A lot of bloggers/writers for tabletop games often tend to weigh in on the subject of character death in RPGs. A lot of the other writers that I really respect have their own varying opinions, which I often agree with. Though, let’s face it, death is part of these games. In real life, death is a very real, emotional, and painful experience for those who remain. On the cosmic scale however, it is a mechanic. In a sort of irony, death is a simple mechanic we make a huge deal of in these games.Like in real life, in game it happens. This may be rather nihilistic in tone, but that isn’t the point of this article. I don’t, in any way, want to cheapen death, but we dabble in it in these games as a theme every session. We inflict it onto NPCs unless you are playing in one of those sort of George of the Jungle rules campaigns where “Nobody dies, they just get really big boo-boos.” Though most people don’t play that way unless they are actually trying not to kill a character. All else, when you drop a character to 0 hit points, you’re killing them. Usually it’s a monster of some kind, but in my campaigns, you will fight other humanoids as often, if not more often, than monsters. It almost always ends in death. The games we play emulate rather violent periods in history through fantasy, or times in which there is a particular “lawlessness”. Death is dispensed at random, and readily by players and GMs alike.
Sometimes it hits you with a glimmer of the same emotional effect as it would in real life. Last week, I dropped a Star Destroyer onto a factory where there were thousands of slaves. I didn’t save them, I destroyed them. On accident, of course, but that choice my character made, as he was riding the high of his rage and walking in the Dark Side, made him lose his reasoning. He made the call “imperial factory=bad”, and proceeded to drop it onto a planet. Of course, I’m an actor type player, and was emotionally entwined with my character’s feelings. When my GM told me what the real effects of what I had done were, I personally felt awful. I felt guilty. Although it was just a game, the emotional connection to the idea of being responsible for that was real. Dash (my character) will, of course, be impacted by this. However, I ask you as we proceed, to look at the mechanical side of death in games. I have illustrated that there is undoubtedly an emotional part to all this, but there is a less often addressed mechanical side as well.
Once upon a time in Gygax’s Tomb of Horrors, a player might take a wrong turn. DEAD. They just died, no saving throw, no pomp and circumstance. They were just dead. From a gaming perspective, that isn’t fun. Lawrence Schick’s White Plume Mountain was almost as brutal. I ran White Plume Mountain in 3.5 after I had found the module and had no idea what it was. When one of the characters nearly fell into the boiling mud pits, I realized something was wrong. The potential damage that it could have done was an insane amount, and the characters in this adventure were the recommended level. I was baffled, whoever had designed this was clearly just trying to kill the players. A few years later, it dawned on me, that danger was actually kind of cool. Not from a sense of realism, of course, that would be awful. Who would be amazed with the idea of someone one hundred feet into pools of boiling mud? From a gaming stand point, the peril made it fun. I recently read Tales from the Yawning Portal. As DM Starhelm fully intends on running Tomb of Horrors, I’m not allowed to read it, but I did call “dibs” on White Plume Mountain. So I gave it a once over, and I was sort of disappointed. Those same mud pits did a fraction of the damage they used to. The danger was gone. The amount of damage proposed was underwhelming. Not to say that I will not run White Plume Mountain for my play group, but that danger is not there. The danger makes it fun, does it not? There we have it, mechanics should be fun! A bit of a backwards affective result, don’t you think? Death is fun in games. Not a roguelike, but my favorite fight in all video game history is Kingdom Hearts 2, fighting Sephiroth. At lower levels, say 70 to 80, this fight against the iconic villain is challenging. Every move must matter, every move must be flawless, or Sora (the main character) will perish. What’s more, your beloved companions must sit this fight out. The tension is high and all that stands between you and death is your own skill. Though that isn’t death being fun, is it? Here we see that it is not the source of the fun, but the tension. The tension is there because the danger is clear. It is the tension that sets the tone. One of DM Starhelm’s greatest achievements was running Curse of Strahd as masterfully as he did. Tension abounds in that campaign, in more thematic ways than one. Strahd isn’t just a monster, he’s a character, and a dangerous one at that. Castle Ravenloft is the stuff of nightmares, and it feels like a proper death trap. This didn’t require rules to create the tense relationship to death but the clear presence of danger looms over the setting. As a mechanic, death creates dramatic tension. It is the main mechanic by which the game ends prematurely.
