Ghoulish Mailbag: Handling PC Death

For the last 3 years, I’ve had the habit to write Halloween themed posts:

This year again, I’m sitting at my kitchen breakfast counter while the kids (now 8 and 7) are out terrorizing the surroundings for some sugar-cane based spoils of war. Once again, I’m the guardian of the dungeon, sitting over a chestful of delicious Coffee Crisps candy bars, bags of Trans-fat free 95 calories chips and fiendish sour gummy-zombies  packets.

In the mean time, what better topic on All Hallow’s Eve than tackling a recent letter by a reader inquiring about dealing with the ever throny issue of character death.

Dear Grim Reaper…

My name is Tom.  I’ve been reading your blog quite a bit over the last few days, and I’ve found it to be a really useful source of information and inspiration.  You also seem like an approachable sort of guy, so I thought I’d, well, approach you with a question.

I’ve been running my first campaign for a few sessions now, and in this particular campaign, there’s no resurrection when a PC dies– something we all agreed to going in, as it seems to add a meaningful sense of risk.

This has made the few combat encounters– the focus of the campaign has really been more about exploration, puzzle-solving, and character interaction– pretty intense, with some characters coming close but narrowly escaping their demise.  Which has also made it very exciting and a lot of fun for me and my players.

So far, none of the characters have actually died, and I’ve given the characters a magical item that can help save another character from their fate.

What I’m worried about is when, eventually and inevitably, someone’s character does die.  It’s not that I’m worried about how they’ll handle it– they’re all a pretty mature bunch, so I don’t expect any tantrums.  It’s, what if a PC dies half-way through an adventure, with two or three hours of dungeon or character negotiations or puzzles left?

I don’t want anyone to just sit there being bored while all the others are having a ball, nor do I want to abruptly halt the adventure.  I’d like to keep the deceased character’s player entertained and engaged in some way.  Do you have any suggestions?

Of Death, Drama and the value of one’s Free Time

Among the recurring themes of RPG forum and blog posts, setting the lethality level and handling the death of PCs is way up there. I’m willing to bet there was at least one article about that in the first few issues of Dragon magazine.

Now the range of answers to Tom’s inquiries are about as large as there are pundits and writers pondering this, here’s mine.

It all comes down to how much the free time of your players is worth to them and how much you value it when they sit at your table.  Dear GMs, in the unlikely chance that you still haven’t learned that fundamental lesson, in this day and age of MMORPGs and Skype remote playing, players don’t have to be unilaterally grateful to have a spot at your table, it goes both ways.  I wrote a post about that way back when that’s still very relevant today.

So while loosing one’s PC in the middle encounter of a long night of playing is a likely outcome of any RPG, having it occur in a game where making a new PC takes a long chunk of time (and possibly the DM’s attention if electronic tools aren’t available) can put a serious damper on everyone’s fun.

Of Death and other Inconveniences.

So Tom, my first suggestion is to ask your players what they expect in the likelihood that character death does  occur mid-encounter, with plenty of time remaining to play out other encounters? Maybe they’ll tell you that they’d rather stop the game until their fallen comrade builds a new character, opting to play a quick card game like Dominion or Three-Dragon Ante.

Assuming Tom plays D&D 4e, I also suggest that he has the D&D character builder (or equivalent software tool if you play Pathfinder, Savage World or any other OGL-based RPG) installed on a nearby computer and hooked to a printer. Thus, that gives his down-on-her-luck player the best tools to come back as fast as possible.

I would also question the finality of death in your game.  If you play 4e or Pathfinder, a game where character creation is a complex process, requiring the player to make a lot of choices and invest significant energies, you may want to rethink your initial decision.  There are other ways to create that sense of risk that you are trying to simulate by making Death final.

For instance, I’d consider making the success or failure of certain ‘turning points” of your story hinge on key PCs not dying at all during the adventure.  Maybe the cleric bears a divine mark (needed to complete a ritual in a dungeon) that will dissipate if she dies, regardless if the Shaman raises her after the fight.  Maybe the Paladin needs a flawless reputation to gain the trust of the local lord and can’t afford to be slain by dishonorable  Wererats (leading to a great RPing moment, should the fallen and raised LG paladin lie to achieve the party’s goal).

