Handling Character Death
Anecdotal Advice You Needn’t Follow from a Guy with Significant Blood on His Hands
When a player’s character dies, it doesn’t just kill the character. It usually kills the mood. If not handled correctly, it can kill the campaign. Therefore, in the hands of a poor referee, killing PCs is akin to killing the game.
DMs are often afraid to kill characters for these reasons. They fear the fragility of the player and believe that the player will react badly, stop playing, or that real life relationships could be damaged.
Valid concerns, right?
Before you read any further, you must answer a simple question. Does it bother you that your players always feel safe? Does it bother you that in the face of what you imagined to be a fierce encounter, your players reach blithely for the snack bowl and between light-hearted chuckles tell you what magic item or spell they use before reclining, easy in the knowledge that the character they have run for three-plus years is in no serious danger?
If the answer is no, then read no further. You are running the type of game you want to run. Your players are content and your group is having fun. You have no need for the drivel of this post!
But if you long for tension and drama. If you wish your players would sit forward in their chairs, swallow hard and fix their eyes as you describe the dark room into which they have just walked, read on.
Nothing can cause this to happen except the fear of character death.
“Great,” you say. “But how?” And what about all those valid concerns listed above?
Firstly, remember that you have decided you want to run a high-stakes game, else you would have stopped reading by now. The role of such a referee is hard and not all can manage it. Be aware that the fear of a yipping player and anxiety over being cast as a “cruel DM” position you in the same powerless state as one who has allowed a high-strung pet to assume rulership of the house. Your life will fall to a mindless game of mollifying the animal. No purpose will thereafter be found and misery will ensue.
You are the game master for a reason. You are providing the world, the story, the fun. This is your field. Your court. Referees are not cheered by fans at the football game. Most often they are grudgingly accepted as a necessary evil. But this is your lot. Your job is to maintain the sanity of the game, to ensure consistency and thereby maximize both drama and fun.
High drama is dependent on a sense of gravity, of danger, of the world reacting to player choice.
Of all possible reactions to player choice, the most significant is player character death. Character death is fundamental to the struggle, tension and rewards of the game.
Be not afraid. You can kill characters and the players of those characters will return to your table.
This is the story of my own campaign, which has claimed the lives of countless characters since the 1980’s. Yet, my table is full of players.
In my current campaign, which was begun with a fresh batch of players in 2014, there are five players. Between 2014 and 2016 some of those players have each lost 8 characters. In two years, nearly 30 characters have perished. The players are still at the table and they are playing characters that they care about. If this seems preposterous to you, read on.
But first, let me be clear. I am not suggesting that the DM’s goal is to kill characters. In no way is this the primary job of the referee. What I am suggesting is that the DM must be allowed the authority of doing so.
If you have never killed a character (or) if you have rarely ever killed a character you should not begin killing them without first having a candid discussion with your players about doing so.
This discussion can take any form you wish but this is how I frame it for players that are new to my table. I tell them:
First, you are about to begin playing in a game where the story and the players in that story are much larger and grander than you currently imagine. The names of these mythic beings are not yet known but they will be discovered, and you will join me in searching for them.
Second, this story is not about your character. It is not about a hero or even a group of heroes. This story is about a world and a universe. I am going to lay the groundwork for that story and you are going to partner with me in determining its arc.
Third, there will be many deaths along the way. Some tragic and some deserved. Character mortality will be high and only the cautious, the cunning and the cooperative are likely to survive. Go-it-alone attitudes in this game will likely end in disaster. For each level your character advances you may reasonably say that it has a 10% chance of surviving the high-stakes expeditions required to take it to the next level. Brace yourselves. This is going to be a nail-biter.
Lastly, it might be wise to begin afresh, setting aside the much beloved characters we have played with up to this point. Let’s agree as a group to delve into this new endeavor with brand new character sheets!
Having clearly laid out the expectations for this game, you will then see whom among your players are brave enough to sign up for this bloody tale. Odds are good that they will be eager for the excitement of such a promising adventure. High stakes? This is gambling. And gambling is addictive!
Character creation night.
This is the night you meet and roll characters (at least two characters for each player). When the players are told to create 2 or three new characters apiece they will shrewdly surmise the gravity of the task and it will begin to sink in that you are not bluffing.
