Roleplaying

Six Ways Roleplaying Games Approach Death

A female death touching an old man's head.

We talk a lot about how GMs and players should handle character death, but what about the rules themselves? Richard was curious, so he asked us this question:

I was wondering – how do different games handle the accidental or chance death of a character? Is Resurrection available? Reincarnation? Are there points that in effect serve as a “Get Out of Death Free” card?

It’s one thing to talk about house rules and personal solutions, but how do the systems themselves deal with death? This also applies to alternate ways a character can become unplayable, like a complete loss of sanity in Call of Cthulhu or being overcome by the Shadowlands in Legend of the Five Rings. The answer will say a lot about the game in question and help you decide if it’s the game for you.

1. Tough Luck

A mouse confronting a snake. This won’t go well for that mouse.

Some games offer no way back from death. It’s a hard world out there, and if a character dies, that’s it. The player must make a new character at starting level and be thankful for it! For a long time, this was the default for roleplaying games. Even now, it’s by far the most common approach. You see it everywhere from the World of Darkness to Mouse Guard.

Pros

Unforgiving as this method is, it does teach PCs to fear death. Just like in real life, death is the ultimate fate from which there is no escape. In theory, it’s easy for players to wrap their heads around this method because it’s closest to the world they live in.  

In games where PCs are frequently put in mortal danger, playing hardball with character death makes actions more impactful. When the thief narrowly escapes death in a crushing trap, they’ll know it actually was a narrow escape. This is particularly useful in horror games, where the mood requires players to feel a loss of control.

Cons

Where to begin? For one thing, players get understandably upset when a character they put many hours of work into is snatched away without any recourse. That’s a really unpleasant feeling, and roleplaying is theoretically about having fun.

This method destroys campaigns. As players lose one character after another, they become less and less invested or just walk away from the table. Even if the players stick it out, their plot threads will be left unresolved because they failed to dodge an unexpected goblin attack. It’s easy to reach a point where the entire party has died and been replaced. None of the new characters remember why they’re even on this quest!

Even worse, any player who has to make a new character is now way behind on XP. It’s bad enough to lose a character, but now your new one is like a child among giants. Players are punished because random number generation* didn’t go their way. Good GMs end up fudging the dice to prevent their PCs suffering such ignominious ends, and when you have to routinely ignore a rule, it’s not a good rule.    

2. Easy Resurrection

A person standing beside a restoration bed. No identity crisis going on here.

Sure, characters can die, but that’s no big deal. In D&D* their friends just pay some gold to a temple to get the deceased resurrected – or even cast the spell themselves. In Eclipse Phase, characters reload from a saved backup of their personality. In Paranoia, the Computer activates another clone. No matter the method, any trip past death’s door is easily reversible.

Pros

The burden of character death is lifted! Now you can plant traps and unleash rampaging killbots at your whim. A few coins at the temple will get any fallen PCs back in the fight. It’s a huge relief not to worry that every attack roll might permanently end a protagonist. The fewer times you have to fudge the dice, the better.

This method puts life or death in the players’ hands. They get to spend their resources on bringing each other back. It’s up to them to raise the gold for a resurrection, or retrieve their buddy’s cortical stack so it can be uploaded into a new body. This encourages the players to get more involved in the story, as they now hold the power over life and death.

Finally, in a well-written setting, this method is a great plot device. In Eclipse Phase, the ease of digitally backing up a life leads to all kinds of problems. What happens when a PC wakes up in a new body only to find out their previous iteration never actually died? Drama, that’s what.

Cons

While easy resurrection does have value as a plot device, it can also cause incredible damage to a setting. Eclipse Phase is designed from the ground up to be a world where people are functionally immortal. Most D&D settings are not. In those worlds, everyone still acts like they have only one life to live. This creates cognitive dissonance in the players. Should they be sad when someone dies, or will a visit to the priest fix everything? Why does anyone die at all? 

More personally, if death can be easily reversed, then it has no meaning. Players may have a difficult time taking danger seriously if death only means paying a resurrection fee. PCs tend to have a lot of money, so unless the game’s economy is extremely robust, coming back from the dead won’t be a hardship. This is how you end up with PCs running naked through a dungeon to clear it of traps.

3. No Death At All

An RPG character with angel wings. Since no one in Anima Prime will ever see an angel, they had to make one.

Dying, huh, what is it good for? According to some systems, absolutely nothing. Instead of making resurrection easy, these games skip the middle man and make sure PCs never need to be resurrected in the first place. This method appears most often in narrative heavy games like Anima Prime. If a character slips from a precipice, they land on a ledge. If a character falls in combat, they are captured and can have a daring escape sequence later. Death certainly happens in the setting, but things always work out so the protagonists don’t die, just like in traditional stories.  

Pros

Like easy resurrection, this method means you never have to fudge your dice rolls to stop a PC from dying. Nor must you explain a world where no one ever dies, because this method is based on a narrative rule rather than a literal one. Most players can accept it in the same way they accept that their favorite TV characters are unlikely to die.

