Table Reflection: Handling Player Character Death

Most tabletop games take place in a world where death is a daily or weekly risk; they are glimpses of adventure, action, and risk rather than merely consisting of experiences with safety and security of an organized and regimented society. As such, characters tend to die, and many of these characters will be important. Some are meant to die, and others are not, but there’s a few general rules for the death of player characters that will keep GM’s and players happy.

A core element of player death should be consent. This doesn’t necessarily have to be on a case-by-case basis, but even just a simple acknowledgment that a certain game is likely to kill characters. Obviously, it’s not always practical to ask players if they will let their characters die after an event which precludes recovery happens, such as their unfortunate transformation into chunky tomato paste, so there has to be some middle-ground. A lot of this can be sidestepped in systems that allow player narrative control, such as Savage Worlds, in which a Bennie can be used to change the course of play and prevent death. In many cases it will be necessary to roll back time to avoid players’ characters demises, though this is not always more desirable.

Should death happen, however, the question arises of how to let players resume play. In some games, death is a method of preventing character unbalance; in Shadowrun it’s often better to kill off a character than to let them hit the immortality-style power levels that come with 750 or 1000 Karma (or even 250, depending on who you ask), at least from a GM’s perspective. In addition, a game like Dungeons and Dragons can be kept from going into epic level content this way, if a game master wants to keep the same feel for the whole campaign.

In these cases it is advisable to start characters again from scratch. This has the unfortunate downside of creating characters less powerful than the rest of the group, which, again, shows more in an inflexible regimented system like Dungeons and Dragons where characters are given explicit levels than in something like Shadowrun or Savage Worlds where characters are built from points and have aptitudes and flaws that allow them to have power beyond what would normally be a “level’s average” in exchange for being less powerful in other ways, and players may be locked into the same archetype across multiple lives.

However, in many games you can run constantly advancing characters and catch players back up to where they were, especially early in a campaign or if the players are encountering goals that are always designed for their level. The caution about this is to make sure that it doesn’t become a way for players who are merely bored with their characters to play a new guy every week. Although this is not always undesirable, it does mean more effort for the GM and can cause unforeseen consequences with party role interaction.

One of the key elements of all player character death, however, is to make sure that it’s fair. As a GM or a player, you do not want to inconvenience the group with constant deaths without a good cause, and as a GM you are also responsible to not pick on individual players, since group unity is a major part of having a good experience at your table.

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