As a GM, what kind of techniques could I use to help a player re-join the gaming session after their character dies? I want to avoid any major interruptions to the flow of the adventure. I would also like to avoid having to end the session immediately or making them sit on the side-lines for the rest of the session.
Here are some suggestions that we have tried for our 4e game. It does not come up much as we do not have a high mortality campaign thus far.
Have backup characters ready. In 4e we have had backup characters in the character builder ready to be printed if we needed them during a session. This can provide a quick pick up right back to where you left off by just creating some story around the new character(s) and getting them into the game fast. This has an advantage because you may already have some story for the character and why he exists in your world. Keep them leveled with the party and keep the equipped similarly to the character they are replacing.
Res the character quickly, maybe even cheaply. This has so far been how we've dealt with character deaths in our game. The one encounter where we had multiple PC deaths was at the very end of an extended encounter. We carried our bodies out and were able to find a local healer who was willing to res our friends for a very small amount of gold compared to what it would have cost out of gratitude for saving the town.
Have them fill NPC roles for the rest of the session. This is not something we've tried, but is something I've seen suggested several places and is a good idea for a group in general to keep engagement when characters are off screen. Let your players have the role of an NPC or two for the rest of the session, or just for this interaction, it keeps everyone engaged and it helps take some of the burden off of you as the DM.
I'm sure there are plenty of better solutions, but these are some I've tried or seen floated pretty regularly.
This varies somewhat by the tone of your campaign and the system/setting.
In some systems/settings, resurrections are relatively easy. In that case, the obvious answer is to perform the resurrection with some sort of minor penalty and then go on. This, though, cheapens character death. In a mostly hack 'n slash, lighthearted game, this is perfectly fine and essentially replicates the feeling of most videogames (you died, now you loose a little bit of progress and get to try again). In a more serious game with a deep story, knowing death is cheap can affect the story (sacraficing your life means a lot less if that life comes back at the price of a little gold and XP or whatever) and knowing it is not just available but cheap will definitely affect the way the characters play. It will make them more likely to take large risks. (again whether that is good or bad depends on what you are going for).
An alternative, again available in some but not all settings is that they come back as a ghost or other undead form. This was interesting in some oWoD games I played, but probably does not work well in say DnD. You have to be in a setting that supports that and it would have to be such that a ghost could integrate without messing up the story, or this becomes a very bad option.
The next option of course is to have backups standing by. This could mean having a new character already generated, or having the player make one quickly while everyone else continues on and then integrating them as soon as ready. This works well in games where character creation is fairly quick, but less well when it takes a while, and it is complicated if the players are expected to make up an elaborate backstory for their character. One way to simplify this, though one that is rarely satisfying, is to let them bring back a variant of their old character. Tweak the name, maybe reassign a skill or two, and tweak the backstory a bit, but basically let them reuse the character that died.
Finally, use deus ex machina to prevent the death. Personally, I hate this option. It seems to cheapen death even more than resurrection, and basically changes what just happened. But as long as it is not overused, it can be a way of saving a character that someone put a lot of time and effort into developping, with a long backstory even in settings where resurrection is just not an option.
The option that worked better for me (especially during a spell when I made my adventures quite hard and therefore I "killed" characters quite often...) was having each player use and develop a number of different characters at the same time.
If one dies and can't be resurrected, you have the replacement ready...
PS the players understood quite quickly the situation (i.e. if you're not careful, your character will die easily) and in general enjoyed the challenge of really risking losing the character almost at every turn and of developing a fairly broad number of different characters.
I tend to bring in new PCs who had some sort of relationship with the recently deceased PC. The nature of the relationship will vary, but it has to be strong enough that the new PC has a reason to show up hot on the heels of the death of the old PC. A few highly situation-dependent variations on this theme:
- Sibling who wants to prove worth to the family by joining
- Close friend who wanted to come along earlier but couldn't
- Former enemy who heard PC #1 was in the area and wanted to make amends
- Messenger with a warning and decides to stay ("Hey, the Guildmaster says Cromius should avoid the... oh, I see. Never mind.").
One good thing about establishing a relationship between the new and old PCs is that it provides a feeling of story continuity and doesn't feel quite as forced as if the new PC came in from completely out of the blue.
These are some of the things I have done in the past.
- Have a humanoid enemy turn coat and join the players.
- Allow the player to be a "short term" ghost.
- Have the player's essence enter an object but let the team know that soon the essence will be forced out.
As far as Character wise:
- Have PCs make backups
- Have sheets made for a few of your NPC characters. Allow the character to take control of an NPC that is a tagalong type (not, perhaps, the archenemy of the story) or support character until session end, then have them make another.
- Resurrection, as mentioned above
- Simply have them make a very basic character, without all the fluff, jump in, and then either flesh the character out later / as story goes along, or make a proper one after session.
As far as in-game hooking goes:
- Again, resurrection - although in my normal setting, PCs don't get resurrection often, and not at lower levels much at all.
- If you're dungeon crawling, finding a new or remade PC as a prisoner is one of my favorites.
- An old friend of another PC, or a guild mate, fellow soldier, etc. joining you for X reason (bringing a message, last survivor of their squad, etc)
- Run into them at the pub (or other relevant place of interaction)
There is a lot of technics described above, but are you really sure you want to put a player back in fast? I'd like to mention this once more, because it looks very important to me: easy resurrection might damage role-playing.
In my opinion, quick resurrection (by magic, backup characters, deus ex machina) is appropriate only if the PC have died because of a GM mistake (like, choosing too hard monsters and closing the only door) or a very unfortunate coincidence (maybe caused by an unforseen game system pecularity).
Otherwise, being a player I would find it very fair to have episodic NPC roles for quite a long time, before a character gets resurrected (i.e. after the party works hard to earn a huge sum of money to pay for the spell) or remastered. Gandalf's resurrection in LOTR is a masterpiece. And if it was a game, Gandalf's player could play a not so importrant and detailed, but a somewhat lasting character (Eomer comes to my mind). And, well, you can kill the latter or leave him behind (injured or in love) to resurrect the main character of the player.