Careful with that sword. You’ll put an eye out.
This is not a new discussion by any means. I’m willing to bet it came up during the first ever game of Dungeons & Dragons. The game has been around for almost 50 years. Suppose a few characters probably didn’t make it, huh?
Back in the olden times, when we carved our characters into the bark of trees and on papyrus scrolls, character death was almost expected. There was a time when it took fewer than 10 minutes to make a new character. People brought backup characters in case something happened. My group had entire character families built up in case one died. (*We were 12 at the time.)
If you had played the same character for 10 or more levels, yeah there might have been a bit of attachment. You usually didn’t keep a character going that long by making dumb decisions. There might have been a degree of attachment at that point despite repeated DM warnings not to get to emotionally involved.
Fast forward to 5E and Pathfinder 2E.
The way we deal with character death has evolved over the decades. We instituted the -10 rule. We tried Constitution checks. One group had a -Con rule. (Long story there.) One group survived long enough to have Resurrection available on a Spell Point homebrew system. (No pesky material components.) Which was nice because characters kept dropping dead.
I was in a group once where it was a discussion with the DM. If your character took lethal damage, he would ask if you wanted to keep going or make a new character. If your character didn’t make it, at least you could bring a new one in minus one level. It was a good rule. I kept it around for several games.
Low and behold, the modern era of gaming arrived. Now 5E and PF2E have very detailed, long form character sheets. Players are encouraged to create elaborate personas and intricate backstories about their characters. We also have Session Zero and Death Saves for some of the metagame discussion about killing characters.
Therein lies somewhat of a controversy.
Should fantasy ttrpg characters be immune to death? (We’ll limit it to fantasy because other genres handle death a bit differently.) Should we, as DMs and GMs, be allowed to kill off one of the player’s characters during the course of play?
Let’s look at both sides. We’ve got characters running around with swords, axes, crossbows, spells, poison, and all manner of other ouchy, hurty things. They’re fighting Giant Toe Cutter Weasels, Dragons and cute little Kobolds. Someone in any given fantasy world is gonna get hurt. It’s part of most games. We haven’t even mentioned environmental hazards such as R.U.S’s, carnivorous plants, cliffs, and traps. If the characters want fame, fortune, and sick magic loot; they’re gonna have to take risks.
The first argument is: death and dying are a natural part of the ttrpg experience. If there isn’t any combat, challenge, or risk- why are we playing Dungeons & Dragons again? If the players know their characters are basically indestructible, some will take full advantage of it. No risk, huge reward.
Following the first argument, we should be able to completely divorce ourselves mentally and emotionally from our characters. We used to call it the separation between fantasy and reality. Basically the player is not the character.
Major NPCs come up dead or missing all the time in my games. It happens. I don’t lose any sleep over it. I’d like to think I’m setting an example with it.
I halfway expect my players to do the same when it comes to major NPCs. It’s a little different when it’s a player’s character, though. Yeah, I’d prefer they’d just roll with it one way or the other, but it doesn’t always happen. Truthfully, I’m kinda the same way as a player. Sometimes I get a little annoyed when one of my long-standing characters dies.
The other side of the fence.
D&D in the 5E era is a collective storytelling experience. We invest time and emotion into our characters. Some go so far as to put on elf ears and green face paint. The character stats are an abstraction, and the personality is everything.
We give these modern characters all the seriousness and drama that goes into a Shakespeare production. Some people take Critical Role way too seriously. We’re not playing a game anymore; we’re creating and voicing a script together. No disrespect to CR, but maybe it’s setting the bar a little high?
I even read a comment the other day on Twitter that some players feel traumatized when their character dies. That’s pretty powerful stuff. I would feel really bad as a DM/GM if that happened to one of my players, especially on some bad dice rolls. I’m not in it to hurt people’s feelings in the real world.
I have some solutions for preventing character death later on in the article. My group nowadays tends to lean more into the second category here. It’s my wife and kids, so I try to keep it challenging, but I don’t want to traumatize the younger ones, either.
The Old School crowd usually doesn’t go in for the more dramatic approach and giving the PCs impermeable plot armor. If that’s how they want to play hardcore at their game, great. I’m kind of a big softie when it comes to killing characters, for which some of the Grognards do give me grief. Again, it’s a matter of differing playstyles. No one is right or wrong.
Just do it!
