discussed the house rule that would replace full hit points.  I will discuss that in another post but the group agreed that it was not realistic and pushed on (which actually comes around to bite them.  I should have shut up and let them rest).

What actually happened…

Now the scene is set what happened was my daughter escaped a trap after a battle with a couple of devil worshiping priests.  The players were pretty banged up at this point and she made it over but then she decided to test the trap a second time.  The group at this stage were on the last leg of the dungeon and I estimated that the guy who goes to self defence class should arrive just after or just before they met the boss creature, an Oni.  This trap though was a shortcut to the final scene though as the Oni guards a teleportation portal (the way out) in a large chamber below them.  This is where the pit trap falls to.  So my daughter puts her weight on the closing pit trap and fails her save.  She falls 30 feet and collapse on the floor, even more wounded, in front of the Oni.

When that happened I thought “CRAP!”.  I knew that this was going to be the real possibility of a TPK.  If the Paladin was there or the barbarian, probably would be well balanced but the three players against the Oni was almost a guaranteed TPK.

OK, lets blur through a few things.  The Oni takes a couple of rounds to gloat and put the fear of hell into my daughter (reciting the poem in the monster manual to her while throwing up darkness, then invisibility).  I did this because it allowed my daughter to try and get herself ready and allowed for the other players to get to a point where they could get down the pit.  One of the players failed his climb roll right at the top and soaked up a fall in damage while the other climbed down.

The battle started and it was the creatures regeneration that was stymieing the threes attacks.  My daughter plays a barbarian and there was a sorcerer and a thief as well. The thief kept failing his hide rolls and the sorcerer was doing OK but just not rolling too much damage.  The Oni first stepped back and used Cone of Cold on the group, opening himself up for attack.  I thought by doing this I gave them a free opportunity attack to pile the damage on.  My plan worked, but then the sorcerer failed his save against the cone and the damage from it was just enough to perfectly sit the thief on 0 hit points and the sorcerer was comfortably under 0.  The barbarian started fighting what was statistically a winnable battle if she had more hit points.

Round one after they went down saw the two death throws come in: Sorcerer – success, Thief – fail.

Round two : Sorcerer – success, Thief – fail

Round three: Sorcerer – stabilises, Thief – fail

Round three also saw the other player arrive back from self defence class.  Sometime between round 2 and 3 I heard the thief’s player say “That is so unfair.  I don’t think I am going to make another character” and so I allowed the Dwarf Barbarian (the player who had just arrived, to get a potion in to the halfling before he passed away.

The battle almost got turned around too.  There was a point in the battle after the Dwarf arrived where it was statistically possible to have killed the Oni, but alas it was not to be.  They all, one at a time got beaten down and bound.

DnD Player's handbook cover
In the immortal words of Guns ‘n Roses “Where do we go now?”

In between me deciding what would happen to them the tension came to the surface.  The thief’s player was really unhappy with the random death saving throws.  He started to compare D&D to Pathfinder and how he believed Pathfinder was far more forgiving in this regard.  He lamented that he had poured his enthusiasm into this character who was so very close to fifth level and because death is handled by complete randomness (and he failed three in a row which is tough) that he just felt it was a massive discouragement.  he told the players then and there that it made him, if combat arose, just want to hide, watch the rest of them die and not get involved.

On the other side he pointed to Pathfinder where you lose a hit point a round, every round until you were negative your Con score before having a chance of dying.  And then there were feats that you could apply that made that even longer or gave you a grater chance of naturally stabilizing on a save making the investment in the character much more worth it.  Apart from the guy who just arrived there, who from his point of view just said get over it, the rest of the group were agreeing.  I find it hard to disagree with them though there are some provisos;

  1. There is the idea of negative hit points in Pathfinder and thus you may end up immediately over your Con in negatives or be sat one off it immediately; and
  2. the idea of an instantaneous death from massive damage is also in the mix.

I did advise the player that there was Raise Dead and the like available but he rightfully pointed out that it was not really an option at this stage.  I felt for him and the other players because I could see there point and there is not a great deal we can do to combat this.

So where to now?

I am not sure in reality.  After all, taking them prisoner and having them wake up naked in a door-less room with strangers seemed to pique their interest again and from the point of view of the narrative, though I was shooting from the hip, the adventure finished on a beautiful cliff hanger.  Do I just say to them, let’s go back to Pathfinder?  They said they would, once this game “finished”, return to it.  I told them though that I would keep building the campaign for them and they would have to decide.  It is a bit of a mess.

I know that I have been pretty negative about D&D and I worry that it may actually be that vibe coming from me to them that caused this disturbance.  The other thing is though, I have gotten over it.  I can put up with the crap I have to deal with in planning a game if it means we are coming together and having a good time together as a group.  After all, I have other games that I can draw the enjoyment in planning out with.  I do not really know where this is going to head, and I have another dungeon to make – so watch this space!


  1. I played PF for a few years (some characters, however we only reached level 17/18), and found it easier to get killed (despite con 18~20), since my DM often make NPC enemies that can deals tons of damage (often above 100), and we felt that ‘raise dead’ or ‘resurrection’ is just another healing spell. (or, if we win the initiative, it is a one-turn-kill, with damage from PCs around 200 is normal…).

    I think to give a fair assessment on the system, imagine in the case of using PF rules for above situation; will it give a different result? Assuming the same bad rolls etc, that is.

    Further, if the Oni really just want to capture them, the Oni can just treat their wound and they do not need the death saving throw. In case of the Oni want them dead, no matter the system, they are dead by now.

    Anyways, I am also assuming that the Oni is the normal challenge 7 Oni (2900 exp) from MM 5th ed, which is actually a deadly / impossible encounter for 4~5 level 4 characters, not including the traps.

    Point is, the objective question would be, was it because of the bad system, or the bad rolls?

    However, the important question would be, which is your group’s preference. I personally experienced a totally opposite result: PF is not forgiving (to PC and to Monsters), as excess damage can drop PCs to instant death (and on level 7+, many monsters can do that; that’s why we have raise dead etc at around that level).


    1. Thanks for the comments.

      The Oni was the normal one out of the MM but it was not expected to be met until they were close to 6th level – so a tough challenge but doable. The death saving throws came around because the Oni was still being attacked and therefore could not stop to stabilize the character mid battle. It did in fact stabilize one of the other characters when it thought that they were all down.

      I agree with you on the other side with Pathfinder, but we have played that for three years prior to this and no one has been upset at a death ruling on an unfairness perspective.


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