With the foundations laid, your players will now already be expecting the worst. Your drama and the tension at the table will naturally spike based on what you’ve told them to prepare for. But now you must follow through.
How do you handle it? Will the first death be fun?
In a character-centric game the players have nothing to grow attached to aside from their character. In many modern games, players have only one character; therefore emotionally they have—as they say—all their eggs in one basket. We all know how that turns out.
When I began my current campaign I first had “the talk” with my players. Then we had character creation night just as described.
On the first night they arrived to actually play, they showed up with all three characters in hand, prepared for the worst and highly skeptical that this would be any fun at all.
As they gathered around the table I calmly told them to set aside their new characters. Then I handed each of them two sheets they had never seen before.
The group was puzzled. Here was a 7th level evil cleric, there: an 8th level anti-paladin. One player gazed down at an assassin with a poisoned blade. What was happening?
I explained that they were a hardened group, ruthless and without regret.
I said, “Each of you turned your back on society and its norms long ago, favoring a personal quest for power.
To that end you joined a legendary order of absolute darkness; one which seeks to overthrow the world of men and establish a cryptarchy where the powerful and intelligent hold authority above all others.
This secret order has made you strong and rich and given you much in the way of pleasure and power.
Over the years, the blood you have spilled has revealed grooves in the landscape of your enemy, trickling down channels invisible before, leading you to a hidden bastion of power for those you hate: The Esoteric Order of the Twilight Princess.
The Order of the Twilight Princess is formidable, hiding much as you hide—but having its spies and liaisons well positioned throughout the land. It is only recently that you have finally learned the location of their most secret sanctuary: The Silver Temple of Transcendent Flame." Etc.
So, the players were then tasked to assail the silver temple with these evil characters and wreak utter havoc. It was not an easy fight. Each player ran two evil characters.
As the battle raged some died. One player lost both his characters and a player with two then handed one of his to the player with none.
The game session ended with the evil party victorious but reduced in number. I made no effort to explain why we had done this but left the group wondering.
At the next session I had them pull out the characters they had rolled up previously and then regaled them with a whispered tale of an evil order that had assaulted the silver temple. Would they join the cause to fight against this nefarious group?
Now the players were hooked. They had played those evil characters, been privy to the actual events that were now already mythic and had a keen sense of how powerful and evil the surviving members were! They had experienced character death without pain. They had helped form the introduction to the story of a world that was already beginning to take shape and would now approach that story from a different angle.
Suddenly, the players found themselves not with all their eggs in one basket but acting as participants in an epic tale that included many actors. Quite simply the players were now LARGER than their characters.
Sessions like this happen around my table infrequently enough that players are usually playing their own characters but regularly enough that they can recount roughly a half-dozen occasions where they have run NPC heroes, entire armies, and sometimes persons of little consequence.
At session each player was given three zero level humans with professions rather than classes. These zero level characters had between ½ and 3 hp each and had been imprisoned by a group of slavers. Roughly half of these characters died during the course of their escape but those that survived managed to communicate vital intelligence to the campaign’s “real” player characters, who then set about taking down the slavers.
This was a particularly enjoyable session as the zero level characters had no Ability Scores. Each time they attempted to do something that required INT or DEX or STR the player had to roll that Ability Score on the spot.
The zero level characters that survived, I allowed to level up and become actual level 1 characters of whatever class their ability scores allowed. These baby characters were added to the stable of characters that each player owned.
The point of these examples is that when a person has only one possession, they hold on to it dearly, but when they have several possessions it easier to let one go.
Then outspake brave Horatius. The captian of the gate: “To every man upon this earth Death cometh soon or late. And how can man die better Than facing fearful odds For the ashes of his fathers And the temples of his gods?” —Thomas Babington Macaulay
It is my understanding that Gary Gygax once said characters should have a 70% chance of survival but Players should believe that their characters have a 30% chance of survival.
Whether he said this or not, this emotional vs actual survival probability often helps legitimize character death. It is often and regular that, as my players pack up their books and dice, I hear one or several of them remark: “I’m surprised we survived tonight!” or even, “I’m surprised we only lost one guy!”
These cues will tell you that you are doing it right, especially when they mention at the same time how enjoyable the evening was.
