Dice Tales: Character Death

Roman twenty-sided die(This is the nineteenth installment of Dice Tales, an ongoing series of posts about RPGs as storytelling.)


I’ll admit it: because I very much approach RPGs from the story side of things, I consider PC death to be a thing that should only happen when the player wants it to.

This attitude is decidedly at odds with a lot of game design. Barring some newer, more indie systems that explicitly say character death is a player decision, the default assumption is that if you run out of health/hit points/wounds/whatever it’s called in that system, you die. The end.

Now, what this means narratively depends a lot on the setting and mechanics. I published a short story called “Love, Cayce” whose first line is, “Dear Mom and Dad — The good news is, nobody’s dead anymore.” That’s because it’s set in a D&D-type world, where death is only a problem if your friends and family don’t have the cash on hand to fix it. In fact, D&D offers multiple ways to come back from beyond, ranging from “Raise Dead” (which brings you back if it’s cast soon enough and enough of your body remains, but you lose a level) to “Reincarnation” (which brings you back in a different body, potentially of a different species) to “Resurrection” (which needs less of a body and can work longer after death, but you still lose a level) to “True Resurrection” (which has no downside at all). Most games aren’t that forgiving, though: if you’re dead, you’re dead, no takebacks. Legend of the Five Rings is renowned for its lethality; the way the numbers work, there’s always a chance that a single roll can do you in.

How you feel about this depends on what you play for. I’ll probably discuss this more later, but in brief, a game designer called Ron Edwards once divided player approaches into Gamism, Narrativism, and Simulationism. As somebody firmly on the Narrativist side, I feel like death should only happen when it makes for good story. A Simulationist-type player, on the other hand, might like the L5R approach; when people are swinging around three-foot razor blades (i.e. katana), it’s true that one hit might be the end of you. That sort of player would be annoyed by D&D mechanics, where vast stacks of hit points and caps on damage mean that you often wind up having to nickel-and-dime a major opponent to death — but for a more Gamist player, that kind of thing is ideal, because it means survival is about good strategy and the element of chance.

Disagreements about this can get quite heated, even among people who theoretically share similar views. In Changeling: The Dreaming, where faerie souls co-inhabit mortal bodies, the game makes a distinction between chimerical death (where only the faerie soul dies), mortal death (where the mortal host is killed as well), and true death (where the faerie soul is obliterated by cold iron). The first type can be reversed, with the faerie soul “reawakening” in the host; the second means the faerie soul will come back years later, after being reborn into a new host; the third means there’s no coming back at all, because the soul has been unmade. The Changeling LARP I was involved with once got into an argument over chimerical death, which led one player to declare that if death can be reversed, there’s no real heroism. (So, uh, people who survive things can never be heroes?) People like me, who don’t want to lose their characters to a bad dice roll, look like pansies or even cheaters to other kinds of gamers; after all, the rules say that’s how it goes, and asking for it to be otherwise is tantamount to asking the GM to soft-pedal the challenges we face. By contrast, I feel like they have no respect for the work I’ve put into my PC — the plot threads left hanging, the character development cut short. It’s as if somebody has pulled a half-finished novel out of my hands and said, you have to start over now. You spring that to me, my answer is likely to be “screw you” and the door slamming behind me.

Which doesn’t mean I never want my character to die. Heck, I killed one PC three times! (Changeling. She died in a flashback to a previous life; she died in the current life and went to hell; then her spirit was pulled out of the world forever, which was basically a third death.) But I want the death to mean something — something more than just “man, that fight was really tough.”

This is honestly one of the reasons I like one-shot games, tabletop or LARP. In an ongoing campaign, PC death means either leaving the game entirely, or having to come up with a new character concept that can be integrated with the rest of the party — and that’s much more easily said than done. When there’s only one session, though, it’s easy to pull out all the stops: take the risk, put everything on the line, go big or go home. Even if the death winds up being stupid or pointless, eh, you haven’t lost much of an investment; the game would have been over in an hour anyway.

I keep saying “there’s no right way to do this,” because it’s true. There’s nothing wrong with a game where death is an ever-present and realistic risk; there’s nothing wrong with a game where death is a sign you didn’t strategize well enough. (And there’s nothing wrong with a game where death is a narrative decision.) People just need to know what they’re getting into. L5R is a lethal system; I’ve tweaked the mechanics a little bit to make going down less likely, and I’ve told players that even if they pass that threshold, they’ll suffer some other consequence instead, like permanent injury or mental trauma. I’ve played in games where I know I might die from a bad roll; I don’t plan long-term arcs for my PCs in those campaigns. As with everything else in RPGs, it is first and foremost a matter of communicating expectations, so that nobody gets blindsided by something they don’t enjoy.

So weigh in with the comments! How do you feel about PC death? How often have you killed your characters? Were any of them especially memorable or pointless?


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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit swantower.com, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


Dice Tales: Character Death — 9 Comments

    • Good to know the GM (you?) planned for that, and had another pre-gen ready who could slot in without much fuss. For that type of game, death only tends to be a problem if it leaves you feeling like you never really got to play.

  1. I had that with my most recent GM. First session w/level 1 characters and a quirk of the rules meant character couldn’t be revived. So hours of character building, just to play her for about 30 minutes, and die in the scene that was supposed to draw the party together, and help us figure out the quirks of our builds. Then I have to create another level 1 character no one knows? What really topped it was the GM saying “I have to try and kill you off at level 1, after that it’s too hard to take out players”. I quit the game not long after. I don’t mind the risk of death, but I don’t like feeling like the GM considers it a badge of honor to manage to take a player character out.

    • Oh, jeez. Yeah, I would not want to play with a GM who sees his players’ characters as targets. And I kind of take it for granted that the first combat of any campaign is a shakedown cruise in which there will be more fudging than usual, because people don’t yet know the system/their characters/the party dynamic/etc, and it’ll take a little while to make sure that all works as intended. I would NOT expect the GM to whack somebody right out of the gate like that.

  2. Pingback: Dice Tales at BVC: "Hack 'n Slash" and "Character Death" - Swan Tower

  3. I’d be interested to see a complementary post talking about… I guess… exit strategies? That is, when a player decides to leave or retire a character for some reason, examining what are the impacts on the game (and how to handle those impacts) and maybe even more importantly, what are the impacts on the player: how hard is it to let go prematurely, and how can closure help or not-help? What about when a game dies and the characters are left unresolved? Would an open end be easier, or would a resolution session be preferable? That sort of thing.

  4. I once had a character killed off by mutual agreement with the GM (full disclosure: my husband) because I was discovering that the character class was hard for me to play and I wasn’t enjoying the experience. So we backfilled an interesting way for the character to die and generated a new character that I ended up really having fun with. The rest of the players were fine with this, so it went relatively smoothly.

    That being said, the thought of having a character *designed* to go down in flames in an awesome way sounds terrific, and I regret that I’ve never really had that kind of opportunity as a player. Most of my GMs have not been very narrative-focused.

    • I find it very freeing, knowing that my character will die. 🙂 It basically takes away the anxiety and lets me really enjoy the ride.