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I DM for a group of very busy people, for whom the commitment of several hours a week is a real sacrifice: that’s a sizeable chunk of their free time for the week that I’m asking for.

Now, I want, and they want, the game to be reasonably challenging. Death is a realistic risk for their characters, and should be for the game. And while the setting is reasonably lax about death, and resurrection magic can be had for those who have the coin or power, they’re not high enough level to really access it easily or quickly (and do not wish to have to handle higher-level, read: more complicated, characters). I fear that having it be easily available would also cheapen the risk of death in the first place.

But a dead character means a player who is not playing. That means someone who has committed a substantial amount of his or her free time to play a game with me can no longer participate. That is something that I cannot accept; it just seems disrespectful to them.

So, is there any way I can achieve both goals here? Make death meaningful, scary, and a real threat, without its occurrence wasting anyone’s time?

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ask your players. Their opinions matter more than ours on this one. –  deltree Dec 3 '12 at 12:44
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@Kryan & Aesin: You might find this useful for such discussions: Same Page Tool by Bankuei. –  SevenSidedDie Dec 4 '12 at 1:46

18 Answers 18

up vote 28 down vote accepted

You can always play in a lower lethality game, but in the question you note that you and your group want this kind of gameplay. So here's some options to keep a player involved assuming character death is present.

  1. Have them work on their new character. This keeps them involved with the game and allows you to slot them in potentially later in the same session, depending on time remaining. It has to be done anyway, and they get to still see the gameplay - in a 6 person party you're not doing anything at least 5/6 of the time anyway, so it's not really that big a deal.

  2. Give them a NPC in the party, or even a foe, to play. Again, maintains involvement. Depending on how far into the session you are, it might not be for that long. Most of our campaigns have a variety of cohorts, NPC hangers-on, etc. (Sometimes to a fault, our Jade Regent game has a lot by design and our pirate game has two pirate ships full of crew plus more NPCs of PC level than there are PCs...)

Of course if you know you're running a lethal game, have players thinking about a next character in the back of their mind, and you should make sure and have opportunities in the narrative to slot in a new character frequently. I know I don't like to have new PCs just 'teleport in' so having realistic points where a new character might join requires some pre-work to not break immersion.

You could try to "time" major combats towards the end of sessions - but a) people generally time it that way anyway and b) it has little to do as to when someone snuffs it. I remember in our Rise of the Runelords campaign, we assaulted Hook Mountain and the putative Lord of our new Keep got murdered in the first round by a crit from an ogre hook. Unless you're fudging anyway, you can't count on timing.

As a player, I invest strongly in my characters so when they die I definitely want a cool-down period. Playing an NPC or foe or just watching the rest of the group finish up the session at hand while I turn over new character ideas is a good opportunity to do that; maybe I even want to leave early to go have some alone time to get my mind right.

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I think players find it a little shocking their character to die, so they need some time to emotionally overcome the loss. And in the meantime, why not play a session or two with a major NPC. Firstly, the NPC is in the most part already constructed, leaving only the flavour to be constructed by the player. And secondly, NPC deaths are much cheaper. So the player can play recklessly if they desire so, in the process gaining ideas for the new character. Why does this remind me of romantic relationships - oh, never mind :D –  Vorac Dec 4 '12 at 6:11

You can try to structure your play time so that your life or death stuff isn't hitting until the end of the session. That way if somebody buys it, they're at least being sidelined at the natural end of the evening during the climax of your session so they've played enough to hopefully not feel like they wasted an evening. That also lets them handle new character generation between sessions.

Also if you're thinking about character death as a waste of people's time, it's probably time to re-evaluate the playstyle that's really the best for the group. The way you play RPGs in high school is liable to be real, real different from how you play them as adults and that's okay.

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Upvoting so hard for your second paragraph. Adjusting playstyle from how I learned as a teenager to the constraints of adult life is a challenge I'm still working on. Recognising and accepting it is the most important step. –  SevenSidedDie Dec 3 '12 at 5:23

Some game systems have this internal conflict built into them – either deliberately or accidentally – and that's just part of the nature of the game.

