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Character death can be extremely disruptive to an ongoing RPG, particularly in a game where character agendas are the driving force behind the plot. However, for a good story with a sense of conflict and danger, there needs to be an opportunity for some kind of loss.

I've recently picked up a game called Eclipse Phase which does a great job of making character death much less likely, while still allowing for danger and loss. At a very high level, characters are using disposable (but expensive) bodies while their brains are backed up elsewhere. Losing a body is an expensive setback, but a PC is very unlikely to truly die from anything short of a very deliberate NPC action. I'm looking forward to trying it out.

In my other games, the players tend to be somewhat fearless so it is difficult to set up a situation where they might flee from an encounter.

What are ways to signal to the players that they should back down, without creating an atmosphere of unfairness?

Similarly, equipment loss or permanent character disability (e.g. losing an arm) tend to not be viewed as fun.

What can you do to cause some lasting harm to the character, without offending the player?

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Excellent question While I ponder, my friend @Magician, wrote a blog post about this very thing in D&D magbonch.wordpress.com/2011/03/12/death-and-danger-in-dnd –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton Apr 7 '11 at 23:34
    
Related: rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/4086/… –  mxyzplk Apr 7 '11 at 23:43
    
related: rpg.stackexchange.com/q/16710/4089 –  LitheOhm Nov 11 '13 at 4:00
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10 Answers 10

up vote 24 down vote accepted

Give the players some objectives that they can fail without PC deaths. For example, the party hears rumors that a merchant is willing to pay handsomely for an escort through a dangerous area that is well known for containing threats that should be exceptionally difficult for the players to handle at their current level. If the players attempt to take the challenge, despite obvious clues that they aren't strong enough, give them a very difficult encounter. It shouldn't be impossible, but you should expect them to lose. However, this gives you a logical way to defeat the party without having a TPK. Perhaps the players get ambushed by bandits led by a powerful warlock and some other foul creatures -- a few party members can get knocked unconscious, the merchant attempts to hold onto his treasure and loses his life in the process, and the bad guys get away with what is now revealed to be a powerful magical artifact.

Try to set up battles in terms of objectives, rather than win/loss by one side wiping out the other. Here are some brief ideas which I believe fall under creating lasting harm for a character without offending the player:

  • Villagers or other innocents are evacuating, PCs have to hold off the enemy for some number of rounds. For every round the PCs fall short, some set number of villagers are killed, and the attitudes of the survivors will be based on this.

  • Escort a VIP or item, as detailed above.

  • Players must fight through enemies to interrupt some dark ritual -- failure results in a strengthening of the enemy. Perhaps instead of focusing on their main objectives, players would then be forced to spend time/resources on defending (loss of the battle effectively puts the players on defense)

  • The players are faced with an almost impossible combat -- if they begin to lose and choose not to retreat, a rival adventuring party saves the day. However, now the townspeople view the rival party as the "true" heroes. PC reputation takes a hit, and whenever PCs get cocky about things, townspeople and rival heroes always seem to be around to point out the players would be paste on some dungeon floor if not for the bravery and courage of these other heroes.

Most of these scenarios end with either the players' enemies growing in strength as the result of an attack where the objective was not to kill the PCs, or the players' standing falling because they failed to be perfect. Again, these should be hard challenges the players have a chance of beating, not impossible situations.

Another idea revolves around player sacrifice, and again the above situations can be adapted to this. Give the players situations where failure means they have to choose how they fail. This can help remove the feeling of invincibility some players get, while at the same time letting the characters have a sense of virtue. Perhaps a situation where the characters, if they can't outright destroy their opponents, have to make some sort of choice -- do they let the bandit leader escape (which means he will take the treasure from this dungeon, and no doubt find the players again), or do they pursue him and fail to save a much-loved NPC from the environmental hazard he/she got caught in during the last encounter? Sure, the characters lost the fight, but they saved their buddy, and can feel good about that. Plus, they'll feel good when you inevitably bring these once-victorious enemy NPCs back so they can exact revenge :)