Hit points as a mechanic cheapens this tension. Players say, “As long as I have these X hit points, I’m ok.” To create danger, what do we do? We throw enemies that have enough numbers that that are bigger than the player’s numbers. This is a gross simplification, but that’s how it works. Imminent death is only a numbers game. In real life, death is not the result of a number but the result of circumstance. There are figures that we know can’t be survived, figures that yield improbable survivability, but our own vitality has no numbers beyond our vital signs- A representation of our actual uncountable health. We have representations signifying our health but they aren’t hit points. I don’t have hit points, you don’t have hit points. What’s more, pain and damage are uncorrelated. Something can hurt can cause less damage than another occurrence. Damage is dependent upon the location. Unless something major happens in some kind of bizarre occurrence, spraining your wrist can’t kill you. Though slipping and hitting your head can. With a hit point system, where you are hit is irrelevant. It takes a clever GM/player to paint a decent picture that coincides with hit points. Although the more hit points you have, the less sense the damage you take over time makes. All of it until the final blow(s) would appear incidental. Tension doesn’t really occur unless you know that you have only so many hit points left.
Resurrection is perhaps the usual fallback for most players. In games like D&D, you have resurrection as a staple of the game. Why do you have a cleric? To fix two major problems: hit points and “deadness”. If someone in the real world could die and definitely be raised from the dead, you’d see modern stupidity become even more prevalent. The Darwin Awards would become an actual achievement that you could be proud of. Expendability would be a good thing. That’s not the way the world works, and I would even argue that shouldn’t be how these games work. Not that resurrection shouldn’t happen, but stipulations on resurrection should be facets of the mechanic that is death. I like Matthew Mercer’s house rule in Critical Role that makes resurrections a challenge; they aren’t simply a done deal. If you are curious about these alternate resurrection rules, you can find them in the Tal’Dorei Campaign Guide. This of course, depends on your game. If you have a party of four or five people, that’s fair. On a one-on-one game, or a two player game, that is harder to force on a player. The smaller the game, the more character-centric the story/game becomes. Resurrection is, like death simply a mechanic, unlike the ability to end the game, resurrection continues it.
Now that you’ve established death’s role in your game. You can begin to employ it as a mechanic. After all, you have hit points in most games, or a death spiral, or something of the sort. What most GM’s should do is explain what dying entails.
For example, in the Acquisitions Incorporated games as run by Chris Perkins, death is escapable. Spoiler warning: After Wil Wheaton’s character Aeofel dies, the rest of Acquisitions Inc. were able to go to another plane to save his soul, and pull him back from the afterlife. In Critical Role, spells that resurrect the dead can fail, making the person to be resurrected lose any chance to be resurrected from then on. In games like Cypher system, or Star Wars RPG, dead is just that. Dead. Though, those games tend to have a greater threshold for death. That is, it takes more work to kill a character, unless the circumstance is entirely unsurvivable. “How does it take more work?” you might ask. Systems like that (unless death is all part of the fun like in Dungeon Crawl Classics) tend to use different action economies. My Star Wars RPG character, Dash, has only 14 hit points. Thanks to his training a Makashi Duelist (think Count Dooku) when someone hits him in melee, he can parry it to reduce the damage significantly. This is whenever he is attacked, mind you. However, if he uses this ability, he does take an amount of strain that represents his exhaustion. In addition to his armor which reduces damage further, Dash has a pretty good chance of survival despite having a whopping 14 hit points.
