You know what I’m f$&%ing tired of? Well, obviously, I’m tired of a lot of things. I’m tired, for example, of people asking for my advice and then lecturing me about why it’s wrong. You know what, f$&%wit, YOU asked ME for help. If you already knew the right f$&%ing answer, you didn’t f$&%ing need me, did you, you f$&%?! No. You just wanted my f$&%ing validation, didn’t you? You just wanted to be able to say “I’m right, The Angry GM said so!” Well, I f$&%ed that up, didn’t I? Because you were wrong and I told you so. And now you have to win me over. But you won’t win me over BECAUSE YOU’RE F$&%ING WRONG!
And speaking of that, I’m tired of people asking me for my opinion on things and then telling me why that opinion is wrong. Here’s the deal, dumba$&: if you want to have a buddy-buddy smug little session of nudges and winks as we share our mutual dislike for thing X, maybe don’t open with the question “so, what do you think of thing X?” Because it might turn out I’m actually okay with thing X.
And you know what else I’m tired of? I’m tired of people writing blog-length comments in my comment section that are (a) wrong and (b) deal with things I’ve already refuted in previous articles. If you want a f$&%ing blog, get a blog. They are easy to get. Here: go to wordpress.org. Free f$&%ing blog. Done and done. If you want to use my website as your blog, at least be right about things. Hell, at least do your f$&%ing homework and read my blog first. I mean, I love the fact that the comment section on my blog is unique across the internet in that it is actually f$&%ing readable. It’s filled with thoughtful discussion and debate and no horses$&% flame wars and children screaming racial epithets at each other. But I’ve worked for that. And people call ME the most toxic person in the entire gaming community. Seriously. They do.
Which is another thing I’m just f$&%ing tired of. People treating criticism and anger like they are evil things. Like they ruin things. Let me tell you something, nothing ever improves without the twin forces of criticism and anger. I’m a f$&%ing force for good in the gaming community. So you can f$&% right off.
I might have lost my laser-like focus on the introduction to this article. What I was going to say is this. I’m tired of people dragging me into stupid arguments about character death.
It always starts the same way. Well, actually, it starts in one of two ways. It depends on the arguments. The first argument begins with “hey, Angry, when a PC dies, what level does the new PC start off at?” And it ends with me telling the dumba$& to shut the f$&% up after the fourth time he, she, or it whines at me “but how do you PUNISH the death?!” The second argument begins with a dumba$& saying “your combats should have consequences other than death” and ends with the dumba$& begging me to stop telling him, her, or it why he, she, or it is a dumba$&.
Okay, I might not ALWAYS be the Mother Teresa of gaming with more swearing.
The point is this: when PCs die, it’s a pain in the a$&. But there’s good reasons for it to be a pain in the a$&. And then there’s reasons why it becomes a pain in the a$& that come from dumba$& GMs being dumba$&es. And you can’t do anything about the good reasons. But you can stop being a dumba$&. PLEASE.
A Good Death
As a GM, I maintain a pretty high kill count. I can’t help it. I’m really good at D&D. I win a lot. And I win fair. I only go for Class 1 and Class 2 deaths. Class 3 deaths are inartful. Honestly, the number of Class 1 deaths I’ve scored is really good. I’m proud of that.
What’s the difference? The difference between Class 3, Class 2, and Class 1 deaths are who the players blame for the death. A Class 3 death is a Death by Fiat. It’s a death that the players blame on the GM. Obviously, it includes the sort of “rocks fall, everyone dies” deaths that are just spiteful murders. But it also includes a player who believes that the GM was focusing all of the dragon’s attacks on the one character. Or the death trap that kills someone instantly with only one saving throw.
Class 2 deaths are Ostensibly Fair Deaths. These are deaths that everyone agrees, for the most part, that were the result of bad luck, bad die rolls, or a series of unfortunate events that really aren’t any one person’s fault. Most combat deaths are Ostensibly Fair. These sorts of deaths get blamed on dice, God, Fate, or no one.
Class 1 deaths are the best. Those are Assisted Suicides. Those are the deaths that the players know they brought about on themselves. The players can pinpoint the stupid decisions they made that lead directly to the death. On short, the players blame themselves. A really good Class 1 death makes the players question their own skills and abilities. A solid Class 1 death can get a player to give up gaming forever.
Now, the thing is, the difference between those deaths is all about perception. It doesn’t matter what the reality is. You can try to convince the players all you want that a Class 3 death was a Class 1 death because the dumba$& players didn’t put together a vital clue, but it won’t matter. The players will NEVER believe it. If the players blame you – the GM – it’s a Class 3 death. Death by Fiat. And you can’t change that. Don’t try.
The secret is, though, that as a GM, all deaths are your fault. No matter how fairly you built the situation and no matter how many clues you gave the players, it’s all your fault. That’s the reality. Because you control the entire game. You created situations in which the PCs could die. You decided everything that happened in the game that led to that death. And you didn’t prevent it. Death is always all your fault.
So, how do you trick your players into blaming themselves? Because that’s the key to handling…
No, hahahaha. I’m just kidding. I had you f$&%ers going. You honestly thought I was going to spend a whole article talking about how to make your players feel bad about losing PCs didn’t you. No. That would be a s$%& thing to do. That would be terrible GMing. Making players feel bad about their characters getting killed.
DO YOU SEE WHAT I’M SAYING?!
Maybe not. Let’s start again.
When you get right down to it, death sucks. Consider what happens when a PC dies. First of all, the entire game grinds to a halt. Once the PCs discover one of their buddies is dead, the whole game stops. Inside the game, the PCs now have an ugly decision to make. Do they continue on their quest, even though their numbers are reduced and now they may be lacking some vital skillset they are used to having? Or do they stop, retreat, regroup, and try to refill their ranks? And that decision could be a really sucky situation depending on the circumstances. If the PCs are near the entrance to some dungeon they are plundering, retreating and regrouping is easy enough. But if they are deep in enemy territory, just fighting their way back out might be difficult. And if the quest is time sensitive or urgent, retreating and regrouping might cost them their objectives. It might even cost them the world, given the usual s$&% that adventurers are handling. But that’s just the death considered within the scope of the adventure.
Meanwhile, the player that lost the character is not exactly having an easy time of things. At best, the player has to retreat from the game with a handful of d6s and a PHB and start making a new character. Now, some people enjoy character generation, but that isn’t exactly whole bunches of fun compared to actually playing the f$&%ing game. And that’s the best-case scenario. Because a character represents a lot of investment. The player has invested time in creating the character, leveling it up, choosing skills and equipment, and so on. Moreover, the player has invested creative effort in figuring out who the character is. Getting to know the character. Thinking about hopes and dreams and goals and fears. The player has become familiar with the character. They are like a comfortable pair of shoes. And, on top of that, you also have the possibility of emotional attachment. Some players get very emotionally attached to their characters. And that’s very hard too.
And, the thing is, the other players know that s$&% too. The other players know it sucks to lose a character and to have to go retreat into the dark corner where character generation happens and start over. And that metagame knowledge affects the decision the PCs have to make in the adventure. Players are generally not wont to continue the adventure with one of their own rolling ability scores and hoping to come back “eventually.” They want to give that player the chance to come back into the game immediately. Or as immediately as possible.
But even that isn’t all. Because on the GMing side, a PC death isn’t the sort of thing you just brush off. I mean, some GMs CAN, but most GMs have a few problems staring them down the moment a character sheet goes into the paper shredder. First of all, there’s the problem of bringing a new PC into the game. Obviously, the player making the new PC doesn’t want to sit out for hours or days waiting for an opportunity for the new character to join the game. But managing the introduction of a new PC can be very tricky depending on where the game is.
On top of that, most GMs eventually start tailoring at least part of the game to the PCs. A PC represents investment in storylines, personal goals, connections to NPCs or world events, and resources that can be relied upon when designing adventures. And when a PC dies, all of those things go with them.
