Early adventuring can be a pain – with only 8 or so hit points at level one, a stiff breeze is as much a threat as a given monster, and players and GM’s (especially experienced ones, from my observations) overestimate how survivable a situation actually can be.
A number of solutions for character survival at early levels exist already. The most obvious fix is for a GM to roll their dice in secret, behind a screen or with some amount of privacy, and lie about the results, “fudging” the dice in favor of a more compelling story. While I appreciate the narrative control that this method offers the GM, I prefer to roll in the open and let the dice fall where they may.
Another common fix for early game survival is to hand out a large number of healing potions or other resources as loot while adventuring. The benefit of handing these out is that the players have the agency to decide when to use their healing options. However, in early games, players may not know when to use their healing options or may underestimate the danger presented in early-level adventuring. While there are spells and items which can raise the dead, your over-the-counter healing potions won’t work on a dead adventurer.
Finally, some GM’s will acknowledge that early-level adventures are especially lethal, and request that players have a backup character, either held in reserve for the next adventure or accompanying the current party. One of the benefits of this style is that a character can be eliminated and quickly replaced, giving a tone to your early quests similar to the pilot episode of a TV show. I’m not a particularly big fan of this method because it limits the tension in your story; it’s harder to form an attachment to a player character when you know there’s a 50/50 shot they’ll be replaced in the next adventure. Additionally, this method requires an extra character sheet per person and doubles the time invested in character creation, which can make the early game a bit of a drag.
The Defy Rule
My solution is fairly straightforward, and one that I haven’t seen done before. In short, when game rules dictate that a character would die, I offer the player a choice – they can die or Defy Death. A character who Defies will not die, but the player must permanently mark that they have done so on their character sheet, preferably next to the space for death saving throws. After Defying, a character is stabilized at 0 hit points.
Defying death is a harrowing experience. When a character Defies, they will take on a permanent consequence. While I would recommend that the GM issue a consequence appropriate to the scenario, it’s beyond the scope of this article to prescribe for every situation. Consider rolling on the Lingering Injury Table in the DMG if the character death occurred in combat. Alternatively, you may opt to have a character reduce two of their ability scores by 1 point or one of their ability scores by 2. As a GM, if you do so, you should not decide which ability scores to have a player reduce, as this will reduce a player’s agency when it comes to later decisions involving the character.
A character can only Defy death in this way once – even heroes’ luck has to run out, and this mechanic is not designed as a total replacement to character death, only a slightly less extreme consequence to introduce a player to the dangerous reality of adventuring.
When you’re GMing a game at low levels, it can be surprisingly easy to find your players at death’s door. Maybe a goblin or a kobold got a lucky cut in on your party’s wizard, maybe the cleric used their limited healing ability too quickly, or maybe a fighter overestimated how long they could stay standing in battle. Whatever the case, the Defy mechanic offers you an alternative tool to give your players consequences short of being lethal, leaving them a chance to still blossom into grander heroes later on in a campaign.