Four Dangers of Unplanned Character Death

Every time a character gets into combat in most roleplaying games, there’s a chance for them to die. Any Legend of the Five Rings character that goes past their last wound box or Burning Wheel character who receives a mortal hit is pretty much finished. Of course, it doesn’t usually happen that way, and the feeling of risk slowly fades as you become an experienced player…Until one day BOOM, your characters is dead. It wasn’t planned, there was no story around it – you just ran out of hitpoints and now you can’t play that character anymore.

No other storytelling medium arbitrarily kills off protagonists. Very few novelists consult a random number generator to see if they are going to eliminate one of their characters this chapter. Something similar can happen in TV if an actor has to leave the show, but in most cases, the death of a character happens only when an author wants it to. Because character death can be so unexpected in roleplaying games, it brings with it a whole host of problems that GMs and players alike must be aware of if they want to get the full enjoyment out of their campaign. Trust me, these are not issues you want to catch you by surprise.

1. It Can Ruin Someone’s Day

This might sound simplistic, but it’s important to remember that when a character dies, it’s often a serious bummer for the unlucky player. Most rule books approach this with the attitude of “Well, your character is dead, get over it,” but it isn’t always that easy. A lot of us form serious attachments to our characters, and it’s difficult to let them go.

Having a character die during a dramatic confrontation with their arch nemesis is one thing, but what if a random orc just happens to roll a natural 20 when their hitpoints are low? If roleplaying games are all about having fun, than some thought should be given to how this will affect a player’s experience at the table.

If someone in your group does lose a beloved character, give them the same respect you would to anyone suffering a major disappointment. The GM should try to get the player in question excited about their next character, perhaps by offering some kind of related in character perk. “Your ancestral sword is returned home where your daughter is waiting to take it up,” or something similar. The death of a character obviously isn’t on the same level as losing a real person, but it’s still very important to a lot of people.

Fortunately, this is only a problem with one player. It would be really bad if the random death of a PC disrupts the entire party, which brings me to…

2. It Can Damage Party Cohesion

Despite the jokes made about PCs being overly trusting of new members to their party, the truth is that existing groups often have trouble integrating replacement characters into the ranks. There’s no telling if whatever new character a player rolls up will jive with the rest of the group, especially as everyone else has already gotten through the awkward stage of figuring out exactly who their character is.

There’s also the risk of your party’s dynamic being seriously thrown off by the death of an important character. Was the deceased responsible for mediating disputes? Did they have the only good diplomacy score? Were they the reason the group stayed together in the first place?

This is a problem my group had first-hand experience with. We had a game several years ago in which one character was the only person providing a dose of good cheer in a party of dark loners. When that character died in a relatively minor skirmish, we suddenly found ourselves with nothing but doom and gloom from every remaining PC. Things did not go well after that

Short of simply not killing important characters, just about the only thing that can be done to address this problem is sitting the whole group down and explaining the situation. Make sure everyone is ready to accept whatever replacement character is made, and that someone can fill the gap left by the recent death.

But that’s something that the players could theoretically work out for themselves. It’s nothing the GM need worry too much about, except…

3. It Can Destroy a Long Term Story

Good GMs try to create stories about their PCs, not just stories that happen while the PCs watch. I endorse this practice 100%, as it leads to a better narrative and more fun all around. The only problem is that it’s essentially the same as building a house on a foundation of paper mache.

Imagine the following scenario: the GM has created a story in which one of the PCs is the heir to a long lost throne, and a big part of the campaign revolves around whether or not said PC will take up their birthright to the ancient throne. At least one element of that story has already been introduced: a jealous regent willing to stop at nothing to ensure his power.* Then the PC fails a reflex save and dies.

The dead PC’s story has already been started, and the fact that they’re now six feet under isn’t gonna make everyone forget about it. A really good GM can roll with the punches and find another use for that plot thread, but more often what ends up happening is that it gets swept awkwardly under the rug and the group tries not to think about it.

Building a story around PCs is a risky business if you can’t be sure they’ll be around when you need them. Harry Potter and Katniss Everdeen would have had a hard time being the heroes of their respective stories if they had died in the second chapter. Still, GMs can always come up with new stories, right? It’s not like players will lose interest or anything…

4. It Can Make Players Lose Interest

This last one takes the longest to become a problem and is the most difficult to fix once it appears. One unplanned death probably isn’t gonna do it, but after two or three, players can start to lose focus. The connection they feel to the game begins to slip as they realize the current party bears only a passing similarity to the one they started out with. So many stories have had to be cut short that the group’s sense of continuity is disrupted.

This is a loss of immersion, and it happens because players don’t feel safe investing themselves in the game. They realize that their connection to the game, their character, could be destroyed at any moment because of a roll that wasn’t supposed to matter. When a game reaches this stage, no one really cares what happens any more beyond perhaps the thrill of rolling high numbers on dice. They don’t invest any emotion in the story, because there’s no guarantee that investment will come back to them.

