How to deal with death in RPG?

uzirath

Adventurer
This has been discussed quite a bit on these and other forums. Two threads I recall from a few years ago were The Dying Conundrum and one that I started, Not Dying.

My own position is that it depends a lot on the style of campaign and what your players are looking for. As I mention in the Not Dying thread, in my longest running campaigns, I don't irrevocably kill PCs due to bad die rolls. There are scenes and encounters that are significant enough that death is on the table, but usually the stakes are deeper than mere character death: the PCs are deeply invested in the game world and care about their allies, local and international politics, etc. When they're invested in the in-game stakes, you get plenty of drama from the game without knocking characters off.

In other types of games, keeping your character alive against the odds is the whole point, so in those games you can definitely die from a bad roll. The idea in those games is to minimize the number of times you need to roll-or-die. Since that's a core element of the fun, to take it away would be counterproductive.

Do you find that your ideas differ from your players? What are their preferences?
 
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Growbacca

Visitor
Half of the party expects the GM to cheat and half doesn`t. I`m in favor of let actions and dices decide.

But the other half says a good GM doens`t let a player die, unless, he wants to. Because they put so much time and effort in creating and desenvolving their characters. Also they say that rules don`t metter, only fun.
 

MNblockhead

A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
In my current campaign, I either laugh or commiserate with the player whose character died, and they then have their character added to my campaigns "Obituary" list, which is prominently posted right behind where I sit.

Also, headstones with their character's name and a pun in poor taste magically appears in the sunken graveyard outside the entrance of Rappan Athuk.

Now, if EVERYONE in the party dies, Goodman Games has a product that might be helpful: LINK.
 

Imaculata

Adventurer
In my opinion, if death isn't a possibility in your campaign, this undermines the stakes and severely undermines the threat of your monsters. The moment the players notice that you are jumping through hoops to keep them alive, you lose a lot of the suspense. So here's how I handle this:

Early on in the campaign, when the players are low level, the encounters are fairly balanced, and during combat the monsters may change focus on a different player to spread out the damage a bit among the group. This is my tool as a DM to offer a bit of a safety net for my players early on.

But then as they come into the mid-level range, I take away this safety net pretty quickly. CR's become challenging, but not deadly (or not designed to be deadly). I will however throw in a few tough encounters that put the fear of death into them.

At high level my game becomes a lot less forgiving. CR's are through the roof, and often the players are at a strong disadvantage when facing these foes. There are no safety nets, and the monsters will stay focussed on any PC they think they can kill... and they will kill that PC if there's an opportunity. Not every encounter will be fair. There are some encounters that the players would be better to flee from, because the opposition is simply too tough and they will die if they try to fight it. The players need to use their brain to turn a fight into their favor, by using what's available in the terrain, and making clever use of their spells and abilities.

By gradually increasing the difficulty curve like this, a PC death will not come out of left field. Of course it still sucks for the player when this happens, but when they are this high level, it is less of an issue. They just roll up a new character (of the same level as the other PC's) and rejoin the party.
 
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S'mon

Legend
I wouldn't run or play a D&D game where PCs could not die. But you can implement rules that make death less likely, eg

Use less threatening monsters, encounters & traps.

Give PCs 'Fate Points' or similar resource that they can spend to avoid death. 1 use per Long Rest would be very generous. 1 use per Level would also work. You could also allow Inspiration to be spent by a PC, or on their behalf, to avoid death.

IME death in 5e is only likely at low level. For my Thule campaign I give PCs their full CON score plus max hit die at level 1, and that issue is solved.
 

steenan

Adventurer
It's just a matter of the game following a consistent set of assumptions instead of a contradictory one.

If character arcs and character development are an important part of the game then the game shouldn't have random character death. There are many more interesting stakes and consequences than dying, so the GM should be guided (or explicitly required) to use them. Of course, the same approach just doesn't work in a game where characters care about nothing but their own asses.

On the other hand, if the game is about deadly danger then it should kill PCs and should make it explicit that they are not expected to last. To be consistent, such a game should not push players towards character development arcs nor hide interesting abilities behind mechanical advancement. It should, instead, offer solid mechanism for putting new characters in play to replace the killed ones or, in case of one-shot games, give something interesting to do for the players of dead characters.

Less traditional games may use more exotic approaches. Maybe being dead is just a condition that burdens the character, but does not prevent them from acting. Maybe there is no character ownership, so a character dying does not remove any player from the game. Maybe every player controls a number of characters, so losing on of them is not a problem. Maybe the game just isn't about anything lethal so the death does not matter at all.


Honestly, I haven't had any problems with characters dying in any games other than D&D and other traditional games with more sacred cows than clear design.
 

Imaculata

Adventurer
If character arcs and character development are an important part of the game then the game shouldn't have random character death.
Death in D&D is almost always going to be random. You don't pick which fight you lose, and neither should the DM. There may be a few cases where a player decides to sacrifice himself for his party, but quite often you don't get to choose the moment and manner of your character's death, no matter how focused the game is on character development.

