This is part 4 of 28 of the series: Up Your GMing Level

Death Sucks

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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$&%ing blog, get a blog. They are easy to get. Here: go to Free f$&%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.


Maybe not. Let’s start again.

Death Sucks

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.

Moving On?

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.

Schrodinger’s PC

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.

34 thoughts on “Death Sucks

  1. Seems to me that there is no universal right answer. What you need to do depends on your group and the game in question. This is why certain systems try to portray certain types of games. FATE nearly requires capable characters who will grab life by the balls, Leverage is Competance porn, and kobalds ate my baby is a meat grinder. It’s not a mistake that each of these systems handles death differently. Thus I propose that if you don’t like how your game is handling, the system is shit or is being used for something for which it was not designed. Either way, if you are unhappy you can try to fix it or find something better. Since most systems have their flavors deeply baked in, it’s often easier to get a system that you like the taste of to begin with. Stop trying to tow your boat to the lake with a Honda Accord and get a truck.

  2. I wonder about this question every so often and I think everything you’ve written here is brilliant (no surprise). I particularly really appreciate the final options you provide, specifically the Schrodinger’s PC. It gives players a lot more control over their character’s deaths and how they want to handle things and seems like it would allow different options for different types of players.Out of curiosity, knowing that it’s a secret, do you think you’ve ever had a player who actually had a “live” character they declared dead?

    • If a player declares a “live” character dead, that’s the very rare but highly prized Class 0 death.

      • I don’t know about highly prized. I once had a player that would suicide their character and play something different every few sessions. It was not nice and it was hard to get them into the story.

  3. I’m running my first campaign (I’ve only run one-off adventures before), and pretty much the whole world works like the New-U Station option. Any natural creature comes back to life near its home at the next dawn following the next dusk. So, any given character or animal is back in the world between 12 and 36 hours later, depending on the time of death.

    The players still seem to worry about death during their missions, and so far, I’ve only had a single player death. As they get higher level and move further from their hometown, death becomes a bigger issue, as it takes longer for a character to get back to the party. It’s also been a fun thought exercise in how to deal with problems that can’t be solved purely by ‘kill them all’. You can kill the bandit camp, but you need to take all their gear to really slow them down. If you beat them up enough times, maybe they move elsewhere. Or you can capture them and throw them in prison.

    Main Point – I’ve removed true death from my game as a feature of the world. I may be an idiot for doing so, but thus far, the game has still been enjoyable and exciting.

  4. My highly-democratic playgroup is currently in the process of voting on what our game’s Death Policy should be. This article definitely sheds some light on what decisions we should be making and why.
    Thanks for another good one!

  5. I think even the rules of D&D support the idea that true, permanent death shouldn’t come easily or often. As long as the new PC would be at least level 9, the player can just make a cleric with Raise Dead readied and bring the dead character back to life; it’s just as easy – and just as fair – to say that, where the party would be meeting a new PC, they instead meet a friendly cleric who raises their dead friend for a small fee. As discussed in the article, dodging this cop-out requires some logical gymnastics and just general jerkassery on the part of the DM.
    The Schrodinger approach largely invalidates the raising spells, which I actually like a lot. It means clerics (even those outside the party) aren’t firing off Resurrections left and right; if a PC has died, it’s because the player was willing to let them die. They’re only using raises when someone has died traumatically outside the player’s control; this happens rarely enough that it’s still a punch to the player, and the raising that follows is less “Pokemon center” and more “emergency surgery.”

  6. That’s the second time I recall you talking about the ‘You get resurrected inexplicably’ campaign. It sounds really interesting. Was it something that you put together or was it some sort of purchased adventure?

    • Pretty sure angry wrote it
      Personally I would love to see it (and purchase) as a published module after angry publishes his mega dungeon

  7. Good article!

    What are your thoughts on players coming back into the game with basically the same character that died? I have a player who plays the same cleric in every campaign we are in, and if he dies I think it’s very likely he will want to play a similar character. My thought is to ask them to change at least SOMETHING about their character, such as their race, class, or even just subclass, as it feels cheesy to me that there is an identical character that comes back. Have you ever had a player that wanted to do this?

    • He answered this question in an Ask Angry article a while back.

      “The best way for a GM to handle this situation is to wait until the player generates a new character. Then, take the character sheet out of his hands, rip it into pieces, throw the pieces on the ground, and jump up and down on them yelling “stop having fun wrong, stop having fun wrong, stop having fun wrong, stop having fun wrong.” And then, if there are any players still left in the room, generate a character for the player and say “you play this because I said so.””

