You may not have thought about this. You may have already made up your mind. You might have a reason for how you feel about it. But here’s a conclusion that I came to from my research into roleplaying games other than Dungeons & Dragons.

I’m a fan of the Burning Wheel family of games… Burning Wheel, Burning Empires, Mouse Guard… in part because they have some interesting and innovative mechanics that make me think. I haven’t actually played one of them because players familiar with “traditional” games find some of these mechanics to be… let’s be brief and say “counter-intuitive.”

In Mouse Guard for example, the game wants players to know what to want from an encounter before they begin, because they can’t achieve the death of their opponent unless they mean to–likewise your mice can’t die unless such a thing is deemed possible from the outset.

Let’s be fair, there are lots of “new school” games with mechanics like this. “You can’t die unless death is part of the stakes.”

There are definitely at least two views on this: one which is that games that don’t allow for death are “wimpy” somehow, or that having death impossible without preparing the mechanics ahead of time is somehow “unrealistic.”

I want to be clear in saying ahead of time that I think both methods of play are equally valid. Death occurring randomly and meaninglessly during combat is a valid way to play; so is death being completely off the table unless it’s something the players want.

As to my own preferences over the years, I have drifted in and out of both views, starting with the “lighter and fluffier” option, and gradually and more consistently moving into the “darker and grittier” camp with age and experience.

Let’s be clear about something else. I disagree with both the idea that removing death from the equation is “wimpy” and “unrealistic.” My (brief) retort to both of these views is a) life is suffering and death is cheap, and b) the majority of people don’t deal with death on a daily basis (therefore it doesn’t make sense for most things to have hit points).

So, why do I prefer the darker and grittier approach? Because I enjoy horror.

Random (accidental) and meaningless death is a staple of the horror genre, which Dungeons & Dragons frequently (and freely) incorporates. The more I thought about it, the more it made sense to me.

Why play with sanity and madness effects? Insanity is a staple of the horror genre.

Why play with undead and eldritch abominations? Both monsters are staples of the horror genre.

Why play with falling damage and hidden or deadly traps? Random, unforeseeable, or accidental death.

Why play with injuries and permanent transformation/disfigurement? “Body horror” is a staple of the horror genre.

Why play with possession and mind control? Body horror, natch.

There are LOTS of horror tropes, and D&D borrows LIBERALLY from the horror genre for monsters and game mechanics. If you’ve been on the fence about whether death should be a regular occurrence in your game, I recommend considering the “genre” of your campaign.

I suspect that “death as a consequence of failure” has less to do with why many grognards play with random and meaningless death in their campaigns, and more to do with an appreciation or enjoyment (unconscious or otherwise) for the horror genre.