It’s an old cliché that only two things in this world are inevitable – death and taxes. And unless you happen to be running with a Paladin of High Accountancy in the party the list gets even shorter when you enter the world of D&D.
Yes, one of the few things that virtually every party will have to deal with is having a character bite the bullet. This means that character death is something that you need to be prepared to every time you sit down at the gaming table, no matter which side of the screen you’re facing.
Let’s face it, having your character die is almost never a good experience. The narrative nature of D&D means that it is one of the only ways in which it’s actually possible to objectively ‘lose’ the game.
After all, the old stereotypes of evil DMs don’t have them giggling because the party walked past the hidden door to the treasure chamber, or dancing around the table when his evil mastermind resurrects an undead horde.
No, when you think of a real mean, hard-arsed-son-of-a-bitch DM you inevitably picture them explaining exactly what that falling boulder/orc greataxe/sphere of annihilation did to your precious PC, and then asking for your character sheet.
Of course, unless they are genuinely evil or incredibly dedicated to their realism you’ll be back next session in a new form, albeit one likely to have less shiny magical trinkets and possible a little less experience (though personally I’m not a fan of punitive level reductions on re-rolled characters).
But that character sheet represents much more than simple lost XP or gear. One of the biggest punishments – if that’s the right word for it – associated with character death is that it puts an untimely end to their story.
While the party as a whole should drive the main narrative, a good DM will weave in pieces of story that hinge almost entirely on one member, even if that’s only their growth as a character.
If the Elf Ranger takes a throwing axe to the throat, we will never find out how their barely-kindled romance with the Human Druid was going to develop, and hopefully that hurts more than the +2 Magic Longbow left behind when the party fled into the woods.
Even if resurrection is a possibility – through high levels, obscene wealth or access to a friendly high priest or two – death still represents a massive role-playing challenge. Both the rules and a basic understanding of human nature means that coming back from the dead should not be a trifling matter – it should shape that character’s arc through the game and possibly shatter their confidence.
Just the Beginning
Death is never something you as a player should go looking for, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s something that you should dread.
It’s a horrible old trope, but having one of the team killed is a great way to propel the narrative forward. How many action films can you think of that end their second act with the hero walking through the wreckage to kneel over a fallen ally, gently close their eyes and growl something about how “that bastard’s gonna’ pay for what he did to you”?
If the guy who delivered the killing blow was a major villain than you can roll up a new character safe in the knowledge that your death provided the rest of the party with an incredible reason to ditch the side-quests and push ahead with the main arc.
When it’s some random mook – or worse, a random mountainside that was just hanging around when you rolled a couple of critical fails – that finishes you off it can be a little harder to bear. But hey, that’s how the game goes. The world of D&D is means to be harsh and cruel and having a skilled comrade die unexpectedly can really bring the dangers home to some of the cockier characters.
Beyond the narrative silver-lining, there’s also the fact that having your old guy die is an excellent excuse to try out that new character you’ve had poking around the back of your brain for months. Sure, it sucks that you never get to see Sir Prendel grow angel wings and immolate his sworn foes in gradient fire, but now you get to try out that Assassin/Shadow Monk hybrid you though up!
This is something that more experienced players handle much better than their newer companions. I’m certainly not a veteran yet, but now I’ve had a couple of characters pulled out from under me I’m much less concerned over the prospect of their deaths.
Obviously this doesn’t mean I’m not going to throw myself off a cliff every couple of months so I can move onto something new and exciting, but rather that I’m not afraid to play a little recklessly where plot- and character-appropriate.
Back in my early days, I as a player was so afraid of having my character die that I would never really risk them – the huge quantity of Fey Pact Warlock teleports are great for getting out of harm’s way, if you must know. But now I can have my Halfling Barbarian throw herself into a horde of enemies, frothing at the mouth and singing her death song as she buys time for her allies to escape.
If she somehow survives I get to have a great role-playing moment and generally be a huge badass.
If the dies in that lonely cavern I still get to have a great role-playing moment, add to the overall plot and be pretty confident that within a couple of sessions the party will likely run into a Dragonborn Tempest Cleric wielding a magic hammer and a winning smile.
There are silver linings everywhere, even in a shroud.
Lessons for players:
- Your character is afraid of death, but the player shouldn’t be.
- Always have a couple of character concepts to hand in case you need to re-roll at short notice.
- Resurrection isn’t the easy way out.
- The death of an ally is a great way to fuel character progression.
Lessons for DMs
- Don’t relish killing your players, but don’t remove the threat either.
- Not every death has to be meaningful, but it’s nice when they are.
- Don’t let players re-roll clones of their old characters. Even willing suspension of disbelief can only go so far.
- Always have a plan for working new party members into the narrative.