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"If they begin to lose and choose not to retreat, a rival adventuring party saves the day." This could possibly be made more powerful if earlier the party has intervened in a similar fashion (say, chasing off a couple of would-be muggers in a struggle outside the ever-present pub-where-it-starts). –  Vatine Apr 8 '11 at 12:45
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This is powerful as a concept. My players tend to have fairly huge egos and would obsess over being rescued for days, assuming the rescue didn't feel pure Deus Ex Machina –  Rain Apr 8 '11 at 17:38
    
An alternative to the rival party is a very high level rival who takes all their gold/equipment and compels them to do minor missions (way below their normal grade) to earn it back. –  user2617804 May 2 at 7:57
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I think there is an alternative that is being implicitly disregarded here. Character death is indeed extremely disrupting in most RPGs and one way to deal with it is avoiding it altogether. The alternative course of action is, of course, trying to eliminate some or all of the disruptiveness of character death.

So, let's talk about immortality.

I am aware of at least one computer game that experiments with this: Planescape Torment. To quote the vision statement:

The player can have horrible, flesh-rending things happen to his character on-screen – even die -- and he will get better. What happens to monsters above can happen to the player – except that the player will regenerate. The player‟s arm can be loped off, his legs severed, his skin flayed from his body, and he‟ll be fine in a few hours (and perhaps a little stitching by the Dustmen). In some instances, the player will need to lop off his own extremities for use as weapons (arms make great clubs!) or free himself from manacles – he can use his deathless state to help him solve problems during the adventure.

The designers of PS:T started off using immortality to get around the problem of character death (which is similar but not quite the same in videogames as it is in RPGs) and ended up basing the whole game premise on that. Note that in PS:T the cost of character death is almost zero: you just have to walk from the mortuary to the place you died. Also note that this doesn't create any complications if some but not all of your characters die.

Making it so the characters rapidly regenerate after their apparent death is not the only way to alleviate the disruptiveness of character death: Another option is a timeskip. Imagine a main plot that spans centuries and characters that cannot die of old age. When the characters are killed, they are resurrected (or reincarnated) some time (months, years, decades) later. Note that the main plot needs to remain unaffected of these deaths; for example a conspiracy the magnitude of which could be revealed bit by bit, at any time. In this case, the cost of character death would be sentimental (stakes are lost in their absence), narrative (subplots are not fully revealed), or even mechanical (equipment is lost or becomes obsolete). What if some but not all of the characters die? You can deal with this by not allowing it to happen in the first place, by designing challenges so that the skills of all the characters are needed to survive. If the worst comes to the worst, you could provide incentives for the survivors to wait for the dead characters to return.

A third option is to say that death is a journey. You can think of characters as immortal souls so, when they die in one life, they can carry on in the next one. Maybe they'll try to return to their birthworld, you could work with that. Or they could die (again) trying, falling deeper into the realms of death. That would more appropriate in a horror campaign, of course. Or, finally, they could come to terms with it and try to live their new lives. In this case, the cost of death is either all their old lives or the time they take to return and the stakes that are lost in their absence. What if some of the players survive death's clutches? One solution is to show them that death is not the end and give them an opportunity to follow their friends without losing their dignity (for example by crossing a magical gate). Still, I'm not going to lie: this may turn sour.

Finally, immortality is not the only way to make character death more manageable. You could replicate the save/load mechanism that exists in videogames, for instance. Imagine a spell which allows you to set a savepoint in time. Then, if one of the spell's recepients dies, the spell is triggered and the characters are transferred back in time. This one is particularly advantageous, since you can set the cost of dying to whatever you want by specifying the spell's casting requirements and costs. This also circumvents the problem of having some players die and others surviving, since the spell affects them all.

In conclusion. Make no mistake, this isn't something that should be integrated in every game you play. Lowering the cost of death is very visible to the players. Do it often enough and they'll think you're obsessed with the theme of immortality or something. However, if done sparingly, it would solve the problem of the disruptiveness of character death without feeling contrived. The important point is that it's easier for the players to buy in since it's part of the premise of the game and not something you pull out of a hat when you need it.


Post Scriptum: What's so wrong with avoiding character death?

Let me state right away that I don't think that it's all wrong to avoid killing the characters. But I do think that it creates a number of problems, so you, as a GM, need to be aware of them.

Peter Leppert's answer (and I apologise in advance for somewhat de-constructing it) gives you two ways out:

  • The first is to set the stakes to something other than the characters' lives. This works well. But you can only rely on it most of the time. Once in a while, you have got to remind the players that being an adventurer is a risky career choice and that their characters are brave for doing it. Daring death is exciting (otherwise it wouldn't feature so prominently as a plot device or a game mechanic) and it would be a pity to just forget about it.
  • The second way is to pretend that that the character's lives are at stake, only it turns out they're not really. Sure, the first time your characters don't retreat in a hopeless battle you could have a set of NPC heroes save them and embarrass them (so make them think their lives are at stake but then change your mind and say it was their reputation at stake). But what would you do the second time? Or the third? It could end up feeling contrived. The fact of the matter is, you just can't come up with good excuses to pull the ol' switcheroo often enough.
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If players take narrative signals which give them an indication of the disparity in ability between their characters and the opposition, or the degree to which the situation may overwhelm their capabilities as you challenging them rather than you describing and detailing the scene so that they can decide what to do, you may have to alter the way things are presented:

  • Alter the style/genre of play to respond to their desire to overcome great odds and never back down
  • Increase the level of descriptive detail to make it explicit what sort of challenge is being presented, if the characters persist in jumping in over their heads, they had full-knowledge of this act and it can be inferred that this course of action is what they wanted. If they dislike the results, they will have a clear memory from which to learn
  • Be willing to step outside the in-game narrative flow to inform them that this scene exists for non-combat reasons and that they should be open to interacting with it in a different way.

This approach can apply to battles against superior forces, the capture of PCs, the theft of equipment or kidnapping of allies, or really anything which limits or otherwise negatively impacts on the character as written on the sheet.

What needs to exist for players to learn to relax and take setbacks as the road to fun is trust. They need to trust that these setbacks are being designed not to curtail them, but to give them opportunities for further growth, later victories, and above all - a good time.

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Show the loss in the form of damage to the people, places, and things that the characters care about or that provide an incidental advantage. If the campaign centers on the agendas of the PCs, then allowing the hammer to fall on tangible representations of those agendas can be a powerful sign for the characters to fall back and regroup.

Be careful with this, however: use it too heavily or with too rough a hand and you'll find your players learning the wrong lesson — that the only successful course is to not have an agenda at all, and revert to a more simple "kill things and take their stuff" mode of play.

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Play a game that allows the GM and players to set stakes. With the right potential rewards, players will willingly put their characters into all sorts of danger or come up with appropriate consequences. Once there is an agreement between the GM and players, resolve with the dice or whatever mechanic is appropriate to your game.

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It depends what level of realism you want to maintain in your game.

In the grittiest "realism" sandbox type games, the answer to this question is that you provide indicators that there are severe threats around, and maybe change the rules a little to avoid the most egregious instant death scenarios. Some people decry casual character death as in opposition to story, character immersion, or sense of fun.

In a very narrative game, perhaps you have an explicit social contract about character death and alternatives. I know I've played some games where when someone is defeated they're just knocked out or whatever, there is no easy to get character death in the system at all; I forget which one though. Some people decry no-death as in opposition to realism, story, character immersion, or sense of fun.

Then there's a lot of options in the middle. Roleplaying Tips has a lot of different solutions (followup) of varying creativity. Some are pretty weird, but we had one happen in our Alternity game lately. One PC was on board a ship that got devoured by a space flying spaghetti monster thing, but he came back with a strange alien entity inhabiting him.

