Friday, June 17, 2011

Dealing with Character Death: The Stages of Grief

So here you are, your PC's have returned session after session battling and puzzling through your labyrinth; you have put them through trial after trial and they have made it to the final battle. The evil mindflayer they have been pursuing stands before them, and they stand exhausted, yet summon their courage once again to save the innocent peasants who have fallen to the flayers tentacle-y appendages. A fierce battle ensues! One of the PC's is grappled, he is one die roll away from having his brain eaten! You prepare to roll the d20, your PC stares with wide hopeful eyes, the die falls, you look down and....the mindflayer rolled a natural 20.

If you've DM'ed before you've probably been in this situation before. Approaching PC death is a largely personal process. Some DM's have no qualms about killing of their players, some even enjoy the process of trying to mow them down. I've played with several different types and I have had to deal with this situation myself many times.
I find their is a very fine line that must be walked between mercy and severity to make death feel like a very real possibility, yet keep the players desire for fun in mind.
Here are a couple things I consider when deciding whether or not the PC kicks the bucket, or if they live to fight another day:
1. Will the character death serve the story?
2. Did the death occur because of some direct choice or just plain bad luck?
3. Is there a way to save the character without suspending PC belief?
Some PC deaths occur because of boldly made role-playing choices, others are just strokes of plain bad luck. If a PC intentionally put themselves in danger to save a loved one/the party/the world and fate happens to roll against them I usually let the character die in a heroic blaze of glory. This type of consideration underlines the importance of character's values, it shows the PCs that character motivations matter, they have very real rewards and thus very real consequences.
The most important tool a DM has in this field is the deux ex machina. If artfully used, saving characters from the brink of death can make your game more believable, more incredible, and make the PC all the more connected to the character they portray. It honestly all comes down to story though. And as a good rule of thumb when dealing with character death, is to remember that story always trumps rules.


  1. I try to limit the occasions where PCs will die "just because." But I have little to no mercy on those who find themselves in a lethal situations either because of stupidity and/or conscious choice.

    In the above example, I would kill the PC without a qualm. He sought the battle, it was in the midst of combat, and the dice fell where they may.

    IME, when you remove the real threat of PC death, or even try to stack things against it, you lessen the immersion and the enjoyment.

    At the risk of boring people by telling a campaign story, I killed a PC with a an exploding trap once. The party had found the tripline and decided to hook it with a poleaxe and pull while standing back a few feet. The player of the dead PC called shenanigans because –as the PC in the rear– he felt he should have been safe. I explained the Area of Effect still covered him. He then said the trap was unfair because it was "too deadly." My response was "Perhaps, after successfully finding it, then you shouldn't have DELIBERATELY SET IT OFF."

    A bad decision by the players led to that death and I felt no remorse for snuffing the PC.

  2. Nothing to add really, save that I'm glad you returned to posting! I enjoy your insights.

  3. I run a weekly D&D Encounters game for a local game shop in Toronto. You can watch it here:

    Character death is something I'm often confronted with. I like your stance on it though. The ability to work something in to save a character at the last minute is useful.

    That said, a few of the players that come to the game are often kids. I'd feel bad about killing their characters, even if they'd had it coming by not paying attention or neglecting to notice that they're fighting a dragon.

  4. I'd love to see more on this blog!

  5. I think it more than acceptable for a player's character to die, to perish, to be slaughtered and served up with eggs and hominy. Closing off hope for that character's reinstatement is utterly useless.

    How much does a True Resurrection cost in terms of gameplay time? Surely alluring is a pilgrimage to a shrine where the high priest of a faith is meditating. All the more alluring is the (1) money the party rogues will get for espionage along the way, (2) prestige the party paladin will receive for confirming an alliance between the Neutral Good high priest and his own Lawful Good cult, (3) the sheer amount of spells the high priest's wizardly retinue have access to (in tandem with the party rogues, these will be easily accessible).

    More complex a question is: afloat in the sea of possibilities within D&D, how do you make the game interesting to concentrators and ADHD people alike?

  6. hey, i just found your blog awesome stuff, btw if any of you want to e-mail me
    ok question i am doing a pathfinder game using a world with less wizards more on the monks that have element powers like a wizard, thoughts on how to keep the game fun?

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  8. The great thing about he DM screen. People assume it's so the DM can fudge the die in their own favour, but it's usually in the players' favour when I do it.