Beneath the Raven’s Wing

Beneath the Raven’s Wing

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This post is part of the Blog Carnival started by ThadeousC about the presence of overpowered encounters. (See carnival blogroll below).  The rules of the carnival are thus:

  1. Your post must be on topic.
  2. The first person in the list of bloggers who are participating who replies to each post will be responsible for writing the next piece. (Don’t reply if you are not ready to write it with in the next 24 hours.)
  3. You must ad a link to all of the previous authors carnival posts at the end of your post.
  4. No name calling.

“So listen well all you who would the beaten path forsake
for Kier the Tireless, the Scythe, he follows in your wake.
And carries out the Queen’s commands with Death’s most awful sting
for those who, having giv’n their all, lie ‘neath the Raven’s Wing.”

This final stanza of the Song of Kier is well known to many adventurers.  It is a semi-historical fable about a bounty hunter so proficient at his task that, upon his death, is commissioned by the Raven Queen herself to go out and cull the weak from among those who make violence a way of life.  The Song is often used by worried parents, lovers and friends to try to convince would-be heroes from going out and getting themselves hurt.. or worse.

Is Kier a marauding killer, delivering unnecessary judgement at random or a merciful assassin, protecting stupid adventurers from fates worse than death?  Is he even real at all?  What does this have to do with the blog carnival?

Kier’s fate is for you, the DM, to decide for your campaign but the way he functions sets up an excellent method for dealing with what has become the main thrust of this carnival – whether to let characters wander into situations far too difficult for them or not.   This article creates a new quasi-status, “Under the Raven’s Wing,” to qualify what can often be a tenuous or unspoken social contract about when and how characters die.  Game mechanics are our #1 export here at At-Will and this situation is no different.

The idea is inspired by Ryan Stoughton’s Death Flag mechanic from his pdf  ’Raising the Stakes’ d20 hack, which I will leave to you to read for yourself.  In our version, we are simply going to count Action Points.

Even in core 4E, Action Points are representative of a certain amount of heroics on the part of the PCs.  With HP and healing surges, they represent the morale and spirit that the PCs call upon to aid their success.  When that spirit is depleted, the character is “Under the Raven’s Wing”, weak, ripe for being carried off to the next life by the Raven Queen and her agents.

Mechanically speaking, this means that so long as a character has at least one AP, they can not die.  He (or she) can be knocked out, incapacitated, beat to a pulp, captured or otherwise smacked around, but not killed.  In combat, a character who fails three death saves is out of the fight permanently, but may spend healing surges as normal afterward.  Spending that final AP, though, is a signal to the DM – “I am prepared to die for this.”  The character is now in the Raven Queen’s sights and may not see the sun tomorrow morning.  If the character drops to 0HP with no AP, it’s over – no saves.  That’s the choice you made and you must abide by it.

So why tie lethality to Action Points?  Why not just designate ‘lethal’ and ‘nonlethal’ combat with no further mechanical entanglement?  First, it adds drama.  Knowing you may die in this fight isn’t quite as scary when you roll initiative as it is when you need that one more move action to avoid being on the business end of a big, spiky warhammer and you make the conscious decision to take that risk.  Second, a mechanic diminishes confusion and guilt.  Was this a lethal fight or not?  Did we state this already?  Doesn’t matter – just count Action Points.  A DM has no reason to feel bad about PC death with this mechanic in place since the player has stated in no uncertain terms beforehand whether he or she is prepared to face character death over the stakes of the fight.  Finally, it allows the DM to hand out more AP as rewards for minor quests and encourages the PCs to push forward through more milestones so they can do those heroic actions without putting themselves in danger of mortality.

No matter what opinion you may have on character death, it’s hard to argue that 4E is designed to keep PCs alive longer than previous editions.  It’s certainly not safe as almost all of us have had 4E characters killed, but the system is clearly written to promote the telling of a preplanned heroic tale, not simulate the danger (and stupidity) of fighting 40′ dragons with a 3′ sword.  For those who like that earlier style of play,where the world moves on and develops heedless of the PC’s actions or power, this small tweak to the core rules provides the best of both worlds – the opportunity for permanent, sudden death within a framework that encourages drama and acknowledges the desires of the player for their character.

Previous posts in this Carnival:

Never Fear: Sandbox vs. Safety Rails by ThadeousC
Taking the Safety Padding Away from D&D4E by WolfSamurai
Sandbox vs. Safety Rails by Obsidian Crane
Safety Padding or Just an Illusion by dkarr
D&D: Sandbox vs. Safety Rails by Adam Dray
Know When to Fold’em by Tracy H.
Sandbox vs. Safety Rails: A Mini Blog Carnival by Deadorcs
Blog Carnival: Deliberately Overpowered Encounters by Brian Engard
As the World Scales by NewbieDM
Overpowered Sandboxes and Just-Right Rails by DM Samuel
Setting The PCs Up to Fail by the Angry DM
Sandbox v Safety Rails by Colmarr
Unwinnable Encounters by Azaroth

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About the Author

Ryven Cedrylle was introduced to 2nd edition D&D by his father at age 8 and has been hooked ever since. When not out somewhere with his nerd-loving wife, he spends an inordinate amount of time staring at small objects - primarily beakers, stars, books about religion and virtual gaming miniatures. Follow him on Twitter for previews of upcoming material and random nuggets of wit! There's also a guy Ryven knows who's trying to adopt a baby. Take a look at the site, see if you can help him out.