Gamemaster’s Guidepost: Character Death – Part I

Every player’s fear and a GMs’ nightmare – the death of a player character. Nothing can halt game play like a (unplanned – see below) death. Was it a bad roll? Did the player just make a mistake? Was it intentional? Was it GM error? Regardless of the why, the effects of how it can affect your game can be fairly profound. For some GMs this can bring their session to a screeching halt – for others it is only a minor speed bump. I’m going to detail a couple of ways to bring the former to the latter and offer up some advice on a few other related topics in this two-part installment of Gamemaster’s Guidepost.
He’s Dead, Jim.
Damn. One of your players just lost a character – now what? The obvious answer is “Have him make a new one,” but sometimes you just don’t have the time or you don’t want to stop the game or whatever. The easiest solution I’ve found is for a PC to temporarily gain control of a NPC  or another PCs ally (though check with both players to make sure that’s okay). You can also use a character template to dash up a (temporary) character – though this too may take time. Finally, sometimes…sometimes you just need to sit out the rest of the session. If you’ve got a good player he’s going to perfectly understand that through no fault of his own (or anyone elses) that he’s going to need to wait till next game. It happens at ;east one time during every player and GM’s career.
Bad Rolls = Bad GM?
Sometimes the GM has a chance to prevent a player character death from occurring by modifying game play in a manner that will favor the players. I personally am not a fan of this dues ex machina – in fact, I’m kind of harsh as a GM. I roll my die rolls in the open, and those die rolls do whatever they’re meant to do. I had a GM who (rarely if ever) made rolls and when he did they were never in the open. This led to events like the unkillable lich in AD&D. I hit it with my only magical weapons (two +5 arrows) in the head with two natural 20s. I still failed to even so much as damage said lich. From then on I decided that whenever I ran a game I would roll my dice in the open and stick by whatever they said. Of course, this may not work for all GMs and there are cases when you must roll in secret (in my case – I only do this with “unknown” player character rolls). Just because you rolled badly (or the GM rolled really well) doesn’t mean you have a bad GM. One of my players from years ago adopted a common phrase to a more gaming bent, that is, “Dice happens.” I think you can figure out where that came from. In short, don’t blame your GM if your character dies. Conversely, GMs, don’t be harsh on your players. If it makes sense, even if you don’t normally allow players to have it, allow a player to purchase Extra Life for a beloved character. They’re going to pay for it with earned character points or be indebted for said character points and it shows that you’re a GM that wants to get on a with a story, not just a game
Death is the Whole Point
Sometimes, death is the whole point. Take for instance +Peter V. Dell’Orto‘s Felltower campaign. The whole point (other than hacking and slashing and having fun) is to survive. If you die…you get to make another character. Thems the breaks. Conversely, some campaigns feature lots of ways to come back from the dead and resurrection is a commonly accepted thing. Again, death is kind of the point…well, not staying dead is kind of the point, but you get the idea.
The Player with Homicidal Urges for his Character
This is a rare case I’ve only seen twice before (that’s out of nearly three hundred players, so about 0.0067%), but it was enough to severely screw with my campaign. We’ve all heard about it, and if you’re unlucky enough to have actually experienced it – you have my sympathies. Some players get some sort of weird rush out of killing their own characters off. Maybe they have lots of ideas for characters and want to try them all out or maybe it’s something more banally sinister. Whatever the reason, there are players who like to kill off their own characters – or worse, kill off their characters in such a way that it ruins the game or kills other player characters. This can be the goal of some games (Paranoia, Toon, etc.) and in such games…well meta-suicidal tendencies is more than acceptable. If you’ve got a player like this and you’re not running such a game I recommend you talk to them about it and how their behavior isn’t acceptable, or if they continue, eject them as soon as you can. Trust me, it can ruin everything. I’ve been done that round with someone whom I thought was a good friend and all it did was make my other players utterly miserable.
That’s all for now, stay tuned for Part II!
Posted in Gamemaster's Guidepost and tagged , , .


  1. Oh, they can come back from the dead in my game. If the body is dragged back and they fork out $15K for a Resurrection spell and I roll a 15 or less on it. Maybe 14 or less if they don't hurry back fast enough.

    Hasn't happened yet, though, because folks have died poor, or died in a way to make it impossible . . .

  2. Some thoughts.

    I like the idea of having hirelings or allies available the player can immediately take over. 'Black City' IIRC even has this as a basic I take over NPC (for good) quickly roll the stats and keep going.

    Another thing I try to do is give the adversaries reasons to not kill the PCs, prisoners, codes of honour etc. There can still be consequences for the PCs, injuries, new disadvantages, so even a no death campaign (which I rarely run) can have consequences. Plus just cause PCs wont die doesnt mean they cant lose their allies and dependents.

  3. Both excellent points! I'm lucky in that I have players whose tastes fit my own nearly exactly, so when that happens (and it's fairly rare), they know what to do next. As the for the second, I too try to give my antagonists some depth. Evil never views itself as "evil" after all.

  4. I've been guilty of homicidal urges for my character… the thing is, I control my impulses all day when I'm role-playing myself, so when I'm role-playing someone who's expendable, why bother? So occasionally my characters get themselves into situations where all I can say is "yep, that one's a goner, and boy did he earn it." Ruining the game in the process, though, that's just poor sportsmanship (gamesmanship?)

  5. I believe it is gamesmanship. 🙂 I have issues with players who end up killing their characters off for no good reason – mostly because it's more work for me to design, create, and reintegrate a new character. That said, I'm okay with other people doing that if the GM is fine with it. I say play what you find fun, just make sure your idea of fun, the GM's, and your fellow players match up.

  6. I generally try to have at least 1 and usually 3+ competent-but-not-show-stealing NPCs around for three reasons: (1) PC deaths (good substitutes — you get to do something while you wait to have your new character integrated into the party); (2) the ability to kill off a character (or injure, maim, kidnap, etc.) for "dramatic" purposes; (3) to fill out the ranks and plug skill holes / fill needed niches (i.e., healers — rarely do my players want a healer, but equally rarely do they not need one). When they're this type of NPC as opposed to a hireling or an ally, they expect to be treated according to what they think they're worth. This usually means shares of treasure, etc., or the walk. All this can be fun, but fundamentally (1) & (2) are as important as (3) for me. I hate having a session end because of a character death, and I hate not being able to kill someone off when they should die without warning — but I really don't like to do that to PCs as the GM.

  7. I endorse your entire comment – I do some of this when I need to, but I also try to avoid the death is possible. One of the most heart-wrenching, painful things to GM I ever did was throwing a NPC to the wolves. The PCs loved this guy, just…loved him. And when he died to cover their retreat from a ambush I had half my players openly weeping and asking "Is [he] coming back? He can't be dead! You're bringing him back right?" to which I replied "No. He's dead. If you bring him back or try to it'll make things worse and could unleash hell on earth again. But you get to decide." That lead to a entire arc where the PCs stopped one of their own from bringing him back and that PC ended up shooting himself in the head from the guilt he felt at the end. It was depressing and stirring all at once. Death is so powerful to us, because (usually) it's final. Parting forever from those we love stirs within us strange and potent emotions – those emotions can be used to create a truly believable world, but it takes time.

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