Turning Character Deaths in D&D Into Deals that Benefit Game and Story

A few years ago, I heard someone suggest what I then considered the worst bit of roleplaying game advice ever: Let players choose whether to allow their characters to die. Except, hear me out, maybe something like that could work. Keep reading.

Character death has always torn Dungeons & Dragons between game and story. The threat of death makes the game exciting, but actual death brings a character’s story to an unsatisfying end that can disrupt a campaign. See How Character Death Lands D&D in a Tug-of-War Between Game and Story.

Making character deaths optional declares story most important, and games focused on storytelling can thrive with such a rule. The Fate roleplaying game rules explain, “Most of the time, sudden character death is a pretty boring outcome where compared to putting the character through hell.” Plus a journey through hell can emerge from the other side.

To remove death from a roleplaying game, make success and failure about stakes less final than shredding a dead character’s sheet.

D&D makes a tough candidate for this approach. Mainly, D&D tends to feature fighting evil with an emphasis on fighting. Combat is a life or death situation, especially when most players’ refuse to retreat or surrender. If D&D players wanted a game where fighting rated as a last resort, they would play Call of Cthulhu or the Dallas Television RPG, where you can’t shoot JR.

D&D has never been good with setbacks short of death. Co-creator Gary Gygax invented some, including level draining and equipment loss aided by things like rust monsters, but players hated all of them. Somehow a lost level or a ruined magic item seemed more punitive that a dead character.

Making death optional risks leaving D&D lifeless. In the Investigation Check podcast, Josh remembers a campaign where the players learned that no characters could die. “It started to feel stale when we didn’t feel like our characters were in any real danger. I didn’t feel motivated to level up or even get equipment, because I felt we were always going to make it out fine.” D&D needs a consequence of failure that is less disruptive and painful than character death, but that holds enough sting to keep a sense of danger.

To cope with character death, try bridging the gap between game and story by bargaining.

A good story requires two ingredients: (1) characters with a goal and (2) obstacles that test and reveal the characters. To serve the story of a D&D game, players and the dungeon master take opposing interests. Players handle the characters while DMs pose the obstacles. In a healthy game, none of this makes the DM and players into opponents competing to win. As a player focused on story, understand that the best stories include some setbacks and perhaps even defeat. As a DM, become a fan of the characters. In Your Best Game Ever, Monte Cook recommends game masters take this approach: “Have a playful attitude of, ‘I’m making this really challenging for you.’ This isn’t adversarial, just a way to—on a metagame level—inject a bit of tension into the game. When the PCs are victorious, the players will feel even greater satisfaction from believing that you were pushing them to their limits.”

When the dice rule that a character dies, and the player feels unready to end the character’s story, consider making a deal between the player and DM that improves the tale by substituting death for a different setback. The more the setback complicates the character’s imaginary life, the more the story wins.

My inner old-school gamer, who started playing before Tomb of Horrors reached stores, fears that sparing rightfully-dead characters coddles players and ruins D&D. Fortunately, trading deaths for lesser penalties has support from a man with perfect old-school credentials. In the original Dungeon Master’s Guide, Gary Gygax wrote, “Now and then a player will die through no fault of his own. He or she will have done everything correctly, taken every reasonable precaution, but still the freakish roll of the dice will kill the character. You do have the right to arbitrate the situation. You can rule that the player, instead of dying, is knocked unconscious, loses a limb, is blinded in one eye or invoke any reasonably severe penalty that still takes into account what the monster has done. It is very demoralizing to the players to lose a cared-for player character when they have played well.”

As the simplest consequence for letting a character live, accept a roll on the permanent injuries table in the Dungeon Master’s Guide (p.272). Or perhaps that last death save never failed, but the next 3 times the character faces undead, he suffers from the frightened condition until he ends a turn with a successful Wisdom save.

Perhaps the character loses an item needed to reach the party’s ultimate goal. The dragon’s breath somehow missed the character and destroyed the party’s astral skiff. The death blow sundered the sword specifically forged to kill the Dragon King. This setback should still allow a final victory, but the path to success becomes more complicated. Maybe now the players must free the imprisoned smith with the skill to reforge the dragonslayer. Complications turn into adventure hooks.

