RPG A Day 26: How to Treat Death in Role Playing Games

OK.  Yesterday’s post was a stretch to answer.  I looked ahead at the remaining suggested questions.  I even looked at the alternate questions.  Guess what?  None of them appeals to me in the smallest amount.  Therefore, most of the last week of this will be self-made questions.  The first of these looks at the topic of death in the role-playing game (RPG) for the player characters.  In some groups, it is a really touchy topic.  I will give you the way that I view this and hope you find some wisdom in it.

Death vs. Player Investment



I think that a lot of this fear is actually generated from the games master (GM).  We play session after session and see the effort that players put into their characters.  We feel that when that critical die is rolled that the player is going to be upset because of all that investment.  I am not saying it is all GM based.  Player’s can get very upset when their favourite character dies.  I feel that the urge for a GM to fudge a roll behind a screen is because of that feeling though.  There is a perception that killing a character is wrong.  I am a firm believer that this perception is wrong.

Play the Game

RPG’s are games.  They have a set of rules that are defined.  Sure, the first rule is to break the rules if you feel it is warranted.  Some games even encourage dice roll fudging to save players.  If so, where is the risk in the risk vs. reward dynamic?  In 2000 (ish) when third edition Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) was coming out I played some games with a new player.  He had a halfling rogue of the fifth level.  That rogue went through an entire Yuan-ti complex, killing everything in his path.  In reality, he was never meant to go there.  The idea of the temple was to lead him to some research and come back and fight when he had levelled appropriately.

I let that halfling live for fear of damaging the player’s investment.  At the end of that adventure, I just looked at him and said;

You know none of that really happened right?  Your character would have been killed ten times over by the guards of the temple.

The Lightbulb Moment

He looked at me and said he knew.  He was surprised by how weak they had made the Yuan-ti in this edition.  This was the moment that changed the way that I run games.  It was my watershed.  It was my light bulb moment.  We were playing a game.  As long as you have fun in a session, even if your character dies, is all that matters.  A couple of weeks back there was a total party kill in my Conan game.  The dice were rolled and characters died.  At the end of the night, the consensus from the players was good.  All of their characters had died but what a tale it was!  Just follow the rules of the game is all I am saying.

There Are Other Options

Make sure you do not just target someone.  If a player is about to be killed, have the antagonist revel in it for a single round.  Let the other players attempt to help perhaps.  The lizardman warrior turns from the badly beaten character with his bone club in the air and pronounces;

This weakling is no match for Rissilisst!  Who else must I prove myself on?

In games like Conan, this may actually shake the other players up.  But it will surely cause them to turn on him.  Rissilisst, the narcissist, may actually chase a new target looking for that challenge.  In a toe to toe fight, the player may never have a chance but melee combat is rarely a toe to toe fight.


I am saying that death is nothing to be scared of.  Players come to the table should be aware that their characters can die.  It is their responsibility to keep them alive.  This may be through research in the game or good role-playing.  It is not something to shy away from though.  If a character is taken out of the game, it only adds to the tale you are telling.  If you can train your brain to think of it in this light your game will improve.  Of course, this is only my opinion.  Keep rolling!

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