Not all games suffer this conflict

In some games character death is a deliberate feature, and the rest of the system is more-or-less mindfully designed to accommodate character death as a real risk while not taking the player out of the game when it happens. These systems don't have this internal tension between keeping risks real and keeping the player in the game, because one doesn't lead to the other.

For an example of this, old-school D&D games often have chargen that's quick enough to be done on-demand during a session, and most players have a stable of PCs and followers to continue playing with immediately, sometimes already present in the party.

(However, old-school D&D demonstrates one way that such games are imperfect designs in other parts of the rules: it fails to support plot-centric play, while sort of pretending that it does plot-centric play just fine. It can, but you have to ignore or alter a bunch of rules before old-school D&D does it well.)

Why some games do suffer this conflict

In other games, character death is something that is in conflict with the rest of the design. Either it was included because "of course" the risk of death is part of a roleplaying game; or it was a hold-over from a previous edition with a design that accommodated character death better; or the designers were aiming at a demographic who have piles of disposable time and don't acutely mind downtime during play; or maybe they just didn't really inspect the reason for including character death.

In such systems, character death can often be experienced by an given play group as a misfeature – the rest of the system is off supporting a plot-centric game that is heavy on character development in complete denial that all that could be taken away (and not quickly replaced) with the roll of a fatal die.

(The worst examples of such games – where not just some but most play groups experience character death rules as a misfeature – are what Ron Edwards calls "incoherent" designs: game designs in which different parts of the rules are in conflict over what the point is of playing the game in the first place. This is one thing I think he got right, no matter what you think about the rest of his RPG theory.)

The solution

There's no easy solution that is applicable to every game, because different systems place a different role and importance on the presence (or lack) of character death. For the purpose of this question we can limit ourselves to just games that have an inherent conflict between keeping character death as a risk and getting to play as close to 100% of the time.

In a game that makes character death a risk, but it's in conflict with playing the damned game the way your group wants to, you have three options, in decreasing order of palatability:

  1. Jettison character death as a real risk.
  2. Lightly or heavily house-rule every single subsystem that makes it hard or annoying to get back into the game quickly.
  3. Jettison the game itself and find one that is coherent with the group's play objectives.

Unsurprisingly, most groups playing a game with that internal tension opt for (1) and make resurrection cheap and easily available, or something like that. Option (2) can take a huge amount of work, and might interfere with the reason the group uses that system in the first place, while (3) is usually unwelcome because abandoning a system with a lot of investment is actually emotionally and motivationally harder than the massive undertaking that option (2) implies.

The easiest solution isn't necessarily the best, though. It sounds like you're hoping for an compact set of house rules or para-text play procedures that can do (2) in order to get a player quickly back into the game, because you don't like option (1). In such cases though, option (3) – choosing a new game that actually supports the mode of play the group desires while maintaining character death as a meaningful risk, is a more thorough solution. It's why so many players of RPGs have opted to write their own game so that it works the way they want it to. Fortunately, there are so many and we can benefit from their work, as often there is already a game that would suit us, if only we could find it.

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I really like the analysis of the different systems and the way they handle things, why some systems don't have this problem. I think (2) can be done at least somewhat easily in most systems, based on other comments: a decent stock of premade characters, either made by the players or by me, who can become new party members (either permanently or until the player can draft a new character in the longer process). Other answers/comments have noted problems with that approach, though. Of course, (3) isn't really an option for the same reason I ask this question: the group doesn't have time. –  KRyan Dec 4 '12 at 1:33
    
I frequently use 1 as a GM. My players know that Deus Ex Machina will keep a PC alive unless a preplanned dramatic death is in the works. But that doesn't mean the characters can't suffer permenant loss in lots of other ways. –  TimothyAWiseman Dec 4 '12 at 21:46
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@TimothyAWiseman Yeah. That follows another approach in the other direction from the OP's desires: go all-out in the character/plot-centric play, and move the risks away from injury & death and toward things in the PCs' lives they care about. If you take PC-loss off the table during normal play, players will often get into more interesting, riskier RP situations with less hesitation. –  SevenSidedDie Dec 4 '12 at 22:16

And while the setting is reasonably lax about death, and resurrection magic can be had for those who have the coin or power, they’re not high enough level to really access it easily or quickly (and do not wish to have to handle higher-level, read: more complicated, characters).

