I've been playing D&D 5e for a while now, but I've recently run in to a new issue. I am going to be starting a new game soon with a new DM, and this campaign is going to be primarily nautical based. This brings up an issue that hasn't been relevant yet: how to handle character death. Since the campaign will take place on the ocean, if a character dies, the player can't just write a new characters to throw back in unlike before.

An option I proposed to my DM is this: Every player writes 1-3 backup characters that are on this boat as well as the players. If this is the case, though, how should we handle their experience? Should all backup characters gain experience at an equal rate as the player's main character? Should they level up at the same rate, but keep the minimum experience for their level? Is there a different way to handle this entirely? Is there anything in the handbooks regarding this issue?


4 Answers 4


I don't think there is anything official regarding "back-up" characters in any WotC manuals or guides.

In this specific instance, I think you guys will just have to homebrew it, and decide what's best depending on your campaign setting, your DM, and your PC group dynamic. Either way, I'll try my best to answer your questions from experience:

If this is the case, though, how should we handle their experience? Should all backup characters gain experience at an equal rate as the player's main character? Should they level up at the same rate, but keep the minimum experience for their level?

I think that back-up characters couldn't possibly gain experience at an equal rate as PCs, because situationally, I don't think they'd gain the same XP in combat/story scenarios. If they did, then they would be as involved in the conflict as the PCs, which for story telling and role playing reasons could not make sense. But if you don't quite care for technicalities, then I suppose they could-- their XP might not be justly deserved though.

I also think that would lead to PCs taking death for granted in game; although many players take their characters and backstories seriously, many players care about the leveling up part of their characters. By giving them characters that are where they left off, it might create an environment where death isn't taken quite as seriously.

Is there a different way to handle this entirely?

I think that you guys generally have a reasonable idea; if your campaign is mostly set on the seas, I can understand why "back-up" characters who are crew members might make more sense than other more fantastical, Deus-Ex Machina-y reasons.

What I would personally do, as a DM, is perhaps set them at a level lower than their current PC was when they died, or set the new PC's level to be the same as the lowest level in the party.

There is also the idea that if you are on a boat, ship, or any type of seafaring vessel, at some point you will have to dock at a port-- to restock supplies, conduct maintenance, gather info, etc, etc. This could be a reasonable way to "recruit" new crew members to help fill in the gap left by deceased characters (and a reasonable way to introduce new PCs).

If you guys are open to using the playable races introduced by Volo's Guide to Monsters, a new PC might be a Triton, who guards the ocean depths and might want to join your quest, especially if it is set so close to home. A campaign set almost exclusively on the seas lends itself to including Tritons as a playable character race. I do warn against using these races so openly, as more impressionable players might want to be a "cool" new race, and then you'll have a party full of rare races-- though, if you know how to work with it, that could be fun too.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ This is a fine answer, but it does have some risks. If you go with the "the replacement is the previous character -1 level" route, you risk having one power feel underpowered and underwhelming if they're the only one who died. Everybody gets their awesome cantrip damage increase and level 3 spells at level 5, and they just got their stat increase. Then what happens if they die again? Are they now playing a character that just got their level 2 spells, in a party with people with level 3 spells? It'll quickly get to the point where their character is a liability. \$\endgroup\$
    – Theik
    Aug 14, 2018 at 9:13

However you like

There are no rules that cover this so whatever works for your group is perfectly fine.

5e has a pretty flat power curve so characters within 2-3 levels of each other are more or less "compatible". 1:1 XP obviously keeps them at the same level but you could play your new character comes in a level behind to give death some more "sting".

Alternatively, you can play a "stable" of characters and choose a different one for each session/adventure: "Today I feel warlocky, tomorrow rangery". Then you get a sort of metagame of whether to spread the XP around or put all your eggs in one basket.


I see two fair options here.

One is to have the backup characters be there, as supplemental NPCs, helping as they can and (I would suggest) getting 1/2 xp of the characters while doing so. Then if a main character dies, one of them "moves up" and joins the main party a couple levels behind the rest, which should provide good incentive for the players to keep their main characters alive.

The other is not to have the backup characters on the ship, but rather if a main character dies, the new one arrives at an appropriate level, and comes from a shipwreck, or a marooned islander, or is rescued from a pirate ship or an Aboleth etc., or is a Triton, or ...


The DMG has a few different suggestions about "backup characters"...

Same level:

The DMG briefly touches on the idea of backup characters in a section of DMG p. 236 titled "Small Groups". The section is primarily focused on campaigns with a small group of players, proposing that each player (who feels comfortable with it) control multiple characters, or that the DM fill out the group with NPC followers. However, it does add this suggestion at the end:

Multiple characters can be a good idea in a game that features nonstop peril and a high rate of character death. If your group agrees to the premise, have each player keep one or two additional characters on hand, ready to jump in whenever the current character dies. Each time the main character gains a level, the backup characters do as well.

This guidance suggests that if the player's character dies, the backup character would be the same level as their original.

Lower level:

However, there's another mention of "backup characters" on DMG p. 92, under "Low-Level Followers":

Your campaign might allow player characters to take on lower-level NPCs as followers. For example, a paladin might have a 1st-level paladin as a squire, a wizard might accept a 2nd-level wizard as an apprentice, a cleric might choose (or be assigned) a 3rd-level cleric as an acolyte, and a bard might take on a 4th-level bard as an understudy.

One advantage of allowing lower-level characters to join the party is that players have backup characters if their main characters take time off, retire, or die. One disadvantage is that you and your players have more party members to account for.

Since lower-level NPC party members receive equal party shares of XP, they will gain levels more quickly than the adventurers (the benefit of studying under such experienced masters), and might eventually catch up to them. It also means the adventurers’ advancement is slowed somewhat, as they must share their XP with an NPC shouldering only part of the adventuring burden.

This suggests that a player's backup character might not necessarily be the same level as their original character. (It also assumes that the DM built the NPC as they would build a player character rather than as they would normally build an NPC.)

It's up to the DM

It's ultimately up to the DM to decide how backup characters' levels work, and how they are worked into the campaign. The DM can also talk to the players to see how they feel about it.

Remember that the point of D&D is to have fun, so the goal probably shouldn't be to force a player to continue playing a character they're not enjoying... But on the other hand, it can be difficult to be immersed in a campaign or tell a coherent story - especially a character-focused one - if players swap out characters too often. (And, of course, figuring out how to explain the character change in-universe is its own problem.)

Ultimately, this will need to be a conversation between the DM and the players. The DM should do what feels right to them and their players.


You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .