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Worlds of Design: The Four Laws of Character Death

A problem that I have in GMing RPGs, and I imagine a lot of other people have, is reluctance to kill characters that players have become strongly attached to. I'll describe my evolution in how I have dealt with this.

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Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

The Law of Survivability
In its early days Dungeons & Dragons was intended to be played with a single character per person, with hirelings to beef the party up to a reasonable number. That number was closer to eight than to the four we saw in D&D third edition. Those numbers make a big difference, as "Lew's Law of Survivability" is intended to illustrate:

The survivability of a party varies with the square of the number of characters in it.


Note: this is about survivability of the entire party, but that should enhance individual survivability. The numbers are relative, that is, a party of 3 (3 squared = 9) is one quarter as survivable as a party of 6 (squared = 36).

The Law of Single Characters
And if a player has only one character, the GM is much less likely to allow that character to die, as I indicate in "Lew's Law of Single Characters”:

The more a player focuses on just one character, the harder it is for the GM to have that character die."


Hirelings earned half experience, and if the principal character got killed it was usually possible for the player to become one of the hirelings.

In those early days we didn't make up detailed backgrounds for characters. Sometimes they didn't even have names to begin with, as we let what happened in the first several adventures define the character and suggest a name. We were quite game oriented and not nearly so much story oriented.

I was the original GM in our group, but I wanted to play as well as GM, so I encouraged other players to learn to GM. This led in a large group to players using characters in the campaigns of several GMs at the same time. Hirelings per se were entirely dispensed with. Sometimes a player played two characters when there were not enough players to make a party of at least six and as many as eight. In some cases the players who regularly gamemastered got to play a second character while those who did not GM played just one—gamemaster privilege. There was always a “overall GM” who was in charge in case screwy things happened (which usually involved one GM giving too much "stuff" away).

Today we find many players who are much more interested in story than game, and who want to make a mark on the campaign with the story of their character. This frequently means that the player devises (usually with approval from the GM) an elaborate backstory for their character. I have never done this because it slows down the initial games, and I prefer to get people playing the game rather than worrying about the individual non-game details of their character, especially when there's a significant chance that the newbie characters will be killed with little hope of resurrection.

The Law of Character Generation
I've also seen that the more time a player puts into a character, the more incentive there is for the GM to keep that character alive. Hence "Lew's Law of Character Generation":

The longer players take to generate characters, the less likely those characters are to die.


The Law of Imposed Stories
A strong corollary to the GM telling the players a story is that hardly any character will ever be killed - unless in service of the story. Hence "Lew's Law of Imposed Stories”:

The more a GM treats their RPG campaign as storytelling session, the less likely it is that a character will die.


To go back to the original point, my solution is to get characters into a game as fast as possible—which also seems to be the strategy in D&D fifth edition—while allowing players more than one character when that's appropriate. When players have several characters gradually progressing there are two benefits: it takes much longer (in real time) for players to reach higher levels, and if a player's character dies that player has several others to play, and he/she is not devastated the way they would have been with just one character.

I know that with the experience we have among the readers there have been other solutions to this, and I hope you'll reveal how you’ve coped with the "problem" of character death.[/excerpt][/excerpt]
 
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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

Jacob Lewis

Ye Olde GM
The Law of Personal Relations
It must be said that our personal bonds and friendships with players can (and will) affect how a GM will treat people differently, proportional to the relative nature of their relationship.
"The stronger and closer the personal bond between a player and the GM, the less likely it is that a character will die."
My solution- don't mix friends, relatives, and spouses in with groups of random strangers who you are more likely to sacrifice in order to avoid dealing with personal resentment with those you spend more time with outside of the game. Failure to do so may create incidents that can be viewed as "playing favorites", even if everyone understands you are just trying to avoid awkward conversations at the office, reduced eye contact with people you like, self-imposed guilt, attempts to appease by allowing more magic items and options than you feel comfortable with, and extended overnight stays at the couch where "you can fix your own @#$! meals!"
 
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Hussar

Legend
Heh. It's funny, the game that @lewpuls describes back in the early days is exactly how we played. It wasn't until years later that I met people who figured that a group should only have one GM.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
With basically one exception* we never really played that way. We never viewed PCs as expendable.

So different people had different experiences.

*which was a kill them all even if it's just a "by the way your PC is dead because I just rolled a d6 and you were 6th in line" session.
 

atanakar

Hero
With basically one exception* we never really played that way. We never viewed PCs as expendable.

So different people had different experiences.

*which was a kill them all even if it's just a "by the way your PC is dead because I just rolled a d6 and you were 6th in line" session.

Yep! From the get go in 1980. We didn't want our characters to die. We wanted reach the highest levels and live the greatest adventures! The game killed our characters with random death rolls. So we changed the game or stopped using the rules that randomly killed out characters.

