Handling Death in an RPG

Death is a topic that is generally covered in the Games Master (GM) sections of the system.  I can’t remember a published system that does not in some way address this issue although there may be one.  The fact that it is handled in every game is a testament to the gravity that is attributed to the situation where a character dies in a game, and how a GM should approach it.  But should this information really just reside in the GM arena only?  Shouldn’t players be prepared for this eventuality as well?

GM advice will generally revolve around how to handle death.  I have lost count of the number of books that suggest you do not allow blind dumb luck to kill a character (referring to bad dice rolls) and that the GM should perhaps fudge a few of the rolls so the player does not die because of a string of great rolls by an NPC.  But is that the best advice?  If we are going to start to ignore the random element of the dice that is meant to offer uncertainty, risk and fun to the game then should we not get rid of the dice altogether?

Image of mounted miniature used by my daughter in games
My daughter’s approach to death in games was to be the winner in number of deaths!

I am sure most of my readers are aware that I play the dice-less Lords of Gossamer and Shadow RPG.  It too talks to the GM about the likelihood of death arising and what could or should be done around it.  In this system they talk about the narrative surrounding the death.  Is it suiting?  Does the player accomplish something large by their death?  Discuss this with the player as they are taking the actions that are leading them toward this path.  Death, as a result of this open approach, is never a surprise and is often a choice taken by the player in this game.

The options to avoid this are many in a dice based or dice-less game.  Think of what could be happening here.  If the player is knocked down the NPC could have knocked them unconscious and steal the players gear leaving them battered, bruised and bound.  Perhaps they simply leave them behind as the death is pointless to them, and the pair may cross paths later where they can say “Look, I could have killed you so you owe me…”. Those sorts of situations are far more interesting than “You’re dead, roll up another character”.

Sure, you need to take into account the nture of the death/NPC.  If we are talking alignments a Chaotic Evil creature is likely to kill you, pull out your intestines and bathe in the offal.  A Chaotic Neutral character may do anything.  Any creature that is good is unlikely to kill you in a battle.  they would much prefer to disable rather than destroy.  If you are not working with alignments then think about the characters/creatures motivations.  If you came across a bear and her cub she will knock you down but not stay to finish the job, she just wants to protect her cub.  But if it is a starving lion, your number is up.

Character motivations of NPC’s must come into play too.  Even a Chaotic Evil genius may see more point to keeping you alive than dead.  You might make them money with a ransom to allow them to spread their destruction.  They may be able to use you for leverage with an organisation you are a part of or they may ally with you in the future (think The Princess Bride movie and what Wesley did with Inigo, Fezzig AND the prince too).

Death does not need to be the main punishment in the game and surviving a lost battle can add a complicated turn to a players character that they may enjoy.  But why is this information not discussed with players in many of the RPG’s that are out there.  Sure, they will discuss the mechanic of death in the combat sections but the actual “How to handle” stuff normally always appears in the GM sections which many people who are players just do not read.

I think it is important to talk about the issue of death with the players.  Sure a player can become very invested in a character and a character death can crush them.  I am lucky because all of my players have seen and suffered character death and know that I will work with them to come up with solutions to this if they want it or to build a more suitable character that they want to try.  But I am also of the opinion that I will start to try more of the advice that I give above and have players knocked out rather than killed.

How do you handle death?  Is it a case of where the dice lie or do you fudge a little every now and again.  Share your approaches in the comments section so we can all see how things happen in different games and learn a bit from each other.  Keep rolling!

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