For a D&D (4e, primarily) game what about player-character death should be included in a group's social contract? What are some options for best reaching consensus about the possibility of death and the way(s) a character's death will be handled?

This question is looking for what things should be answered by a social contract, that might be universal to D&D-editions. It is also looking for specific statements that work in a D&D social contract, thus the 4e tag.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Well this is a concept I'd never heard of before associated with playing DnD. I have never played in any group that had a social contract or ever had a need for anything of the sort. At least nothing formally. With the groups I've been in, it's been all friends. If your character dies, the group will try to raise you if they can, or if you want to bring in a new character, you can. \$\endgroup\$
    – BBlake
    Commented Nov 2, 2010 at 11:52
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    \$\begingroup\$ @BBlake: It's something that's gained some traction in the past few years, especially among groups that are formed thoughtfully. It's not so much a written contract as a statement of expectations — "This is how we play, so there are no unpleasant surprises or fewer mismatched desires." \$\endgroup\$
    – Jadasc
    Commented Nov 2, 2010 at 12:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ @BBlake: The social contract is a recent bit of theory. The idea is that there is always a social contract, but it's rarely ever made explicit. Some groups do make it explicit now that it's recognised to exist. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Nov 2, 2010 at 15:30
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    \$\begingroup\$ Just talking it over is a kind of social contract, made explicit, though verbal. You don't need a written contract, though putting this kind of thing in a campaign notes document can be useful for new players joining a game. \$\endgroup\$
    – Adam Dray
    Commented Nov 3, 2010 at 16:37

4 Answers 4


Some questions to answer in your social contract:

Can my character die without my consent? In D&D (and most action-based games) the default answer is 'yes'. Subquestions to ask: Will I get a hint that I'm in serious danger? (In 4e you usually won't need one... it'll be obvious that you're low on surges and survivability.) How likely is this? (Players in my games know that I will kill characters, but it hasn't actually happened more than a couple of times in the last 10 years. The possibility is enough.)

Can my character die as a result of a single failure? Are there effects which kill or disable you at once if you fail a save, regardless of your state of health otherwise? In D&D 1 the answer was 'very much yes' and each edition since has been less so - a very good thing IMO. 3e in particular made a deliberate effort to reduce this, 4e more so - so in 4e you can say 'no' with no real change.

Can my character die as a result of another PCs actions? D&D mechanics assume a social contract in which the group are all on the same side, and in 4e this assumption is very strong. But good stuff can be done with characters that are mostly on the same side; conflicting goals -> character development -> entertainment. So: Might another PC abandon the group during a fight? In particular, especially in D&D, cover can other players kill my character? as an entirely different question from whether the game world might. D&D 4e assumes 'No' as a default here, and 3e assumes 'very unlikely'.

[Edit/added, thanks to Valadil:] Can my character die when I'm not present? If a player can't make it to the game, does their character vanish, or get played by other players, or by the GM? It's demoralizing to have a character killed or permanently damaged when you're not there. (Our group uses: GM tries not to kill the character when the player isn't there, but only if players refrain from using the PC as invulnerable point man... PC actions are by group consensus, but the PC does nothing especially heroic or dangerous. Basically, a no-score draw.)

Can my character be resurrected once dead? In D&D the default answer is 'yes, at a cost', if you're high enough level. In 4e the default answer is 'yes, at a not-high cost', especially in LFR. (Look at these rules; in a home campaign they have implications for the game world. We play LFR adventures... but the LFR resurrection rules seem too cheap to us; we multiply all costs by 10.)

Do the rest of the group have to try and resurrect me? In D&D, a regular party might even have in in-game contract for this one. Be sure it specifies who pays!

At what level does my replacement character join the group? (Our long-standing D&D and Star Wars answer has been 'at the bottom of the level below your previous character's level, plus some bonus xp based on how you roleplayed the death scene'. Another common answer is 'Same level as the lowest-level character in the group'.)

What non-base abilities/equipment can my new character have? In D&D in particular, magical items are the issue. 3e and 4e assume a certain level of magical item power for any given level of character; al cash value by level can be an acceptable guideline but not a dramatically brilliant one. In D&D for mage characters, you also need to consider 'How many spells does a new wizard know?' (in 3e) or 'How many rituals do I have?' (in 4e).

Adventurers being adventurers, and depending on your group's play style, you may also need to ask if my character dies, do the party loot the body for useful magic? (GMing note: Having an unknown relative show up and lay claim to the deceased PCs possessions is a fun way to cause trouble for item-oriented groups... especially if they had a mission-critical item at the time.)

The Living Forgotten Realms rules cover all of this well and are worth a look, but don't use them as a model for a regular group. They're designed to handle a situation in which you're playing drop-in convention games with random strangers and want the GM to recognise existing characters. They do a decent job of examining the kind of question that can come up.

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    \$\begingroup\$ To expand on the consent question, the social contract should also answer what happens to PCs when their player misses a session. Many GMs I know will NPC a character when the player doesn't show up, but that character can't be killed in those situations. \$\endgroup\$
    – valadil
    Commented Nov 2, 2010 at 19:18
  • \$\begingroup\$ Uhm... you just convinced me to stick with OD&D and not to move to 3e nor 4e... \$\endgroup\$
    – Yaztromo
    Commented Jun 25, 2012 at 18:21
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Yaztromo Perfectly viable options unless your players wish to see their character go through a whole story arc. \$\endgroup\$
    – Zachiel
    Commented Aug 26, 2012 at 17:32
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Yaztromo: Actually, all of these were originally developed for my OD&D games. None of these questions are really edition- or even game-specific. (That's why I specifically noted the places where edition assumptions do make a difference.) \$\endgroup\$
    – Tynam
    Commented Aug 26, 2012 at 18:07

Is character death "on the table" — that is, will characters be rendered unplayable through non-consensual IC action? For these purposes, deciding to stop playing a character through the device of character death is different. Likewise, there are some games where being "dead" doesn't mean you stop playing, and others where there are "fates worse than death" that render characters unplayable in the same way. (A prison sentence without parole, or banishment to a distant plane, for example.)

Will new characters come in at the same power level as the former character? In D&D, this can refer both to character level and the amount of magical gear possessed.

Will new characters have to prove their loyalty and trustworthiness to the existing PCs, or will the "player character glow" smooth that transition over so as to get play underway quickly?

Are "dead" PCs gone forever, or is there an opportunity to bring them back in flashback, as NPCs, or through soap-opera contrivances?


I tend to allow a final heroic act for a dead character, one last action that they can perform to give their death some meaning. I think it's ok to retcon in these instances and back up a few steps before having the character die. It allows a death to not only have some meaning (say a final few words of some significance, cast a spell, unloose a crossbow bolt) but also gives a player a chance to describe/play out a characters death (cursing their killers, calling out the name of their loved one, 'tell so and so I will see them on the other side', etc).

This saves PC deaths from being too distressing for the player and encourages good roleplaying.


anon186, The biggest way to avoid a lot of social contract issues around PC death involves not saying the following: 1) "If your character dies, it is because you did something stupid" 2) "Don't get too attached to your character, they will die" 3) "Just walk it off, it's no big deal" 4) "It's just a game"

Also, it's best to give the player a way to keep playing until we can get their new character integrated into the old party.

As far as social contract. I think its best to just set the correct expectation. Like if you plan on killing off lots of PCs, make sure everyone has a spare character already made and that the party all agrees to welcome the alternates into the party (to avoid losing a ton of time over the "Why would my character trust this guy with a share of the loot?" hassle) with open arms.

hope that helps.


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