I've been reading Jeff Rients' tales of PCs past and their rousing adventures, and something odd occurred to me: I've never had a character die. (Properly, in influencable circumstances, I mean. I've been victim of "rocks fall, everyone dies," but I don't know that quite counts.)
And I've had precious few character deaths on the other side of the screen. Three characters died in the "Desert Campaign," the most combat heavy game I ever ran, and the only one that had anything approaching a dungeon crawl. A couple died in the Gnome Town game I ran, but that was exclusively PC-on-PC violence.
In other campaigns, I had the occasional close call, but I always fudged it. Once I got a guy ressurected by the main villain of the piece (long story, it almost made sense at the time) and once I took the more convential route of "misremembering" how the dice came out.
Part of me feels bad about those incidents--lack of character, or something. Part of me thinks it worked for the campaigns. The way I tend to run games, I get very interested in the characters, and what they're going to do, and the history they're building for themselves. When I'm in the moment, running those kinds of games, even if I've said to myself beforehand that I'm going to let the dice fall where they may, killing them just seems like a waste of time.
On the other hand, fudging at the last minute probably isn't the best solution. But it always worked out alright. Those campaigns went fairly well, everyone mostly ended up having fun.
But the "Desert Campaign" was pretty fun, too. When people weren't arguing with me, or complaining that I wouldn't let them play a half-illithid whatever, anyway. But it had a different sort of style to it. We played at lunch, and it was mostly guys who liked building characters, killing things, and taking their stuff, in roughly that order. I flailed around a bit at the beginning, but once I figured out that what they reall wanted was to kick in the door and have a fight every day, things started to go pretty smoothly.
I was a lot less focused on story -- that is, what had happened before in the campaign, and what was going on outside the characters, and what might happen next if they didn't get involved -- and a lot more focused on what was going on in the fight of the day, and prepping the dungeon so I'd be ready for the next day.
Because I didn't particularly care about what the characters had done, or were going to do--they were interesting enough, on an individual level, but the the guy the player came up with next would be, too--I was a lot more comfortable really dropping the hammer on them. I even used a death ray on one of them.
It was fun. The players liked the fights, and the occasionally liked rolling up new characters, and not taking things too seriously. I had one guy who liked arguing, another who liked making just-barely-almost-broken characters, and another who liked playing the weirdest things he could find, but I handled it.
I liked the change of pace from my usual games, and actually getting to use the random monster and treasure tables in the Dungeon Master's Guide, for once. And I liked building the dungeon. The dungeon--which was, in the game, a tower, but in practice it was a dungeon--wasn't particularly good. It wasn't much more than a bunch of rooms filled with monsters and treasure. Very little in the way of traps, description, puzzles, or interaction amongst its inhabitants.
It did have a couple of virtues. It was extremely non-linear. Any place you could get to, you could get to in a couple of different ways. Which was good, because the players could still get to the stairs after they decided that the black dragon, and later the basilisk, just weren't worth messing with.
I think, if I'd continued to run that dungeon, or something like it, that I might have eventually worked out the finer points of dungeon design. But they finished it, killed the sorcerer at the top of the tower, and a short time later the campaign went on permanent hiatus, in favor of a campaign by the guy who liked to argue that ended pretty quickly, too.
It was fun while it lasted. I some important things from that game, even if, at the time, it was a source of serious frustration for me, and it didn't end quite how I would have liked.
I'm thinking about running my summer campaign along similar lines. Improve my dungeon design, because I know a lot more theory than I did then, that I'd like to put into practice. And maybe get more comfortable with PC death, so I don't back down from it as much even in games where specific characters are more important to the players, and to me. I'll have a good mix of players for that style, and it'd be good to test how well 4e can handle it.