On Death

Killing a PC, that is the question. 

Whether ‘tis nobler in the game to roll dice, 

And suffer the cries and anguish of a disappointing death
Or to take arms against fate, and cheat the odds, 

And by lies, let them prosper?

Krusk, the shitty poet
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I see a bunch of hot takes on whether or not a DM should kill a character pop up in twitter now and again, so it’s probably time to write an article outlining my experiences. Like most twitter hot takes, people shout definitive statements and then light up anyone who disagrees. In my experience the answer to the question “Should I kill a PC” is probably “it depends,” and the answer is nuanced, based on what outcomes you, as DM, want to encourage in your group. I’ll wrap, by sharing what is my most popular house rule by far, which is how I tend to handle PC death most of the time. 

First and foremost, regardless of what you decide, you should make sure your players know. You should say something like “I don’t pull punches, and your PC might die, be prepared for that” during a session 0, or while the players are deciding on even playing with you. Alternatively, you might need to say, “Hey I try to avoid PC death and fudge the results to save people.” Give your players a chance to opt out of the game entirely if either of those aren’t for them. If you have told folks which way you’re running it, you need to stick to it. Nothing is worse than assuming your PC’s life is on the line, going all out, stressing, and pulling every trick you can, only to see the “DMs Boyfriend” suddenly rise after they were slain in battle miraculously healed. Alternatively, maybe even worse, you pour hours into a backstory, commission custom art, buy and paint a custom mini, and then your PC is slain by generic goblin #7 at the mouth of the first dungeon on a lucky crit. Like 99% of TTRPG problems, talking to your group and getting on the same page goes so far. 

Character deaths are impactful. They can be a sweet crescendo of a multi-year plot, where a group says goodbye to a beloved PC at the hands of a hated rival. They can be a sudden and abrupt death for a stalwart companion you thought would join your trek to Mt. Doom only to be cut down by a hail of arrows during a random ambush essentially at the beginning of your journey. They can be a celebration of a player moving across country and leaving the group. They can also ruin a players experience and turn them off the hobby altogether. They aren’t inherently good or bad, but how they are handled can be. Roleplaying games are about telling stories, and death is usually a part of a story. Heck, its often the most dramatic part of a story, and the death of a main character (and that’s what your PCs should be), can be a huge storytelling moment, even if it was by random happenstance. At a minimum, it is for the player whose PC was slain. For them, the story they were telling with their friends has shifted dramatically, and it’s time to tell a different one. Even if you just roll up Jim the Fighter, Tim the Fighters brother. Jim died, and sure, you just changed one letter in a name, but now you’ve got to RP introductions again and 

Character death adds drama and stakes. This is a common argument for character death, and based on what I’ve said above, you might think it’s true. It certainly can, but it doesn’t have to. I’ve seen plenty of groups where when a PC dies, the characters loot the body, hire a new guy and move on. People toss out statements like “If my PC dies, I’ll just reroll that other build I’ve been thinking about.” To solve this, some games toss out mechanics like level penalties. All that does is encourage detachment from PCs, as your PCs continue to die more and more often, as you spiral to a point where it’s silly you’re even allowed to travel with the rest of the party, until the player just quits or the game ends naturally. To add stakes to a character death, you need one of two things (and I usually see them as either/or, not both scenarios). 

First, you need actual stakes, not just narrative tension. Your PC died, and so you lose. In Paranoia, you often start with 6 clones. When you run out, you are dead. You can watch everyone else play, or you can go sit on the couch and play Smash Brothers. Someone else will get to win. This is pretty uncommon for TTRPGs but wasn’t always unheard of. The C series of adventure modules had their own tournament rules, and if your PC died, you as a player probably didn’t win. I spell this one out so directly because it’s so far from how most folks play now-a-days, that they don’t realize it’s even an option, but your TTRPG can totally have a winner and a loser, if that’s what you want. The winner can even get a trophy, and a new Toyota Corolla if you want.

Photo by William alexander on Pexels.com

The second option is that you need narrative investment. You need players who care about the story being told, and who are invested in the arc of Jim the Fighter. They can always reroll him as Tim the Fighter if Jim dies, so you need to get them invested in Jim’s world, his history, his decisions, his friends, and what makes him special, beyond the mechanics. While D&D has a lot of mechanical variances, at the end of the day, there are only so many builds, and some people really only like playing dwarven barbarians. How many can they build, and how different mechanically can they be? What invests those players are the lore behind Jim, and his dwarven barbarian ways. When Jim dies, his story will never be told, and his rivals may well win. Jim’s player needs to care about this, be disappointed by this, and want to avoid this. The best way to do this is to tell lots of stories about Jim, and let him go on lots of adventures, for lots of IRL time. This is the more common way to add stakes most folks are familiar with. PC death is diametrically opposed to this, and like a super meter in Street Fighter, your stakes rise higher and higher, the less you use it.

The third secret option, is that you don’t want your game to have stakes. You aren’t giving out any Corollas, but you also don’t care a whole ton about the story. Maybe you’re just here to roll some dice and laugh at silly voices. If so, do whatever makes you happy. You’ve opted out of the conversation entirely and are cool with it. There are no stakes to your game, and death doesn’t matter. So if you like PC death, go for it. If you don’t like PC death, avoid it. Done.

