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Friday, December 16, 2016

The Untimely Death of the PC

Character death isn’t a topic we discuss frequently, but maybe we should.  Oftentimes we hear about the extreme end of it...the TPK’s (Total Party Kill), but PC’s can and do die during the normal course of play, and depending on the type of game you’re running, it can have more impact than you may think.

I’m an OSR enthusiast, so many of the games I run or play use older rulesets, or clones thereof.  Recently I had been running a Labyrinth Lord campaign, and players were asked to roll up 1 primary character, as well as a backup PC in case the first one was dispatched in some untimely event.  It happened fast.  Within the first few sessions many of the players had to pull out their backup sheet, and without hesitation started on a backup for that PC.  OSR rulesets can be brutal, but exciting, and it gives a whole new meaning to levelling when you know that death had been waiting around every corner you turned to get there.

Some rulesets are even more harsh.  For instance DCC (Dungeon Crawl Classics) has what is known as the 0-level funnel, where players are asked to have a handful of characters available, and then play them all simultaneously in a low level adventure that leaves only a handful standing.  It’s completely random and alot of fun, and since characters are simple to roll up, not much time has been invested in the PC or his/her backstory, so the blender simply pushed the cream of the crop (or luckiest) to the top.  A fun way to play, and deadly.

Newer rulesets have a somewhat long and detailed character creation process, and this investment of time and creativity on the part of the player can create an immediate bond with the character.  This is great, and it promotes some awesome roleplaying opportunities, but it also means that if your Level 1 Ranger, that guy you spent hours building and then spent even more time investing in a well thought-out background and lifepath for suddenly gets smashed by an ogre for so much damage he couldn’t possibly survive, you take it personally.  It feels like a punch to the gut.

The same thing applies to characters in any game that have obtained what you think is some sort of tenure.  These are the PC’s at level 5 or 7 or higher who have been with you for many adventures.  You fought dragons, demons, giants...but somehow he caught a bad throw of the dice, and the hit, plus the poison, plus the fire damage just all added up to so much damage so quickly that there was no coming back.  No one wants to be the player on the receiving end of the fistfull of dice that ended a long-term relationship that, at times, felt all too real.

So how should the GM handle the death of a PC?  There are options, and you’ve got to follow your gut on this one.  My personal feeling is this...without the real, possible potential for a character to die, finally and completely, the game has no risk or sense of danger.  It is this very thing that motivates players to act, or not act, and breathes a feeling of adventure into the game.  Anyone who plays in any game I run knows that I have rules for death, and I follow them.

 Some GM’s are the opposite.  These are the guys who will simply not kill the character at all, for any reason.  There always seems to be some Deus ex Machina that executes a last-minute save.  Players who know or sense that this is the way the GM is playing may take advantage of such behavior, or not, but they can always breathe easy knowing that the GM will not kill off the PC, and that can change the nature, style, or tone of the game.

There are middle-grounders.  These are the GM’s who will let you die, but make resurrection a very real and available option.  In every village, town, and city there is a cleric willing to raise the dead, usually for a price.  I’ll admit that I have used this tactic more than once, knowing that the finality of loss was possibly too much to bear. In such instances, I resort to charging the other PC’s an exorbitant fee in order to bring the dead back to life, so that the pain is felt by the group and it’s usually a group decision whether or not to revive the deceased character.

How you manage the death of a PC may depend greatly upon the game/ruleset you play.  OSR style games have a particular vibe I love, and the constant fear of PC death is definitely one of the aspects I enjoy most, probably because it makes the flip side of that coin (characters that succeed and thrive) so much more enjoyable.  5e has a somewhat deeper approach to character creation (notice I don’t say ‘builds’, I’m not a fan of that term), and while I have played in games where character death was possible, it seemed unlikely given that game’s approach to death saves and such.  It’s not impossible for a character to die in a 5e game, but their odds of survival seem far better than in some other games.

Whatever your approach is to character death as a GM, I feel like there should be some guidelines.

  1. Always let the players know how PC death works in your game.  Surprises, in this instance, are not a good thing.
  2. Fudging is a real thing, and can be used by the GM to save the PC, but overuse may lead to a feeling of invulnerability on the part of the players, and have overall negative consequences for gameplay
  3. Make character death, especially at higher levels, a true ‘moment’ in your gaming experience.  Bring some fireworks to bear, and let the player revel in his moment.

There are endless house-ruling options for Character Death.  I use a pretty basic one:

If a character falls 10 points below zero + his/her CON modifier, they must make a death save (essentially a CON save + bonus).  A successful save means the character is unconscious and is in the process of dying and has 3 rounds to be healed (via cleric, magic item, or potion) before expiring.  A failed saving throw is instant death.  

It’s simple, easy to understand, and I think gives the character an opportunity to escape death’s cold grip.  I like that it has the element of randomness (the save) as well as the drama of the big finish.

A player may become very upset at losing a character, especially one they’ve been playing for a long time.  If that person needs time/space to breathe I give it to them, but I won’t stop a game in mid-play.  It is, after all, just a game.


  1. I like your opening paragraph, great job at getting me hooked immediately!

    I agree with your opinion of long and drawn out character creation process does create attachment due to time invested. That is why I tend to prefer games where character mechanics creation is short but RP creation can be long. Characters do die and it does need to be a part of the game. What use is a reward for a job well done or narrowly surviving through wise decisions when everyone gets a participation trophy. Nope. Never in my games.

    I share the OSR feelings you do on this subject and one of the reasons I want to run those games.

    5e is definitely nice, I do like it, but it is difficult for players to die. I think they've been conditioned to expect to not die in 4e? I don't know, but I want them to have the risk of death without seeming like I am a DM that just wants to punish players.

    I'll try out your house rule on death and likely be making encounters a bit more difficult than it should be. They should narrowly survive, not just wipe their swords and move on.

    Some of my best TTRPG memories is my players dying... and I always ended up playing characters that had it coming too (stubborn pallys, noble clerics, smartass sorcerers).

  2. Thanks Chris. I have enjoyed playing 5e to some extent, however I always will opt to play an older ruleset if opportunity allows. Any game can be a good time with the right group!

    If the players come away from a battle without having felt some impact, I usually think I ran it/constructed it wrong.

    Thanks for reading!