Death’s Door – Fun-Friendly Death Rules

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The D&D 5e Dungeon Master’s Guide offers rules changes to help create a grim-dark setting, but in many cases, these changes, in my experience, frustrate players and simply discourage them from picking certain classes, even when they were in the mood for a riskier setting with a darker tone.

This edition of the Arcana Check looks to the pulse-pounding indie title Darkest Dungeon for inspiration. In Red Hook’s grimdark phantasmagoria of horror, magic, and adrenaline, heroes are as expendable as torches, and battle to keep their light from being snuffed away up until their last gasp.

The mechanic for death works like this: a hero falls to 0 hit points, takes a significant debuff, but is otherwise okay. They’re not unconscious, and they can move as much as they want and take any action they normally could. But the next damage they take – even the next time they’re startled – is a save versus death. This time spent at 0 hit points – a status called Death’s Door – completely changes the dynamic of the game. With even one hit point, risky choices are the norm. But at death’s door, the fragility of the hero forces the player to
decide, all on their own, between changing tactics to try to save the hero, committing to the plan that brought them here, or even to retreating entirely. One of the results of this system is a reinforcement of the grim overtones in the depths of the Darkest Dungeon.

We’re going to look at a death system in this document that fuses Darkest Dungeon’s Spartan rules on death to the rules we’re already familiar with, preserving the race against time created by the traditional system of death saving throws, but also preserve the player’s autonomy right up to the moment their character passes through Death’s Door.

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