      • I actually submitted almost the same question as that Ask Angry answers a while ago, but with a different slant to it; on seeing that article again, I’m not surprised Angry didn’t rush to answer it. My concern, though, was less “how do I force a player to stop rehashing characters” and more “how do I make character death impactful when that’s an option.”
        And this article totally answered that question: don’t kill a character a player wants to keep running so they don’t have to rehash it. Really, the idea of leaving actual character death up to the players seems so obvious now that I can’t believe more people don’t do it. Guess that’s what makes Angry angry, though; GMs just being clueless.

  8. Just a perfect article Angry. Perfect! I actually talk about player death every couple of months with my group. When I see they’ve become attached to new items or a new level of power I always make sure to just as them all after a session: “and your still going to be ok if your character dies at some point right? Because your now about to start encountering things that allow less room for error”… Ive let them think on that then said “because if that’s too much to handle, tell me which story book you’d like me to bring and read to you all next time”… I’m a bit of an ass haha. But honestly I feel without death you don’t get the same drama inherent in some scenes. The world just wouldn’t NEED adventurers if every one hit-die person out there knew how invincible they were. And what about starvation? Disease? Age? Why would only non-violent things be capable of killing people? Nah, death is part of life as much as life is. In my campaign resurrection is probably possible, but I’ve always made it clear that the culture they’re surrounded by finds meddling with the souls of those who’ve already payed their dues, and suffered the trials of life, very disrespectful and just honestly alien… It’s been amazing to see the groups cleric PC say: “no I will NOT try speaking with the dead! Tokarl would NOT do that!”. Stuff like that is awsome. I’ve never explicitly stopped them from trying to get someone Raised, but I made it clear it would be considered a chaotic act in the lands they travel through. It would piss people off or make them very uncomfortable. Also, good players should be able to run with a death. That same cleric i mentioned above has a bloody vendetta with one group because his brother was a level one character who died in the first session of the campaign. Now whenever that cleric sees certain people, he’s filled with rage. Death makes good stories. This group even made a shrine in their lodge for all their fallen comerades, so every time they go home they’re reminded of the sacrifice of others… All that being said. Your campaign involving immortal characters attached to a powerful artifact sounds brilliant! That’s a hell of an idea!

  9. Our gaming group likes to play clean and simple. We don’t like to track XP for individual encounters, or even individual PCs. The GM provides an adventure and loot and just tells the PCs when they level up (usually after they’ve accomplished something significant, and it doesn’t matter if it involved a lot or a little bit of combat, just that it was challenging, and we successfully faced it).

    So, how do we handle things that cost XP? For crafting, that was easy. Crafting does not cost XP, but party members who take crafting feats must craft items for everyone in the party. Done and done.

    What about death? By the book, if you use anything less than a full True Rez to bring a PC back, the rezzed PC loses XP, usually about a level’s worth. But we don’t want to track XP, and we want the party to stay all at the same level. So this is what we came up with:

    The rezzed PC gets a foam tombstone marker that says “R.D.P” on it. R.D.P. stands for Recent Death Penalty and imposes a -2 penalty on all d20 rolls. The GM decides how long the penalty lasts, usually about 2-4 game sessions.

  10. I have used the “Scars of Peter Molyneux” system once in the last four deaths to great effects, and would have used it more if the other deaths could have plausibly been anything other than deaths. I am, however, blessed with players who shake their heads at the idea of a 15 minute workday, and see a character’s debilitating injury as a challenge to be overcome.

    I see this approach as an opportunity to provide the players with interesting choices that the game mechanic doesn’t allow for: retreating with a character that can cast spells but can’t stand, or changing your fighting style to cope with a severed hand or loss of depth perception, for example.

    I also like the flexibility it provides, for example, a long-term injury can write a character out of that campaign but into the next one. And there are storytelling possibilities and possibilities for new goals, as the party quests for a spell to reverse the effects, or a prosthetic limb that allows the attachment of warforged components. Not to mention the choices that could be provided in a campaign revolving around Vecna.

    • I’m not sure if you understood the John Wick article. His advice wasn’t to never kill a PC. He even made an RPG where you can die in a single sword stroke (easily I might add). The game is called blood & honor if you are interested. His point more lines up with angries previous articles about traps and how their should be choreographed hints before someone dies without any decision being made. Tomb of horrors is even worse than the typical trap with just a save (no decision, just a roll) because a lot of them are just instant death.