So now that we have some stakes for our game (or not, and if not, stop reading now and save yourself some time), and are either running a competitive game, or have become master storytellers with heavily invested players, let’s talk about the things to consider before including character death, and evaluate the elements they bring that should factor into your decision. 

How long does character generation take? If you’re playing a rules light game where characters can be generated in 5 minutes (say Mork Borg) you’ve got a very different scenario than a level 16 3.5 D&D character. If it’s MB, you can probably tell someone to reroll a new PC while the current encounter wraps itself up and get right back into playing. If that 3.5 scenario, that player is going to be out of commission for the rest of the session. On its own, this lends MB to becoming a game more suited for character death than 3.5. Why? Because no one wants to show up to a session, have their character die, and then get told to break out a dozen books and start doing math while everyone else plays the game. This means character creation time inversely correlates to lethality of your game. If it’s hard and takes a while? PC deaths might not be the best idea for your group. Every group has different tolerances for “Its hard”, so you need to weigh what works best for you and consider it.

But that’s just mechanics. Characters are a lot more than just the numbers on their sheets, (except for some competitive games). If you are the sort of DM who wants in depth backstories, and interwoven character histories with tight ties to the world, well you probably want to avoid PC death. Why? Because while it may take 5 min to roll up a MB character, that backstory takes time to generate, especially if you want it interwoven with other PCs. And the more of this stuff your players do, the more you’ve raised the stakes for death. Higher stakes make death more meaningful, which is good, but it also means it takes a player out of the game longer if their PC dies, which is bad. You’ve got to thread the needle and find what works for you. Regardless, the conclusion is probably that PC death isn’t something that should happen randomly unless you’re asking for a 5 min backstory with Jim the Fighter’s brother, which could be fine if your stakes are coming from a competitive nature, or you don’t particularly care about building a strong narrative.

This gives us a couple of toggles to consider. First, what type of game are you running? A competitive game or a story game. Second, how long does character gen take, mechanically. And third, how long does character gen take, from a storytelling perspective. Each gives you some different outputs.

  • A competitive game that’s fast to generate character sheets, with minimal backstory? Let it be a bloodbath. 
  • A rich, in-depth lore focused Shadowrun game? While combat may be lethal, killing a PC should be rare and you might want to avoid it altogether. 
  • A casual game with low mechanical complexity, but deep backstories and lore tie ins? Well, that depends.

Finally, the last, and probably most important, thing you should consider is what the players want. If they hate the idea of PC death, well maybe you shouldn’t do it. Why? Well, they’ve told you they hate it. Don’t do stuff people dislike, it’s as simple as that. Conversely, if they say they hate it when their PC isn’t killed, but obviously should be, well you better cut some throats. Give your players what they want, so they continue to be your players. A lot of DMs forget this, but if you run a game people don’t like, they will stop coming. Reality is, you’ll probably compromise, and come to a good understanding of when/if/how you’ll kill a PC. A lot of groups don’t have enemy foes do things like Coup De Grace sleeping PCs who failed a check to keep watch, for example. But some games do. Let’s go back to the beginning here, and say “Talk to your players,” and the answer to the overarching question of “Should I kill my PCs” is usually “maybe.” 

So, I teased early on that I’d share one of my most popular house rules, and I use it for any game, regardless of system or edition with the only exception being the competitive games I’ve described above. 

I run very lethal games. Enemies that want to kill your PC will try their best to do so. They might send midnight assassins, and they might kill the PC they took hostage. If we are in combat, the enemies are probably optimized to be competitive to the level of the PCs, and there will probably be a lot of foes on the map. That said, any PC reduced to 0 HP, instantly slain, or otherwise rendered dead by the rules simply isn’t. They are out of the current encounter, and can’t participate until its resolved, but at the end of it, the player can determine their PCs fate. If they don’t die, they have 1HP or the equivalent. Maybe that blow wasn’t fatal, maybe your god intervened and saved your life, maybe the cleric’s healing spell works on you even though RAW it shouldn’t. Whatever you want to come up with to justify it. It can be as dramatic or anti-climactic as you want. Alternatively, maybe it’s time for Jim the Fighter to retire, and you really are interested in playing his avenging brother Tim the Fighter, so when Jim gets struck down by random goblin #7, well his brother Tim shows up ready for vengeance. 

In the event of a TPK, we play it out as normal, but I’ll say how you as a group made it out alive (those of you who choose to do so). Maybe the bandits left you for dead and took your stuff. Maybe the displacer beast drug you to its lair and is keeping you alive to feed its young. Maybe the bridge collapse wasn’t lethal and you were just swept downstream off course. Maybe the tarrasque only ate a couple of you. Whatever. 

The point is, if it’s not narratively satisfying for a character to die, we don’t let it happen. If it is, we do. It’s the best of both worlds, and I still have plenty of challenge in the game, and plenty of PC deaths. This just allows each player to decide how much it impacts them or doesn’t. Some respawn every time they get asked, and others never do. It’s their character, and they are the ones trying to tell its story. Why should we let random goblin #7 dictate the conclusion?

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