Follow the Other Light…

Alternatively, If death is so final in your game, you should explore or create story reasons for that.  Is it possible that the realm of the Dead (e.g. 4e’s Shadowfell), where souls can be plucked for resurrection, is closed for some specific reason? Is it possible that the soul of a deceased character remains on the material plane but slowly dissolves over the next few minutes (like Terry Pratchett’s recently deceased characters)?

What if, during those next few minutes, a slain heroic soul could still help its comrades?  What if it could play in some sort of combat-based skill challenge, with a ghost figurine on the board, that can interact with the challenge at hand?  In fact, what if the Arcane, Religion and Nature-based PCs could perceive the ghostly PC and share action in a new etherial  challenge?

For example, what if the deceased PC could yank the souls out of monsters by grabbing them or cutting them loose with an appropriate skill check or Weapon attack? Maybe if the Ghost PC fails 3 times… it dissipates.  Thus, even though the PC’s dead, there’s still a stakes at play.  The living PCs sensing the ghost could support it with minor action rolls of the appropriate skill.

The Road More Traveled

Otherwise, if that’s too far fetched for you, turn the table and give the control of the monsters to the players who just lost a PC, involve them in your story.  Listen to their suggestions and try to work them in your campaign.

Or just give him the keys to your car to go and get the pizza,  or allow him to leave the table to go play with the PS3 or flirt with your significant other… 🙂

What about you guys, how do you handle death.  Anyone has used clever tricks to make the experience less of a drag while still making it a significant stake in the game?  Is it an issue in your game or did you address it up front?  Let us know!


  1. I tell everyone to bring a backup. 🙂

  2. Backups are a good way of working it, but there aren’t always appropriate times to bring them into play. I always try to have one or 2 NPC’s around that the players can work with in the meantime until a meaningful reintroduction is possible.

    I like having a good edge on lethality; it keeps everyone on their toes and prevents them from fighting every stupid thing out there especially if it’s not necessary. The trick at that point is to just balance it where you’re not picking players off left and right. If you’ve got a group that insists on dying stupidly, it maybe be time to ratchet it back a notch to keep the fun level up there.

  3. Depending on the game I play I’ll use different technique. In a modern game with no magic as an easy solution I usually go with no random deaths. If the result of the die would mean your character dies, he’s unconscious and will suffer from an “injury” for a time. Although, if a character throws himself in chasm he’s dead. This limit death to the story driven ones.

    my 2 cents

  4. I was thinking about it a little bit more and came up with interesting question on the subject…

    What makes lethality increase your play?

    As far as the players are concern lethality and unconsciousness equals the same consequence in a fight. (you’re out of it) The story impact and enjoying factor repercussion of death is something else though.

    Being force to sit idle for a time is the gameplay punishment in both approaches. Death will have the consequence of modifying your story around it which might be something you want, but how do you incorporate a new character in the story.

    In our group this happen a few time because somebody wanted to change character. Most of the time the new character did not fit in as well as the original and the player may feels out of it. In our case it was planned and still felt weird in most cases. So to have a backup character as was proposed might be decent solution but this will depend on what is the focus of your group.

    So if you can answer that question you’ll most probably have found the solution for your group.

  5. Weird. I was just thinking about this, in the context of the Gamma World Game Day event.

    I’d killed one of the characters in the final encounter, but there was a LOT of the encounter left, and I felt bad. Now, it’s simply to just roll up a new character in that game, but it might take him the rest of the encounter to do so, given that we were all new at it.

    I let him control a “neutral” attacker in the encounter, but in thinking about it afterward, I really dropped the ball, as there is a very obvious aspect of the encounter that would allow any character who died to come back, and it would be totally in keeping with the adventure and story. I should have thought about it more before the adventure, and figured that part out. Such a wasted opportunity!

    For D&D, we haven’t had any character deaths in our 4e game yet, but the DM made plans for the last few sessions of our last story arch. We had a group of NPCs with us at the time, and he had made up several of them in the Character Builder as PCs. He didn’t use them as PCs in the game… that was for us. Should our main character die, we could pick from one of the NPCs to then run as our new PC (at least for that session, or for the rest of the arch). We didn’t have to use that, fortunately, as everyone survived. We were predicting the ironic death of my character, since it was his mother that we were going to rescue from the bad guys. heh.

