I’ve been thinking a lot about death recently. Maybe it’s because I’m getting older and I can see the gaping maws of oblivion inexorably closing in on me as my optimistic shell of youth fades away, the aching inevitability of that final moment creeping closer and closer as the dusts of time flake through my fingers. Or perhaps it’s because one of my players characters died and I’m struggling to cope with the latent guilt. Honestly though, fate willed it, she got knocked down to 0 by a bugbear, none of her allies came to her aid and she failed 3 death saving throws in a row. There was nothing anybody could do.
Death is an incredibly difficult thing for humans to process in real life and equally within the realms of our table top games with many groups struggling on how to deal with player death and many games master lamenting the death of one of his critical NPC’s. The reaper claims us all eventually and the only way to escape the suffering that contemplating our finite mortality brings, that everything we have ever known, touched and loved will one day cease to be, is acceptance that we will die. ‘Memento Mori’ ( Remember that you have to die.) As the Romans would say. In the same way dealing with death in your games comes from acceptance of death , but how does this apply within that context?
Acceptance means not fudging fate. This means don’t fudge dice. If a blow is going to take out a character, even if it’s really unlucky, you must respect the human beings you are playing with by letting that blow strike true when the dice will it. Even if it kills them. A games master controls many things but he doesn’t control the winds of probability, they fall with the dice.It may seem innocent , you want your players to have fun and dying isn’t fun ergo your players shouldn’t die. Yet where is the fun in doing anything unless the risk of failure exists? If no such risk exists then and your players actions become ultimately meaningless. Why not just attack the Skull Fortress of the Dread Necromancer Gargamel head on? If all the players are essentially invincible, immortals blessed by fate to only ever appear close to death but never reach that final curtain then they may as well just charge headlong into every fight.
Of course you say they wouldn’t know that was the case, but trust me, the people you are playing with are not stupid. They are intelligent human beings who deserve respect and they are eventually going to realise something is up when again that fatal blow and they’re slowly going to just stop caring about your game or world and you’ll sit and wonder why they aren’t engaged. I mean , they aren’t dying so they must be having fun right? Yet in the game where the Sword of Damocles looms over your players they will by the very nature of that be engaged.
Acceptance means letting NPC’s die. Imagine the scene, Ulthrax the Death Knight of Orcus rides defiantly into town with his armed guard. The Death Knight is vastly powerful and almost certainly beyond the players abilities to kill. He is here to visit the Mayor of the town and through honeyed words threaten him with his shadow army unless the Mayor pay’s tribute. Your players are members of the mayors council and will be at the diplomatic talks, you’ve planned this as a scene as one where they can witness your campaign villain be horrendously villainous that can then branch into hooks of your players hunting down Ulthrax and his forces, uncovering their vile plots and so on, your cool campaign idea revolved around this.
One of your players gets smart and in response to the Death Knights’ threats attacks him with his Vorpal Sword. Whatever you think, he has like 180 HP and an AC of 20. Your player rolls a natural 20, the Death Knight’s head falls broken to the floor. If you’ve been following along you know you don’t fudge it. You let it happen, Ulthrax dies in the town today and his men are apprehended. The party celebrates heartily reaping the rewards of his death and the GM can work out where in the world he is going to take things next. The beauty of a roleplaying game is that players can do entirely unexpected things and with the right amount of luck pull them off and to have truly memorable moments you need to allow that to happen but can only do this if you accept death.
Acceptance means letting characters die. This one is for the players. You’ve obviously put a lot of effort into creating your character, you took time to craft out their stats, back stories, descriptions and goals and had all sorts of cool ideas for them and then fate swung the wrong way and that group of Orc’s got one too many hits on poor Alfred the Fighter. This is frustrating and can feel unfair but such is the nature of the game and alas the nature of life. Be sad, mourn their death and then move on for Alfred’s feats could not have been glorious ones if he was preordained to always accomplish them, it is only through the potential for failure that true success can be achieved.
One of my best character deaths came at the end of the 4E Keep on the Shadowfell module where the players had taken too long to get to Karalel the Vile and he had succeeded in opening up his demon portal. ( Pro tip players, don’t take an extended rest when you’re literally outside the final chamber of the dungeon which you know contains the BBEG attempting to open up a demonic portal.) The party fought through wave after wave of demons that were bursting asunder from the rift and the party Cleric decided to throw herself into the portal itself in hopes that. Of course there’s nothing in the rules that exactly covers closing down a demonic portal but I was happy to rule it did so and her sacrifice along with the party efforts in slaying Karalel and the demon hoard saved the town of Fallcrest and the world itself.