If you like stories with sad endings, fear not. Systems with this method usually include an exception if the players think it would be cool for their characters to die. We all love a good blaze of glory or poignant end in defense of one’s ideals. This allows for protagonist deaths that actually improve the story.

This method is also good for preserving your NPCs. While not as serious, having a major villain die in the first session because someone got a lucky shot is a problem. If the PCs can’t die from random rolls, they’ll be more forgiving when you tell them that the villain miraculously survived that headshot.   

Cons

While most players don’t have a problem with the deathless approach, some cannot accept it. To them, if death isn’t on the table, then they have no reason to exercise caution, or even common sense. They’ll ride into battle on nuclear bombs, confident that the narrative rules will protect them. In a perfect world you wouldn’t have a GM for these players, but in real life they exist and you must be aware of them.

Even with reasonable players, this method is a disaster for many horror games. Horror depends on a loss of control to instill fear, but the players are always in control of a deathless system. Action-packed games may suffer as well, because physical danger is no longer enough to make players care about a fight. Tell the players that a dragon is attacking them out of nowhere, and they’ll yawn. You’ll need to explain why the dragon is attacking and what’s at stake if the PCs fail.

4. Play Someone Else

Five skeletons with weapons and shields. Why, you could be any of these strapping folk!

Okay, so cutting death out of the game completely isn’t your thing, but you don’t want to punish players for a failed reflex save. Fortunately, you have another option. Instead of having the bereaved player make a new PC from scratch, you can give them some extra points to keep them on par with the rest of the group. This new character might even have been previously established as an NPC. While many GMs arrive at this method via house rules, Torchbearer is the only game I’ve seen that includes it in the rules as written.*

Pros

Most immediately, a dead character’s player can still participate in the game. They no longer have to start at square one because a dragon’s fire-breath caused too many points of damage. At the same time, your game maintains death as a real possibility with all the benefits that entails.

If you follow a system like Torchbearer’s, then the replacement character must somehow be related to the deceased. This has value of its own, because it makes the problem of unresolved plot threads easier to deal with. If the dead character had an outstanding oath of vengeance, then it makes more sense for their mentor to take up the burden than a complete stranger.

Of all the methods, this is the easiest to graft onto a system that otherwise uses tough luck. All you have to do is figure out the party’s approximate level – or actual level if you’re using a system like D&D – and award the new PC accordingly.

Cons

While this method reduces many of the problems associated with tough luck, it doesn’t solve them. Players will still get upset if a character they worked hard on dies randomly, and too many replaced characters can still damage the story.

Worse, if too many PCs die under this method, players may start seeing their characters as one-charge items. After all, when the character dies, the player gets a new one with the same capabilities. Why not just throw themselves heedlessly at the villain? One of them will succeed eventually. This is made far worse if the system you’re using includes any rules for powerful abilities that require sacrificing a character’s life.

5. Go On an Adventure

A character going through the stages of adventure. Adventures are rough in Torchbearer.

Like Orpheus, the PCs can always go on a long journey to the afterlife in order to rescue their lost friend. It worked out well for Orpheus, didn’t it? This method is a staple of prose and film storytelling, with many an epic quest launched to revive a fallen companion. Sometimes the heroes must find a unique item; other times they must earn the favor of a powerful being. Even though this is a common trope, Torchbearer is again the only system I’ve found that includes this method in its rules.

Pros

The most immediate pro of this method is that adventures are fun. If a character dies, it means the party now gets to go on a special quest. That’s better than sitting around being sad that their friend is dead. Even the player whose character has died won’t sink into despair, because there’s still hope! You’ll probably want to give the player something else to play during the adventure, though.

Because this method is such a well-used literary trope, you have a lot of material to draw on. Literal journeys into the underworld bring to mind the classical myths while a treasure hunt for the cup of immortality invokes the pulp action themes of Indiana Jones. Your players might even have to match wits with the very ruler of Hell! I’m excited just thinking about it.

This method lets you avoid the problems of character death without having to explain why most people in the world still die. After all, few people will have the resources available to undertake such a journey, let alone the skills to succeed. It also avoids the problem of death having no meaning. When someone dying results in an epic adventure, it has serious impact.

Cons

First, you have an issue of repeatability. Going on an adventure works great the first time. The second time it’s a little repetitive. By the third time, death feels like a revolving door. At that point you might as well save yourself some time and employ easy resurrection.

Worse, you have the possibility of recursive deaths. What happens if a character dies while on their quest to save their friend from Hades? Does the party just throw that second character into the bargain, or do they have to go on another epic quest?

There’s also an issue of time constraints. What if a character dies right before the climax of your campaign? Do the PCs ask the villain to put everything on hold? While going on an adventure is really fun, it has so many restrictions that it only works when combined with other methods.

6. Bargain With Death

A priest and a devil arguing. Okay fine, three souls, but that’s as high as I’ll go!