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Tell the players well beforehand that they will see people that they feel they should attack but have no hope of defeating. Show them some obvious cases to start. Make them gradually more ambiguous. Always make retreat an option -- and keep it obvious. It should be rare and scary for the party to find itself in a cul-de-sac.

You could also make the game about roleplaying primarily and make that obvious. Use GURPS rather than D&D. Use D&D, but house-rule some skill-related feats. Make character creation more about character history and hand-wave the combat until it's relevant.

When your players do something stupid, you have a few options. Deus ex machina isn't great, but sometimes you'll need it. Have your players captured and imprisoned rather than killed out of hand (for ransom, for questioning, or to be fattened up before getting slaughtered). This should afford an opportunity for your players to escape or talk their way free. Or offer them a running engagement with chances to hide. Or remind the mage that they have the energy to cast that illusion spell, which just might convince the enemy that you're gone.

If you simply can't let your players get away with it, find a willing victim. Talk it over with them in private. Let them go down on their terms. Let them be a hero and save the rest of the party at the cost of their life. And so it doesn't happen again, either make an ordeal of bringing them back to life, or have the player make a very different character (not just the dead guy with the serial numbers filed off).

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If you’ll permit a little reinterpretation of your question, I’d like to suggest that the real issue might not be character death and alternatives to the same. Your problem seems to be that your players behave with disruptive bravery. Character death is a way to discourage this behavior. The other suggestions provided in the answers to your question are more subtle forms of punishment. But punishments don’t address the root issue. Why are players behaving so unrealistically?

In life, people rarely step off cliffs, even little ones. Not because they know they’ll die, but because they don’t know if they’ll survive. Risk taking is, well, risky. Why, because you don’t know the outcome. The mechanics of game systems work against this uncertainty. If I have a 10th level fighter with 80 hit points, I KNOW (with mathematical certainty) that I will survive a 50 foot fall. So why not jump off the cliff? Similarly, if the beast lurking in the shadows is an Ogre, I KNOW I can defeat him. So why not attack? And if every time I get in a jam the game-master gives me a break, I KNOW I won’t die. Since experience points and treasure are gained by combat, why not rush into every combat? The issue here is predictability. Your players feel they know the outcome of events so they take risks, because they are not really risks at all. I can think of two ways to fix this:

First, resist the desire to provide players with quantified data. Don’t tell them the cliff is 50 feet high. Tell them it’s, “between 50 and 100 feet” or “a lot more than 20 feet.” Think about it. When staring off a cliff, you don’t know exactly how high it is unless you’re carrying a laser range finder. So why should the players receive exact data? The same applies to describing opponents. Don’t share combat stats and let the beast in the shadows remain a beast in the shadows.

Second, game-masters should be consistent with their interpretations of rules, but inconsistent with their reactions to player decisions. Life is unpredictable. Thus, the way that ‘life reacts’ is itself unpredictable. The game-master represents life itself. If the game-master is unpredictable in how he deals with player decisions (not rule interpretations of course) then life in the game world will remain mysterious and unpredictable, increasing the perceived value of caution in the eyes of your players.

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The problem isn't with certainty in the outcome, at least with my group. I tend towards White Wolf games and so there is a lot more chance for a really deadly surprise. I kill players fairly often, but unfortunately death isn't really that big of a downside. Sure, everyone would rather not die, but in real life, death is a huge downside, in an RPG? Make another character. –  Rain Apr 8 '11 at 19:32
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You asked a question and proposed your own possible answer, an N-lives approach as seen with "Eclipse Phase". This approach has been tried before in RPGs.

There was a RPG semi-popular in the mid/late-80s called "Paranoia" which had a very similar approach to the issue as it sounds like Eclipse Phase has, albeit with more of a futuristic-biology backdrop than futuristic-computer backdrop: each player grew up in a "Big Brother" computer-controlled world and had six "clones", each activated by the computer when your previous clone died, so one in essence had six "lives".