If you disbelieve such attitudes can exist, I assure you that I hear it all the time. It is not the best or only way to play RPGs, but it is an excellent example of a campaign that understands how to handle character death when such drama is deemed favorable to the overall experience.
Stage four is about legitimizing death. Character death should, if possible, have a build up to the moment of expiration. It should not only be plausible but expected.
One way to do this is to make a habit of rolling your dice in plain view of the players and to announce beforehand the target number and what failure or success will mean.
I regularly tell the group that the monster needs a 13 to hit and then make that roll in the open. Damage, monster saving throws, and many other sorts of rolls happen in the open after announcements.
The only rolls kept secret are those that would alter player actions in an unfavorable or illogical way, such as the success or failure of a detect traps or hide in shadows attempt.
Now, I have heard that plenty of DMs believe in reserving the right to fudge the dice, especially to bend the results toward a more palatable impact on the fates of the characters or the arc of the story and so on.
While I understand this point of view and can even support it when playing in another DM’s game, I do not regularly subscribe to it myself. While I will occasionally fudge events in the group’s favor, I reserve this for the most exceptional circumstances.
It is my belief that announcing the weight of rolls before the dice are cast is very much in the spirit of a Vegas craps table. In my games the dice tell the story. Not always do the dice tell the most favorable story, but the rolls are memorable. The rolls happen and then, like tarot cards, are interpreted into narrative. The viper’s fangs miss their mark. The thief stumbles on a loose stone. And so on.
Much like investing in the stock market, a diversified portfolio (in this case of characters) allows the dice to tell the story freely, without as much fudging, without as much concern over hurt feelings.
When you tell the group that the viper bites and that the saving throw about to be cast will determine the life or death of the character, all eyes will be on the cast die.
But remember! You have laid the foundations for this moment. You have trained your players. You have told them that this pinnacle of drama was coming.
And when the saving throw comes up short, you will deliver the death scene with gusto and drama—perhaps allowing the character to speak and act a few more rounds until their final breath is drawn.
The chore of cleanup.
We like to party but we don’t want to pick up the mess. Picking up the mess, however, can add meaning and definition to the fray of the night before.
In sorting through the remains, discoveries are made and surprises are brought to light.
In the case of character death, each instance must be handled differently—as a unique event.
Sometimes, due to the drama of the moment, the character death is almost glossed over. A henchman or NPC is handed to the player for the remainder of the evening and only at the end of the session do we discuss what happens next.
This allows some time for the player to digest the death before actually having to talk about it.
Usually there are other characters in the player’s stable that they enjoy playing or have been looking forward to playing for the very first time. This helps with the sting.
Looting the bodies of former compatriots can also reveal secrets the player was keeping from the group, which often precipitates riotous and entertaining discussions.
Finally, most notably in the case of Dungeons & Dragons, there is recourse after death.
I always allow for the possibility of resurrection or reincarnation. It is sound reasoning that these remedies are expensive and often out of reach to low level characters (to whom the players are less attached) and become more available to high level heroes of renown (with whom the players have invested many hours). Often there is a debt to a deity or other power and a minor curse, a Geas or penalty that follows the resurrected character from that point on.
In my current campaign, of the many characters that have fallen, only two have been restored to life. Each player now controls at least one character of mid-level and several of lower standing.
Another part of clean up is legacy.
It is gratifying for players to have NPCs talk about their dead characters and react to news of the death. Sometimes players will stumble upon a heretofore unknown offspring of their dead character…or learn that they were secretly related to nefarious NPCs in the world.
An altruistic thief in my campaign had a monument built to her in a certain city that marked her tomb. Fast-forward to twenty years later in the campaign time-line: the players realize this character was buried with a notable magic item but when they arrive at the monument, they find the tomb broken open and robbed. They then decide to track down the miscreants who have been one step ahead of them.
Events such as these immortalize characters and once again embiggen the players, making them feel connected to the world and the greater arc of both story and time.
Roughly eight months prior to the writing of this post, the party endured a particularly unfortunate series of events.
The setting was a ruined temple to a storm goddess, long forgotten at the edge of the Sultanate. The evil group of NPCs that the party had been fighting since the beginning of the campaign—yes, those dastards that assaulted the Silver Temple of Transcendent Flame—had established a base within the ruins and were preparing to cause mayhem in the lands of the pashas.
