Friday, July 24, 2015

How Should a DM Handle Character Death?

One of the hottest topics in RPG discussions is the death of PC's. How should a GM handle character deaths in a way that makes the game enjoyable? Let's look at the pros and cons of PC deaths:


  • The most obvious reason death must be a part of a game is that it's in the rules. Hit Points serve a specific purpose: to measure how close a character is to death.
  • You don't have a game without risk of failure. In player-vs-player board games like Monopoly, the object is to keep from going broke and sitting out the remainder of the session. RPG's usually aren't PvP, but there still needs to be an element of danger or else the experience could be dull. Why bother with strategy and tactics if you can't get killed?
  • The threat of death contributes to an atmosphere of fairness and realism. Bad guys can die, so why not good guys?
  • A GM who fudges rolls to avoid killing players gives the impression that he is not an impartial adjudicator of the rules.


  • Sudden, unexpected, or early death can be gratuitous in the context of a story. The words "role-playing" in "role playing games" are key to the experience; without a compelling narrative, characters' roles within a story don't seem relevant. They might as well be a few of dozens in a large-scale miniatures war game. Where in any other media, like film or novels, do you see main characters dying at seemingly random moments, without their deaths contributing to the cause-and-effect component of the storyline?
  • The death of a PC can spoil the fun for your players. Usually, a good deal of time is spent creating a character, not just rolling up stats but drafting a personal backstory. Add that to the hours of play before a character dies. It seems futile to put so much effort into a character just to watch them perish.
  • PC deaths can slow a game down, or even break it up. If you allow a player to roll up a replacement on the spot, your session grinds to a halt. If there are no backup characters for a player to use, she might as well go home.
  • A GM who plays by a "let the dice fall where they may" rule gives the impression that he is indifferent to the players' desire to enjoy themselves.
Basically, on one hand, you have rules for a reason; without rules, there is no game, just make-believe. But on the other hand, there is "The Rule of Fun."

I believe that fun can be had even with short-term losses. Otherwise, the gambling industry wouldn't exist. So as GM's, how can we reconcile our desire to manage a fair campaign with our desire avoid losing our players' interest?

A Google search led me to a discussion of the topic at the DnD subreddit. Here are some of their ideas for handling PC death, each followed by my opinion:
"As a DM I allow a Divine Intervention from their God if they beat me in % roll. If they win they are at 1 health. If they lose, then they die."
This is a deus ex machina, which I generally consider a no-no in storytelling. Unexpected intervention from an entity not connected with the story is a cop-out.
"I wrote a 3 month long campaign where they toppled many challenges and discovered the "Imortalis Pits." It works just as the Lazarus Pits work for Ra's Al Ghul in Batman. So if one of them were to die the others can take the body of the fallen and return to the Imortalis Pits to revive them at the cost of their magical items and gear. However I only allow 2 uses of the pit, after that the body and soul of the deceased begins to wither. That way death is still a very real threat but wont be the end for the players who die."
This is better than the first suggestion, because it contains an object that players are aware of from the start of the campaign. I personally don't like the video gamey feel of it; it reminds me of resurrection stones and the like from online MMORPG's. Even in a world of magic, some "rules of life" should be followed, one of which is that in a dangerous environment it is easy to die, and resurrection should be very expensive.
"I essentially give each player one extra life (they do no know this) if they were in a situation where they would die the first time I fudge the roll once and only once. Next time they die." 
I like this idea even more, and it reminds me of the (convoluted and in need of revision) Fudge Points system I devised a while back. There is a bit of a catch-22, however: I believe rules should generally be made known to players, in order to preserve the bond of trust between players and GM. But if players know their characters have two lives, they may base important decisions on this knowledge, which undermines the accuracy of their portrayal of their characters.

Here is the best response I read:
"One thing I think should be mentioned about character death, is asking yourself how it contributes to or influences the story. While I'm not against players dying in combat, it is a waste if it's a fight that has no plot implications, and is mostly there to give an environmental sense of danger."
This is in perfect alignment with what I consider to be the golden rule of RPG's:

Role-playing gaming is collaborative storytelling.

Everything that happens in the game is part of a story, and most details of a story serve to move the plot forward or aid in character development. Any details that don't do either still have a purpose, like enhancing the mood or providing comic relief.

This means that a character death without purpose is to be avoided. However, that doesn't mean we should avoid death. It means that we should make death purposeful. Even the seemingly sadistic George R.R. Martin doesn't just erase major characters from his stories with no follow-up or consequences.

When handled well, a PC death can inspire players, not disappoint them. Here are just a few ideas I have for making deaths purposeful:

  • "We've taken this too far." A villain responsible for the death, either directly or indirectly, realizes that his actions will have bad repercussions. Perhaps he was supposed to bring the character to his boss alive, and now will seek protection from the remaining party members, in exchange for assistance in the foiling of his organization's scheme.
  • "I shall avenge you!" An NPC, maybe a henchman, who has become close to the PC wishes to complete the deceased's quest and bring justice to the murderer. The NPC's stats can be incorporated into a full-blown character sheet, and the player gets to keep playing through the session.
  • "Take this to ___. He'll know what to do." With her dying words, the character asks that the others bring a message or an item to someone who has been important in her life, like an estranged family member, a fellow guild member, or a former adventuring partner. The significance of the item or message leads to a new story arc. This one takes some foresight. Crafting this hook gives a player assurance that, should their character perish, their death will be significant.
One other option: Wing it. If your story has been flowing well up to the point of a character's death, recent events in the story could give a GM ideas for weaving a character death seamlessly into the plot. 

Whatever you do, just don't drop the character and move on without treating the incident respectfully. Early in my GM'ing days, I remember two cases in which I did just that: In the first, I was running the Ruins of Andril scenario from Dragon magazine. The party's thief tried on a Necklace of Strangulation, failed a save, and died instantly. My response to the player's shock was basically, "That's what would have happened. Should have come up with a safe way of testing it." Then the party continued, presumably leaving his body where it fell. In the next case, I was running the Sprechenhaltestelle module that came with the Top Secret box set. The same player who earlier lost his thief in the Ruins of Andril saw his character die suddenly yet again, this time from a punctured lung caused by a bullet wound. For days, in passing my friend would mutter with exasperation, "Pfft, 'punctured lung'." He never played in one of my games again.

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