When this is the problem, I like to solve it using the setting instead of the game rules. I tend to add an organization (usually a religious one, but it doesn't really matter) that provides healing & resurrection services to the area, based on someone's ability to pay. For the wealthy, that's just the full money cost. For a farmer, payment might instead be donating some meals to the needy in the area.

For an adventuring group (aka: the PCs), I usually use a combination of a gold amount that they can afford (which goes up as they get wealthier, to keep it from not mattering), and some task that needs an adventurer's touch. Like ridding the area of a raiding party that's terrorizing the locals, or escorting someone's wagon of cabbages between towns, or any side quest you can think of. (edit - Just to be clear, this would be performed after the resurrection as payment, so the dead PC is alive and involved again. Don't make them sit out two weeks during a side quest.)

Some systems also have ways to enforce that. D&D 3.5 for example has a spell called Gaes/Quest which they'll cast on the party members requesting the resurrection before doing it. For a low level party removing that spell is decidedly not trivial, so combined with the reputation hit for not paying up it tends to avoid that kind of issue.

In addition to being a plausible source of side quests, I think it adds to the feel of the world and it works pretty well for my PCs. Of course, my PCs tend to get very attached to their characters and will go to serious lengths in order to keep using them and not just making new ones. I've had other players that would prefer to just make a new character instead, and that's a different thing.

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This question is a poor one for "system agnostic" because the answer varies widely by system mechanics.

In General

  • Use morale rules for PC's as well as NPC's.
  • increase damage capacity between unconsciousness and death
  • Maim instead of kill.

D&D and other Hit Point Games

The solutions range widely.

  • Using the "Death's Door" rule (Not dead until -10 HP, or the -HP=Con, or -HP=Level house-rule variants),
  • mandatory surrender &/or flight checks at 25% HP or at 10% HP (or at both), or possibly even at 50%
  • Unconscious if at 10% or less of HP, rather than 0.
  • Check for unconsciousness every (Con)th HP taken- use System Shock Survival roll. EG: If Con 12, every 12th HP taken, Roll SSR or go unconscious.
  • Make resurrection magic lower level than standard
  • Reduce the penalties for resurrection
  • more foes of lower damage each rather than fewer, higher damage foes
  • use worn armor as Damage Reduction instead of or in addition to decreased change to be hit.
  • Use Dark Sun Character Trees - when active PC levels up, so does another character in the player's stable.

BRP and its ilk. Low, non-climbing HP.

Some very strong differences exist

  • Don't fight to the death with NPC's. NPC's fighting to the death encourages similar in the PC's.
  • Use the hit-locations rules viciously - if a location is severed, require the character to surrender or flee, if not simply pass out from the pain.
  • Allow some form of survival point which can be used to change a hit location away from head and chest.
  • Encourage good armor
  • Use weapon and Armor damage rules - it increases the sense of danger much, while increasing the actual danger less that it would seem.
  • Use morale rules on PC's.

Traveller - CT, MT, MGT

  • Allow players to pick where each damage die goes, rather than randomizing (CT) or using the sequencing in MGT.
  • In CT, use armor mod as damage reduction instead of to hit penalty
  • In all, allow excess damage to stat to be permanent level reduction, not dead until permanent reduced to 0 in one attribute. EG: Joe 777xxx has taken 30 points of damage; his current is 000xxx, and his permanent is reduced by the extra 9, fortunately he's at 435xxx permanent, and not dead, but will not recover to 777xxx, only to 435xxx
  • Allow taking damage to Int and/or edu as well.

d6, Vampire, and other damage step games

Lots of games use damage steps.

