Removing Death from Dungeons & Dragons

Making a more family-friendly adventure.

As a parent, I can tell you that I find it more than a little disturbing listening to kids talk about how they killed some bad guy or evil monster with a gleam in their eye as they describe every gory detail of how they did it. Dungeons & Dragons can be a very violent game. The most recent iteration of the game, 5th edition, has done a lot to provide ways for characters to earn experience points and advance in levels without the need for combat and killing, but you may want to dial down the violence even more.

In a game session not too long ago, my youngest daughter was moved to tears at the thought of killing one of the monsters in a dungeon. She was truly upset by the idea. This was not her first game. She had been playing for over a year at that point, but she was upset that the monster was going to die because of her actions. I called for a break and sat down with her for a check-in.

My daughter explained that she didn’t see any reason to kill the monster. The characters were in the monster’s home and she was only trying to defend the part from the monster, not kill it. I reminded her that she could choose to use non-lethal attacks, which would subdue the monster without killing it. I also reminded her that monsters and NPCs get death saves, just like player characters. That meant that she could heal the monster so it would not die. Armed with that knowledge, she went back to the game, healed the monster and befriended it. A little roleplaying later, she had the monster guiding the party through the dungeon.

That encounter got me thinking about removing the death mechanic from the game entirely. After a lot of thought, I realized that death and killing don’t have to be part of the game.

Monsters Don't Die

A fundamental cornerstone of D&D is killing monsters. It is the fastest and easiest way for characters to collect experience points. But monsters don’t have to die for the characters to win and gain experience.

In your kid’s favorite cartoons, we don’t see the “bad guys” being killed. Team Rocket is launched into the sky yelling, “we’re blasting off again!” The evil monsters in Star Vs. The Forces of Evil retreat through a portal to their home. Swiper the Fox snaps his fingers, says “Awww man,” then scampers off leaving Dora to celebrate her victory. 

When a monster would normally die, have them say their catchphrase and exit the scene. When dealing with a group of monsters, combine their health into one pool and set a threshold where they will retreat or surrender. Maybe give your players the opportunity to tell you how the battle ends…

“The monster realizes that it can’t win this battle. It is defeated. How does the battle end?”

Characters Don't Die

Your kids are the stars of the show. They just can’t die. Spongebob never dies, Star never dies, Ash never dies, so why should your characters? But there has to be some consequence for taking all that damage in battle. Here are a few ways a battle can end when a character would normally die.

  • The character is teleported back to their home, losing some treasure in the process.
  • The character is knocked out and does not wake up until another character heals them.
  • The bad guys snatch the thing the party wanted or was there to protect and they teleport away.
  • The character is captured and is now a prisoner.
  • The character wakes up to find that the bad guys have made off with all their stuff.
  • The character is transformed into a small golden statue that must be taken to the local temple or quest giver to be returned to their original form.
  • The character is forced to retreat. You tell the player. “Your character realizes that they can’t win this battle. You retreat to find a place you can rest and regroup.”
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