On the other hand, if the game is about deadly danger then it should kill PCs and should make it explicit that they are not expected to last. To be consistent, such a game should not push players towards character development arcs nor hide interesting abilities behind mechanical advancement.
This seems very odd to me. I would think that the more the players care about their characters, the more real the threat of death is. It is especially those characters who have had a lot of character development, whose death has the most meaning to the players. I feel that every game (no matter how deadly) should make you care about your character and their inevitable death.
 

pemerton

Legend
In my opinion, if death isn't a possibility in your campaign, this undermines the stakes and severely undermines the threat of your monsters. The moment the players notice that you are jumping through hoops to keep them alive, you lose a lot of the suspense.
This is a General RPG thread. So I don't think there can be any assumption that the only "loss condition", even in combat, is death.

The three FRPGs I've GMed most recently are Cortex+ Heroic, Prince Valiant and The Dying Earth. The former two don't involve death as a serious threat. The third I only GMed today, and I didn't have to remind myself of its health/death rules because there was very little fighting in the game, and no successful attacks.

In Prince Valiant, the most common form of fighting is jousting between knights, and the stakes are losing (or gaining) warhorses, arms and armour, as well as status/dignity. And these are some of the most dramatic fights I've GMed!

It's just a matter of the game following a consistent set of assumptions instead of a contradictory one.

If character arcs and character development are an important part of the game then the game shouldn't have random character death. There are many more interesting stakes and consequences than dying

<snip>

On the other hand, if the game is about deadly danger then it should kill PCs and should make it explicit that they are not expected to last. To be consistent, such a game should not push players towards character development arcs nor hide interesting abilities behind mechanical advancement.

<snip>

Honestly, I haven't had any problems with characters dying in any games other than D&D and other traditional games with more sacred cows than clear design.
Your post made me reflect on what is only the third PC death that's occurred in a game I've GMed in the past decade or so. It was in Classic Traveller about a month ago. (Last year we had a death in our first Prince Valiant session, when a PC sacrificed himself to the Wild Hunt to try to keep a noblewoman from hell; and nearly 10 years ago a 3rd level 4e D&D character ended up food for goblins. In the latter case there was an express player choice to start a new character.)

The character died when 3 PCs, who had been knocked unconscious following capture and interrogation, had regained consciousness in the medical bay of the enemy base while a 4th PC was taking out the base using a captured suit if powered armour. The now-dead character broke free of the straps holding him to his gurney and attempted to take down a SMG-wielding NPC who was keeping guard over the three captives. The attempt failed, and the PC was shot dead.

Traveller provides no mechanical support for heroic endeavours. So it's all on the GM in framing and the players in responding. Earlier in the session, another captured PC had been able to get the drop on a SMG-wielding guard, and there was a dramatic back-and-forth wrestling over the gun which left the PC victorious but hurt. This was the PC who went on to don the powered armour. So the sad death served as a nice dramatic counterpoint to this PC's endeavours - but I wouldn't say the system itself provided a lot of support for that outcome, as opposed to a combination of deft GMing (if I do say so myself!) in combination with the random outcomes of action resolution.

Traveller PCs have their backstory established as part of the lifepath PC gen system, and there is very little mechanical PC development after that point. And I would not say that Traveller favours character development arcs - it's situation-based with a hint of setting, not deeply character-based. In our game, following advice from an early number of White Dwarf, each player started with two characters; and over the course of play a number of secondary characters have been brought into the group. The player was able to take on one of these recent additions as a new main PC.

I see the possibility of PC death, and its degree of arbitrariness, as something that results primarily from the system and secondarily from GM framing of situations and adjudication of consequences. The idea that without the risk of PC death the stakes must be low and/or the resolution insipid isn't one I give much credence to.
 

Sepulchrave II

Adventurer
When I referee a campaign, the death of a PC only ever comes at the explicit direction of the player; occasional one-shots might have a different paradigm. This has been my position since the 1980s; even in 1e, death was nothing more than a 5500gp inconvenience – so what’s the point?

When death occurs, it might be for a variety of different reasons: sometimes there has been a heroic element; most often, it has happened for the rather mundane reason that player simply wants to try a different character.

Notwithstanding games like Paranoia and Call of Cthulhu, where the death (or the functionally equivalent removal from play due to Insanity) are central, I don’t ascribe any particular virtue to the notion of death by die roll. I don’t think it provides any particular motivator. I don’t think it improves the game experience. I don’t think that it “cheapens” the play experience to remove the threat of random pointless death.

YMMV, of course.
 
