Sunday, September 28, 2014

Death of a Player's Character

Dungeon Masters are powerful. They are so powerful, in fact, that they can create or destroy anything within their game at any moment and at a whim. Keeping this in mind, this post is about how to deal with the death of a player's character.

We've all been in a situation where a character has died in our game. Sometimes it's expected and sometimes it's a surprise. The question I always ask myself, as a DM, when it does happen is "Was this death worth it?"

Before I continue with my analysis of how I would answer or have answered this question, I'll address the inevitable, yet unfortunate, question "Why bother asking this question?"

Well, it's all about one's definition of winning. There are two broad categories of DM winning.
  • The first is the victory kind of winning where the DM is playing against the players, i.e. trying to kill their characters. The DM that wins this way is the one who will ask the latter question. I began this post pointing out the power of a DM and this should hint at what I'm getting at.  A DM can instantly kill any player character, or all player characters, at a whim.  Not fun, IMHO. As a player, this ends my association with a DM...instantly.  It will also be only a matter of time before this DM has no one for whom to DM.
  • The second is the success kind of winning where everybody wins. The DM gets to tell a story with the help of the players. The players' characters advance and find treasure. And, everyone looks forward to the next adventure, not dreading the next beating. As a Dungeon Master, I DM campaigns. I have a campaign setting that I've been working on forever and I want it to live and grow. The only way to get this win is to collaborate, not discombobulate.
Having cleared up why to ask this question, let's answer it.

"That Was Inevitable"

I mentioned that some character deaths are not a surprise.  These are pretty easy to answer.

Arranged with the DM

This case usually involves the situation where a player can't play anymore, usually through no fault of their own. Life happens. When this occurs, I'll discuss with the player what to have done with their character, if possible. Sometimes killing the character is the solution. It's not just announcing at the next session that so-and-so isn't returning and their character is dead. The adventure includes the character, run as an NPC or by the player if possible, and within the events of that unfold, the character dies. The intent is to have the character go out in a heroic or some other meaningful way that makes sense within the context of the campaign. Sometimes the player may go and the character becomes an NPC, but I'll discuss this in a future post.

Played to a T

Sometimes the player of a character sets themselves up for their character's death due to role playing. They role play their character right into the situation and they die. I admire this in a player. Any time this has happened, it has been fun for all involved. Of course, I have a one-on-one with the player to determine the finality of this death. As you know, D&D and other fantasy RPGs have a lot of means of resurrection. It's also a vital part of epic fantasy to have a protagonist come back from death (Conan after crucifixion, Gandalf after defeating the Balrog, etc.) Sometimes the player opts to have his character come back from the dead. Other times the result was so appropriate that they stay dead and a new player character is usually introduced the next session.

Sorted out for Cheating

This is a very rare occurrence.  In fact, it has only happened once in my many campaigns. When the problem was discovered, everyone knew the character was dead meat. I made it appropriately gruesome within the context of the adventure and the player learned a valuable lesson. I don't remember if the player returned with a new character afterward, but everyone makes mistakes and had or would have had a second chance.

"Did Not See That Coming"

Below are the surprise categories of player character deaths.

Damn Dice

A really bad night at the table with a set of dice, or two sets of dice if the DM is hot, can easily cause one or more characters to leave corpses on the battlefield. However, I run campaigns that need to have characters survive, so my DM dice are rarely ever going to cause an outright death of a character.  I'll fudge them to knock them out if this is an unexpected situation. Their bad luck may still kill them, but again, there are many ways to survive dying in D&D. One way or another the character will survive if the player wants it to.


Miscalculation can happen on a player's part, the DM's part or both. In this category, I'll focus on the DM.  The next category is usually where the players get into trouble. Sometimes an encounter is too powerful for the characters and it isn't immediately apparent. Hopefully, the players will realize soon enough to extricate themselves, but the DM can usually tone it down on the fly to allow the characters to retreat. Should one or more characters die, there are ways to fix this. In all my years, I've only had one time as a DM where I killed the whole party. The encounter in this situation was too powerful and even though I tried, the characters still went down, but the players didn't help a whole lot.  I'm not placing the blame on them, they didn't have a lot of options and they really expected to survive, which leads me to the next category.


DMs are often considered the players' worst enemy, but sometimes they are their own. Players create their own characters for the most part and know them inside and out.  They come up with unique ways to thwart DMs and survive...or at least make the DM think about how to challenge the characters better in the future.  This leads inevitably to the DM succeeding in challenging them too well and the characters not retreating when they probably ought to.  Usually this only kills one character, but as I mentioned above, it led to a TPK once.

Player character deaths are a part of fantasy RPGs and DMs as well as players can be faulted for them.  This doesn't mean that they have to meaningless or even permanent. However, as long as they provide value for all involved, they are a good thing.

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