Character death sucks when it's totally random. When it is the result of an epic game experience, it hurts, but it is memorable and acceptable.
 

jgsugden

Legend
I agree with the first rule - smaller parties are more vulnerable than larger ones that have the resources to help each other and still be offensive, but the 2nd, 3rd and 4th are not true of my campaigns. I'm similar to Matt Mercer in my approach to these issues. Matt discussed how he handles PC death when Molly died on Critical Role. And yes, I know there has only been one permanent death in Critical Role. He was, however, willing to kill other PCs. They've barely recovered dead PCs to raise them in a few episodes. One die roll different and Fjord would have been gone multiple times...

When a player invests a lot of time building a background, weaving it into the campaign with the DM and enjoying the way that character is pivotal to the storyline the initial impulse is to say it is hard to kill that PC and that the DM is more likely to 'save' the PC. I do not see it that way.

When a PC dies, their story does not die. It is still in that world. It still unfolds, just without the PC. The party may let it go - resulting in something bad happening that the PC wanted to stop. They may take up the fight in the fallen PC's name. They may find someone to take over the quest. A lot of things can happen - but in a storytelling driven game, the death of a PC can be a great turn in the story.

And, as a player, most of the memorable PCs I've played died - and the death was the most memorable moment of their existence. I'd much rather have a PC die than have the campaign stop without them reaching their goal. Of my top 10 favorite PCs of the past 40 years, 2 retired at the culmination of a campaign and 8 died. Death hurts in the moment, but I know the long term cool factor is there.
 


Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
I've had plenty of elf PCs die. Every single Elf PC I've ever run dies by 3rd level or lower.

That's okay unless it's a completely random senseless death because the DM can always have a giant hand come out of a wall and kill a PC. Hopefully the death means something but when you dive into combat with monsters sometimes the monsters win. Sometimes the monsters crit when your elf PC is first level and this is the DM's first 5E game and they don't have a good grasp on CR yet. Not that I'm bitter, Jeff. No sirree.

On the other hand I don't really look at my PCs as disposable like some people do or did.
 

….the more time a player puts into a character, the more incentive there is for the GM to keep that character alive.

I feel the more time a player puts into a character the more incentive for that player to keep their character alive. I, as the DM have absolutely only one job which is to create fair encounters/adventures and adjudicate them fairly. Bad dice rolls and player choices don't matter to me. If a player's character dies they have two choices, 1) try to bring them back to life or make a new character. In the event they choose the third option of pouting and throwing a fit they can quit the game. The way I see things is the higher level a character becomes the stakes get higher and they are taking on more deadly endeavors and therefore death is very likely. No participation trophies here. Death is part of the game and both DMs and Players should realize and plan for this inevitability. As a DM I'm not designing anything around any one character and the Players should accept that PC love is fleeting. Nothing puts a smile on my face quite like the reaction when the new party runs into undead forms of their old party.
 


univoxs

That's my dog, Walter
Supporter
This is a little different in say Vampire. You are supposed to make a very fleshed out character, and yet the game is very deadly. Maybe I am just lucky but I had players go through almost every bit of pre-written content for Vampire Dark Ages and then die, but it was a satisfying and dramatic moment. The experience is talked of fondly. When playing an Adventure Path for Pathfinder, the rogue dies at least once before we reach high enough level to have access to a raise dead spell. It has become a trope with my tables, which makes it a bit meta and perhaps less meaningful when it happens. I have found myself plum out of rogue concepts before from the sheer number of them I have lost. I like death in my games, as a GM and player, no stakes is no fun. I greatly dislike get out of jail point systems. We have played a lot of Warhammer 4e now and the point system is my least favorite part of the game. 4 different stats that let you avoid this and that. I say let em rip and face the consequences. All my favorite characters have died. Sometimes more than once as I have re-used their concepts later on down the line and years later.
 

Often true - a pointless death is usually not great - but I have had some truly epic pointless deaths.

I have hundreds of them I'm sure if I could only remember them. But one comes to mind. In 2E Planescape, this character lasted all of maybe 15 minutes. I made a 1st level geriatric half-elf wizard who was 1 yr away from max old age. The concept was that he was an old doddering mage who wasn't too bright so he never really excelled. His name was Dodderdum Gibb. I put all his NWP into dancing, hey baby whats your sign?, fashion, so basically everything other than mage related ones. He only knew and owned two spells, Dancing Lights, and the other ICR. Long story short he was eaten trying to disco past a Tanar'ri. Groovey!!
 

Voadam

Hero
I've handled it differently at different times.

