In today's Digital and Dice podcast, our hosts talked about resurrection in games. Since they wanted to discuss the way to undo death, I thought I'd talk about how to inflict it in a way that is effective for your story.
First and foremost, death isn't cheap. Most RPG systems tend to not kill characters outright, since that hinders the longevity of the campaign. Those systems that are more lethal tend to de-emphasize combat as the first course of action, instead advocating in favor of diplomacy or investigation as a means to problem solve. Regardless, characters are either in fewer situations where combat and death are likely, or they're in a more D&D-like RPG where combat is common, but the mechanics are more forgiving. Because of this, death is hard. Either the enemies aren't likely going to be attacking the PCs often, or the PCs will have effective means to defend themselves. If a player were to die then, it would be because there has been a bit of buildup towards it, either because the narrative of the game has driven it, or because the dice rolls have foreshadowed it.
On that note, try to keep random deaths to a minimum. While they do occasionally happen simply as a result of bad roll, this doesn't further your narrative. If GM rolls are made behind the curtain, consider fudging rolls to avoid character death unless you feel it is warranted. If rolls are made in the open, consider toning down the lethality of things with your descriptions and decisions. Maybe have the monster attack someone other than the unconscious and defenseless person on the floor, or maybe have the seemingly bottomless pit the PCs fall into be not as bottomless as initially it might have appeared.
On the flip side, have deaths be meaningful to the story. If the rolls go bad for a character in the middle of a boss fight, maybe that lich will incinerate them with a fireball while the rest of the party looks on in terror and anger. This can be a very dramatic moment, and might spur the party on to win a fight where they were seemingly outmatched. It's impactful to the story, and it makes the death seem like it meant something, because it was a death against a legitimate threat, and even then some good came of it.
Another time when it might be appropriate is to kill for a lesson. While I'm not one to advocate for the use of punishment at the table, but if a player or character makes their bed, they may have to lie in it. If the player insists that its never acceptable to flee from a combat, he may end up getting himself killed when he comes up against a stronger foe. The death of the character here might serve as a bit of a lesson to the player to consider other options besides fights to the death. I'm not saying you should fudge the rolls against the player, but this might be more of a "let the dice fall where they may" situation. Or if the character makes a decision to get involved with a thieves guild and then doesn't pay them their money, the character might end up getting murdered. Then the character (not the player) learns the lesson. Don't get mixed up in the underworld, or at least pay off your debts. That way, when the character is revived, they will have a takeaway from this.
Another tip is to use death to remove a character from the story. If a player is no longer going to be playing with the group, killing off their character may be appropriate, and it can even be done in such a way that they leave on a note that benefits the story, such as sacrificing themselves to slow the oncoming orc horde that was chasing the party. This can be done with NPCs as well for a similar effect. While resurrection magic exists, the character generally has to be willing to come back, and even then, there are prohibitive costs which might make this a nonoption.
When it comes down to it, death is an important moment for a person, and it should be for the narrative. It's sort of a bookmark in the story. Even if a death is unceremonious or seemingly inconsequential, it should serve some purpose. GMs avoid the urge to be retributive, but employ death or the possibility of death judiciously throughout your campaigns. Removing it altogether makes the story feel without consequence, but overusing death can tear apart the continuity of the game. You have to strike a balance, and occasionally that means striking someone down, when it is fair and appropriate.
I hope you enjoyed this and the rest of the content by Digital & Dice. Until next time…Game on Internets!
- Draconick, Digital and Dice Contributor
I, Nick “Draconick” Johnson, am a writer and roleplaying enthusiast with over ten years of experience in various tabletop roleplaying games both as a player and as a GM. I am also somewhat involved in other forms of tabletop gaming such as wargaming, board games, and card games. It is my hope that by creating and maintaining this website that I can share my unique take on all things within our hobby and to foster a community of like-minded individuals.