Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Character Death

Dominic Matte
Character death can be a contentious topic. Some DMs and players expect characters to die as part of the game. Some players are outraged when all the time and energy they've invested into a character comes apart, while others see an opportunity to try something different and move on. Some DMs want all the characters to make it through the story alive, and others just don't think they're doing their job if everyone's character sheets are still intact.

Personally, my perspective as both DM and player is that the group should talk about how to handle character death before the game begins, or whenever a new player joins the group. Players can get very invested in their characters, and you want to make sure everyone is on the same page so there are no surprises. A DM wouldn't want to plan a party wipe as a plot point only to have half the group quit the game when their characters are brutally murdered by the big bad.

With that out of the way, let's take a look at a few different ways to handle character death in your campaign... at least mechanically.

Option One: The Default
With enough determination, death is only an obstacle.
In 4th edition D&D, characters are harder to kill than ever before. They're tougher at first level and tend to have more survival resources at their disposal. However, that doesn't mean the rules forgive bad moves or bad rolls -- if you screw up, character death is a possibility. On the other hand, there are rituals that will allow a party to revive a fallen hero; powers, feats, paragon paths and epic destinies with abilities that can save a character from death; and even a race built around a soul returning to the world to deal with unfinished business. Upon death, you can roll up a new character, or have your party resurrect you. It's a fairly neutral way to deal with things, but can risk a "revolving door" view of character death.

Option Two: No Mercy
Dead is dead. Roll up a new character.
This can be a little harsh, but there are a lot of plot or setting reasons to go with the no mercy approach. For one thing, it's more realistic -- in the real world, people don't generally come back from death. The Dark Sun setting, for example, is supposed to be a particularly harsh world, so among other restrictions, a dead character isn't coming back. There might be an aspect of your world's history or backstory that prevents resurrection.
In a game where dead is dead, the players will likely be a lot more cautious about engaging tough enemies and will probably end up retreating from combat more often than they would otherwise. It makes the game feel scarier in that mistakes have real consequences. On the other hand, overdoing it can also make the players feel frustratingly fragile and powerless.

Option Three: Story-Based Resurrection
You wake up gasping. Your skin is dry and gray.
Death still has a price, but it's tied into the game's story somehow as opposed to a financial cost. The player might not understand why she's returned to life, and it might even become a personal or party goal to find out.
Here's an example from a game I ran. When a character died, they returned to life the next day as a revenant. Normally in 4th edition lore, a revenant is a construct of the Raven Queen (goddess of death), sent back to the mortal world to deal with unfinished business. When the players realized this would happen with every character death, they became a little less cautious and less afraid of death. But about halfway through the game, it was revealed that the revenants were not reanimated by the Raven Queen. but the campaign villain, who assumed direct control and turned a third of the party on itself while they were trying to interrupt a dangerous ritual. Suddenly death was scary again, and the party was faced with the question of what to do about the fact that their friends could turn on them at any time.

Option Four: Story-Based Replacement
After Jaelin's death, you're joined by a halfling claiming to be sent by your employer...
This is currently my preferred option. A dead character is a dead character, but instead of being some random guy who happens to meet the party, there's a good reason for the new character to show up, which ties into the main plot of the game sooner or later. For example, maybe the new character is an NPC that the party had rescued from a horrible death, who ends up joining the party. Perhaps the new character is secretly working behind the scenes at parallel or cross purposes to the party and later ends up siding with the party for real. Or maybe the character simply has some important ties to the world through history or location.
This method is an extremely useful tool for the DM to turn a bad situation -- character death -- into an opportunity for roleplaying and new story directions. If you work with the player to create a character with a vested interest in an aspect of your story or world, a good roleplayer will help you direct the party and tell your story without even realizing it.

If I may be so bold, I don't think there should be such a thing as "another random mercenary joins your group". Technically that would be a fifth option -- just roll a new character and fit him/her in there -- but I don't like it. I don't like things to happen in my games for no reason when there are so many potential opportunities to take advantage of (you may guess that I don't run random encounters, and you'd be right!).

How have you handled character death in your games? Have you used any other methods for resurrection or introducing new characters?

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