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Dealing with Character Deaths in D&D

So, the last D&D session I ran was absolute carnage. The way I'd envisaged it was that my party were gonna sneak into this city, find the McGuffin they needed to take on the evil guy, and get out before the city was destroyed by an approaching army. So far, so good. What I didn't reckon with was that one of my players is always absolutely spoiling for a fight - and likes his odds even when faced with tens of thousands of opponents! Of course, he charged into the battle while everyone else was trying to escape.

When it became clear that he really was in trouble, a few other players waded in to try and save him - which led to an epic battle, culminating in the deaths of a major antagonist, a major friendly NPC, and one of the player characters who had rushed in to save the gung-ho one. It was a pretty harrowing (though really fun, and really moving) session, as the party did everything they could to get out alive - but ultimately not everyone managed to.

Dealing with Player Character deaths isn't easy though, and can be a tricky line to walk. I genuinely think that in-game consequences make the whole D&D experience more rewarding, yet at the same time, sometimes these can be tough for your players. How best to walk this line will depend on your players, their personalities, and what they're playing the game for - but here's a few tips if you find yourself in the same situation.

Give your players a heads up

If you're gonna run campaigns where there's a real possibility that player characters are gonna die, I think it's worthwhile letting your players know this. It's kinda weird that I feel this is necessary, given that character deaths are within the rules, so that everyone should know that's a possibility - but honestly, I feel that as most of us have grown up with video games and the like, where there's always the chance to respawn or restart, and where death isn't necessarily final, that sometimes your players just aren't expecting it. It's really easy to transfer that mentality over to D&D - so if your players are acting a bit gung-ho the whole time, it might be worth reiterating that there are in-game consequences for stupid decisions, and that these could include player deaths.

I feel like a Session 0 is an excellent time to have this conversation. The pressure is off, there's nothing at stake at that particular moment, and then you can never be accused of springing the possibility of death on your players only when they get into a tricky spot.

This also gives you a chance to check in with your players that they're interested in playing the kind of game you're interested in running. If they want the kind of game where they can just mess around in a consequence free environment, and you want to run a gritty, high realism campaign, then maybe you're just not a good fit for each other. Better to discover that outright rather than be pulling in different directions and frustrating each other for the whole campaign...

Consider group dynamics

This is something that I can't give specific advice on, as it's going to depend entirely on the make-up of your group and the people within it - but when dealing with character death, it's worth thinking about the dynamics at play within your group, and how any one of them may take the news of their character's death. If one of your players feels vulnerable, or is the butt of the jokes within your group, then maybe you want to try and avoid this person's character being singled out and killed off.

Obviously, if any teasing or whatnot at your table crosses the line into bullying then you should be stepping in regardless (you do have a responsibility to ensure your table is a safe space for all) - but even if it's just that you know a player is going through an emotionally difficult time and comes to play D&D for some light escapism, maybe you don't want to be killing off a character that they're really bonded with over months or years. Use your best judgement here - but if you need anybody's permission to fudge a couple of dice rolls to keep someone alive, I am hereby giving it to you.

For my own part, the player whose character was killed off this week actually messaged me privately during the session when things weren't looking good for him. He said that while he hoped one of his companions would save him, that I shouldn't pull any punches, and that he felt the character death could work well within the narrative of the story. While this isn't something I'd expect of players, it was great to get the green light, and know he was happy to just see where the dice fell.

Try to make it narratively satisfying

Speaking of something working well within the narrative of your story, please please please try and make character deaths satisfying. A character dying when rescuing a friend, or holding off some enemies while the rest of the party escape, or keeping the bad guy busy while someone else destroys the magical orb that his lifeforce is bound to is a heroic end, and something to be proud of. A level 1 character who trips over a rock and kills himself with bludgeoning damage is not.

Your players are in part playing this game as a form of escapism. Of living out fantasies of bravery and heroism and epic battles between good and evil. It is normal for characters to be killed in these struggles - but to paraphrase Theoden here: let them make such an end to be worthy of remembrance. Not only does this make for a more epic game, but it also ensures that you do these characters justice, so that your players can look back and remember them (and thereby your game) fondly.

Give space for grieving

If you've been running the kind of game that your players are really invested in, then it might be hard for them to say goodbye when a character dies. Give them space within game to do just that. As soon as practical after a character death, have a funeral where other characters can say a few words about their companion. And if your players aren't the most comfortable rollplaying something like that, then be ready to jump in with a few NPCs to do the same.

You can also have a few call backs to the character later in the game - perhaps you circle back to a village they saved and find that the villagers have built a statue in the character's honour. Perhaps the academy where they studied have named a building after them, or have funded a scholarship in their name. Whatever. These call backs help reinforce among your players that their characters are valued, and that their actions matter. Not only does this give them a bit of closure on the trauma, but it also heightens the realism of the world you're building with your players.

Be honest with your players

I think it's also worth noting that it's pretty easy for your players to see the DM as the bad guy in this situation. Obviously, you're the person rolling for the monsters - so it could be seen as you rooting for them against the party. For me, that's never the case - I'm playing the monsters etc, but I'm always trying to create a fun experience for my players, and rooting for them to do well.

When we were having a few minutes to decompress after last session ended, I mentioned how I was really rooting for my friend during his death saves, and that I was bummed when he didn't make them. I think this helps your players realise that while you do have creative control over the world, that you are also subject to the whims of the dice, just like them. I think that making this clear, that the character death is just something that happened (rather than something that you, as DM, made happen) is super important for helping players move on, and keeping a good atmosphere around the table moving forward.

Help your player create a new character

This is a super important step. A character dying shouldn't be seen as a punishment, but instead as an opportunity to create a new character - someone who fits into the story, and gives your player new opportunities for roleplay. You may even be surprised - in campaigns that last months or years, your player may actually be itching to play a different race or class anyway!

I think it's important to work together with your player when crafting a new character to join the party. If the rest of your group have a lot of shared backstory, or plot hooks tying them into the different story threads, you should be trying to create a character who is equally invested both in the story and with the party themselves. What you don't want is for them to go through the pain of losing their character, and then to feel like an outsider in the group.

Perhaps talk to them about creating a character sheet for an NPC they already like - thereby giving them an immediate stake in the story, and an in with the party. I'd also urge you to try and balance their new character so that they're basically at the same level as the rest of the party. Nobody wants to be punished and busted back down to level 1 while the rest of the party are all level 10. Don't do that to your players...

Final thoughts

As in real life, dealing with death in game isn't easy. Some players might have spent years connecting with their characters, and feel a real sense of loss when they die. Be sympathetic to this, treat your players (and their characters) with respect and empathy, and give them the chance to grieve and move on (or not) in whatever way feels most appropriate within your campaign and adventuring group.

That said, take heart that players feeling this connected to their characters is in many ways a really good sign! It means they're invested in your campaign, and in the story that you're all telling together. So keep up the good work! Keep treating your players with respect, and I'm sure they'll be able to find some kind of resolution in the character death, while continuing to enjoy playing with you.


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