Oh, and there’s one more thing most people DON’T talk about, but it’s a big issue for some GMs. Remember how I told you above in that FAKE session that was trying to prove a couple of points that ALL deaths were your fault as the GM? Yeah. How did that make you feel? Did you want to defend yourself? Did you want to say that, no, actually if the PCs decisions or the dice bring about the death, you can’t really be held responsible? Did you want to point out that if you give the players every chance to succeed and they fail anyway, that’s their fault, not yours? Or did you just start to feel bad about the last PC that died that you now realized you murdered? Well, that’s because most GMs feel bad about killing PCs. It’s true. I mean, I don’t. But many, many GMs recognize that death sucks and players feel bad about death. And they feel guilty when a PC dies. Because they realize it really is true. At the end of the day, the death was their fault if, for no other reason than they could have prevented it. But also because they created the game that made it happen. And if the game kills a PC, some GMs wonder if they didn’t f$&% up.
PC death absolutely sucks. It is a disaster. It disrupts the entire game, it’s emotional, and it creates a whole bunch of extra work for everyone involved.
Which is exactly how it SHOULD be.
A Case for Death Sucking
Every so often, as I said, some dumba$& will start screaming about how GMs need to learn to create consequences for combat OTHER THAN death. They point to all that s$&% that happens because of character death and discuss how it ruins games. And the response is “see, this is why death has no place in RPGs.”
Less severe, though, are the people who look at that list of issues stemming from PC death. They look at how long it takes to create a new character and how hard it is to work a new character into the game. They look at story disruptions and emotional issues. And they try to SOLVE those problems. Make character generation quicker. Keep NPCs around so that the player can temporarily play as someone else. Make resurrection easier. If death is going to be a part of the game, make it less disruptive.
I would argue that both of those efforts, while ultimately well-intentioned, are missing some important parts of this story. I would actually argue that, for all that death is a major pain-in-the-a$& for all the reasons I outlined above, the fact is it’s working as intended. And I wouldn’t change it. No one sees the benefits coming from all of that.
First of all, let’s talk about how disruptive death is. Death ruins the PC’s day. It might ruin an entire quest. Or it might require the PCs to work twice as hard when they aren’t at their best. They have to make really hard decisions they weren’t ready for. And they have to function with limited resources. Emotionally, they are wrecked because they had to watch someone who didn’t want to die get ripped from the world. They have to go on with a friend missing from the table. A hole is left in the world where stories and connections once sat. It’s almost like dealing with death.
See, all of those terrible things – as terrible as they are – they are what give death its impact. Yes, it sucks. Death sucks. Its disruptive, emotional, unexpected, disastrous, frustrating, scary, all of those things. If we’re talking about a game that is truly about role-playing – truly about getting into the emotional state of your character – all that crap surrounding death helps the player and the character find emotional synchrony. And the GM has to think about how the world can now go on without those stories and connections. Well, that’s what happens when someone is ripped from the world. Connections and stories die.
Now, that isn’t for everyone. Some people just aren’t playing RPGs for the emotional, narrative, and story connections. They just want to kill some monsters and take their stuff. But what I find interesting is that the people MOST CONCERNED about the narrative and role-playing aspects of RPGs are the ones b$%&ing the most about how much death sucks. Of course it sucks. It’s supposed to. Death sucks. Frankly, the gamer-gamers, notice death a lot less. They bounce back into character generation, make a new character to try some different build, and then they show up a little later on and join the party with little fanfare and hoopla.
The thing is that death is not the end of a story. Death is simply the beginning of a new story about a world that lost someone important. Yes, it hurts. But it’s supposed to. But moreover, death makes risk meaningful. The reason Superman isn’t as impressive as Batman is because Superman is a super bulletproof immortal alien. It’s EASY for him to fight villains and take risks because he isn’t ever really at risk. Batman is mortal. He’s just a dude. That’s it. He COULD die. Death provides a context for heroism. The reason most people are NOT heroes or protagonists or adventurers is not because of training, talent, and resources. It’s because they are not willing to risk their lives.