The deal need not explain why the character lived, although a hunt for some explanation can fuel creativity. The deal swaps death—a bad outcome for the character and (probably) a bad outcome for the story—with an outcome that by provides a more interesting reversal of fortune. This means any unplanned plot twist can buy a life so long as it also complicates the character’s life. For example, normally DMs should avoid having non-player characters betray the party. Such treachery encourages players to see everyone as a foe. But if the twist comes from a unplanned complication that buys a character’s life, it works. Let’s make a deal.

Space battles pose a problem for roleplaying games. A photon torpedo or plasma bolt can destroy a space ship, vaporizing all on board. In scripted science fiction tales, the crew’s plot armor protects them, but in a roleplaying game, a space battle threatens to wreck a campaign with an instant total-party kill. The game Stars Without Number solves the problem with an ingenious solution: When a space ship takes critical damage, players can opt to substitute a crisis aboard the ship. The game swaps death for complications that enrich the adventure. In Stars Without Number, players roll on a table to determine the exact crisis. This takes the GM out of the process and makes the swap feel entirely impartial.

A player can opt to let a character die. Sometimes players have a new character in mind and feel ready to move on. Sometimes a noble sacrifice defending the bridge or holding the door seems like exactly the right end for a character’s arc.

Even if a player feels ready to accept a character’s fate, the deal might be to die forever, but not just yet. Perhaps instead of bleeding out, the character rises to her feet to defend the bridge or to strike the killing blow. And then, when her moment has passed, her mighty heart finally gives out. That’s a death for heroes.

By allowing players to escape death, DMs can run more tense, dangerous games while making the tale of the characters’ adventures more heroic and more compelling.

This entry was posted in Advice, Role-playing game design and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to Turning Character Deaths in D&D Into Deals that Benefit Game and Story

  1. Pingback: Was die anderen so schreiben (26.11.19) « Wormys Welten

  2. dustysquito says:

    I feel like if you wanted to stretch out a death save, you could start describing the soul leaving the body, requiring a series of religion checks to anchor it back, giving an extra death save allowance or something. I like the idea of sort of metagaming with the player to see what they want to do to keep the character alive. Heck, maybe a quest given by a diety to win the soul back could be fun.

  3. Cymond says:

    I was recently considering the idea of a house rule. Let a dying character remain conscious but unable to act or speak loudly. You can still have those dramatic “deathbed moments” where they confess their eternal love, beg to be avenged, plead with the unscrupulous rogue to please save the world, etc. Or maybe say that they don’t die immediately after 3 failed saves, but are beyond saving with anything less that the same things that would resurrect them, and save the deathbed moment until after combat.

    I was also thinking of the cinematic trope of the mortally wounded hero who pulls himself to his feet to fight for a few more moments. House rule idea: allow the character to rise up and fight for X number of rounds, but they forfeit any chance to survive that they would have by staying down.

  4. Ilbranteloth says:

    I’ve been describing this very approach for a while now, and I don’t know if I was the one that inspired this.

    To give you some background about how we ended up with this approach, it started with the (many) debates online about DMs fudging. I have fudged from time-to-time, but as an experiment I decided to see what would happen if I fudged in the open. That is, I’d roll the dice in the open, and the players would immediately know if I chose to override it.

    Overall, my players just went along with it. They had always told me when I asked their opinions if they cared if I, or another DM, occasionally fudged the dice. But at some point, a player told me to just let one of the rolls ride. “It’s OK, this would be a good place for them to die if they don’t make their saves.”

    The main reason I would fudge was what you describe – it was better for the story or narrative at that point. In some groups, the players wanted a more directed story, much like an AP (which is not my usual approach). I like to tie the characters closely to the setting, to ground them in a way that there are stakes for the PCs. But in a directed story, I tie the characters closely to that story. And in many cases, it wasn’t appropriate for a certain character to die. But the reality is, the best person to decide that is, well, the player.

    I know the approach won’t necessarily work for every group. But I’ve found over a number of years now, at least in my group, that character death really isn’t less frequent than it used to be. My campaigns are pretty deadly, so fighting and combat isn’t the focus, because the players/PCs don’t make it their default method for overcoming challenges and conflict. But there’s a lot they can’t control, and sometimes it’s still the best option for them.