  • add an extra step or two between unconscious and dead.
  • Require morale test when injured. On fail, surrender or flee.
  • Allow a second hit to each level before it flows to the next worse level.
  • add an extra step between penalty and unconscious, with an increased penalty
  • increase the distance per step of damage (EG, In Vampire, use 2 successes instead of 1 to upgrade damage a step; in d6, change from 1-3/4-9/10-15/16+ to 1-5/6-15/16-20/21+)
  • use hit locations - only chest and head hits can kill, others that would be mortal are simply unconscious and lose limb.
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Not answering the question. He's not asking how to avoid death or make the system less lethal, he's asking how to cope with someone having died. –  mxyzplk Dec 4 '12 at 0:36
    
In general, there are a lot of good ideas here, and several I distinctly do not care for. Particularly morale tests for forcing a player to run; I don't like that much at all. Still, this is useful to me. –  KRyan Dec 4 '12 at 1:36
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@mxyzplk: You are right, of course, but I still appreciate a lot of the ideas. As noted in other answers, a lot of the actual fixes can strain credibility if used too often: finding ways of keeping threats credible, but lowering the risk of death (including inducing the players to be more cautious) have their place here I think. I found them useful, anyway. –  KRyan Dec 4 '12 at 1:37

I played a lot a long time ago, but my mind immediately went to them being a ghost, still able to aid the party in certain situations. Like they are tied to the group that is continuing, but while in the ghost mode, have a different set of abilities and options for combat, interaction, etc. As time goes on and they do revive the character, that character could retain some of the skills learned as a ghost, but certainly not be level with the other characters who lived.

Play it as a another positive dimension to the game, not a negative "I have to deal with this" type of situation.

Another possible solution is that the PCs encounter a person in need who has the ability to resurrect the character, given they help that person out. I would, playing the dead character, enjoy seeing what my fellow party members are willing to go through to get me back. You could also allow the dead character's player to help DM with you.

I am a believer of working the negative (the death) into the story.

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I like to be upfront to the players about the risk of character death for the game and system we're playing. At that point, if they still want to play the game, then they've accepted these as possible consequences.

If you anticipate a bunch of deaths (e.g., Call of Cthulhu), then players can have a roster of backup characters. Paranoia as this baked right in, but that's a special case.

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Now, I want, and they want, the game to be reasonably challenging. Death is a realistic risk for their characters

There's an unspoken assumption here that might help resolve the problem: why do you think that having character death as a constant risk is necessary for the game to be challenging? In my long-time group, there's rarely more than one battle per session, often none, and it's usually not the main challenge (and character death is very rare).

  • The GM can present other challenges: Solving mysterious crimes, travelling through strange and unfamiliar lands, finding people who don't want to be found - things where failures don't have to kill you.
  • The players can do their part too, if the GM gives them the opportunity: avoiding battles or preparing for them so that the risk is minimized can be challenges in itself.
  • And of course losing a battle doesn't have to mean people die: make surrender or retreat a viable option.
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Great ideas, certainly. Unfortunately, my party elected to go out exploring the savage jungles, when I was trying to recommend a more urban/political adventure where being taken prisoner is more likely. –  KRyan Dec 3 '12 at 22:29
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@KRyan: so-called savages living in the jungle aren't necessarily all bloodthirsty cannibals. And if players insist on fighting dangerous monsters, it's really their own fault. But see also rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/16710/… –  Michael Borgwardt Dec 3 '12 at 22:53

Clearly, you want death to be a unpleasant outcome, one that the players fear but will never really ever experience. Let's face it, this wouldn't be a problem if they just couldn't die.

Well, there's a solution to that; don't let them. The death of a PC can give major complications, but how do we take away the threat of a single characters death, and still retain the fear of death?

This might very well be one of those times, where shamelessly looting ideas from computer games is appropriate; either everyone dies, or no one dies. A character is unconscious instead of killed, unless everyone would die, in which case everyone does. When the fight is over, the "surviving" characters pokes the unconscious ones with a stick and ask them if they're okay.

This might not be the solution you are looking for, but it does remove the problem of having the players die every now and then. If you need some sort of "punishment" to preserve the fear of death, then since you are playing a d20 variant, I think giving them a cumulative -1 to all d20 rolls per "death", healing at a rate of one per day, is somewhat appropriate.