With this example we’re given a fun equation:
Chance of (R)esurrection over (M)ortality (number of hit points) times m(I)tigation of damage is equal to (E)ase of death. Now this isn’t a concrete equation, its a representation. You math majors, put away your calculators. The chance for resurrection and the closeness to death (hit points) are related at first. Take D&D for instance. By level 10 most people are sporting over 100 hit points. That is a barrage of pokes from several dozen goblins. In real life it could take one. Lethality in real life is more of a binary scale. Of course, repeated harm “stacks” as we nerds would say about anything. However, generally something kills you, or it doesn’t. You can be grievously wounded, but you’re dealing with homeostasis. The human body, (or living things rather) tries to right itself. They’re brilliant systems. If someone was stabbed to death, generally its organ failure and moreso blood loss that is their undoing. The wounds were simply a vehicle for irreversible tip in the balance of homeostasis. Hit points can’t reflect homeostasis well. Though they do reflect fragility. The hardest your barbarian can hit someone in a single hit with a normal greatsword in D&D 5th edition is 23 damage assuming Strength is a 24 and you are raging. 23 damage. The most resilient 2nd level rogue (Con of +5, 2d8 HD) possible can survive that (26 hp). If someone was more than twice as strong as the average individual, stronger than a hill giant, most normal people would be dead several times over from such a hit. Games like Dungeon Crawl Classics and Dungeon World relish this mortality.
So in these power heavy games how do we make death real?
Well if you have decided that you want death to be semi-permanent, proceed with caution. If death is permanent or semi-permanent, that’s fine but be prepared for some comments from people who like clerics. Your necromancers, however, will be happy if they like more corpses lying about because undead will be even more taboo and spooky.
However, if resurrection is relatively more easy, don’t be afraid to throw death and injury at your players more readily. If it can be healed (with work) why not? One of the coolest things I did to a character was his arm got cut off, but because he was an artificer, and he made himself a really cool magical prosthetic arm.
To utilize injury and death I have a few recommendations:
The Dungeon Master’s Guide has some pretty great rules for massive damage found on page 273. These rules allow for creatures to be killed more easily if they take damage equal to more than half their hit points, but other results can happen such as being knocked unconscious, stunned, or an equivalent of dazed. This is one more reason I use exploding damage dice. Massive damage is easier to inflict.
The page before it has a list of potential injuries that a character might sustain, however the suggested triggers for this are on a critical hit, dropping to 0 hit points, or failing a death saving throw by 5 or more. The second one is fine, however, every time someone takes a critical hit, they would have a chance to lose a limb, or an eye, or some such injury. I would stipulate that they might have to make a Constitution save with a DC equal to half the damage they took before rolling on a table after every critical hit, or else your characters will look like the squad of bad guys from Logan. Everyone and their mother would have a prosthetic.
Coup de Grace: Coup de grace was an action in 3.5 that you could take against a “helpless” creature. You automatically hit the creature and it was a critical hit. The creature had to roll a Fortitude save equal to 10 + the damage dealt or die.
To fit this into 5e, as most of our game hacking goes, you could apply similar to an incapacitated creature. (Maybe you’d have to still make the attack roll against a restrained creature). The saving throw DC for a Constitution save is 15 (like Massive Damage). If the creature fails it is automatically dead (or dying if you want a little cushioning between your players and the Reaper)
For killing creatures by surprise, this rule could also be used. A lot of players tend to be unhappy that you can’t just take someone by surprise in D&D and almost definitely kill them unless “your numbers are higher than their numbers.” You could also use the same rule to knock creatures out rather than killing them.
Reason: Maybe something that shouldn’t be survivable happens, like falling into lava, being launched into space, being thrown infinitely because of the a Setting Sun practitioner. (Seriously, 3.5?) As a GM it is totally fine to say something kills someone if it is impossible to survive. Especially if choices have lead to it. Not obnoxious arbitrary rolls (Never make death the result of a natural 1 on a check, I will tear apart “nat 1’s” someday soon), but the result of choices. Death is a rational result for a series of choices. Did the dwarf choose to jump into the lava? If yes, than that is a dumb choice unless he is immune to fire damage.
Nail in the Coffin
Ultimately, death is reasonable. As a GM, you control death. Do you want a fight to be particularly lethal? Does death sound like a reasonable result for an attack and ultimately speed up your process, thus saving you from a 10 minute encounter with Steve the guard who is the first of many guards? GMs call the shots but what is most important is consistency. Before, you can make death a powerful source in your game, talk to your players about what they want.
Death’s Shadow, Howard Lyon, Wizards of the Coast
Death’s Grasp, Raymond Swanland, Wizards of the Coast
Murder, Allen Williams, Wizards of the Coast