How do you handle death in your RPGs?
- Without risk there is no game, but risk should make narrative sense
- Let characters grieve, don’t revisit and don’t correct or blame
- D&D resurrection is a necessary evil
Tastes on how to handle this vary. Some GMs are almost proud of a TPK while others never kill a single player. I sit somewhere in the middle: for me RPGs are a game, a form of entertainment and an exercise in shared story telling. With this combination I feel the level of risk in play should match where we are in the story.
In general though there are exceptions: early encounters in my adventures are designed to advance the plot, revealing a big threat, while later ones reduce resources and put the characters at risk.
Imagine a group of renowned heroes, lauded far and wide for their mighty magics and glorious feats of arms (aka level 16). They approach a small town and are called upon to clear the undead infestation at the abandoned church. Everyone is expecting to find a secret cabal opening the way for an elder god, a vampire lord plotting his revenge or a Lich invoking magics that challenge the gods themselves. What they’re not expecting is a mummy, a ghoul and a skeleton to kill the players.
This is not an encounter designed to defeat the players; it’s there to confirm a lurking evil, that they are on the right track and perhaps to cause them some difficulties with the mummy rot – particularly if they haven’t got the right spells prepared.
While I might let a player die here I wouldn’t expect it and I wouldn’t want to see a TPK. If it looks like that is going to happen I’ll adjust an encounter on the fly. I always try to give the players a reason why things turn when I do this; perhaps the last keeper of the church, driven mad by the growing evil, arrives and turns away the undead at the last moment, or the fall of a more powerful undead sees others collapse with them.
Conversely when they face the Lich or their lieutenant Death Knight I want players to feel at risk. If it looks like my finale is falling flat I’m likely to adjust the other way. Again though I try to give players a reason; maybe the Lich calls out in an unknown language and the very air around them darkens from some new power increasing the damage and DC of their spells, maybe reinforcements arrive or the Death Knight downs a potion of flying.
The golden rule here though is to never ever, ever let your players know when you adjusted the game.
You might mention that it happens sometimes, but it definitely didn’t happen during that epic fight or this risky moment or any other time they ask you about. Telling them where it happens will rob them of the magic of those moments as they wonder if you made it easy for them, stealing away their sense of achievement or made it harder making losses feel personal.
The Post Mortem
When a character dies you get one chance to describe the scene and draw a picture of the character’s final moments. Make it good, but make it short and make it clear. Do not revel, re-visit or over dramatise the moment.
In the immediate aftermath players may want to try things to make it better. You should let them, even if, especially if they won’t work. If they want to pray for a week to their god begging for a miracle, attempt CPR, rush them to a healer or try any of a hundred other things – let them. Describe the results of their actions, give it flavour and let the RP come through. This is part of the character’s mourning and grief and is a great RP moment, let them rail at an unjust universe and the whims of a merciless god! It also makes more of the moment for the player whose character died.
Do not however offer any comments (ever) on how the character could have been played so that they would not have died. It’s a controlling move that suggests you could have played the character better. Resist the urge no matter what. Any lessons to be learned they will get without you as the GM piling in.
I was playing a Bounty Hunter in a d6 Star Wars game whose family had been killed by an Imperial officer; General Landok.
For several years this reckless, headstrong character had been part of the rebellion, taking a grim satisfaction in fighting against the Empire. We’re on a rescue mission needing to free some important rebellion agents from a prison facility. We have a plan but need a distraction to help us escape when my character discovers that the general is arriving for an inspection. I tell the party I have a distraction, be ready to act when they hear it and walk away from the group.
Two thrown thermal detonators as the general leaves his shuttle later and I have my revenge, that and the remains of a stormtrooper parade keen to deal with me. I flee with no real hope of success in a hail of blaster fire and jump onto a speeder for a short chase which eventually sees me blown up. The rest of the team meanwhile walk through a now mostly empty base out into the city.
I was satisfied. It was a great ending for the character, he got revenge and had helped his friends – awesome.
Then this happens:
- The GM narrates the explosion in more detail confirming I’m dead.
- The team have some trouble at a checkpoint.
- We return to retcon that I was thrown from the wreckage and bled out on the street.
- They collect new identity records for the agents.
- Then back to describe that actually the stormtroopers finished me off.
- The team reach the hangar and have a tense moment as the papers are checked
- Then back again to talk about my force ghost rising even though I wasn’t a Jedi.
Finally at the end of the session with my character’s death already somewhat spoiled by the GM’s constant re-visits, he felt the need to point out that had my character not stood up and shouted at the general before throwing the detonators he would have been able to escape…
(The lack) of death in D&D
I’m not a fan of the ease with which death is undone in D&D, 300g worth of diamonds shouldn’t make death an easy thing to reverse. The reality though is that there are so many different ways a poor roll or a relatively small amount of poor luck (or judgement) can end up killing a character that these need to be here, it’s baked into the system’s mechanics. I do like how Critical Role have added to the process, but still lament how easy it is to unshrug that mortal coil.