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Most of these ideas rely on you allowing more NPC priests who can resurrect, or more magic items that can have the same effect. They all rely on the players actually dying at some point.

Make the death a plot point, or advance the game in another way.

A character death is a big thing, so make it stand out and change the campaign. Make the priests that resurrect the character have ulterior motives, and use the characters' need to further their own ends. It can give the world more depth, and keeps character death as a serious consequence. An artifact that can return a target to life but requires a rare and valuable ingredient, or causes serious side effects is another valid idea.

For example, in a campaign I recently ran, one player died and the others wanted to resurrect him. I decided to use it as a catalyst for an adventure. The cleric character who got his High Priest to do the reviving now has to go fetch a white dragon scale for the Priest to use in his magic, and has a Geas on him to make sure he doesn't back out.

Make the death affect more characters.

A character's death can allow a player to take the spotlight. Keeping the dead player as an influence in how the game continues, especially when creating a new character, can make the dead character's player still feel as though their character is/was important. Have relatives appear out of the woodwork, as well as old friends. Depending on how they react to news of the character's death, they can instill a sense of depth in your world. If they then can return the old character, it is even better for the player.

Just yesterday, a character of mine died in the first session I used him in. My next character is his sister's husband's brother, coming to meet up with him. When he finds out what happened, he'll start trying to raise money for a resurrection ASAP, after being suitably emotional (ideal circumstances for roleplaying, as well as reinforcing money as a motivation).

Make Ressurection available to more NPCs, and hand it out as a reward.

Similar to my previous point, by making the players work for their resurrection, you can let the survivors get their fallen companions back. You can also get them to 'store up' some favours with some NPC priests, so that any who die will come back without waiting for their friends to get the priests' favour. This lets them fear death, but prepare for it beyond trying not to die.

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This still recommends more "down time" than I feel comfortable putting anyone through. Still, +1 because it gave me a good idea: allow the player to take control of the deceased character's relatives and friends, to allow him some opportunity to shape how he was remembered. Could work. –  KRyan Dec 3 '12 at 22:25

Speaking as someone who participated in a fantasy campaign where, among the five players, we had thirteen dead characters at the end (after a bit more than a year real time), our solution was simple:

Everyone should have multiple replacement characters ready to go.

The characters should be created such that they already know most, if not all, of the other characters in the group and are willing to join forces with them. They should be either somewhat "in the limbo" as to their current location, so that they can reasonably be brought to wherever the group is operating at the moment, or have means to get called in by the group quickly. They should also share a common motivation with the group if possible (a common enemy is a good choice), or else have a good motivation as to why they would risk their lives for the others.

On the campaign and world design side, the action - at least the dangerous parts of it - shouldn't take place where it's not possible to bring in reinforcements for extended periods of time. For shorter periods of time, giving the player an NPC to use until the group can meet up with his new characters is a good stop-gap measure.

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I'm just going to go out on a limb here and suggest that at the beginning of the game, you ask each player to create four characters. Then if one dies, you can find a reason for the new character to join the party.

This lets the players know that death is a real threat, and also allows players to switch out characters if they don't like the one they are using for some reason.

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The "six pack of PCs" strategy is carried to its logical extreme perhaps most famously in Paranoia, where your character death is followed by the same character walking up and saying "Hi, what'd I miss?" (Or, more likely, "You shot me!") –  BESW Dec 4 '12 at 23:50

Good question, personaly i tested a few solutions.

1. Tell player to create a new character

This will give him something to do, but sometimes im the middle of game you might get a question "GM can i get XYZ?" which sometimes might be really annoying

2. Give him NPC to play

Good solution player will still get sume fun, but if your player is not mature enough it might turn worse. Ie, once one of guy after his character died after a few years of playing it, when he got npc to play, he tried to kill rest of team. We were playing in Cyberpunk, and suddenly he took out two SMGs and start shooting to us...

3. Let him play in afterlife

This solution you can apply to some fantasy background games, character died, and something will give him chanllange and after he face it, he wil get second chance (maybe as different character but with old memory) and quest to fulfill.

