The Heroes of 4E

When it comes to heroes, I can’t help but think of the heroes that braved the waters of 4E D&D when it was first released. None of us knew how to make broken characters. Everyone was enthusiastic. It was an exciting time for roleplaying. Friends were coming out of the woodwork that we hadn’t seen in years. We were anything but Heroes, but all the enthusiasm and the lack of power gaming made for an amazing campaign. I still remember a moment that will live on forever as Most Memorable Character Death.

Every character was suboptimal, but one example pretty much sums it up: an eladrin warlord named Shax. Sure, you might imagine that this PC might not be too bad, but my buddy chose to make him an “Inspiring Warlord” instead of a Tactical one (charisma over intelligence). Match this with a mediocre strength (14) – and you would be betting right that things were looking a little grim for Shax. But who knew? My friend was so proud of his new creation. See this paragon of awesome warlordy power! See this flashing bolt of inspiring awe! Within two sessions – Shax was dead, but it was awesome fun for another character could be drawn up and we could try again to learn the secrets of 4E character design.

I also remember this standard, “cardboard” human paladin another buddy of mine whipped up for the game; no one expected him to meet his end so quickly either.

The party was reaching the climax of our introductory campaign and the final encounter was upon them. Deep in the lower chambers of an old temple they had finally cornered the leader of the assassin’s guild, a halfling rogue (how original of me!). But—I was having so much fun with this new 4E system—I had also placed a swinging scythe pendulum trap between the Rogue and the entrance where the PCs had come in. That trap was swung over a stone bridge that spanned a pool of bubbling lava; a crack into the plane of fire. Yes, that’s right, a lava pit at 3rd level—I really was a bastard. The fact that after a couple of years, I still remember the encounter speaks to its success.

I was so cruel to them. The fight started with all the players rushing across the stone bridge as fast as they could and just barely dodging the swinging trap or just barely resisting the push effect that would have knocked them into the lava. The assassin leader shifted, dodged, and ran back across the bridge to where the PCs had just come from. He did not do this only to be cruel (and force the players back across the trap), but also to go after the lone PC that remained near the entrance: the party’s wizard who had planned on blasting him from a distance.

So there were the players, muttering about having to cross the treacherous bridge a second time. They were all muttering except for our wonderful lawful good human paladin. Why waste time? The paladin, turned and courageously charged back across the bridge to save the wizard. He gave all his companions the briefest boost to morale. His only position to engage the rogue was while still standing on the bridge in one of the trapped squares. The first turn everyone gasped as he was barely missed by the swinging trap. Everyone started to cheer, this guy’s decisions always got his characters into trouble, and here he was again, doing just that.

The next turn proved to be the end though – with the right rolls, the pendulum trap knocked the paladin off of the bridge in a flash. SPLASH! Roast Paladin. In a lava pit. The other players sat slack-jawed in horror as the paladin and (more importantly!) all his gear were turned to molten slag. Fortunately, after another tumble or two – the party caught up with rogue and got their revenge. They survived the fight in the end, but we never did see anymore eladrin warlords or cardboard paladins for a long time afterwards.

My friends and I still laugh about that day, it is one of the moments that we fondly remember. It’s funny, maybe we just have a nasty sense of humor, but almost all of the stories that we talk about and remember are the ones where characters died.

Is that true for everyone? Are the best games the ones where the heroes meet some bittersweet death?

This post is part of the December RPG Blog Carnival: “We Could Be Heroes…” hosted by Casting Shadows. Visit the host and check out the other blogs that have contributed to the carnival!

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About David Phillips

While not working as a Security Analyst in the Washington DC metro area, David Phillips enjoys a life-long love of sci-fi, fantasy, role-playing games, and a great many other nerdy things that he explores through writing and games. David has authored dozens of gaming handbooks for a variety of LARPs and regularly writes board game reviews at He is an avid board gamer and playtester of games prior for being released, most recently for the Lord of the Rings LCG. You can find David and his reviews of games online at You can also follow him on twitter @DigitalCulture0. You can also find him on countless websites(reddit, stumbleupon) and forums as DigitalCulture.

4 thoughts on “The Heroes of 4E

  1. Character deaths are always a thing to remember foot a long time. All the effort you put into the hero and all the fun you had with him… It all endSV with one loud bang. I think it’s the most emotional moment of the character’s life. That’s why we remember his death most.

  2. Thanks for participating in this month’s carnival~

    Sometimes, it certainly does seem like an essential element of any hero is their end. I’m glad you raised the question, and wish there were more time in the Carnival’s run for others to offer answers.
    In my groups, I would say it wasn’t so much how they died that drew attention, it was the why – or for whom.

  3. @Jan: Yes, character deaths are often the things that we remember for years after the campaigns are over. Sometimes they are moments of frustration that we can now just laugh about, others are memories of moments of ultimate fun from the past.

    @Runeslinger: I was happy to have the chance to share some of my gaming experiences. I hope to continue to do so.

  4. I always build my characters around a personality quirk (preferably a flaw) rather than around a class/race combination. This creates notoriously underpowered characters, who often make matters worse with their eccentric behavior. Sometimes this annoys other players at the table, but even those players tend to look back at the session and say, “Damn, that was amusing.”

    As for character death, some players can’t handle it. They feel a sense of either failure or betrayal. That is, either they failed to accomplish their mission, or the DM unfairly railroaded them with a challenge too great for them to handle. While not all gamers think this way, those that do aren’t going to change their ways anytime soon. Personally, I have no problem with character death, even if not particularly heroic, as I always say, “It’s just a game. Let it play out and just enjoy *playing* the game.” Again, not everyone thinks that way either.

    In any case, I thought this was a good article. It reminded me of Frylock, the half-elf 3.5e warmage/rogue. He was my first D&D character in 24 years (I took a long time off from gaming). He was incredibly fun to play and spent many a round in the belly of a Behir, Purple Worm, and other huge creatures. Nevertheless, he always came out alive … until he was disintegrated in an LG mod that revisited the Tomb of Horrors. His death saved the group, so it was a memorable finish to his adventuring. Still, people loved the arrogant prick, so I let him be reincarnated. He died in the very next adventure. I took that as a hint and never brought him back again. Depending on how it’s handled, character death can be the epitome of heroism. I’ll never understand why people feel bad about it.

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