Nobody Lives Forever: The Death of a Player Character

Regardless of class, race, or even game system, one thing unifies all player characters: on any given game night, they can be just one critical hit away from being nothing more than a crumpled character sheet and a memory. Even vampires and other near immortal races have their Kryptonites. As much as you love that character, seeing that character bite the dust is a real possibility week in and week out.

That said, while I’ve seen a lot of NPCs die over my years at the game table, I’ve only been witness to two PC deaths in long-running campaigns. (I’m not counting one-shots, where it’s often part of the plot for most PCs to keel over, and I’m certainly not counting Paranoia!) One of those deaths happened in the latest session of our weekly Pathfinder campaign. Naturally, it got me to thinking about PC death, and how the attitude everyone takes can make the difference between it ruining the game, or making it a tragic point in an otherwise magnificent story.

The GM’s Attitude

Adventuring parties who plow through dungeon after dungeon with little more than scratches get cocky in a hurry, and begin to take stupid chances, thinking they’re invincible. On the other hand, adventurers who constantly find themselves hoping the cleric can stabilize them before they bleed out will come to hate adventuring, and may become afraid to leave the safety of the inn. GMs need to walk the line between not threatening the characters’ lives enough and threatening them too much.

When it looks like a PC is about to bite it, should the GM fudge the rolls to keep them alive? Possibly. Most GMs I know will pull punches for a beloved PC, so long as it’s reasonable that they might survive the situation. If the cleric is yet to come in the initiative order, maybe you misread that damage roll as a six instead of an eight. Believe you me, the player’s heart will be in his throat when you tell him he’s one hit point away from death, and the near-death experience might even have more of an impact than if the character had given his final gasp right then and there.

Sometimes, though, death is unavoidable. In Friday night’s game, we were battling a red dragon, and had just about taken her down. The dragon decided we weren’t worth getting killed over, so she gave one final breath of fire for us to remember her by. The fighter failed her Reflex save to avoid the fire, and dropped below 0 hit points, but was still alive (perhaps the GM pulled a punch there – I’ll never know). The alchemist, though, not only failed the save – she rolled a natural 1. And she had 11 alchemical bombs on her person. There was no way to fudge that. The explosion was epic, and left only a pile of ash and smoldering boots behind.

When you can’t ignore the will of the dice, as a GM, don’t be a dick about delivering the news. Standing up and cackling, “You’re dead! I win Dungeons and Dragons!” or grabbing the player’s character sheet and ripping it up in front of everyone just makes you look like a douche. Either be gentle and to the point, or give that PC an epic send-off in narration.

The Player’s Attitude

I love my characters as much as any gamer does. If one of my beloved PCs ever dies, I admit that I will probably burst into tears and need a few minutes (or hours…or days) alone. What I definitely won’t do, though, is pack up my dice and go home, vowing never to game again, especially with such meanie-heads!

Nobody lives forever, remember? As hard as it is to believe, your character is not exempt from that rule. You don’t have to like it (I know I wouldn’t), but if the dice fall against your character living, take a deep breath, suck it up, and carry on. Not to get too sappy, but your character will live on forever in your memory. If you’re not ready to let go, sit down and write out stories of their previously-unexplored past. Hell, play an AU version of them in another game down the road. But don’t just sit and mope. Get out your rulebooks and roll up a new character. You don’t have to do it that night (take some time to grieve, it’s OK), but it’s either move on or quit gaming, and who wants that?!

When Matt (the alchemist’s player) rolled that natural 1, he knew there was no way his character was going to survive. So he took it in stride, was pleased that his girl went out with a bang (literally), then started working on a new character while the rest of us dealt with the wounded.

The Group’s Attitude

It comes back to Wheaton’s Law once again. Your friend’s character just died. Show some compassion – you’d want them to be sympathetic if it had been your character, right? Your characters ought to be sympathetic, too. They just lost a traveling companion, possibly a very dear friend (or relative, or even lover).

But just like the player who lost his character, the rest of the group needs to find a way to move on. Their characters still have missions to fulfill, and the players surely want to keep playing.

As the player of the party cleric, I felt awful that I couldn’t save the alchemist. Once I had the fighter pulled back from the brink of death, Keriwyn prayed over the alchemist’s remains, and the party banded together to bury what little was left of her. Then, because we’re at war and many lives are depending on our actions, we wiped away our tears, found a safe place to camp, and returned to the road the next morning.

Brighter Days Will Return

The death of a PC is, and should be, a serious downer. If it doesn’t make you at least a little sad, well, you’re obviously better able to detach yourself from the game than many others. But with the right mindset, everyone involved can rise from the ashes and move the campaign forward to bigger and better things, honoring the memory of their fallen companion.

Has one of your characters ever been killed? As a GM, do you pull punches for PCs in danger of dying?

About c

By day, Connie Thomson (aka Ariel Manx) is a mild-mannered shoe salesgirl, geeking out about insoles, outsoles, and shanks. But when night falls, she takes her turn at the helm of 4 Winds Fantasy Gaming, where she writes, edits, and does layout for table-top RPG products. Regardless of her persona, C is always a fangirl, bookworm, and craft diva. (Email C or follow @arielmanx on Twitter.)

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