Problem here is, this will give you classic split team problem. If you aware of that, here is your solution

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I probably couldn't manage such a severe split-team situation, but the other options are solid. –  KRyan Dec 3 '12 at 22:28

I'm GM'ing in the HERO system, with high-power characters. Character creation is complicated and time-consuming, so death is a major inconvenience.

The system I've hit on now seems to be working pretty well.

1 - Be generous with experience points, including bonuses for good role playing.

2 - Grant bonus XP for dramatic, in-character deaths.

3 - Allow unspent experience for deceased characters to be applied to their replacements.

We don't have a lot of character deaths, but when we do, it feels satisfying because everyone is motivated to make a good story.

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How do I not cheapen death, while also respecting my players' time?

Make death meaningful, scary, and a real threat, without its occurrence wasting anyone’s time?

It seems to me what you want here is to make combat and such dangerous situations scary, that death could potentially happen in such situations and a way to hold things together if it does.

Death is real

To bring home the dangers of life, death and the universe the players need to respect the dangers of such situations and what can happen.

  • Empathy. People need to care if they're going to worry about death; if players don't worry about their characters, the world and what's going on in it then they won't worry that much about their characters dying. Although lost levels and items of course will hurt. But the more players care about their characters, because of invested time, social situations and so on, the more they'll have to lose.
  • Degeneration. Death is a very black and white situation, you're either dead or not - generally. This means that you have a massive cliff of danger rather than a slippery slope that can make people more wary of situations. Call of Cthulhu handles this wonderfully with the Sanity system, your character steadily goes more and more mad the more they learn, and there's little you can do to stop this. Conversely in combat based situations near death experiences can have the same punch; this is more system dependant, but small penalties here and there because of combat, criticals or being knocked unconscious (aka less than zero hp in AD&D) remind the players that combat is dangerous, they'll be more careful if there's a danger of a permanent disfiguring scar over their face, or a penalty to initiative for that gammy leg in combat rather than just a few waves of the hand in magic and everyone is happy and skipping again.
  • NPC's. NPC's are people too. THEY can be killed. The more the players care for the NPC's and helpful people they know the more this will hit them home about death, it's bad m'kay. That old wizard who's always selling them scrolls, even the helpful mule that carries their stuff. Make them care about them. Even a mule can have personality. In a Rolemaster game I ran the players even bought their pack mule a minor magical item (horseshoes of featherfall) because they cared about him so much. It baulked at bridges, nudged them when they found food and so on.
  • Dramatise it. When death happens, make sure it is memorable, not a few rolls of a dice and then a "Sorry new character". Give the player a few dying words, lavish the description and focus the scene entirely on them for their moment. This is their characters swan song and they should be the focus of it all so the death, although horrible, is something that they'll remember. Bob the Barbarian was crushed by rocks in a hideous rockfall? Have his arm sticking out of the rocks, twitching; have a few moments where the players struggle to pull out the rocks to save him, give them a bit of hope and then... Imagine every film where a major character has died. Make them remember it.
  • Don't fudge it (too much). Situations will arise where the characters are in danger of horrible death. If they escape with a close shave, this is great. Excitement! Relief! But if it happens too much then the players will get a sense of invulnerability - this is not good, without danger there is no challenge or fear of death. Even a few scars and penalties can hone their worries (as above) but if Bob is in the "ultimate death chamber" and the counter hits zero? Kill him. But kill him with drama, not a dice roll.

So I'm dead, now what?

  • Second chances don't come cheap If the players can get resurrected, make it expensive. This is a major thing you don't want to cheapen, the saving of someone's life. Servitude to the person doing the ritual/spell/whatever, vastly expensive rare items to have it work, permanent addiction to a life sustaining herb or they'll die again, traumatic flashbacks (minor insanity?) for someone brought back from the dead, a quest they must complete within a year or the spell fails. All these things are opportunities for more adventure and story!
  • Loot the body - don't A dead character should be more than body shaped chest of loot. As the players hover like vultures to strip the corpse down to the bone note what they do, encourage them to think what the character would want done with their body, their money - do they have family, relatives. Do they have a will? Any high risk profession like theirs, they should have. More opportunity for story.
  • Begin again Now hopefully a new character should be encouraged to get into the story, to make themselves known and build themselves in; yes it's a dangerous place, but they want to be back in the story now!