Life Without Death
As I noted above, death sucks. When it happens, it’s like pulling a f$&%ing drag chute on your game. And it also completely ends a character’s story. And, the thing is, there are some groups and players that absolutely hate that idea. There are players who absolutely hate the idea of losing a character. And I don’t mean they hate it in an emotional, meaningful, cathartic way. They hate it in a depressing, the game sucks for a while afterwards kind of way. And there are some GMs who – especially when faced with those players – just feel absolutely terrible about pulling the trigger on a PC. Killing a PC makes them feel guilty. It makes them feel like they failed.
And those are the folks who look to “fix” the problems with death. They look at all the ways that death sucks and they wonder how to make death more painless. Can we expedite character generation or have replacement NPCs on hand so the PCs can just continue on their way, ignoring the death, without disruption to the adventure? And without a player getting exiled to the Corner of Shame where the PHB and the 4d6 are kept? Can we make death the start of a new adventure? Can the PCs venture into the underworld to deal with the God of the Dead and get the wayward soul back? In short, how can you make death less of a drag chute and more of a speedbump.
Now, you CAN do those things. Once upon a time, the Dark Sun campaign setting encouraged players to keep a folder full of backup PCs so they would always have a replacement. Every GM eventually runs the Orpheus and Ragnar the Fighter adventure where the PCs have to go into Hell and get Ragnar back. But, I would argue that all of those ideas are really, REALLY misguided.
If you’re trying to take away the sting of death, the thing that makes death meaningfully emotionally, narratively, and mechanically, why leave death in the game at all? Why not just have a game where death isn’t possible? Final Fantasy got away with it for years. Mostly. As long as all the heroes survived the fight, you could cram a Fenix Down down someone’s throat and they would be fighting fit for the next battle. And it’s as easy as that. Really. Just assume anyone that goes down during battle is stable. They won’t die. As long as the party manages to pull the fight out or get their body away, they are still alive. Done and done. No harm, no foul.
I’d argue that that solution makes far more sense than trying to make death meaningless. Just run a game without death. It’s okay. It really is.
Well, it’s okay as long as you’re okay with the characters behaving like they are f$&%ing immortal. Because they are. But there’s nothing wrong with even that. After all, action heroes behave as if they are completely immortal. Because they know they have plot armor. They know they can’t die. But, here’s the deal: once you decide the PCs are immortal, you’d better accept they will never fear a threat again. Unless it’s enough to end the entire party. And even then, the PCs might start to behave a little weirdly. Usually, when a main character dies, it proves that the threat is serious. If the only deadly thing is a TPK, the players will tend to treat a PC going down as a reason to dig in and become even crazier and pull out all the stops. Instead of watching the cleric drop and saying “we’d better get out of here,” expect them to say “well, now we HAVE TO win.”
Do Players Choose Their Risks
Personally, I’m an advocate for leaving death alone. Let it be the massive, painful, pain-in-the-a$& disruption that injects it with painful meaning. The gamer-gamers won’t care, they will just Press X to Pay Respects and then move on with the game while their ally pulls out that polearm spring attack toon he always wanted to try. The story-gamers will hurt, but it will invest them emotionally in the loss and the world and it will add dramatic tension, risk, context, and worth to their choices. After all, choice is meaningless without consequences. And the consequence of a life-or-death situation is that someone lives and someone dies.
I’ve talked before about a bit of a shift in the dynamic of D&D and other action-based role-playing games where the players aren’t really responsible for the choice to fight. That is to say, when the GM (or the adventure) says “and then a fight breaks out,” the PCs don’t have any choices. They fight or die. Are you running that sort of game? Here’s a simple test:
A group of cowardly goblins is bullied into service by a powerful hobgoblin. The rogue – who is hidden – gets an idea. He decides to sneak up on the hobgoblin before the fight starts and knock out the hobgoblin with a truncheon. The hobgoblin does not have a helmet on. The hope is that, with the hobgoblin knocked out, the cowardly goblins will be unwilling to fight the PCs. Can this work?