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jasper

Rotten DM
Please help me


I'm a long time GM and I am always looking for better ways for my players to have more fun. But dealing with character death is still a strong taboo. Could you please help me filling and finding better ways to deal with character death?


https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSeJc7Y_TBb78nfEF3KcfIGZDnQfNaX1cWaMuS2xlPk3P_Um4w/viewform?usp=sf_link
Strong Taboo. hahahahaah Skully has 51 names. I roll out in the open and occasionally split attacks over pcs. But if the pc dies, the pc dies. I don't do quests to get pc back up. Either have the party cast a raise, or pay the gold pieces and bring back the dead.
If the game you are playing have death on the line, should the monsters try to win too?
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
I'm trying a new houserule in my current game: PCs don't die unless the player says so. They still go down, and if they don't die, I get to be mean about it. Had 1 TPK 5 sessions in as a serious test, and it's worked great. I chose to unwind one PC's successes in his personal goal, setting a difficult challenge in the way. I flipped two other PC's backstories on thier heads, causing some serious reflection on what they thought they knew, and I had the Grave domain cleric become haunted. Everyone at the table has loved it so far. Their characters hate it, though.

For me, I realized character dearh really only punishes players. I'm trying out punishing characters instead.
 

S'mon

Legend
I definitely find the possibility of (permanent) PC death makes D&D and similar games much more exciting & involving for me. But it doesn't have to be frequent; like the death penalty it can be almost arbitrarily rare and still have the desired effect. Some of my favourite campaigns were the ones were amazingly no one died in dozens of sessions. And D&D is cleverly structured to make (permanent) PC death less and less likely as the game goes on.

Checking the logs of my Primeval Thule campaign - https://simonsprimevalthule.blogspot.com/ - it feels very very dangerous; wildly unbalanced encounters, no raise dead, 1st level PCs in "level 4-6" or "level 5-8" adventures. 12 sessions in, 1 PC death - that was the guy who betrayed the rest of the party, broke the anti-summoning ward they had sweated blood to create, ran off and left them with the summoned demons.... ...and ran right into a cavern of waiting Shadows. I have to say I don't think anyone but the player wept too much for that PC. :D

I think the wildly unbalanced encounters (& lack of raise dead) may be a reason for the lack of PC death - players feel comfortable running away when the Abominable Sloth comes crashing into the camp of their level 1 PCs. Whereas in a kill-everything game they might feel obliged to fight it for the XP.
 
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Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
I was playing in a live-action game this weekend as an NPC, in which I helped with a scene that was the PCs death.

The game, as a whole, makes PC death difficult - it is a cyberpunk world in which they frequently take a snapshot of the PC's mind, and if they die, they are put into a new body. There is a chance of the copy degrading, and this goes up the more often you do it. So, there's some chance of repercussion, but rarely would this end the character. The game is in its third year, the ninth or tenth session, I think, and no PC has permanently died.

And, for these players (30+ of them), the loss of the threat of death really hasn't sapped their fun, ingenuity, or the like - because not being able to die does not mean they are sure to succeed at anything. In this game, there are no fights for the purpose of killing things and taking their loot - the combat scenes are missions with goals that matter to the game world and PCs. If they fall in a combat in which terrorists are trying to set off a nuclear bomb, that bomb is going to explode and take an entire city with it. They have enough empathy to find that putting other things and people at risk is a good motivator to intelligent play.


In this case, the player had found that their character sounded good when they started, but in practice, was becoming much less fun over time, and they wanted to change.

So, with player permission, we killed off that character pretty violently. The other characters in the game were not aware this was going to happen, so we got to surprise them with it, and push all the fun emotional buttons that go with it.
 

Zhaleskra

Explorer
*sigh* Only one page in and we a already have a “ death as the only consequence of combat” straw man?
 
I

Immortal Sun

Guest
It's going to depend on so many factors its hard to give you a good answer. Is the system you're playing anti-death? Death-aplenty? Something else? Does the system have suggestions for how to handle death? What sort of game style do you enjoy? How do you want to treat your players?

I don't think killing players is taboo. But I generally set up my game with the expectation that the players will win. However, death is usually a risk, but it's typically death by stupidity. Most cases of "this has a chance to kill you" will be pretty clear, and players who ignore them walk headlong into their deaths. How things are dealt with from there depends on the party, both players and PCs. Do the other PCs care about the guy who just died? Does the dead PC's player want to resume playing that character? Does the PC's death move the story forward or backwards?

There's a million factors to consider both in-game and out-of-game.

Personally, I don't care for random death, I find it boring as a DM and a PC. I enjoy meaningful death, but I don't see a lot of that in D&D.
 

Zhaleskra

Explorer
I'm starting to have a problem with the concept of "random death", in that, I don't think it's actually random. You got into or were forced into a fight and chose not to flee when losing, or you didn't check for traps (or failed your find traps roll) and triggered the trap you didn't find (until now).

The possibility of so-called "random" deaths is what separates a "serious" RPG from a book, movie, or play for me. That said, it's not everyone's GMing or playing style, so go with what works for you.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
like the death penalty it can be almost arbitrarily rare and still have the desired effect.

How about we not put things that the Supreme Court has to argue over in as evidence of what RPGs should do, or how RPGs operate, please and thank you.
 

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