Content of the article: "How to Make Character Death Suck Less"
- 1 Before my players started down this quest, the warning signs for danger were all over.
- 2 So I stopped the game.
- 3 Now here is something I want to bring stark attention to: Player Downtime.
- 4 In retrospect, I think there were a few things I would do differently:
- 5 The key things to take away from this post are:
- 6 Similar Guides
TLDR: If you are unsure how to handle a situation, take a break and talk to the player. Let them bring them back even outside of Rules as Written, but find a way to make the death feel impactful.
DM: The Verbeeg looms over you as you block the entrance of the cave to cover your friends’ escape. He raises his massive spear and attacks – does a 23 hit?
Player: Yeah, Ben, I'm level two a 23 hits.
DM: That does….how much health do you have?
Player: I’ve got about 4 health left.
DM: How much do you have total?
Player: I have 16 max HP.
DM: …..The attack does 24 damage.
Player: So I’m down?
DM: ….You are dead.
Player: Wait, like dead or unconscious?
DM: Like, dead, dead.
DM: As the Verbeeg runs his spear through Tetra’s chest, he grins, issuing a guttural laugh that travels to the party, who slow their pace, turning to see the horrible display. Does Tetra have any final words?
Oh boy. I run gritty but not necessarily brutal games – like I can probably fit my player kill count in my entire time platDungeons and Dragons on two hands. My players know the fear of having their characters go down, but death in my games is relatively rare. It’s not that it doesn’t happen, but my players are typically prepared with quick resurrection reagents, so we don’t often have to deal with a permanent stop to a storyline. To do that though, they need expensive reagents which means they need access to money and civilization.
In this campaign, both are exceedingly rare. Welcome to Icewind Dale, I guess. There are several towns, but the snowy terrain makes them hard to get to and resource poor.
Before my players started down this quest, the warning signs for danger were all over.
When they got to town, the previous town leader, a bull of a man, was dead from an encounter with the Verbeeg, which is like a smarter, lankier ogre. When they searched for it, they found the dead remains of a party of hunters that tried going after it. In session zero I warned my players that they might not be strong enough to face every threat they encounter and running or waiting to face something until they are ready is a valid strategy. Despite all the warning signs, the party plunged into the depths of the monster’s lair and found the threat to be too much.
Some tried to escape, but the battle seemed to be teetering towards victory so some of them turned to continue the fight – but the lack of a cohesive strategy left Tetra out of position.
When Tetra fell to the Verbeeg, I honestly didn’t know what to do. I knew my player worked really hard on this character, both in design and backstory. That said, I played fair as a DM with my warning signs. The death was earned and I didn’t see any other option but rolling a new character. But I wasn’t sure.
So I stopped the game.
I said, alright, we are taking a fifteen minute break. I told the player to meet me in the other room to chat.
I asked her: What do you want to do? Do you want to roll a new character or should we find a way to bring Tetra back?
I’m going to stop here and address what many of you might be thinking now, because I’m sure that there are literal battle lines being drawn in the comments as to what the right thing to do in the situation would have been.
Some of you might be thinking that in order for there to be stakes, character death must be a real threat and should be permanent if there are no Rules as Written ways to bring a character back. To those of you I say: I sort of agree. With a very important caveat: I value what my player’s find fun more than that.
As for the other side of the argument, some might just hand wave the death and have some god bring her back right away. There really was no rules as written way to bring Gandalf back as Gandalf the White – but it was awesome. That might be too incongruous with the game I’m running and the character she’s playing. But there is a way to compromise between the Rule of Cool and Rules as Written. Choice and consequence. Dramatic weight and fun. I’ll get back to this later.
I told my player that the situation looked grim for Tetra: they were out in the wilderness with no nearby resurrection service. There may be no way to bring her back within the bounds of the adventure. But: we could find a way to make it work if you want to keep your character.
She thought about it. She said she wanted to keep playing her character – there was more she wanted to explore with this story and this setting and would feel really bummed to leave it all here. I told her okay.
We went back to the game. The players managed to defeat the Verbeeg by the skin of their teeth and mourned their fallen companion. The party’s paladin had a background tied to a temple in the biggest town in Icewind Dale. They suggested that if they would get Tetra’s body there, the Sibyl there may be able to bring her back.
I told them it would be a hard journey, but possible. They set off.
Now here is something I want to bring stark attention to: Player Downtime.
Not character downtime, that would be a different video. The time a player spends not doing anything.
When a player’s character is dead, there is literally nothing for them to do. Their primary means of interacting with the game of DND is literally dead in the water. Which means they will be bored. Frustrated. Even if you bring in a new character, you’ll most likely encounter this downtime until you can find a way to introduce them organically.
How do you fix this? HA! You sweet summer child. Not everything I do is so simple and clean. I basically had the player chill while the party made this journey. They were basically benched for the back half of this session and I told them they could just show up to the back half of the next one when the party got to the place they could bring her back. You see this happening in Critical Role – when a certain character dies (spoilers), they literally don’t show up to play for the next session and a half.
I thought about fast forwarding to when they could bring her back, but there were two reasons that was out of the question. Number one, travel is a super important aspect of my game and the difficulty in getting somewhere and hauling cargo is part of the challenge. And number two, the dramatic weight of the time that a character spends dead and the effort it takes to bring them back adds to the story. Fast forwarding cheapens that.
When the players got to the temple, they encountered the paladin’s backstory – it turns out they weren’t exactly on good terms with the Sibyl who wasn’t exactly inclined to do the party any favors. Here is where we get back to narrative consequence. The Sibyl agreed to bring Tetra back in exchange for both the gold cost of the spell as well as the paladin agreeing to do a quest for her. Basically roping the paladin back into the fold. The paladin agreed and I ran one of Matthew Mercer’s infamous resurrection rituals.
If you haven’t seen them, basically they are skill challenges where every success raises or lowers the DC the DM rolls at the end. If the DM’s roll beats where the DC ends up, the ritual is successful. Each subsequent resurrection increases the DC by five, and a failed roll means that character can never be brought back to life. So, even here, all of your carefully laid plans can come crashing down by the will of the dice – or you can cheat to get your desired result. Not that I would ever do something like that. No way. Nope. Never.
In retrospect, I think there were a few things I would do differently:
Namely, the party made the journey with an NPC. I could have transferred control of the NPC to the player for the duration of the trip. That would have given them something to do during the period where their character was on the bench.
Death is a part of DnD because the game is all about risk and reward. You spend the majority of the time in game doing extremely dangerous stuff, so thinking about how to handle the inevitable consequences of those actions is important.
The key things to take away from this post are:
- If you are unsure how to handle a situation, take a break. Let everyone breathe. It lets the player have a minute – losing a character is a frustrating business. When they’re ready, talk to the player about what they want to do. That’s a tactic that will serve you well – when in doubt, talk to your players.
- Letting a character come back to life outside of Rules as Written doesn’t have to break your game’s immersion – just ensure it still feels impactful. Maybe there is some sort of consequence. Whether that is some resurrection sickness, agreeing to do a quest, or a going into debt, the choice is yours.
- While the player is dead, see if there is a way for them to stay engaged, or limit the out-of-game time they are on the bench by nudging the group onwards. If you have your own way of handling this, please let me know.
- Embrace Death & Resurrection
- DMs with homebrew rules: Talk to your players!
- In need of advice on how to deal with a problematic player
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