    Oh, and BTW, you’ve made me REALLY crave a Coffee Crisp. It’s one of the things I really miss from Canada. heh. One the one hand, it’s too bad that they don’t have them down here, but quite frankly, if they did, it’d be made by Hershey, and that would diminish the experience greatly. A sad thought.

  6. Building on what Yan says, if you have an elaborate story around your characters, having one die at random is a bummer — it messes up the story in a way that is usually unsatisfying. In such a campaign I’d change the death rules to minimize random deaths somehow. Deaths through heroic sacrifice, dramatic requirement, or sheer bone-headedness would still be allowed, though.

    One way to keep the tension in these fights is something that Chatty was hinting at: have a consequence other than death on the line. (Death of an important NPC or failure of a mission are good ones.) This matches a lot of popular drama — in an action movie or TV show, often times we know the hero isn’t going to die, but the action sequences are still exciting because there is something else dramatically important riding on them. In fact I’d say that if the PC’s lives were constantly the only thing at risk, combats would lose a bit of drama.

    If you DON’T have an elaborate story around your characters, perma-death is much easier to swallow, as is introducing a new character. I think this would be good in campaigns that favor fast-paced pulp action, difficult puzzle-solving, or old-school challenge-based play. This also works best in systems where you can create new characters quickly. For example, yesterday we were playing a pulpy Star Wars game using Savage Worlds. One PC was incapacitated, so the player quickly whipped up a replacement while the rest of us resolved the fight. Everybody decided the replacement character was actually more interesting than the original, so the GM ruled that the incapacitated PC was dead, and the new one appeared. Was this silly and artificial and not a good story? Absolutely, but it fit the action-adventure atmosphere well and we all had a good time.

  7. @Sersa: There’s certainly a certain “Old School” charm to your technique. 🙂

    @Grey: I like your 2 NPCs idea. What’s to prevent that your lantern bearer isn’t a retired Fighting Monk that had vowed never to fight except in self-defense again?

    @Yan: Combining both your comments, I wholeheartedly agree with the fact that Death may not be what the players are really looking for to create both encounter and story level tension. In encounters this should be done with hard to get objectives rather than “get kicked out of the game because of the dice”.

    I think we’re facing a resistant paradigm here. When fights lasted 10-20 minutes and PC char Gen not much longer, people probably cared less about the whole “I’m dying” thing. Now, when I see Stef waiting for 20 minutes just to roll a death Save, I cringe a little, wondering if he’ll still show up the next time.

    @Scott: I think that increased lethality games like GW should be played with pre-made extra PCs, especially for con games. Thus the action would never stop for anyone.

    As for Coffee Crisps, one of the secrets of the Con circuits is that I always travel with boxes of them when I go to Pax/Gen Con. So you have to catch me! 🙂

    @Will: Logic and internal story consistency will only go so far. When a PC needs a-changin’ every reason is good. ANd I like your example about stakes. It’s like a car chase… you don’t expect to see trhe heroes die in a Head on with an 18 wheeler… but you want to know if they’ll catch the bad guys/escape or be put in the hospital and let the bad guys get to the 11th hour of completion of their dark plans.

  8. Death is only the beginning… Revenants add a whole new element to role playing.

    I’ve only had a few character deaths, and I use lots of digital tools, so its not a hindrance to the game.

    Sometimes there are tears, some times there is gnashing of teeth.

  9. I usually play more towards the “no random deaths” style. One of the ways to handle avoiding actual death is to allow some form of last minute save. I first saw this in Earthdawn with the Last Chance Salves which let a PC drink one and either immediately roll a recovery test with a bonus to get back some health or just roll their base recovery test if they didn’t have any left. In D&D 4e terms a recovery test is similar to a healing surge. The D&D 3.5 Expanded Psionics Handbook had a psionic power with similar results called Psionic Revivify. Not absolutely certain how this sort of idea would gel with the rounds worth of bleeding out that can happen in modern D&D though. Psionic Revivify is mainly oriented towards a campaign with limited healing I think and Earthdawn has no healer classes nor a bleed-out time that I remember.