Another classic trope! Death comes for the characters, but the wily PCs have a trick up their sleeve. Perhaps they’ve got to outwit Death in solving a riddle, or defeat the Reaper in a game of chess. Maybe it’s just a matter of owing the Ferryman a favor. Whatever the task, if the characters can pull it off, they’ll get to keep on breathing. For now, at least.

Dungeon World is the only system I’ve found with this method, and while it’s no secret I didn’t like Dungeon World, it did right this time.

Pros

Who doesn’t want to bargain with Death? It sounds so cool it almost makes me want to play Dungeon World* just so my character can run out of hitpoints. Bargaining with Death makes the player feel like a badass, like there’s something special about them that makes Death stop and take notice. It’s hard to go wrong making your PCs feel special.

Bargaining with Death isn’t nearly as time-consuming as going on an adventure, and it doesn’t have the setting-wide implications of easy resurrection. Instead, you have a simple way to avoid the dangers of your PCs dropping like flies every time you make a bad roll. If you go with the option of owing Death a favor, it even provides a future plot hook.

Dungeon World’s mechanics also include a cool clause for what happens if characters fail their bargaining roll. Instead of dying immediately, they are marked for death and will meet their end soon. That gives characters time to find a dramatic finale or even just to put their affairs in order, which is a lot less traumatic than dying without warning.

Cons

Like other methods, bargaining with Death is vulnerable to overuse. Death will look like a real chump if it loses more than a few bargaining rolls. This also raises the question of how Death has so much free time that it can be constantly bargaining with dying PCs, though you could solve that by turning Death into a franchise operation.

The bigger problem is what happens if characters fail the bargaining roll? In Dungeon World, the only example I have of this mechanic, the character still dies. Then you’re back to square one, trying to figure out what to do. While bargaining with Death is certainly cool, it won’t address all possible situations.


The secret, of course, is that systems aren’t limited to just one method. Many games use several of the above methods in different combinations. Different GMs and groups will like some more than others. The trick is to check up on them ahead of time so you know what to expect. Death comes for us all, and it’s wise to be prepared.

Treat your friends to an evening of dark ritual murder. In a fictional game scenario, of course. Uncover your lost memories and save the day in our stand-alone game, The Voyage.

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Comments

  1. Chris Sham

    You forgot one: Borrow the concept of abstract “lives” from video games. Warhammer Fantasy and 40K, for example, have their Fate points, which can be traded in to force the GM to keep a character alive (though not necessarily happy nor healthy). It’s not as direct as either a simple resurrection spell or a narrative ban on PC death, and I think it finds a nice compromise in many ways.

    Death is not inevitable, you will run out of Fate points. But you’re also not going to die the moment you walk out the door. It allows WFRP to have some fairly brutal combat rules, without marginalising serious character growth over time.

    • 3Comrades

      I was thinking this too. Paranoia usually gives you a finite amount of clones for example, and Sin Eater brings you back but errodes your sanity, and your best possible Sanity, each time. It has to be worked into the setting but works well, especially for Paranoia since it’s a comedy with saccrificing your clones in odd ways being part of the fun.

  2. Jeff

    I’ve always been a fan of the dead lands approach where there’s a chance your character can come back to life as a half demonic undead corpse. You now have to deal with a separate set of rules that both have benefits and drawbacks, as well as dealing with your characters personal demons as his battles demonic forces for the possession of his soul and body.

  3. Jason Youngberg

    I liked the logic in Teenagers From Outer Space with regards to death. The less risk there is of a character dying the greater chances they will try something cool. So if there’s zero chance of death the PCs are going to cool, outrageous, and fun things to do in-game. Of course since it’s a comedy game, you don’t have to take anything very seriously – even death.

  4. Bronze Dog

    I’m reminded of an NES game called Nightshade, where you play a sort of Noir superhero. When you run out of health, the villains strap you to a death trap that you can escape if you’re quick. But each time you get captured, the death trap gets more elaborate, until it’s impossible to escape.

    So, this has me thinking of a sort of escalating scale to overlap with the classic video game lives: The more brushes with death your character has, the harder it is for him to not permanently go into the light. It cuts down on the odds of a sudden, unexpected death, but it still gives weight to each near-death. Add in a reasonable chance that they might not make it back the first time, and they might be discouraged from treating lives like any other commodity. But, of course, there’s always some players who see everything as a commodity to be gamed.

    • Richard

      I like that idea. One death is bad luck, the second is because you’re in a risky line of work, the third is You Should Know Better By Now, and the fourth is That’s It, You’ve Had Enough, You’re Staying Dead! A LARP I participated in had that approach to player death. When you went to the God of Judgment, you picked a card from a deck. The more deaths you had, the more “Permanently Dead” cards and the fewer “Go Back to Life” cards there were….

      I’d also suggest that any player coming back from the dead through resurrection come back with an injury. Nothing that really handicaps them; perhaps just a -1 on the stat of their choice. At least a cool scar!

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