If your first thought is that the PCs are trying to cheat their way out of a fight, your players probably don’t get to pick their fights. If your first thought is “cool, a quick stealth check, a hobgoblin Constitution saving throw, and an Intimidate check and the entire fight is avoided,” good for you, you’re running a game where the players can choose their fights.
The test is, of course, how often the PCs can find clever ways to AVOID or MINIMIZE or MITIGATE life-or-death situations. Another good test is whether your PCs can run from a fight that they don’t feel they can win.
Here’s the thing: if your players don’t get to choose whether they take life-or-death chances (combat being the most obvious example), then death loses some of its meaning. Not all, of course. But if you’re already uncomfortable with death as an option, you might consider removing it. Just do that thing I said above. Characters don’t die, they just become critically injured.
Coping with Death
Now, I know none of this is what you expected. I often get asked about how to deal with PC death. And the question is always about the minutiae, the details. How do you get a new PC into the game? How do you deal with a player who has to go make a new character? Does the new PC come back with full equipment? Full levels? Blah blah blah.
The thing is? I don’t have a standard operating procedure. I think there’s a lot of value in NOT having a standard operating procedure. Again, when a death happens, I want it to f$&% everything up. I don’t want it to be possible to ignore. I want everyone to know it. I want the survivors to deal with hard choices and loss. I want the player to go away and make a new character. I want to have to make the effort of working the new character into the game. Of building new stories. I want all of that s$&% because I want death to feel like something went really terribly wrong.
But not everyone agrees. And that’s fine. You don’t need my permission to run your stupid game any wrong way you want. But how you cope with death is going to come down to two things: how common is death and how much impact should it have narratively and emotionally.
In my world, death is not SUPER common, but it is an ever present risk. The world is dangerous and so are the jobs of heroes. It isn’t for the faint of heart. I probably see a character die every few levels. I have never had a group that didn’t lose a character in the first three to six months of play. Sometimes they lose several. And I have had TPKs. But death is also highly impactful. Every death is a disaster. You can’t ignore character death in my world.
In general, the less common death is, the more disruptive it can – and should – be. And the more disruptive death is, the more impactful it is. So, how do you control the disruption and impact of death? Well, it comes down to how you deal with the various issues that come with it.
Dead Player Playing
The first question is what you do with the player. The player without a character is now out of the game. They have to go create a new character. And, truth be told, that’s kind of unavoidable. You can’t play the game without a character. Now, arguments have been made for letting the character play a handy NPC or letting them play the monsters in other battles. Me, personally? I prefer to get the player generating a new character right away. Get the d6s and the PHB in their hands so they can come back into the game as quickly as possible. Yes, generating a character is less fun than playing the game, but the sooner the character is done, the sooner they can be back to playing the game. Instead of giving them a consolation prize, give them a chance to come back to the game right away.
Regardless of whether you want impactful or not, the most important thing is to get the player making a new PC as soon as possible. Nothing else is as good. Don’t delay that by giving the player busy work in the form of a torch bearer or running the second goblin from the left.
The next question is what happens to the rest of the PCs. Do they continue on their quest or do they retreat due to the loss of manpower? And you might think this question is entirely up to the players. Well, that’s not quite true. See, there’s a bunch of tricky issues involved that mess up the decision. For example, what happens if the players retreat? Obviously, the idea is to retreat in the hopes that a new PC will join them. But if they do that, does the game stop until the dead player has a new character?
Here’s the truth: the REAL decision about what happens to the rest of the group is made based on how much time is left in the session and whether everyone else wants to stop playing and wait for the dead player to make a new character. If the answer is no, the players will continue adventuring REGARDLESS of whether it is a good decision or not. If the answer is yes, the players will retreat REGARDLESS of whether they could win or not.
If the session is over, the decision is easy enough. But if the players want to keep playing, then you, as a GM, need to make sure you STILL give the PCs the choice of continuing or retreating. That is to say, make it clear that a retreat will be an adventure in itself. Getting back to town or back to camp or whatever is going to be an adventure. The PCs will be hauling a body and its gear. Their enemies might pursue. They might meet wild animals or scavengers. Whatever. The point is, don’t let the reality of clocks and sessions make the decision for the characters who aren’t beholden to that stuff.
