The Death of a Player Character

Character death is often a little difficult – both for players and for game masters (GMs). It’s tough for players because they’ve invested time, thought, care, and energy into their characters. Perhaps they’ve gotten attached to their characters over time and don’t want to see them casually killed.

The GM, for his part, is torn between options. He doesn’t want to never kill off player characters (PCs) – otherwise the game might feel less tense and flexible, as though there’s less at stake (this, like many things, depends on your individual gaming group). If the GM has to go out of his way to save the PCs all the time it can leave the players feeling as though they have nothing to lose. I’ve seen it happen before – players stop caring about the game as much, because it becomes clear that no matter what they do they’ll win. They start taking pointless risks in the game, because they know the GM will save their characters.

It doesn’t help that in order to keep characters alive the GM often has to do some pretty obvious tinkering with the game. This kind of fudging can upset all sorts of things like game balance, plots, and players.

On the other hand, the GM worries about killing off PCs. What if it depresses or offends a player somehow? What if a player thinks the manner of death was unfair? What if it leaves a player feeling like it isn’t worth putting effort into creating interesting characters because they’ll just get killed off?

I don’t claim to have all the answers – for one thing, the personalities of the individual GM and players involved have a particularly strong impact on this dilemma. In addition, lots of gaming groups just like to do things differently, and that’s great. But I do have a few ideas that might make character death a little easier to handle. Pick and choose the ones that seem right for your group, and enjoy!

Mucking With Death

Last words

In the movies death can be a drawn out process, and that’s part of what makes it so tragic and dramatic. The fact that healing of one sort or another is so often available in roleplaying games tends to leave GMs and game systems with only one choice: a sudden death, or no death at all. Instead, institute a system whereby a character can hit a “point of no return” – i.e., they can’t be healed – but they aren’t actually dead yet, and can at least stick around long enough to get in a few last words. This lets you make character deaths more dramatic and memorable.

Be dramatic

Make your fight scenes (and other dangers) dramatic! Don’t let combat boil down to simple die rolls and damage. Describe injuries and failed shots or fumbles. Use details! That way, if someone ends up dying, it’ll be an event to remember.

Character deaths that are dramatic and memorable can take away a lot of the sting of the event. They give players stories to tell each other, fond memories of dramatic last stands, and so on. Since character death can come at any time if you use combats in your games, make every combat and danger at least a little dramatic.

If for some reason you don’t want to make all combats that dramatic, then find a way to keep track of how close the PCs get to death. Some GMs use visible “tokens,” like board game tokens, pennies, beads or candy pieces, to represent hit points, health levels, or whatever your game uses. Alternatively, encourage your players to let you know how many hit points or health levels they have left at key points during a combat. If you can tell when your PCs are low on hit points then you have a better idea of when you should ratchet up the drama and tension levels.

Be relevant

Try to make sure that not all character deaths are random or irrelevant to the plot. You can’t help the fact that unexpected character death does happen now and then if you use combat in your games. However, a character death that’s the pinnacle of a tense, personalized plot can be much more entertaining (and, like the dramatic death, will probably feel like less of a let-down). Being able to talk about your character who died valiantly at the hands of his arch-enemy can relieve a lot of the disappointment of losing the character.

This doesn’t mean that you should script character deaths – it just means that you might want to make the more plot-relevant parts of your game the more dangerous parts. Keep random encounters to a slightly less dangerous level.

Don’t be consistent…

……With the death rate, that is. I’m going to take a brief side-trip into psychology for a moment. There’s a concept in psychology called a “reinforcement schedule.” Overly simplified, this is how often you reinforce a behavior that you do or don’t want to see in an animal or person. Oddly, psychologists have found that an intermittent reinforcement schedule works best. This means that whatever reward or punishment you give, it shouldn’t be entirely consistent. If you want a mouse to push on a bar for food, you don’t want to consistently give it food every time it pushes the bar. If you reward it only intermittently then it’ll push the bar more. (Weird, huh?)

