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.
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.