I forget some of the details of whether you kept some or all of the skills/levels gained across such "deaths", but I do remember that the second clone essentially would normally not have knowledge gained by the first such as who backstabbed him (beyond an awareness that his predecessor had just recently been killed and he had been thus activated.)

In terms of how it affected the game, it had some of the cautionary merits you seek, but it (and other aspects of that particular game) tended to promote a playing style where "life is cheap" and there were various ludicrous behaviors from players attempting to use their deaths to accomplish various objectives or to work their way through problems that might, in a more rational world, be treated differently. So be aware/beware of that possibility.

Another observation I'd make as a player is that having 6 lives in a campaign or set of campaigns with a DM was a bit like having "3 wishes"... you could spend them wisely or foolishly, and in certain circumstances things didn't work as you expected and they seemed to get used up fast.

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You make a good point about Paranoia. Usually I've found that game doesn't have much of an ongoing narrative to preserve, but it does work that way. The nice thing about Eclipse Phase (At least for my purposes) is that you can kill someone by destroying all the backups of their consciousness, so death is still a threat, but it becomes a really big deal. –  Rain Apr 27 '11 at 16:13
    
(In an age of USB keys and 64GB chips the size of a baby's thumbnail, would it ever possible to destroy all the offline backups of a determined party? And what /does/ happen when someone finds a "USB key" containing someone elses's conciousness and decides to restore it... but you weren't dead. Does that mean there are now two of you with the same conciousness out there? Does that mean there could be 1000 of you? Wow, I knew about the mind-download/upload premise, but I'd never really thought this premise through! I wonder if someone has covered all this in some sci-fi novel?) –  GregW Apr 28 '11 at 12:22
    
I haven't read it yet, but I've heard Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan deals with this as well. In the world of an RPG, I think prepared parties will be basically immortal, but PCs who don't have their house in order will still be at risk. –  Rain Apr 28 '11 at 16:12
    
@GregW There's a whole subgenre of transhumanist fiction that deals with exactly that. In Eclipse Phase, it's not just possible to reinstantiate copies of people's conciousnesses from backups while the originals are running around, it also has rules for sticking such duplicates into inescapable virtual reality worlds and torturing them for information, as well as for brainwashing them into being your loyal slaves so that you can upload them into robot bodies in order to create an army. –  GMJoe Feb 23 '12 at 6:22
    
Possibly it was just the edition I played, but I remember Paranoia clones as usually having complete reccolection of how their predecessors had died. They were typically prevented from taking immediate revenge, however, by the fact that said predecessor had almost certianly been executed as a commie mutant traitor, and that the PC who carried out the summary execution was therefore protected by dystopian state law... Which in turn meant that most attempts to get revenge involved planting false evidence, 'malfuntioning' machinery and 'accidental' misfires. –  GMJoe Feb 23 '12 at 6:31
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Have seen this idea presented before as a way to add character deaths to a story without harming the players' egos. Basically it is this: plan out your encounter how you'd like, well over the party level average. Let them rush in, fight, ultimately die, and feel the crushing disappointment. Then when all seems lost, the narrator pipes in with "...and then the party awakens from its dreaming sleep, to find themselves in camp and well." This is best accompanied with an explanation that this was a vision of a future battle, one that they can now prepare for a better ending when it comes about again. This is pretty cheap, sure, but it's a way to show the players you're not going easy on them without nerfing their encounters and chaperoning them the whole way.

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I'd be worried about players thinking it'd happen every time there was a total party kill. "Whoa - I just had the freakiest dream - for the third time!" –  GMJoe Feb 23 '12 at 6:33
    
Dunno, that sounds like a pretty transparent nerfing itself. What's to make them take an overpowered battle seriously next time and not just assume it's another DM trick? –  SevenSidedDie Jun 9 '12 at 0:43
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