    What this sort of thing does NOT fix is the “twiddling your thumbs until the encounter is over” thing. Not unless your storytelling style and your group’s tactics allow for full on PC retreat as a valid option. I don’t think there is a perfect answer to that, it kind of has to come from the group itself since some people will be more interested in helping you marshal the forces of evil against their friends than others. I think most modern systems allow for a way to cling to life for awhile so if you do that full on as well as going all iron man about character death, you’re kind of stuck for some amount of thumb twiddling. Closest solution I could think of is a pre-established semi-helpful NPC that’s kind of neutral and has serious psychotic issues. Everyone gets a turn at controlling them normally beforehand along with their own character. When someone dies, this squirrelly normally gun-shy character is hit with a spasm of courage and takes center stage while the PC is incapacitated. In cases where more than one is out of the action, they both have to say what they want the NPC to do, possibly tying up the NPC into an internal conflict.

  10. Oops. Forgot to say what Psionic Revivify did, at least enough to show it’s niche. It basically works like Raise Dead but without the level/con/spells/powers loss. It’s a 5th level Egoist only (psychometabolic specialist list) power with a range of touch. It revives someone who died last round. The only way to expand that limitation is for the caster and target to each spend 100 XP per extra round you’ve been dead beyond the first. If you’ve been dead 3 rounds it’d cost 200 XP from both the caster and target to work.

  11. @Scott: I think that increased lethality games like GW should be played with pre-made extra PCs, especially for con games. Thus the action would never stop for anyone.

    As for Coffee Crisps, one of the secrets of the Con circuits is that I always travel with boxes of them when I go to Pax/Gen Con. So you have to catch me! 🙂

    I agree about GW. I probably should have just generated some extras before showing up to run the game, but the module had such an interesting aspect I could have exploited to bring the character right back, the next round. It’s frustrating only thinking about these things after the fact. 🙂

    I currently have tentative plans for GenCon next year, so if I end up going, I’ll have to find you. Maybe you and Chris Sims and I can get some people together for a game. 🙂

  12. As I was reading the letter, I too thought that perhaps the character could play out the session as a ghost or apparition, until the Raven Queen, Grim Reaper, or whoever, shows up to collect.

    I like the concept that character death means DEATH, and thus that particular character’s story ends, whether it was told completely or not. Is his story about all the things that he has accomplished, or is it about all the things that he was supposed to accomplish, but that tragedy has prevented?

    If the writer doesn’t want to play a ghost for the rest of the session, if he doesn’t want to watch
    TV, play WOW, or go get food, something I’ve done in the past has worked well… give him a monster or two (or NPC) for him to play. It can be fun seeing a player take on the role of a foul monster, or one of the NPCs that they may have (or not) met.

  13. I personally have a rule that I make very clear to my players. They will only die in 3 ways, 1) They have done something INCREDIBLY stupid. obviously this keep my player from being overly stupid and from doing stupid things. This is important when you are playing with new (and possibly immature players) I don’t really do this as a from of punishment but rather when you do something stupid in a dangerous situation you generally DIE. 2) Story line deaths. If the story calls for a PC to die (and the player has agreed to it before hand) I will generally find a way to make their death meaningful and beneficial to the party. 3) Boss fights. The only time a player can die due to the luck of the dice is in a boss fight. Bosses are typically more dangerous, epic and strong willed than their henchmen or underlings thus they are lethal to my players and this makes for much more tension in the final battle of the dungeons. This technique works well for me because I am running a story based game where the players enjoy role play rather than roll play. Granted there is a great deal of combat, puzzles, traps and riddles but each character REALLY comes to life and are all memorable.

  14. I wanted to share some tricks I learned while DM’ing a campaign in Ravenloft (the bestest campaign setting ever!)

    1) I had a prima donna player that decided that, if she was going to die, then she would go out in style. Oil of Fiery Burning + lots of flammable mummies = Dead PC and saved the party from certain death. I allowed her to ‘haunt’ the party until they could find a cleric that could raise her, and she could perform unassisted Aid Another rolls in combat. It wasn’t a lot of options, but it kept the player involved, and she didn’t have to come back as a vampire/revenant/whatever, which would have serious campaign ramifications.

    2) Another option I used was a “Deal with the Dark Powers”, where the player was offered a second life BUT had to voluntarily fail a corruption check. The player enjoyed roleplaying the brush with death and his newfound “powers” and disadvantages.