I ran a number of long term AD&D and d20 campaigns where what happened, happened with character deaths. I got really good at judging encounters so they would be dangerous with PCs getting close to zero and death but coming out on top but also with some memorable character deaths and TPKs as well.

I've even TPK'd my two nieces and my son in a 5e game.

In my latest 5e long-term story-heavy campaign, however, I did a house rule that when PCs dropped they would explicitly have the option of either dying or choosing not to and I would figure out some way to keep things going narratively, possibly with ongoing consequences when I brought them back. This way those very interested in playing their characters could do so, while those satisfied with the ending could wrap up that character and take on a new one.
 


Zimzerveran

President, Fraternal Order of Owlbears
I've been guilty in the past of preventing character deaths. These days I'm less interested in writing a grand storytelling game for PCs with elaborate backgrounds. I'd rather get characters with two or three sentence backgrounds and let their stories unfold during play. If they die due to poor choices during play, I'm okay with that. Would I kill a character instantly with a trap? No. But if you don't retreat when you're outmatched or severely wounded or just too stubborn to run, well, tough. It's a pretty fine line, though. Establishing expectations about character deaths at the start of a campaign is probably a smart move.
 

J-H

Explorer
I've killed two PCs in my Castlevania game (started level 3, just hit 12). A sorcerer died going into melee to buy time for two other players to run away from a fight that went bad. They escaped, and came back the next session to free the genie and kill the vampire responsible for his death.

The other one was last night. The rogue scouted ahead, becoming visible on the lifesight of some undead werewolves being piloted by Death (dead adventurers in the castle get this fate; they've run into this 3 times prior). He got selected (as the lowest HP target thanks to Lifesight) for Finger of Death, and then failed his save. A zombie cannot be Revivified, and the party didn't revivify him before he turned into a zombie. We all liked the character, but oh well.

Next session (assuming progression happens like I expect) they will end up fighting Death in person. Between this and the presence of the undead corpse of the aforementioned sorcerer, I suspect they will feel plenty of motivation to kill him.

Both deaths felt a bit random to me, but both actually ended up being tied to powerful villains that the party would have the opportunity to face and defeat later.
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
Both deaths felt a bit random to me, but both actually ended up being tied to powerful villains that the party would have the opportunity to face and defeat later.

I wonder about the causality arrow, here. It's possible that these more-or-less random deaths motivated the party to track down, face, and defeat these particular villains. That's definitely a thing that can happen, along the lines of a randomly-generated encounter becoming an on-ramp for a story-arc. I'd call it an aspect of good GMing to work things that way--even if you didn't exactly plan it out that way.
 

Eyes of Nine

Everything's Fine
There are the notable exceptions which I think prove the rule, like a DCC funnel. A funnel celebrates the death of the characters; but the ones that survive are appreciated all the more.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
I look at it this way: Either death is on the table or it isn't and I'm going to tell the players which it is as appropriate to the campaign theme.

If death is on the table, then I expect players to make backup characters. Not because I'm gunning for them, but because my main concern is to make sure the players can get back into the primary mode of participation with the game as quickly as possible when a character dies. I don't want anyone sitting around, not earning XP or treasure, unless that's what they want to do. If they have a backup character at the ready, we tap that character in and establish whatever fiction is needed to have it make sense for the character to show up. Typically I make some effort to write in these characters in some way previously so that the transition is relatively seamless.

If death is off the table, then life or death stakes are just not present in the game. The PCs can lose, but they cannot die. I find this is better than fudging or going easy on the characters because I am unwilling to accept death as an outcome. I'd rather just adjust what it means to lose all your hit points or fail your death saves than work toward making sure they don't lose all their hit points or fail their death saves. One that I've used before is something I picked up from another game - "taken out." The "dead" PC is done in this scene, whatever that means, and can no longer contribute to the group's goals. In the next or some subsequent scene, the PC is back, perhaps a bit worse for wear, but not dead.

Death happens. DMs who prepare for it make for a much better game experience in my view.
 

Ace

Adventurer
I love the fact we get legends like Mr. Pulsipher and Mr. Greenwood to share insights with us here. Amazing!

IMO in addition to the above rules character death is also tied to player buy in. When players anf DM are into genres life where is expected to be cheap and victories dear it creates a game style of its own.

This tends to a slow, careful almost plodding style of play which is not for everyone and again IMO this style has been waning for decades. If you have the time and patience though. Its really fun.

It also plays well with making raises and resurrection difficult if allowed at all. Think of it as a permadeath run in a computer game and you won't be far from the truth.

As an aside, I have no problem killing off characters fair and square the the players know it . This however has been much easier said than done. They know they might die so they make an effort not to and get to live also fair and square.

In that sense the dice are the story which is I guess a bit old school but agains so I am I.

Works for me.
 

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