On the character death

in #roleplaying3 years ago

I am of the strict opinion that unless the player characters kill a character or the script requires the character dies. You should never let any important characters, player characters included, die in a fight.
Some people like to believe that DnD is a game with win and loss conditions. But for me myself I cannot see that. Ultimately, in my opinion, the GM is there to provide a challenge but never win himself.
I am of the opinion that the GM should bend backward to keep the players alive. Whether that be a godly patron that decided to intervene or a passing adventurer that saves the party. It doesn't really matter what saves the players from their death, but ultimately I see that losing a fight should lead to a plot hook for future adventures and not to rerolling a character.

Ultimately I know it is just my opinion and other people will disagree, so I just wanted to encourage people to speak about whether player death in roleplaying games is good or bad to the story. Discuss please :)


I've written a lot about role-playing games and the role of death as part of the narrative over the last couple of decades, and I'm going to sum up the high points of that right here.

Death sucks. In most traditional systems, having a character die means that you are done for the rest of the session. You are no longer playing the game. At best you might be helping out the GM, or running errands, or playing extras – but you are no longer playing the game you came to play.

Why would you want to do that? Why would anybody who invited you to play with the group want to do that?

Part of this problem comes from the idea of "GM as adversary" as the default mode of play. The idea that "playing to win" exists within the context of interactions at the table. In some contexts, that's good – boardgames, quite a number of wargames, that sort of thing. But in the context of a game in which you sit down with your friends to experience a story with your friends – anything that gets in the way of that experience is a bad idea.

Besides, it's a lot more fun to take things from the characters that they care about. Injure them. Impair their ability to do things. Keep them from the things that they want. Frustrate them. Antagonize them (as the word "antagonist") implies some characters should do.

Death is literally the most boring thing you can do to a character.

These days, I generally don't play role-playing games which have death is an option. If they do, character generation is quick, easy, and you're expected to shift between multiple characters in an evening whether somebody dies or not. This changes the entire experience at the table.

For my purposes, this is a superior mode of play.

Other people may differ.

That is a good point about death stopping you from doing anything that session. But yeah I really hate death even being an option. That is why in my current campaign I run, all the players became unwilling technically liches in the first session. They get to enjoy not dying when they are killed, but the godlike creature who've done it is literally holding their souls in his hand :)
If they mechanically die or do something particularly stupid, I will probably just introduce forced flaws.

So, it really depends on what game I'm playing. But for now I'll stick to talking about my D&D 5e games.

I'm a very by the books DM. I don't cheat rolls. I don't ignore rules. And for things not covered explicitly by the rules I reach of an existing tool within the game rather than inventing my own. I also don't care much for "balance". I lay down my adventures the way I think they should be and if the players wander into some part of it they can't handle, it's on them to realize that and take action.

That means death is on the line in fights. Now, with the death save mechanic and cantrips like Spare Dying, a true TPK is nigh impossible and individual deaths are rare but they do happen. Here's all the things that have happened about PC deaths in my game.

Temples will raise the dead for a 2500gp "donation."
One player had the party give the corpse of his dead character to some elves for safe keeping while he made a new character to go on quest to raise the dead character.
One player has just let it lie and makes a new character each time, no problem.
A few high level casters have raised dead/greater restored a petrified character in exchange for favors.
One group I gave a magic book that will raise the dead of anyone whose name they write in it. However, this binds that person to a demon who will need them to "balance" the books later. This has the creepy visual effect that whenever the demon manifests their characters are literally attached to it with chains.

So yeah, I don't cheat death and no one is saved by anyone's "benevolence". But if players really don't want to lose their characters there are ways around it but the cost is high in money, blood or labor.

Having various ways to overturn death is a decent way to do it. I just don't like the GMing where if you die your character is lost forever.

I think this really depends on the game, I don't think it makes sense to have a blanket policy for all RPGs. For example, I'm not personally familiar with the OSR style of play, but I gather that the risk of death for "bad decisions" is one of the elements that makes that game engaging for people who prefer that style.

And while this is slightly different than straight up dying in a fight, I'll relate a brief anecdote from a session of Mouse Guard that I GMed. There were two players, and their mission for the session was to rescue the governor of Sprucetuck from the dangerous experiment he was conducting (I had made him sort of a wild-eyed mad scientist type of NPC). One of the bad rolls they made in the process of escorting the governor back to the safety of the town called for a twist, which I had prepped as an owl attack. Owls are obviously very dangerous foes for mice, and the owl was out hunting so its goal for the fight was to eat mice, but the players fought valiantly and managed to win, although with the obligation to compromise a significant concession. It seemed to me that the most reasonable compromise relative to the owl's original goal was that it would be driven off but would eat one mouse. When I offered that compromise I fully expected the governor to be the one who was eaten, but one of the players said that their guardmouse would actually be willing to push the governor out of the way, thus sacrificing themselves, in order to save the governor and complete the mission. This was awesome, dramatic, and really drove home aspects of the character in a way that I'm not sure anything else could have. While a twist in Mouse Guard is a bit more significant than a wandering monster roll in D&D, this character death wasn't part of any planned story but nevertheless made for a really cool part of that character's story. If I had fudged rolls or offered a weaker compromise than the owl deserved from the results of the fight then we never would have experienced that cool roleplaying moment.

That is what I mean when I say that script deaths are one of the exceptions. In your case, the player willingly chose the death. That is good story telling. Dying because GM miscalculated the challenge rating, on the other hand, is not.
I am not opposed to death, I am opposed to meaningless death.

I'll keep it short - I disagree. I think you need big risks for big rewards. Without risking anything what's the fun of playing. I always have at least one back up character ready.

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Depends on the game, IMO. If you're using reality to keep your PCs under control, then random crap DOES happen and the riskier their actions the nastier the average response. If you're throwing reality out the window and rewarding risky behavior (both modes are IMO valid game-running behaviors) then perhaps you want to avoid 'meaningless' deaths.

I fear it's a shades-of-gray response spectrum - sometimes you're right, other times you're not, and there's no clear bright line separating the cases.