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You're Dead! What Do You Do Next?

The spiked mace crashes through the warrior’s helm, the fully charged energy rifle burns a hole right through the smuggler’s chest, the vampire detective lost in the desert, unable to escape the deadly sun, is consumed by flames… if there’s one thing tabletop roleplaying games are good at, it’s finding ways to kill characters. But how often should that actually happen? We’ve talked before about dealing with bad rolls and how you can use to them to advance the story, but sometimes killing a Player Character is the right thing to do. How do you know when that should happen, and what happens after that? In worlds where resurrection is just a roadside temple or replacement clone body away, what implications should character death have, and when should a character be killed off for good? - B 

A: Death is a tricky enough subject to deal with in our regular lives, not to mention including it in what are supposed to be our games. If you’re playing a lot of roleplaying games though, character death is likely to come up at some point. Even if you only play a little, the subject could come up through story beats or a rather unlucky roll of the dice (or other random decider). Unless you’ve run an exhaustive session zero (and even I don’t go that far), or have been playing with your group for a long time, you probably haven’t even broached the subject. After all, it can be a really awkward one given our own earthly mortalities. Whether you have or not, the single most important thing is context.

Are you in the first session of a casual “beer & pretzels” style game where you all spent 10-15 minutes creating characters? Likely, players in this type of game won’t be too attached to their characters. If they can make another character on their own in that short amount of time, they won’t even be sidelined for very long. Assuming the game is on the more comedic side (and aren’t most "short beer & pretzels" style games on the more comedic side?), they may even enjoy that death... if it's been done in a humorous way. At the opposite end of the spectrum, you may have players with characters they've been roleplaying across sessions for a year or more. A character they’ve pulled parts of their own personality into and closely identify with, maybe even written pages and pages of backstory. A situation like this calls for a lot more delicacy and care. If resurrection/clones aren’t an option (or aren’t of interest to the player), you may want to consider holding the character a funeral. It may sound a bit absurd, but when our characters and their stories have been an important part of our lives, we still need to go through the grieving process. Even if they aren’t really real, their deaths can still feel that way to us.

No matter where your game falls on the spectrum, it may be a good idea to call the session after a dramatic death - or even a humorous one. It serves as a good story beat, and a natural way to pause the game for a potty break or even a whole week. And if you haven’t talked about what happens after a character's death yet, a pause here can serve as a good point to start discussion. If it is the first time it's come up, all the players will likely be curious about the consequences. Bugsy, how do you feel about covering for character deaths with clones or spells? Do you try your best to avoid the topic altogether?

B: As a Paranoia GM, comedic deaths are kind of my (ULTRAVIOLET clearance) bread and butter. But that game has an in-built system for resurrection, after all, so it's never more than a minor setback until you run out of clones. Even then, I still tend to save deaths for when there's a really bad decision and a really bad roll... or when it's really funny. But the players are there for that, it's part of the experience they're seeking out with that game. The "temporary setback" approach to death is a fairly common one across most systems, and does make a lot of sense. You still want to instill a sense of danger and risk with actual consequences for the players' choices, but you also don't want someone to feel like all the time they've put into the game has been wasted because of a single instant's bad luck. Just because you aren't outright killing them doesn't mean there can't be consequences, though, especially when a (temporary) death is due to bad decisions. What those consequences are is entirely up to GM discretion, of course. There could be a financial loss (Miracle Max don't work cheap, after all), the loss of equipment, or even just the hassle of being removed from the game for a bit. As with so many things, of course, it's important to know your players and their expectations. When you're still getting to know each other (and for a while after), it's better to err on the side of caution, whether it be through close call, survivable injury, or relatively quick resurrection. More experienced players who trust you and are conscious of the severity of death in this particular game can deal with heavier consequences, as long as they know what they're in for.

Of course, there are games where a character's life is supposed to be short and brutal, especially in the horror and crime genres. It's a good idea to have a couple backups ready to get players back in the action quickly when their character bites it or is otherwise permanently removed from the game. (Lose too much Sanity in Call of Cthulhu, for instance, and your character is functionally dead, or when a character falls to the Dark Side in some editions of the Star Wars RPGs.) Sometimes this is part of the fun - you may be familiar with GMs who run well-known "meat grinder" adventures like "Tomb of Horrors" with a big stack of pre-generated PCs for the players to burn through. Again, it comes back down to expectations. If players want a "life is cheap" game, playing near-invincible supermen will be less fun, especially when it doesn't gel with the rest of the setting.

Another circumstance for permanent PC death is the "heroic sacrifice." This isn't something likely to appear in the middle of a campaign or session, unless the player has to leave the group or wants to change characters anyway, but can be very powerful at the end of a story. Obviously, no player should be forced into making the choice, but many will jump at the opportunity to wrap things up in a memorable way that will be talked about for years to come. There's a reason, after all, that so many of us can recite the dialogue from Spock's death at the end of Wrath of Khan from memory. Some games intended for single sessions, such as One Last Job, include mechanics specifically for heroic sacrifices. Even if your system doesn't have rules based around these moments, you should be gentle and forgiving with the the stats and rolls here - no one wants their noble sacrifice to be in vain! A player who makes the choice to die for the cause usually won't mind sitting out the rest of that final session (particularly if the rest of the group talks about them in hushed tones), and these moments are usually at the very tail end of the action, anyway.

Whether a character's death is short-lasting or permanent, the most important thing is to be sure the players are on board with it. This goes not only for the player who's character is dying, but for the rest of the group as well, especially if it will cause a major hassle for the rest of the party. Even aside from the consequences the group has to deal with, you want to make sure the game seems fair and that it jibes with everyone's expectations - your own included! The important thing is that people get to spend time in the kind of world they want to experience... whether or not they get out alive.

Send comments and questions to neversaydice20@gmail.com or Tweet them @neversaydice2.

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