Catching wind of the location through spies, the party led a small force of some 100 men to the area and wiped out the encampment before entering the ruins proper and seeking out the leaders ensconced there.
The place was well fortified with many bottlenecks that favored the defenders.
The battle was fierce and just when the players thought to have the upper hand another wave of foes revealed themselves.
Eventually, most of the resistance was quashed and the party began its final advance down an insidiously trapped hallway further lorded over by archers at the far end.
Half-way down the hall one player in the group ignored the pleas of his fellows and opened a door without any checks. This door unleashed a lightning bolt that rebounded thrice in the narrow space, striking all four characters standing in the 10’ x 10’ spot. Damage was so high that saving throws notwithstanding all four characters burnt in their boots.
What had been a confident and valiant advance turned into a full-scale route as the now emboldened enemies charged the survivors and the three remaining party members fled.
You may think that this was bad. But it gets much worse.
I allowed the fleeing characters to escape, make the several day flight to safety and civilization and to regroup. The back-up characters were introduced and a vengeful group returned to the ruins, determined to end those that had so badly taunted them.
Of course, when they arrived, they found the ruins empty. The bandits had cleared out, knowing that their hiding place was no longer secure. The evil-doers had looted the bodies of the fallen and taken almost everything of value.
Denied the revenge they craved, the group decided to focus on the still sealed areas of the ruins, which the bandits had not dared to enter and which legend stated contained mythic objects of power.
Alas, the dungeon’s devious magical protections landed the group in a great dark hall with no connection to areas previously explored.
Ingenuity and valiance saved them from a terrible flesh golem and they lured the automaton into a pit trap from whence it could not escape.
The group was now low on hp and out of spells. Their supplies were limited: they were down to their last torch.
They positioned themselves before an archway to a dark chamber that they could see into but had not yet explored and there began the argument about whether to press on or to make camp in the dark unknown.
This argument drew the attention of three gargoyles in the chamber beyond who slunk from their perches through a back passage and circled behind the party.
Surprise was rolled at a penalty due to the heated exchange and the gargoyles attacked with impunity. All but one character was reduced to zero or fewer hp in the surprise round and the last, the torch holder, took lethal damage in the round that followed.
I declared, “In the deep darkness of that terrible hall, echoes the sounds of rending flesh and snapping bones and as the last torch falls from the cleric’s hand and goes out, blood bathes the floor of that unhallowed ground.”
This was the TPK. It is now referred to by my group as the time “the torch went out.”
A single character on the outside waited for the group to return and when it did not, returned to base and brought back yet another group of characters who thereafter looted a great trove from the temple.
Because AD&D has an experience point system based primarily on the looting of treasure, these new characters became wealthy and leveled up from the previous character’s hard work.
In the aftermath of a dungeon that had claimed the lives of nearly a dozen characters, I had a candid debrief with my players wherein I explained to them that this dungeon had been created by me and that it represented the upper limits of lethality they could expect to face.
I then asked them point blank if they thought it had been unfair or unfun and whether they would like me to reduce the difficulty of such future dungeons that were meant to be extremely challenging.
Though I cannot cast detect lie in real life, I can tell you that each of them affirmed that the dungeon had been very challenging but also very fun and that they had no desire for me to reduce difficulty in the future.
All of those players are still at my table. I am called the Evil DM. The cruel DM. They joke at my expense. One in particular says he has never played in a game like mine. He says it is the most difficult campaign he has ever played in but that he enjoys it immensely because he feels that the victories are real. They are honest. And the hard-won treasures are truly earned.
This type of game is, of course, not for everyone. But it has a definite and saleable allure. If you run it right, if you frame the experience and train your players for it, and if you give your players more to invest in than a single sheet of paper; in fine: if you make them responsible for shaping larger events within the world and allow them to be privy to multiple aspects of the setting, you too will be able to boast of the bloodshed you have witnessed, yet walked away friends.
Dungeons & Dragons evolved from wargames. And while the story of your campaign will and should be central to the experience, it is in the willingness to embrace pitched and frantic battles that you may find some of your most memorable gaming moments.