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.
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