This is RPG-ology #28: Character Death, for March 2020.
A couple times recently I have seen social media posts calling for role playing gamers to express their opinions about character death. The promoter indicated that he was planning to write an article on the subject, and eventually I had the opportunity to read it–but honestly when I read over his survey I found no response even close to what I think and feel on the subject. So I thought I would broach it here, and see if I can help other gamers with it. Diana Jones Award winner Ron Edwards once wrote that my game, Multiverser, had some of the best answers to the problem of player character death, and I’ll get to that, but lets not start there.
I believe it was the first time I had ever run a role playing game, and I had never previously played one nor seen one played. It was what I’ve come to call Basic Dungeons & Dragons 1st Edition, or BD&D1, often identified as the Holmes version or Blue Box set. My three players, all also novices at role playing games, took four characters into the dungeon, encountered four goblins, killed them all, but lost their party leader, a first level human thief. There was some expression of disappointment and some statement that they buried him, and then the player created another thief whom we identified as the son of the original, plus a fighter, and they hired another fighter and continued their adventures as a party of six.
I have written a couple times about how game characters don’t seem to mourn for their fallen comrades, most recently in Faith in Play #16: Mourning. This, I think, was the closest I have ever seen to characters holding a funeral. I have mentioned the time one of my Gamma World characters was killed and I played the other from the couch across the room, but although the player in that game mourned the loss of the character, the other characters did not, not even the other character I played. I also remember another Gamma World game in which I had started with an upbeat optimistic raccoon-based character and a depressed pessimistic lizard-type. In the third game session the raccoon was killed, leaving me only the pessimist; by the end of the fourth session, the referee canceled the game and had us create new characters.
The point is that character death can be very disruptive to the game. After that first session I started running games with kid gloves, doing my best to keep the player characters alive without letting them feel invincible. One of my Multiverser referees once said that the game let him remove the gloves, because the way it handles player character death means it is no longer a thing to be feared.
That, though, is the other side of the coin. For there to be tension in play, the players have to fear something, and therefore they have to have something at stake. A great illusionist referee of my acquaintance was able always to keep every player character alive no matter what happened, while at the same time making us all feel as if death were one wrong step away. It has been suggested that one of the functions of non-player party members is to provide a member of the party the referee can kill so that the players all feel as if it might have been their character. I know a referee who never tracks damage done to the monsters but rather remaining hit points of the party members, so that the monsters will die or flee when the player characters are in dire straits and see the end looming. Yet if player characters never die, players get suspicious, and once they see through the trick the fear is gone and the game is not so exciting. Player character death must be possible, and sometimes it happens whether the referee wants it or not.
I have come to recognize two factors that are essential to making character death work in a role playing game.
The first is that the death has to have meaning within the game world. Even a total party kill can be a fun and memorable game if they were facing the ultimate villain of the game, and the more so if they brought him down with their last breath. The character who dives on a grenade to save the party leaves behind a player who is satisfied that he saved the lives of his companions, that he was the hero they will remember. If the character gives his life to save the girl, or get the maguffin, or destroy the One Ring, it gives his death meaning in a way that it doesn’t get from taking one too many hit points from an orc ambush. Try to make the death count, even if (illusionist technique) you have to backwrite a reason why this particular orc ambush was important.
The second factor is that the player whose character has died has to be able to continue being part of the game, if the game doesn’t end there.
One way to do this is to have players run more than one character. I generally have my D&D players start with one character each, but once they have a solid sense of who that character is I permit them to start a second character of a different type. This not only gives them more to do in play, it strengthens the party as they go against tougher opponents, and it means that if one of a player’s characters dies he’s still got the other to continue play.
Some referees don’t like that, but instead have players roll more than one character at the start of the game, and then choose one to begin. Then if that character is killed the referee finds an excuse for another of the player’s characters to join the party. In games expected to have a low death rate referees will sometimes have the player create the new character when the original one dies, while the other players continue the game.
Another option converts the player into a sort of referee’s helper. Typically this means that the referee gives control of significant non-player characters, possibly party members or allies, possibly villains, to the player.
I promised to give you Multiverser‘s answer to the problem. When a player character dies in that game, he immediately returns to life in another universe. Because of this, as Ron Edwards said, death advances the plot. It is always best if the character’s death is part of a critical scene, and that often happens, but the essential aspect is that the story continues–which addresses the second part of the problem, because the player is still playing, the character who died is still alive, and we have now moved to a new scene, a new plot, a new chapter in the story.
So my attitude toward player character death now is that it’s a good thing when it has meaning in the game and moves the player into new adventures, new play opportunities. Find a way to do that in your games.