    Outside of a directed story, my players all have multiple characters, and we switch between different groups depending on who makes it on a given night. So the death of one character isn’t that big a deal. In addition, most of the time, we’re not playing a “heroic” (or what I’d consider more superheroic) adventure. Many times these are ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. They aren’t all characters that bards will sing of after they pass.

    So that approach might have an impact on whether the players take advantage of the ability to choose not to die. But more importantly, it seems to be more of a peer pressure thing and they don’t want to wimp out. Instead, as a side effect, the death scene has become a thing. In one case, the character failed their three death saves, so we knew that they wouldn’t survive. But it took them three days to die, while others tried a last ditch chance to race to town to fetch a local cleric to provide last rites. In the meantime, the ones that stayed behind continued to both work on their goal, and care for their fatally wounded ally.

    If it just seems like a bad night for the dice, and just plain bad luck, then they have just ignored the dice. More often, they’ll choose a consequence that has an impact for the rest of the day, but then move on.

    In most of the cases where it seems appropriate that fate has spoken, and the character “should” rightfully die, but it’s not appropriate for that time and place, then they almost always choose a significant, and fairly permanent, consequence. Something that really has an impact on their character going forward.

    The last part of our approach that I think also really makes a difference, is that resurrection magic is for all intents and purposes unavailable to the PCs. That is, when a PC dies, they die. I don’t recall a single resurrection of any kind in probably 20-30 years in my campaign.

    We have other aspects in our house rules that ramp up the danger. For example, necrotic damage cannot be healed by mundane means. We have a robust injury system, and poison can still kill on a failed save. Fire and falling are both more dangerous than the core rules. These changes are all intended to make players/PCs fear things that they should.

    Sorry for the long post, but I highly recommend the approach. As I said, it’s obviously not for everybody, but it works fantastic for us, and I hope it will work as well for others.

  5. Just me says:

    The DM policy is a simple one. Your character dies, it becomes an NPC within the small town we are made. The character sheet remains with the DM. The player, if they want, can play the NPC, but it does not leave our small town. After listening to the DM, this was a great idea. The NPC’s are no longer strangers, thay are more like family, thus giving it the small-town feel.

    Fighters have became farmers, blacksmiths. The one thief has become a courier, and upgraded to a Caravan owner. The cleric is a Doctor, Dentist, Barber, and Bartender… current joke is trying to find new ways to get him into how many tasks at the same time.

    Point is simple… your player does but you still live on as an NPC that you can still play. Simple really. Cheers

  6. XidtheMad says:

    Bargaining for the prolonged life of a fallen character sounds like the sort of Faustian deal my players would be cautious to invoke.

    Personally I like to drop hints of some wish granting object, a sword, ring, or well lost in the local dungeon underworld, or some powerful enough spellcaster to resurrect or reincarnate slain allies.

  7. Tarmor says:

    In most of my D&D games, unless a player actually wanted to play something different (or was extremely low level), the group has always paid for Raise Dead (or Resurrection). I like the idea of a permanent injury… I looked at my four different DMG’s but none have such a table. 3 of them don’t even have a p272. Which edition are you referring to?

    • Daniel says:

      That would be AD&D edition 1.0 from the 1970’s

      • Ilbranteloth says:

        No, the “permanent injuries table” he refers to on pg. 272 is in the 5e DMG. The 1e DMG is 240 pages long and doesn’t have a permanent injury table.

    • Ilbranteloth says:

      While we love permanent injuries, and have used them for years, I can’t stand permanent injury tables, critical hit tables, and the like (such as cards).

      For example, if you use the 5e system, they suggest a lingering injury could happen on a critical hit, when somebody is dropped to 0 hp, or if they fail a death save by 5 or more. All reasonable thresholds for something bad happening.

      The problem is, especially in a game with a lot of combat, that it will happen a lot. There are 9 options on their table, and there’s a 5% chance each of losing an eye, hand or foot. Statistically speaking, if you play your characters for a year or two, every character will lose an eye, hand, and foot (if not multiples), when using a system like this.

      We prefer something that maintains the abstract nature of D&D combat. Our injury system uses the exhaustion track, combined with the death save mechanic. But you only make one save per day. It takes 3 successes before 3 failures to improve by one level on the track, and 3 failures first means you get worse by one level.

