One of the things I like best about tabletop roleplaying games is the shared storytelling experience you engage in with other players. I'm always excited for game night and for the chance to spend time with friends and family for a relaxing evening filled with fun and adventure. Gathering around the game table for laughs and good times is priceless.
That being said, it goes without saying that character death is part of the tabletop gaming experience. Dungeon delving and fighting a bestiary of fantasy monsters is dangerous business after all, and as soon as the Initiative dice are cast, a TTRPG character risks death at the hands, claws, or teeth of the bad guys (to say nothing of the spells and traps that can bring about a character's demise).
From a gaming perspective, the risk of death is one the elements that makes the game exciting. If a character is invincible and immune to death, the game becomes boring in my experience. For me, my best characters are vulnerable and can be injured -- sometimes mortally. During each encounter, I'm not 100% certain if my character will survive. The fear of death allows me to play my character to his or her fullest, and forces me to be smart with the choices I make in game.
How To Handle Character Death In Game
Even though character death is part of the tabletop roleplaying experience, it needs to be handled correctly. In the games I'm typically involved with, players spend hours crafting characters and get really involved with backstory and roleplaying. As mentioned above, the risk of death is unavoidable, but nothing will ruin a game faster and result in hard feelings quicker if a character's death is cheapened or happens as the result of unfair tactics by a Game Master.
In my experience, here are a few ways to handle a character death the right way:
- The character death must have meaning. In our fantasy worlds, our characters are heroes, and as such they deserve a hero's death. Let's face it -- there are some nights when your dice truly hate you, or when you employ a tactic (that in hindsight), wasn't the smartest move your character could have made given the situation. On nights like this, when fate is against you and your character dies, a good GM will give your character's death meaning. Death is more easily accepted when a character dies to protect others or in some heroic fashion that helps progress the story's narrative, etc. Even a Total Party Kill (TPK), can be enjoyable if the end result is the stuff of legend.
- The character death must be fair. In my opinion, tabletop roleplaying is about a shared storytelling experience. The GM and players work together to create a fantastic tale both exciting and memorable. Personally, I can't stand games that pit GM vs. Players where each side is trying to one up the other. These types of games are frustrating for everyone, and can result in hard feelings when a character dies. As an example, in a recent game I was involved with, the GM punished a player by targeting his character unfairly. It was no secret that the GM felt the character in question was too powerful and instead of challenging or "nerfing" the character in meaningful and creative ways, simply decided to kill the character off by targeting him throughout the encounter, and by finally having a Stone Giant (already locked in mortal combat with another character), use his Initiative turn to reach across the opponent standing directly in front of him (which didn't make any sense at all from a narrative perspective) to unfairly target and club the weakened character to death (the character was already in the process of being grappled by a Dire Bear, and only had a few hit points remaining). This "finishing" move appeared to be calculated (in part) to prevent other party members from rendering assistance to the dying teammate. The GM said he didn't mean to kill the character in question, but it was obvious to everyone at the table that the GM purposely picked on the character during the encounter, and that the end result was an unfair death that left the player (and others) feeling annoyed with the sequence of events, dissatisfied with the outcome, and unfortunately unhappy. If a character dies in glorious combat, so be it. Let the dice speak. The character death will have meaning (see number 1 above). However, to murder a character by stretching the boundaries of what is reasonable fosters an adversarial relationship between GM and player, and smacks of vindictiveness, unfairness, and sadly risks ruining everyone's fun.
- The character should be honored in death. As I mentioned earlier, in the games I'm typically involved with, players put a lot of effort in character development. If a character's death 1) has meaning and 2) was fair, the players I game with are generally left satisfied. However, to further improve the narrative and give closure, I find it helpful to hold a funeral for the character and for the party to honor him or her with speeches, prayers, oaths of vengeance, etc. A character's death can create an interesting story hook, give opportunities for roleplay flavor, and may inspire the party to take a course of action that will develop the story in new and exciting ways.
- A note about Resurrection. At higher levels, some spellcasters have the ability to cast a Resurrection spell to bring a character back from the dead. Personally, I have mixed feelings about this. If Resurrection is cast as frequently and casually as drinking a Potion of Healing for example, the character death is cheapened and the element of danger and risk to players is lessened in the game. This can lead to boredom and sloppy roleplaying (don't worry, if I die I'll just get resurrected). Resurrection can break a game, so use sparingly and with caution. One idea is to have the party embark on an epic quest to retrieve a special magic item or spell component to allow Resurrection to be cast. This will make bringing a character back from the dead a challenging, epic event as opposed to simply burning through a spell slot.
So there you have it fellow travelers. These are just my observations and opinions on how to handle a character death. Do you have any suggestions or ideas? Please feel free to share your thoughts and opinions in the comment section below. Until next time! Keep rolling nat 20's and have fun with your games :)