That may sound incredibly melodramatic for a game about pretending to be space wizards or adorable mice, but I’ve seen it happen. Character death is a very tricky subject, and leaving it purely to chance has a lot of risk baked in. Recognizing this danger allows GMs and players to make an informed decision about whether accidental deaths should be included in their game. I have shamelessly fudged the dice on more than one occasion to prevent a PC from dying when they weren’t supposed to, and I have yet to regret it.

That said, unplanned character death isn’t universally a bad thing. In real life, people die ignoble or senseless deaths all the time, and roleplaying games allow groups to create that dynamic if they want to. What’s absolutely necessary is that everyone is on the same page about this. If the GM is all set to play hardball, while the players think their characters will be handled with kid gloves, there’s going to be trouble. Communication is always important in roleplaying games, but it’s doubly so on something this important.

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.



  1. margaret

    The etiquette of death…how interesting! Good article. Nicely written.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Thanks! You can only lose so many characters before you start to wonder about these things.

  2. Jom

    Legacy: life among the ruins is a system that averts this really well. Your characters are in and of themselves fairly expendable, and actually have a specific move for when they die. But your family’s tribe/family has its own stat sheet that you keep between characters. You also get to inherit some of your old character’s moves, which means that dying can actually be a way to “level up”, and gain leverage. So after 2-3 iterations your party isn’t the same, but they’re all swapping stories about their parents/elders’ legendary deeds so it feels consequential. The apocalypse setting lends itself well to high character turnover in this way, but it seems like a great treatment of character death!

  3. Michael Campbell

    You know. To a certain degree…
    Playing without the risk of death feels (to me anyway) like a geek’s revenge fantasy against school bullies.

    Why does the bully attack?
    One word.
    They “never” attack when the teacher is watching and they “never” attack the captain of the football team.
    It’s always; the short kid or the fat kid or the kid with glasses or the poor kid or the kid with few friends or stinky (but frequently it’s the kid who checks a bunch of those boxes) . And always when the teacher isn’t around/watching.

    So too, attacking a bunch of goblins:- knowing that you can’t die even though your hit points are low, is about using violence simply because it has become the most convenient option. Violence shouldn’t be the course of least resistance. It should be the last resort.

    I’ld direct people to read Mathew 26:52 for a statement about the natural order of things. And then ask people to cogitate on the relation between natural order and verisimilitude.
    It actually makes the game more believable and therefore more worthy of investing in, if the act of drawing a sword has actual consequences.

    *I’m sure people will sight a bunch of exceptions to prove that the term “never” is incorrect.
    But to my mind, the more likely case when dealing with the exceptions will be genuine psychological pathology rather than mere “next level bullying”.

    • Deus Ex Anthropos

      That is an interesting take. I have always hated the murder-hobo approach to roleplaying games. I do think the best DMs impose realistic consequences for violent behavior, but that doesn’t mean they can’t fudge to keep players alive if they are in a justified fight. (Jeremiah 51:20-24 is a passage for Oath of Vengence Paladins.)

  4. Michael Campbell

    “No other storytelling medium arbitrarily kills off protagonists.”

    Choose your own adventure books!?!
    Computer games???

    To a certain degree, the fact that I know; that the actor is contracted to perform next season, makes tonight’s threat-facing-the-character, less important than it otherwise might have been.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Neither video games nor adventure books arbitrarily kill of protagonists. The possibility of those deaths is always planned for. That doesn’t always mean they do a good job, but it’s not arbitrary.

    • Deus Ex Anthropos

      Recently I had a random encounter in Skyrim with an NPC who was supposed to give a sidequest later. I fought him and kept beating him but the game wouldn’t let him die–that’s a pretty good example of video games avoiding unplanned character deaths!

  5. Brock Wood

    Oren, you need to use “Whimsy” cards. I used them many years ago in a DragonQuest campaign I used to run. Using these cards retains the fun tension of the threat of death in a campaign while also letting the players control some parts of the storyline. A Whimsy card is an index card with a little plot device written on it. “Things are not as they seem.” “An enemy is actually a friend.” “Someone summons help.” “A secret is revealed.” That sort of thing. Each player gets a randomly selected Whimsy card at the start of each gaming session. If something really bad happens, then a player can play his or her Whimsy card to try to “blunt” the super lucky or unlucky roll that would otherwise result in PC death. The key is that I make the player role play the Whimsy card plot device and explain how it averts the death of the PC. Sometimes doing so started a whole new storyline that is really fun. Sometimes there was no accidental death during a session and the players played their cards just for fun. It can be hilarious and adds a lot of fun to the game.

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