A New Life
Okay, so, now you’ve got the player making a new character and the group is still adventuring – forward or backward – unless the session has ended. But now the clock is running. In the near future, you’re going to have to pop a new character into the game. And how you do that is going to depend entirely on the situation in your game.
If the PCs are retreating back to town to recover, recruit, and have another go at the adventure, getting the new PC into the game is easy. This is especially true if your session has ended and the next session will start back at town. All the new PC needs is a motivation to take on this current adventure and a way to find out the PCs are getting ready to tackle the adventure again.
But if the PCs are moving on, things get trickier. But, here’s the deal, you’re NUMBER ONE priority is to get that player’s new PC into the game as soon as possible. The moment that player has a PC, they should be able to get back into the game. Or reasonably soon thereafter. And whatever you have to do to make that happen, make it happen.
And here’s where I say terrible things that make narrativist story wankers very, very upset. And I don’t care. Because even THEY will appreciate the end result of my advice, no matter how much they scream their berets and neckbeards off. From the moment the PCs decide to adventure on, you need to come up with an excuse for them to trip over the new PC. And whatever that reason is, you tell the player (or work it out with the player) to make their character with that in mind. The new PC might be a prisoner or they might be an adventurer also wandering around the adventuring site or they might be a spy working for the same organization as the heroes who was sent to catch up with the heroes. Whatever. It doesn’t matter what the excuse is.
See, when it comes to making a new PC in the middle of a game, the player making the new PC has a responsibility to keep the game working if they want to be a part of it. Everyone at the table has agreed on certain things just by nature of the way game has run. They agreed to take on this adventure, they agreed to this campaign, they are working for this organization, whatever. Whatever the reality of the current campaign or adventure is, everyone bought in to that. That means that the new PC is constrained by those realities. It’s just part of the game.
When you send the player away from the table to make a new PC, you work out with them the details of how they are coming back into the story. As soon as you know whether the other PCs are moving forward or backward and whether the session is over or not, you pull that player aside and say “okay, here’s the starting point for your new character.” And if the player doesn’t like that, if they don’t have an alternative that works just as well, they can sit out the game until you can deal with the fruits of their “creativity.”
Think of the story constraint as the one penalty for death.
And when I say the ONE penalty for death, I mean it. Because now we come to all those dumba$& questions about levels and equipment and how much XP a new PC has. In most games, there is absolutely ZERO reason for death to have any sort of cost. If you lost a PC with 3,000 XP and 3rd level, the new PC should have 3,000 XP and 3rd level.
Equipment is a trickier issue. Most games give some guidelines for how much starting equipment a higher level PC should have. But you also have to know your own game. For example, D&D 3E and 4E and Pathfinder are pretty stringent about power curves and equipment by level. If you’ve been following those curves, the new PC should follow the standards. 5E is a lot less strict. Equipment is less important to the power curve and most GMs play fast and loose with it. So you can get away with just starting equipment and not cause a problem. The key is to make sure that the new PC doesn’t represent a severe downgrade in power level.
There are those who argue that if you don’t punish the player, they won’t take death seriously. But, if you’ve read this far, you know that’s a dumb thing to say now. Death is as impactful and painful as your response to it.
Now, some games (Dungeon World) for example, don’t have strict power curves and mechanical balance like the d20 games do. DW very specifically says “new PCs are always first level.” And that’s fine. That’s part of the game. Dungeon World has a lot of specific death mechanics. So, if the game spells out how to deal with death, follow that unless you have a good reason not to. But those are special cases. In general, don’t PUNISH players for dead PCs. They’ve been punished enough. Unless…
A Case for Punishing Death
There are cases where death CAN carry a cost: lost levels, lost equipment, that sort of thing. And those cases almost exclusively involve the challenge element of the game. For example, if the PCs are exploring a megadungon and there’s an element of “are you a bad enough dude to get to the bottom of this dungeon,” then a lost level for each death is appropriate. It adds to the challenge of the game. Death represents a loss state.