      If circumstances warrant it, you can apply a specific injury, such as a leg injury that reduces your speed, can’t run, jump, etc. We do still have rules that allow things like losing a limb, even decapitation. But they are very, very hard to do, and most common when there is a large discrepancy in level. For example, a 7th level fighter against a large band of orcs. Although in some cases it’s a bit easier, such as using a slashing weapon against a tentacle that has grappled another creature.

  8. BlobinatorQ says:

    “The threat of death makes the game exciting…” – as a player, I completely disagree with this statement. The threat of death, if anything, just makes me feel like I’m wasting my time. Death in something like a video game is ok, because I know I can jump back in the action within ~30 seconds or so and try again. Death at a D&D table means, very likely, that I’m going to end up sitting quietly for 30 minutes or more while the party and DM get to a point where they can work me back into the game (via a resurrection or with a newly rolled up character). I don’t really understand who that is supposed to be fun for, but sitting there *not* playing the game is not fun for me, and the threat of that happening does not add to my “excitement”.

    “Making death optional risks leaving D&D lifeless. In the Investigation Check podcast, Josh remembers a campaign where the players learned that no characters could die. ‘It started to feel stale when we didn’t feel like our characters were in any real danger. I didn’t feel motivated to level up or even get equipment, because I felt we were always going to make it out fine.'” – Honestly, to me, this sounds like a group of players who aren’t really into the roleplaying part of the hobby. I’ve been in campaigns where we agreed from the beginning that death was off the table unless the player and DM arranged it beforehand (to work in a new player-character, for example), and we told some amazingly fun stories together. No death did not mean no consequences, and the complications added to our characters’ lives in what *would have* been life or death situations where they failed were far more interesting than having a player sit there not playing for 30 minutes or more – or worse, a TPK, where everyone has to start from scratch and we lose all of the interesting character-development and narrative progress we’ve made.

  9. Dieter Zimmerman says:

    Use a picture of Dungeon Crawl Classics and then don’t mention the game in the article? You tease.

  10. Eric says:

    I mean, just because a character dies, doesn’t mean the character has to stay dead. Our fighter got hit by a critical from a boss and the DM made them lose an arm. Then the character died.

    Since our player didn’t want them to die, the DM had the character meet Asmodeus and make a deal with them, but no one knows what. Then the character miraculously revived, but still has one arm with a snake tattoo that burns whenever they enter a holy place(though us players have yet to see it).

    Death doesn’t necessarily mean the end and having a character never be able to die also lowers the stakes. If a person dies and wants to come back, a good DM should be able to accommodate that and adjust.

  11. I really like this idea! It reminds me of the Wonderland sub-arc from The Adventure Zone: Balance. Losing any of the PCs would have been terrible for the story, from the respective of the players and the listeners, and they had been playing the campaign for like 2.5 years at that point and we’re almost at the finale. So instead of having the characters die, they were forced to sacrifice different aspects of the character. When the player needed to give something up they had to choose to sacrifice their darkvision, a weapon proficiency, a memory that was integral to the character’s backstory, or a large portion of their lifespan. It made that arc super high stakes while also making sure the story wouldn’t end with an unsatisfactory character death.

  12. Jacob Blalock says:

    “If D&D players wanted a game where fighting rated as a last resort, they would play Call of Cthulhu or the Dallas Television RPG, where you can’t shoot JR.”

    I don’t think that’s a safe assumption.

    If tabletop RPGs were a bigger hobby I doubt any one RPG would make up even 20% of the games being played on a given night.

    I don’t think more than 55% of people are playing 5th Edition D&D because they prefer it over all other RPGs.

    Tabletop RPGs are still a niche hobby. Most people who want to play have to take what they can get in terms of finding a group to play with, and that means they mostly play the most recent edition of the most widely recognized RPG, 5th Ed. D&D.

    • BlobinatorQ says:

      Excellent point. I live in a medium sized city, have a fair number of friends and coworkers who are into board games, video games, all manner of geeky hobbies – and yet I’ve been trying for four years to get a session going of FATE, Dresden Files RPG, Numenera, Fantasy AGE, basically anything other than D&D, with no success. And not even a campaign, I’d be fine running a one-off just to try it out.

      RPGs inherently are a big commitment, both to learn and to play. So convincing anyone to try out something other than the big, well-known one that they’ve already invested time into learning can be like pulling teeth.