      John Wick is actually high on my list for understanding that mechanics have to back up the type of game. In a fictionalized samurai tragedy you don’t want a long slow to the finish of a combat. His multiple combatant combat rules are called mass murder if I recall. X samurai go in, one comes out and it ends brutally fast. The game wouldn’t last very long if you treated it like D&D.

  11. I wouldn’t ask the Angry GM to be so petty, but if any one else wants to point the finger at the game designer who called the Angry GM the most toxic person in gaming, I’ll make sure to not spend another dime on their products.

    Anger and criticism may change some things, but money talks louder than name calling.

    • Meh. Different people have different blind spots. Just because someone doesn’t “get” Angry doesn’t mean they can’t produce good content.

      • I’m not saying that I won’t support this anonymous because I think his opinions make a poor content designer. I’m saying that I agree whole heartedly with Scott Rehm that anger and criticism change what needs to be changed. And if you have any perception roll at all, you’ll see that the anger is humor and the criticism is always in the pursuit of excellence. In his own words, the Angry GM swears like a “cartoon character”. Who ever this dissenter isn’t upset because he doesn’t “get” angry, he is upset because he doesn’t want criticism in the pursuit of excellence in the gaming community. He wants a “safe space” where people don’t have to try. And holy fuck, we are talking about table top games. Fuck the don’t criticize me mentality. Make a good game you lazy shit.

        There are more than enough shit holes in the world that cause serious, life affecting problems because people are afraid of “negativity” (again, he swears like a cartoon character).

        The least I can do, is not support this ideology in my completely disposable hobby, that I can at anytime walk away from and never regret.

        If I knew who it was that said a critic, and a funny critic, is the most toxic person to their community of knuckle dragging consumers: I would never again pay for their products.

  12. My favourite death handling method is Schrodinger’s PC. It mostly nullfies one of the biggest issues narritively invested players have with death, and that is the horrors of a bad death. My characters are usually built with a narrative arc in mind, they’ll be improving, working towards something. A death cuts that short, cuts off a story part way through, leaving months of plot in ruins. Schrodinger’s PC helps prevent that. With Schrodinger’s PC, I can decide whether I want the story of the character to go this path, I’m not opposed to my character’s death, or even opposed to their story being cut short by death, but dying like a chump is one of the worst things that can happen.

    I’ve yet to have it happen, but my second favourite PC, nigh immortal due to consistent good luck and hefty hit point increases, was intended to go out holding the line for the rest of the party. He was meant to take a lethal hit, burn a fate point to stand up again, and I was going to ask the GM if I could burn all of my remaining fate points to put me in fighting condition while the rest of the party fled. My character was a bodyguard, and he was going to guard those bodies like a damned Space Marine if he had to. It never happened, but I was looking forward to it, that character dying like a chump would have ruined him for me, years down the drain.

  13. Thanks for a great article.

    “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.” <– The most profound thing I read today. 🙂

  14. While I do like the Schrodinger’s PC idea, I’ve been using the opposite idea from D20 Skull & Bones for years. The DM secretly rolls 1d4+1, and that’s how many extra lives that character has, to explain those over-the-top, cinematic, how the heck did you come back from that kinds of situations. “Sea turtles, mate.”

    Once their final life is up, barring rezzing, then it’s new character time, which, in most of my games does default to same character level as before, starting gold for gear as dictated by the system.

    Also, running Eberron, with its spend an action point to stabilize instead of bleeding out, does tend to minimize occurrences of death, assuming the rest of the party survives to the end of combat and that it wasn’t an insta-kill effect or lava situation.

  15. Angry has many times said that there is much to learn from the science of computer games, and I very much agree. And one thing I’ve been thinking of lately is death in RPG’s. In a computer game you will simply roll back to a previous “checkpoint” and start over; try again or try something different. It works well in such games, and it doesn’t reduce immersion or retract from the experience of the story.
    What about trying the same approach in an RPG within some limitations? The cool thing with such an approach is that the players will first-handedly see the direct consquence of their actions, and heavily reinforce the feeling that they control their destiny. It would be an interesting throught-experiment as well, seeing how the story will progress in a different direction if something else were done in that moment. Many TV-shows have played around with this “butterfly effect” aspect as well in certain episodes, and I think this would be an especially apropriate excercise for RPGs. It would also give the players quite the dilemma to start with; For example, they lost the fight with the bandit lord and got killed. Will they use their “last chance” on trying to attack him again and hope for better die rolls or relying on taking out his wizard earlier, or will they simply avoid the battle and give in his demands?

    I find it puzzling that this approach to death in RPG is never ever mentioned or discussed in any book or forum.