Don’t consistently kill off characters after only a short or long time. If you want your players to feel that it’s worth putting time and effort into creating interesting characters, then make sure that sometimes they get to play those characters for a while. Make sure that once in a while they get to build their characters up to powerful levels. If you want people to be accepting of the idea that their characters might die at any time, then don’t always let those characters live into old age.*

You can still run a relatively high-death or low-death game. Just make sure there’s a little variation involved.

Let players try to save their characters

*I’m NOT suggesting that you script PC death or survival, without thought to whether the player is clever or does something that should get her character in trouble. What I’m referring to is the general danger-level of your campaign world – the toughness of the monsters, the viciousness of the populace, the frequency of combat, the number of dangers involved in the plots, and so on.

In general, you shouldn’t script character death. You should always give players the chance to save their characters – even if it’s a very small chance! If players feel that their characters’ deaths are inevitable and GM-mandated, and that they have no chance to do anything about it, they’re more likely to be frustrated with the event.

There are exceptions to everything, of course. For example, sometimes a GM will work to set up a dramatic death if a player wants to remove her character from the game for some reason. Usually this is done with the player’s consent and knowledge, however

Dead characters don’t just vanish

Don’t erase dead characters as though they never existed. Have NPCs speak fondly of them, or let their infamy come back to haunt the party. Make sure that dead PCs have an impact on the world. Think of ways in which their presence or passing might have affected the people around them, and find a way to work that into the campaign.

It can be a real kick for a player whose character has died to see the ways in which that character continues to affect the game world. It can give him the sense that the character isn’t just gone – it has a real “life” to it.

A moment of silence

It can be tough on a player who was attached to his character to watch the game go on for the rest of the night as though nothing out of the ordinary has happened. There are various ways to deal with this depending on your group’s preferences:

  1. If the rest of the party seems inclined to talk about the death or otherwise give a sort of “memorial” in-game, then just sit back and let them do it.
  2. Call a halt to the game for the evening. Sit around and talk about the character and the great times he had with the party – amusing stories from the game, amazing things he’d done, etc.
  3. Develop a tradition of going out to dinner, watching a movie, or otherwise having a sort of “memorial celebration” for dead characters.
  4. Take the player aside later and give him some idea of what will happen with his dead character’s personal plots or NPC friends after he’s dead, so that he can get a sense of how his character affected the world. Give him some input into the matter if you feel comfortable with that.

Not everyone needs this sort of break – every gaming group is different. Some people aren’t bothered by their characters’ deaths and that’s fine! Just pay attention to your players and see what they want.

Run more than one campaign

If you have more than one campaign going at a time, your players will have another character that they enjoy to fall back on playing. This doesn’t mean that you somehow have to keep two weekly gaming runs going. We have a primary gaming run, for example, and then we occasionally have either a short-term or a less frequent but longer-term run going on at the same time. Your players might have a second set of characters that they occasionally dust off for one-night games, for example. (A second campaign going on might also give you a chance to relax and let someone else take on the GM’s mantle temporarily, too.)

Give fair warning

Before you start your campaign (or now, if you never did this before), sit down with your players and talk about character death. Make sure they understand that it’s a possibility, and give them some idea of whether you expect it to be a high-death or low-death game. (Preferably do this before character creation so your players have some idea of the amount of effort it’s worth putting into their characters.)

If they have strong feelings on the subject then listen to them, and be willing to work with their preferences. If it turns out that your players love a dangerous game then you might consider upping the danger level. If you find that your players like the continuity of plots that comes from long-running characters, then you might slow things down a little (or you might find ways to up the tension that don’t involve a higher death rate).

Different groups and players react very differently to character death. To some it just doesn’t matter – you roll up a new character and move on as though nothing happened. Others would like a little time to make the transition. Get a good sense for what your players like (oops, I’m back to my communication soapbox again!) and adapt your game to suit them.

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