There's plenty of suggestions in the other answers as to how to not waste time (character pre-prep etc) elsewhere, what I wanted to bring across here is how to make sure that death wasn't just a sigh and a "roll a new character", it's a huge dramatic event that should be skirted, courted and when it happens? The lights should dim, out of character chatter should stop and the spotlight should fall on the last few moments of the hapless hero.

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Any character in any campaign should have more than a few things they dread more than dying.

Create situations where the consequences for failure are not permanent character death, but something much, more worse. The loss of loved ones, the destruction of an important relic or magic item, the destruction of an entire village, town or city. Make it obvious that they can succeed, but that failure will bring serious consequences. And let them fail. And make them suffer through the consequences. The heroes failed to save the city or bring the villain to justice. How does the rest of the world treat them for their failure?

There are many ways to introduce tension and dread into a game session without having players feel like their characters might die. Besides, if the greatest source of tension with regards to character death among your players is something along the lines of "If I die, I'm just gonna be stuck watching a game for the next two hours", is that tension really worth preserving?

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Welcome to the site! This is a really solid answer so I probably don’t need to give you the usual welcome shpiel; have an upvote instead! If you get a chance, though, you should check out the About page for all the details of what we’re about, and once you get another upvote (i.e. 20 rep), feel free to join us in the chat! –  KRyan Sep 18 '13 at 19:31

If a character dies, either have an NPC to play, as User902383 suggested or have all players show up with a second character. If Character A dies, Character B stumbles across the group after the encounter. The player can spend the rest of the encounter figuring out how to tie the character into the rest of the party narratively.

EDIT: Granted, as @Tridus says in a very lethal campaign this effect wears thin very quickly. However, in my experience of 15 years Roleplaying with my current group I don't think more than 5 characters have died in the various games (to include Shadowrun and World of Darkness), and most of those were either from a planned retirement "I thought this character would be fun but I hate him/her" or a distracted player using poor strategy. If characters are dying frequently enougn that this effect wears thing (especially in systems that seem to shield characters from death like D&D), maybe they are picking fights out of their weight-class, not thinking some sort of strategy, or are not using their character abilities effectively.

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I'll give you my system-agnoistic two cents:

I don't think that in a Role Playing Game the characters should ever die (excluding extraordinary circumstances, like a player is leaving, for example). At least they shouldn't die for some random like a wrong die roll. I tend to think of a RPG Campaign as a book, or a TV Show, with every session like a chapter or an episode.

So, I think that it's not so much that the players should fear the death of the characters, but that if the characters have fear of death, the players should feel and express that. They're impersonating that character.

For example, if a player is impersonating a fearless death-seeking barbarian, it doesn't make for the player to play defensively only because he is in fear of losing the character and having to make another.

If any character is going to die (permadeath), it's because of a tacit or explicit accord between the Player and the Master. And it should happen at a appropriately dramatic moment, with fireworks and special effects and everything. An epic death. Not just some punishment for doing something wrong.

As I said, the player characters are like the main characters of a book or a movie. They shouldn't die because of a stray bullet, or because they tripped and fell in a hole.

You can convert death into a major setback for the party. You can make the mission fail. You can make the party decide between saving their friend who's bleeding and winning the battle or saving the king or gaining the magical item. And maybe they'll decide to leave mortally wounded behind, and maybe he's going to survive, maybe maimed, but forever holding a grudge and forever knowing that he can't thrust the rest of the party.

Anyway, in those cases, leave the rules. Play it. You're the Master, you decide. Not the rules.

In the end, if you have the problem with making the players fear death, then maybe they're not really impersonating and feeling their characters. So maybe Roleplaying is not so important to them, and they're thinking more along the lines of a board game. In this case, yes, they can make another character.

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