Death is the ever-present threat in all RPGs that kind of holds us back from doing dumb things, like attacking a dragon with a level three character, flying a ship into the sun, taking on an orc army, or whatever thing you can think of that can end in death. In RPGs death doesn’t mean you jump back three sessions and try to roll the dice again to see what happens, as a matter of fact in most instances your character can become permanently unplayable or their plot can be altered in an irreversible way. I’ve seen some crazy stuff happen like a shifty discount healer brings a soul back but leaves a piece of them in hell, or maybe brings back a totally different soul altogether and now you have a bad guy with your buddies face.
The point is there are tons of cool and meaningful ways that a character dies or leaves the party or whatever and in no way should it be arbitrary. Sometimes players commit assisted suicide by just jumping into unbeatable fights and other times a GM kills a player based on a d20 roll for no real reason. The worst cases are bloodthirsty GMs who purposefully create inescapable situations that result in death or GMs who just plain railroad death. Remember that players should always be able to escape death and of course, I get that if a player runs off to do something stupid and gets ROFLstomped then that’s one thing, but if a player is playing smart then no matter how close to death they get the challenge should be statistically survivable.
When you mutually agree with a player that the player will play a new character consider making your character into an NPC. It’s really cool to make a PC into an NPC for a ton of reasons. It can make a very cool bad guy that maybe has succumbed to the allure of ultimate power or maybe your PC has just found peace and doesn’t want to adventure anymore. There’s a ton of things that can make a PC retire that would be very narratively relevant.
If you decide that a retired character should die then make sure everyone knows. I understand the importance of story in a RPG, but if your player don’t know what you’re doing they could end up dying trying to save you or it could otherwise hurt the party. You’re suspensful moment can really backfire in this way and trust me, I’ve seen total party kills (TPKs) off of this exact instance.
Seriously though here are some things that players and GMs should take into account.
- If a player wants a new character then plan it out: There’s no shame in not liking your character, and maybe you just need to respec it. The point is talking to your GM and keeping that open dialogue can resolve a lot of hang-ups. Player suicide can confuse a party and drive the party apart.
- Don’t be bloodthirsty: as a GM it is your job to create a world that is both challenging and engaging. Being bloodthirsty will frustrate and annoy your players beyond belief and can create some really awful passive-aggressive responses. Basically, when you break down that line of communication it can cause problems. You might even just have players disappear.
- Check and make sure your encounters are fair and balanced: Some games don’t have encounter tables and you really have to feel out what an encounter is like and have that experience before you can really play with that line. The best bet, in this case, is less is best. Judge your players strength by pulling your punches then you’ll know how to apply the pressure better from there. In other cases, there is probably an encounter level with all the math done already. Read on how to use said table and put that into practice and keep in mind if you’re still worried about the encounter then less is still best.
- Sometimes though characters succumb to impromptu death and that’s okay: I have had a few characters die to either to bad decisions or to bad luck and that’s just how it is sometimes. My main game that I GM for is “Star Wars Age of Rebellion”, and when a PC charges some stormtroopers with a live grenade when said stormtroopers are hunkered down with automatic guns… well let’s just say he didn’t make it.
Things, like using your surroundings and distributing aggro, are important in my games and when the players don’t think strategically they get to die. About a month ago my players split the party down the middle with the heavy fighters on one side and the specialists (the politician, a light fighter, and our rogue) on the other side. Well, the specialist party got into one fight and they all died except for the rogue on a challenge that would have taken maybe three turns by the fighters. Meanwhile, the fighters had this awesome action sequence and at the end, they were lucky to have a character with a high intelligence score do to the stuff they needed to do and even then they barely made it. The point is that your players should not be awarded or given things for not being smart. If you do that then it will start to encourage that mentality and you will have however many people running around like master chief destroying everything everywhere… well maybe it won’t be that bad but still.
Now there’s a huge difference between “death” and death in a lot of fantasy games. Most places in a DnD have a local priest or healer equivalent and in most cases, you just pop on in with any given corpse do some prayers, exchange some gold, and bam you got your character back and sometimes you don’t even need the gold! Now I’m not saying that the impermanence of death can cheat a narrative mostly because you ARE playing a game and there has to be a bit of that. What I am saying is that cheating death leaves death pretty miffed about the whole thing. Don’t let players just get out of death but rather hunt them down final destination style or Lazarus pit them (Batman fans know what’s up), or, in the case of DnD, you can send monsters from an alternate dimension that seek to destroy any life form that wants to become immortal. The point is that your options are out there.
Some tips for your games that will help if there is a character death.
- Look up any mechanical consequences to a character death: When my last surviving rogue found her friends butchered by a medical droid she ended up passing out due to the stress
- Keep extra character sheets on hand: It’s better for your player to be doing something over a session rather than mulling over the recent tragedy that just befell them. If they can make their character quick enough then they can even hop back into the game most times.
- Don’t harp on it: Hey stuff happens so just let it go after it’s all said and done. The game must go on
- The most important thing on it though is to not forget to HAVE FUN: These games with all their challenges and even in the face of those failures allows for players to try new things, be a different person, and even work on good personality traits.