Basically, what it comes down to is this: if the primary engagement of the game is about building your PC or party up to the point where they can “win” the campaign, death as loss is an important game element. And, in those cases, resurrection spells and their limitations and costs become meaningful.
But if you’re NOT running a game where you want “earning a high level character” to be part of the game, there’s no reason to attach painful costs to death.
Three Alternatives to Normal Death
But let’s say you don’t like dealing with death. Let’s say you want some alternatives. Here’s three alternatives I’ve used to good effect.
This rule relies on a bit of a secrecy. I’ve actually had it in place for years with several gaming groups. But most players never knew it. Here’s how it works:
When your character is rolling death saves or marking off HP or bleeding to death or whatever determines the difference between dying, stable, and dead in your game of choice, they do so in complete secrecy. Even I – the GM – don’t know the results. Only the player knows if the PC is alive or dead until someone manages to examine them. Once another PC reaches their side, the PC can find out if the dying character is alive or dead. I pull the player aside and ask them secretly “is your PC alive or dead?” But I also tell them that I don’t care what the dice say. They can give me any answer. Only they know the truth, but they get to decide if their PC is currently alive or dead. And if the PC is alive, they can be stabilized, healed, saved or whatever.
Of course, this is only possible if the PC is dying of some kind of wound. If something happens that would unambiguously destroy a PC, like falling in lava or being disintegrated or dissolved in acid, the death stands.
This system allows each player to decide for themselves whether they want to deal with a dead PC or not. Some players can’t handle it. Honestly, though, in the many years I’ve had this system in place and the dozens upon dozens of deaths I’ve used it, I’ve had a lot of players let their deaths stand. Obviously, by the rule (and I’m strict about it), even I’m not allowed to know if you kept your PC alive despite the dice. But the number of deaths I’ve had as a result of the rule are telling.
The key to this rule is secrecy though. The only thing you tell the players is that all death rolls must be made in complete secret and you will pull them aside to deal with the consequences only after someone examines them.
Scars of Peter Molyneux
Under this system, PCs don’t die. When they fail enough death saves or hit whatever total negative hit points are required for death, they are instead critically injured. They are basically in a coma, temporarily beyond the reach of even magically healing. They must be taken away from the battlefield and their friends have to nurse them back to health. Basically, the adventure has to stop and the heroes have to retreat. Usually, it takes 24 hours for them to come out of shock and be receptive to normal or magical healing.
The character is left with a scar or lasting injury of some kind. I usually make them up on the spot. But they always carry a penalty with them. Speed might be reduced by 5 feet. A saving throw or skill might suffer a permanent -1, which might represent a physical or mental impairment. You can even make these things supernatural. Because the soul dipped into and out of the afterlife, the character has the touch of death which results in a penalty to persuasion because people can sense something is WRONG with the PC.
Under this system, a player can choose to retire a PC or decide that the PC is really dead, rather than playing a scarred, overly penalized mess. If death is very common, this system can be extremely brutal.
The New-U Station
I ran a campaign in which the PCs were bound to a magical artifact and could not die. If they died, they were resurrected, naked and screaming, at a magical artifact in a hidden location. It took 1d3 days for their body to regrow. Obviously, this whole thing was tied up in the story of the game. Part of the campaign was about unraveling the mystery of WHY the PCs kept coming back to life and why they sometimes came back in different bodies (if the player wanted to change characters). The rest of the campaign was about protecting the secret of their immortality and the magical artifact from evildoers who would have claimed it for themselves or destroyed it to destroy the PCs.
In that game, the players learned to use their immortality as a tool. Which is exactly how I intended it. But they could never get complacent about it either. Disappearing from the world for three days, being shunted into a dangerous location, and having to reconnect was tricky enough. But their enemies became suspicious about their continued survival, especially after seeing them die, and they had to do some pretty nasty stuff to keep their secret.
Ultimately, one of the players exclaimed “I wish we could just DIE when we die. That would be easier.” See, death sucks, but if you run your game right, immortality is worse.