I’ve also had a player tell me to never fudge dice rolls to keep his character alive. I saw another Twitter post the same day as the one above where a player made the DM do exactly that. The character is part of the setting’s lore now. That’s pretty epic in a way. I admire the bravado.
I think there needs to be a clear understanding between the players and the DM when it comes to killing off characters. If the player is cool about it, let them have a moment to say some last words, go down with the ship, and do one last heroic, dramatic act. Then, well, you know.
The unscrupulous way (in my opinion) is for the DM to just fudge die rolls, adjust crits, or lower damage numbers. It’s pretty easy if you roll behind a screen. However, some players get very upset if they catch the DM doing this and I prefer not to erode the players’ trust that way.
Another alternative is to retcon the character death into a permanent injury or disability. Maybe the character fails the third death save and has a Near Death Experience or is somehow pushed back by a relative or deity. Maybe the character has to spend some time in a coma or only appears to be dead.
I like to talk to my players when their character is on the brink and ask how they would prefer it to play out. If they want to roll up a new character, we’ll make it work. If they want their current character to survive, somehow, we’ll find a way and make it look very dramatic.
Another kinda cheap tactic is to invoke the “Look Out Sir” rule. This is where an NPC companion, pet, or familiar takes the fatal hit for the character. The NPC sacrifices all of its remaining hit points and dies saving the PC. This is one of my favorites, but it does tend to look a little comedic if over used. In one campaign it was more of “Message for you, Sir. Ack!” A lot of NPCs died in that campaign.
Other things that can be done:
If you have followed my blog for a while, you know I’m a big fan of Session Zero. Character Death needs to be an important part of the conversation and I like to bring it up as a DM/GM, especially with new players or ones new to the group. There are a lot of neurodivergent folx and people who have trauma in and around the topic of death.
What we decide might apply to some or all downed foes as well. Maybe the group only fights to wound, not kill. Maybe most/all things refuse to fight to the death. No Player vs Player combat. Maybe one or more PCs will regularly give aid to the fallen on both sides of a conflict.
I would rather know it’s coming early on in a campaign before a purple worm or one of my other favorite Huge creatures swallows a PC whole. It’s better to get ahead of a potentially harmful play experience than after an X card goes up and we have to halt play. I’ll still do whatever it takes, but it’s just easier to get ahead of it.
Frankly, if the group all agree that we’re playing the game for the drama more that the loot and experience, I’m okay letting the characters all live. I might go to Milestone awards instead of strict Experience Points and angle more situations toward social interaction or exploration than combat. We don’t have to reward violent behavior.
We also have a rule in my house that if one of the kids seems to be having trouble separating fact from fantasy, we stop and discuss. My wife and I want to make sure the kids are mostly well-adjusted and appear halfway “normal.” We’re also trying to avoid the trauma, although video games and the news do a pretty good job of desensitization without us.
One last note if a character is dying or fails all three saves and should be dead, we can freeze that moment in time and have a talk after the game about what we’re going to do with the character in question. I think it’s important to always make the discussion about the character and not the player. It’s never personal if a character is dying (even if it’s usually as a result of the player’s actions…) We can discuss a new character, how to dramatically save the old one, whether or not the character might live on as an NPC or whatever. I’m always open to suggestions.
Another thing that can be often overlooked:
Just because a character dies in one campaign, doesn’t mean the player has to tear up the character sheet and throw the elf ears away forever. That “dead” character can just as easily come back for one-shots, as a DM NPC in another game, or as a character in someone else’s campaign. (Might have to start back at first level, though.) I know a guy that literally plays the same exact Mage in literally every campaign. He’d probably faint if he had to roll Fighter.
I’ve recycled plenty of characters from one game to the next. Some survived the whole campaign before, and some died only to be brought back as NPCs. For example, if the NPC Rogue, Matthias, dies in my Friday night game, and the group really liked that personality, he might come back as Jasper with the same accent, personality, gear, etc in the next campaign. I like to do cameo appearances, too.
“Starring Matthias, the Rogue as himself.” My wife groans. Everyone else laughs. At least it’s not Bocephus the Banjo Playing Bard again.
Thanks for stopping by. Character death in TTRPGs is one of my favorite topics along with the alignment debate. One of these days we’ll discuss TPKs or party wipes as we sometimes call them. I appreciate you being here. Have a good week!