  13. Tardigrade says:

    I hate this idea.

    Don’t get me wrong, I used to do exactly these things for the same bad reasons and it ultimately killed my game.

    I have come around on the concept of a d&d game being a story or narrative. It isn’t and should not be either. It leads to terrible DM decisions and behaviors. If you are trying to produce an outcome, you’re not being a fair arbiter of actions, which is the primary function of DM.

    I strongly feel that if a character death is a problem for your narrative, then you’re playing the game wrong. It probably also means that players can make a “wrong choice“ that will disrupt the “narrative”. Then what bad ideas do you justify in the name of preserving the narrative? Where do you draw the line? Just at character death? But if the whole goal is the narrative, why stop there? No reason. It’s arbitrary.

    If you are narrating a story, go write a book. If you are trying to create an experience that challenges players, then play d&d, design the game so that their choices matter and don’t fudge the dice.

    • BlobinatorQ says:

      I agree that the DM should not be dragging the players through the DM’s narrative. But the DM and the players can build a narrative together. And the thing that must always be remembered is that the DM has infinite agency, while the players have very limited agency.

      By which I mean, if a series of dice rolls don’t go their way, a player’s character can die, at which point they are removed from the game. They have lost all narrative control that they ever had – the one character that they had agency over is no more, and they are completely at the mercy of the DM in terms of when they get to play again. Whereas the DM has unlimited agency – there is never a series of dice rolls that will remove the DM from the game.

      You say that trying things like this killed your game? What has killed my game as a player is having my character die, and having to sit quietly for up to an hour until the party and DM get to a point where I can be worked back into the game, through a resurrection or with a newly rolled character. I’m not sure who it was supposed to be fun for, but I can assure you that it was certainly no fun for me. I didn’t feel like the fact that my character died was a necessary possibility to make the game exciting – it was just something that wasted an hour of my time, sitting around *not* playing a game while other people were playing a game next to me.

      Ultimately it comes down to the group. If the group wants D&D to be nothing but challenges, and wants the stakes to be high with character death always on the table, then so be it. If the group wants to build and be invested in a narrative, and don’t want people left out of the experience due to some unlucky dice rolls, then things should be crafted to suit that. You say if you want to play D&D then it should be about challenges and no fudged dice rolls, but I could easily argue that if someone wants nothing but challenges and tactical combat, go play a war-game instead of D&D – but I won’t argue that, because there is no one right way to play D&D, it can be a very different game for different groups.

      In an ideal world, with the variety of different RPG systems out there, everyone could find a perfect one for their purpose – I could have a narrative driven system like Fate for my inclusive group-storytelling experiences, and someone who wants challenges and dungeon crawls could have a crunchy system that just works perfectly for them, and everyone could be happy. But as an earlier commenter pointed out, folks don’t always have the choice. RPGs are a time-consuming hobby, and depending on where you live it can be downright painful to find people who are willing to try out one RPG, let alone people who are willing to put the time into learning and playing a variety of different systems. Many folks (myself included) basically have no tabletop RPG options beyond D&D (because everyone I know who likes RPGs already has a full calendar just playing D&D), and so it’s important to not get locked into the idea that there is one “right” way to play D&D and that all other ways are inferior or will eventually “kill their games” just because your experience with your group(s) worked out that way.

      • Tardigrade says:

        “But the DM and the players can build a narrative together.”

        Blob, with respect, I dunno how that’s supposed to work in a d&d framework.

        As I see it, that’s not how d&d works. Just like there is no narrative to your life, there isn’t one to the game either. In the game, as in your life, you have experiences which you can look back on and retroactively pick out a narrative. There is no way for that kind of narrative to be ruined by a player’s death or even a tpk.

        Any other narrative either trying to impose a plot on players – which leads to terrible DM behavior – or something long that really is more like amateur improve theater than d&d.

        “ And the thing that must always be remembered is that the DM has infinite agency, while the players have very limited agency.”

        ?? Why must that always be remembered? What’s that got to do with anything?

        “ if a series of dice rolls don’t go their way, a player’s character can die, at which point they are removed from the game.”

        Yes, Blob, that’s the game. Just like in every other game in the known universe. Players sometimes lose, whether because they made bad decisions or because the ball bounced the other way. Sack up.