  16. I’ve played a lot of Roguelikes and computer-imposed permadeath really changed the way I played long games. While such games can give you YASD (Yet Another Stupid Death), it really pushes players like me to play conservatively because death means a lot of lost time, and even the end of the emergent story. “I remember that one guy who survived that monster nest with 1 HP using a paperclip and rubber band. Sucks that he died to a simple arrow trap 9 floors later.” But that’s why I like games like that. In a typical video game RPG, you just reload from the previous save point, and a lot of times when I was younger, I didn’t learn how to play better because I could just keep trying until the RNG favored me or just grind up more levels.

    While I’ve had a lot of fun dungeon crawls on the computer, I’m getting deeper into tabletop games because there are some things computers can’t do, and it’d be hard to convince a GM to take the game off “Iron Man” mode. Once you make a decision, there’s no save scumming.

    • I have the opposite response – I find that YASD syndrome results in every character being played incredibly cautious and paranoid and therefore, samey, because you don’t want them to die. Of course, that’s not a problem if all you want to do is dungeon dive, but I don’t play that style anymore, really, because I find it…er… boring and samey. So different strokes and all that, but be aware that the very reason you like random deaths is the reason some people hate them.

  17. I have a quick, somewhat off-topic question. In his example above, Angry mentions a rogue knocking out a hobgoblin with “a quick stealth check and a hobgoblin Constitution saving throw.” Just wondering if I should assume this knockout scenario is a house rule, or if I missed something in the official 5e rules that allows for knockouts without first dropping a creature to zero HP? Not a criticism, just looking for clarification. Thanks.

    • It’s a ruling, not an official rule. He’s covered it before, you should only use the combat rules in the specific circumstances to which they apply.

      Say we have a tough fighter who can take a lot of blows, like Rocky Balboa. He’s got a bunch of HP, and it takes a long time to whittle them down to knock him out.

      Now, say you sneak up on Rocky when he’s asleep and slit his throat. He’s dead. The rules for attacking a downed combatant don’t really apply in the situation, and so you shouldn’t try and use them.

  18. So, I have been gming for a while, but death has always been an issue for me. I have usually just structured things so that death doesn’t really happen in my games to mostly avoid the problem. However, that feels like it cheapens things somewhat. Occasionally I throw more difficult threats with a warning of real risk to characters that session, but still it happens extremely infrequently (unless a player talks to me beforehand about a story arc ending in character death). I would like to worry less about character deaths, and would like if there was more a real chance of their occurrence (particularly since I am going to be starting a game set in WWII). The main issue is that I run hero system and character creation is not really a solo task. It can often take two weeks or more of back and forth to get a character finished to a point that it both fits into the game universe and the player is happy with it. It can take even longer for players unused to the system (or I need to do character creation with them approving). In any case, death is massively disruptive to the point that oftentimes a player who dies will just leave rather than rejoin because of the work necessary to create a satisfying character.

    What are your thoughts on this sort of thing?

    I’m thinking perhaps it would be good for me to create a character and hand it to them when it makes sense for it to come into play, and then let the player decide whether to stick with that character or bring in a new one. But I am not sure how well that will solve things, and it means that new characters won’t get introduced same session ever (unless I create a backup character for every session or perhaps less satisfyingly, keep one updated for each game).

    Additionally, Peter Molyneux probably won’t work because no part of character creation is random, and it is a pretty fine tuned point buy system as I run it.

  19. Pingback: Handling Player Character Death | Living Myth Rpg

  20. While I understand some people disliking the idea of death, when playing as a player I sometimes want my character to die. Not because he is suicidal but because I like the theme of heroic sacrifice and I feel that true courage is a virtue that can only be shown when there are real consequences. In short when playing a brave character he will volunteer to sacrifice himself of his own free will to hold back the enemy that is chasing the group. While that usually means his death, a clever GM could have him survive after the boss monster he was holding back leaves him for dead, or throws him off a cliff or something. I don’t expect him to but playing a courageous badass is about taking the risk and facing the consequences, not stacking up bonuses and waiting until you have a 90% or higher chance at winning, but doing what needs to be done in the moment with what you have.

    Case in point one of my favoured games is L5R, in L5R players play various samurai and samurai follow the code of bushido. Courage being one of the seven tenants or virtues of bushido I look at other players weirdly when they flee a dangerous yet important situation out of fear of death. Especially when they won’t admit that their character is afraid.

  21. I think you got fucking pissed after you lost a quest and decided the new way to pick up girls would be to writing a hit blog about such an impressive lifestyle. After all, Dungeons and Dragoms is more than a game! Keep the girls coming my friend!

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