Dealing with Death… in D&D
“We are gathered here to remember the life and death of Gornag the Half-Orc Barbarian. He died like he lived, violently, and in the end, would he have really wanted to go any other way?”
“Bring forth the character sheet and the lighter to usher Gornag to the afterlife.”
“He shall be remembered.”
“We send him back into the ether from whence he came.”
“He shall be remembered.”
Alright, that might be very goofy, and you don’t need to do any routine or anything like that, but it’s a topic that I don’t think ends up being talked about that much in Dungeons and Dragons or any RPG, how do you handle the death of a character.
It isn’t something that I’ve had a ton of experience with, I’ve “killed” three characters. The first was a convention game at the end of the one shot, so it worked out well, and technically, it was another character failing to throw a dart horribly and then hitting the unconscious character who was one death saving throw short and floating face down in water. Then, in Dungeons and Flagons, Finja died, sacrificing her life in their successful attempt to destroy a beholder. It was a sad but fitting end for that character. Finally, a barbarian who was amazing and smashing everything came up against some specters that he couldn’t kill as easily and he was rolling poorly. He got to come back, but with some pretty dire consequences for the party.
So I haven’t done a TPK (total party kill) and have to end a campaign because of that, or pick it up with new characters. I’ve knocked out characters before, but that was all with a plan of what was going to happen next and with a reason why the monsters wouldn’t just kill the players.
There are several questions that come out of death, but let’s start for a Dungeon Master even before death of a character.
Do you need to have the threat of death in your game?
It might seem like you need to, but do you really need to have that threat of death in your game? I would say that yes, death is something that has to be a threat in your game, but it should be a rare threat. You are playing with heroes, so why should these heroes be likely to go down in every fight? They shouldn’t, is my answer. There will be times when fighting against a level boss that it should be a threat, but if they are fighting a random encounter of goblins on the road, it probably shouldn’t be enough to kill them, unless I’m rolling very hot and they are rolling ice cold.
What do you do when death does happen?
This is a harder question, because you need to know how your players would react and how it happened. If it happened because a character jumped out of a fourth story window as a first level wizard, yeah, it’s going to be easier because that player was doing something dumb with their character.
If it’s because it was in an epic combat, I think that most players would still be pretty cool with it. Especially if they sacrificed themselves to do damage to get that BBEG to deaths doorsteps and the party was able to kill them. That sort of heroes death can even be a big story element and driving force for a character if you want it. But even if it wasn’t something for the character, that death feels like it has meaning.
The harder ones to deal with are the ones that come out of the blue. It could be that the monsters were rolling hot, like I said, and the player was doing poorly, and with a critical failure on a death saving throw, you can be out fast. How do you as a DM deal with that, and then, how do you as a player deal with that?
I think as a DM, it’s about giving some time. I wouldn’t gloat about it, I wouldn’t rush quickly into the next thing. It’s fairly dumb in movies when you get that moment where the protagonists best friend dies in a fight and you get that flow motion moment of the protagonist crying, but that’s what you kind of want to do in your game. Give the players at the table that reprieve from the battle, don’t ask for any rolls, any checks, just let the players process it. Then, once there has been a little bit of time, or the players have said their piece, then you jump back into what was happening. And once that is done, you can give the other players the options of things that they can do.
Also know that players will act differently. Some are going to try and find a way that the encounter was unbalanced or something along those lines and justify why they shouldn’t have died. Others are going to find that whole moment just humorous. Then there are others who are going to be ready to start rolling up their next character right then and there. The best thing, as a DM you can do in any of those situations is just give them a moment and be considerate.
As a player, how do you deal with it when another character dies, not yours? It’s pretty similar to the DM, you give it some time. You buy into the moment and are there for the player as you can be, and in character, you play out that movie moment where you fight your way to the side of your dead comrade and pick up their body in your arms and scream at the sky. You don’t treat it lightly.
If it was your character that died, it can be tough. You grow to like your character, you want to know what is going to happen with your character and you had ideas of the story that was going to continue with them for longer in the campaign until the campaign was done. You wrote a backstory for them, you drew a picture of them, it is hard to lose something that you put time and effort into. It is kind of hard to write, because it is fairly trite to say, but remember that this is a game. You are going to like the new character that you roll up as well. The best I can liken this to is Doctor Who when you get a new Doctor, I’m always a bit hesitant with the new Doctor and I don’t think I like them as well, but basically all of them have grown on me to the point where I’m sad to see them leave. That’s the case with your D&D character as well, you might not like the new one as well at the start, but you’ll grow to love them too.
But allow yourself some time to soak in the death of the character. Don’t rush yourself into creating that new character if you don’t want to. Don’t feel like you need to be more than an observer for the rest of the session. It’s fine to wait and then when the next session is come back with a new character for the game.
Finally, as a group, when you have that first character death, come up with a way that you are going to memorialize it. I have a very silly thing written at the top, but figure out what you want to do. It doesn’t need to be much, but do something in game or out of game that you want to do for future deaths. This will help with the sense of closure for the dead character and it can be something fun to do. Toasting the fallen character in and out of game would make a lot of sense. Or, if the person doesn’t want to keep the character sheet, burning it, ideally after being folded into a paper boat and floating in a bathtub to give it a proper Viking burial, would make a lot of sense as well, but that’s going to be up to your group.
How have you dealt with the death of character in your Dungeons and Dragons games? Have you had a particularly epic character death or any really funny one?
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