        “… there is never a series of dice rolls that will remove the DM from the game.“

        ??? Sorry, Blob, I don’t understand. It looks like you’re trying to say this makes it somehow unfair for PCs do die? Because you cannot kill the DM?

        Do you also worry about he unfairness of football teams losing because there is no way for the referees to lose? Or that in baseball strikeouts should be removed because the umpires cannot be called out?

        Jeez Louise.

        “ …having to sit quietly for up to an hour until the party and DM get to a point where I can be worked back into the game, ”

        There are better ways to address this problem than to just not let PCs die. For example, the DM could have you run npcs or monsters.

        “… and so it’s important to not get locked into the idea that there is one “right” way to play D&D”

        Well Blob, there might not be one right way to play, but there are plenty of wrong ways. And this idea that characters should not die is definitely one of them.

        It sounds to me like you’d be happier not using dice. They’re too unpredictable for you. You prefer certainty and safely and guaranteed outcomes. Which, that’s fine I guess. Buts it’s not d&d.

      • Ilbranteloth says:

        Ahh, the ever popular “Agency” argument.

        The DM agency you refer to lasts only as long as players choose to play in their game. Or choose to go along with the way the D&D wants to play. For example, the DM has selected an adventure, or provided a hook, but unless the players (PCs) agree, then they aren’t really going anywhere.

        The player agency you refer to assumes that there are no other experiences or options available to a player with a dead PC.

        I agree with most of the rest of your post. But as you might guess I’m not a fan of the “agency” arguments.

        For example, if you play hockey and are sent to the penalty box, your agency isn’t impacted, you suffered consequences for your actions. In D&D, unless the DM is punitively playing against you, you suffer consequences, you don’t lose agency.

        And in a TPK the DM is also removed from the game by the dice, because unless you all choose to continue the adventure again, then the adventure is over.

        There’s also a difference between player agency and character agency.

        We get together to play the game not only for the lives of our PCs, but also the shared narrative and experience we’re creating. Yes, the game is built around roleplaying your character’s part of that experience. But there are lots and lots of time where a given character (alive or dead) isn’t part of the immediate action. But like watching a movie, being a spectator is also part of the experience at times.

        We also don’t exclude people whose characters aren’t present in the specific situation from participating. They don’t participate as their characters, but usually as part of the present PCs collective “brain.”

        In a game like D&D, we are playing a PC for a few hours a week, but the PC is in their world living their lives 24/7. There are lots of things that we forget, don’t consider, or don’t even think of, and the collective group can help ensure that there is better consistency, continuity, and help build a better narrative, even if their PC isn’t there, including dead.

        We generally don’t drop new PCs into the game except where it makes sense. This is a choice of my players, not me as a DM. So if somebody dies, then they are happy to sit out for as long as it takes for either a new character to come in, or for their character to be revived.

        A recent scene I can think of, that was one of the favorites of the player playing this particular PC, was when they were killed by a trap. As usual, we gave them options, but he insisted that he envisioned her (his PC was female) face was inches away from the trapped sarcophagus when he opened it, there was no escape. So we went with the death saves, but over an extended period of time. Two of the other PCs raced back to town for a cleric for help, while the rest tended to the dying PC and fended off threats. It took the better part of the session, the dying PC did nothing but roll their death saves, and occasionally delirious rambling. If I recall, it was one roll for two hours of game play. In the end, the cleric arrived a couple of hours too late, after which the entire party returned to town with the body to deal with the aftermath.

        The entire next session, the player was mostly an adviser, letting the other players know what their PCs found at her home, etc. So they basically sat out two entire sessions as a spectator, experiencing the end for one of their favorite PCs.

        In this case, the character’s agency was greatly impacted. The player, on the other hand, had full agency to roleplay that PC, which remained unchanged. He could choose how to play out the death of the PC, what was going on in their mind, what limited actions they could take, etc. In the end, he chose to remain largely silent as the dying PC. But that doesn’t mean that he was silent as a player.

        The two sessions were a fantastic and memorable shared experience for all at the table. Much more interesting than yet another combat.

        There were a further 3-4 sessions where he still didn’t have a PC (by their choice, I offered many suggested options), and instead operated as a co-DM playing NPCs until that story arc completed (as decided by the players playing their PCs, not by the DM).

Leave a Reply