You can bet we roleplayed the hell out of a funeral scene for that young Cleric who was very much a ‘Joan of Arc’ style character because it meant something. The player in that instance got to choose her death but the point was the death was her choice and if I’d fudged the rolls or narrative by saying that she’s still magically alive it would have betrayed her agency. Likewise if I had let the extended rest have no impact on the world then the players would have crushed through an easy fight and that awesome moment never would have happened.
From acceptance comes rebirth. As with everything in an RPG character death in particular brings along with great opportunities. There’s often multiple ways to resurrect fallen companions within game and that can become a quest in of itself as the party journeys to find reagents capable of a cure or the Cleric who can perform the ritual who of course wants something in return. Beyond that you get the chance to create an entirely new character to join the group, letting you try something different and introduce a new narrative thread to the game.
From acceptance comes the strength that mortality bring. I read a great fantasy short story when I was younger of a neophyte human wizard under the tutelage of a great vampire mage who snuck into his masters tomb during midday when he was weakest and overcame him through a spell duel where he managed to wrest control of his undead skeletal soldiers and use them against the vampire. He would have succeeded but he underestimated the raw strength of the vampire who easily smashed through the skeletons and throttled the hapless neophyte to death. The vampire wondered how the human, a mere child compared to him, had managed to learn so quickly and he realised it was because he had the fear of death guiding him. His own immortality had made him complacent and he wondered how he could harness the strength that mortality brings.
To this end death brings with it the driving force behind life, our coming end pushes us to not only enjoy the life we have but make a success of it. It’s the reason why in fantasy settings humans are the most widespread and industrious people because the very nature of their short life spans , in comparison to the older races such as the Elves and Dwarves, gives them the drive to keep pushing themselves to ever greater feats.
I keep a calendar in my own games and every character has a birthday so I can literally track their aging as well, while I doubt I can see us playing with the same characters until they expire from old age, although it is possible, it serves as a reminder to the players that their characters and the world do age. A subtle reminder of their mortality. Without death in your games you in a way lose out on truly living.
From acceptance comes peace. As a games master if you fear the possibility of your players dying, your NPC’s dying and your precious encounters and scenarios ground to a halt as a result you’ll find you are putting yourself under even more pressure and stress of the multiple ‘What if’ scenarios. ‘What if this monster is too strong? ‘ What if the players just kill my important NPC? ‘What if the bandits just kill the party here?’ All questions you don’t have to worry about when embracing death as you’ve accepted the fragile nature of the beings in your world and have therefore attained peace through this acceptance.
Then what of the dreaded Total Party Kill?
One player dying can be mitigated surely enough but how in the world can you recover from the entire party dying. That should spell doom for a campaign. Surely this is where you should fudge those dice and prevent the inevitable?
My first TPK occurred during the first session of my Pathfinder Kingmaker game. For those that don’t know Kingmaker is a series of modules where the players take on the role of explorers in uncharted lands attempting to clear the area of wild beasts and tribes and forge a great kingdom within it. It’s played out as a classic hex crawl, with old school design elements including lots of random encounter tables.
The players had completed the opening quest and established themselves and then headed out into the wilderness. I rolled my first random encounter and hit a Giant Centipede which I ambushed the party with. They tackled it head on, perhaps some of them believing that, and it promptly dismantled the party and feasted on their corpses. The players were upset and I could understand where they were coming from, it’s frustrating to all die so quickly at such an early part of the game. On hindsight I thk ambushing them with the Giant Centipede was a mistake I should have just presented them the creature and let them decide what to do but beyond that I played it fair and straight and even with that they could have had a chance to spot the creature.
Some of the group just left at that point which I understood, I sympathised with them but made it clear I wasn’t going to lower the difficulty and randomness of the game. Those who stayed had accepted their mortality and were stronger for it. They made new characters and played the adventure from that point onwards far more intelligently and passionately as a result . It set the tone of the entire campaign where punches were not going to be pulled and so victory meant something. It was up to the players to craft out their own destiny in these rugged lands and many would fail trying but those that succeeded earned the wealth of an entire kingdom for their troubles.
When a TPK occurs, accept it and the opportunities for lessons, growth and rebirth it brings. Your party have perhaps failed the quest they are on now whatever it may be so you can now enact the consequences of that in the world. The Death Knight does summon Orcus from the pits and now the Demon Lord resides on the mortal plain causing hell and havoc. Your players new party will be the ones to stop him, or die trying.
Don’t rob yourself or your players of all the opportunities that having death as a real thing within your games brings. Accept it and witness for yourselves how alive it makes your games become.