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Sooner or later they're going to die.

Most games have a risk of death in them and that means that a character is going to get killed and is not coming back, no way, no how. It's new character time.

Losing a character can really annoy players (Related: How to kill a character without making their player too angry) but character deaths should be memorable, should be part of the story and should be something players remember almost fondly.

What can be done to ensure that even a random death down a pit trap is handled respectfully so the player will remember their character well, rather than the rest of the players gathering around to loot their still-warm corpse?

I'm looking for:

  • In game considerations; RP techniques to make a death memorable; rather than saying "you fall a down a pit and die" what can be done to make such a scene stand out and be respectful.
  • Player mitigation; what can I do to try and make sure that the rest of the players treat this moment with respect for the dead player rather than a sudden opportunity to get some bonus loot.

As stated, it's not about making sure the player doesn't get angry. It's to try and make sure the player remembers the death of their character well, to give them a RP story to prop the bar up with.

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What can be done to ensure that even a random death down a pit trap is handled respectfully so the player will remember their character well, rather than the rest of the players gathering around to loot their still-warm corpse?

Honestly? There's not really much you can do (in the general case).

In order for a death to be meaningful, there must be consequences from it. And most roleplaying games strip the usual consequences of death away:

  • The death accomplishes something

    If you are allowing random deaths due to pit traps, etc., then most deaths will not accomplish anything.

  • The death means you fail to accomplish something

    This can only really happen if the stakes are high, and the players need to risk everything to succeed. You just can't keep this level of pressure up constantly, or the players will start to kind of ignore it.

  • The death means you lose someone you held dear

    ...Except that he's going to be replaced within an adventure by someone who may even be pretty similar to the guy you just lost.

  • The death is reflected in the actions of the other characters.

    Most groups aren't going to roleplay the grief and mourning process very well. It's difficult to roleplay, unpleasant for many people, and often follows the same routes (which tend to lead to grimdark territory over time). Getting a group to do this sort of thing for one death can be an accomplishment. Getting them to do it for every random death in a campaign is more than you can usually expect.

This is not to say that meaningful deaths can't happen. Sometimes the dice say you die fighting the big bad, or saving the helpless villagers. But if the goal is for every death to be meaningful, most RPGs will hinder you.

So, What Can You Do?

This is a case where you need to pick two of three choices:

  • Random death

  • Longform gaming

  • Every death is meaningful

Since you want to make every death meaningful, it means you need to do one of two things: Eliminate random death, or move away from longform gaming.

Eliminate Random Death

It's not unusual for more narrative systems to do away with the concept of mechanical death entirely. In 7th Sea, for example, the end of the wound track is "unconscious (killed at GM's discretion)," with only vague guidelines on automatic death due to massive damage.

This neatly solves the problem of arbitrary death. Fell down a random pit trap? Well, you're unconscious, badly wounded, and a burden to the group going forward, but you aren't dead.

Dropped while buying time for the kidnapped villagers to escape from the main villain? Your sacrifice will not be forgotten.

A particularly good twist that 7th Sea recommends is to have each player tell you the circumstances that would create a personally meaningful death for their character. Stuff like "protecting my family" or "doing what I love... Stealing!"

Outside of the PC's chosen situation, the player is relatively safe from death. Only when both the player and the GM agree the death would be epic, or when the player has been forewarned that a course of action would be fatal can the character actually die. But when the situation comes up, the gloves are off and the player is fully mortal.

The GM can then pepper the story with the kind of scenarios that the players have chosen to amp up the tension. The player knows that for this encounter death is on the line, and hopefully gets a thrill from it. And if they do die, they have died doing something that was important and meaningful to their character.

Eliminate Longform Gaming

Instead of playing a long campaign, full of dungeon crawls and other mundane adventures, play something that can be accomplished in a single afternoon.

This lets you amp up the tension, and play for higher stakes. You can't threaten the world, or the PCs, or everything they hold dear all the time in a long game... But you can do so in a short one.

This brings much of the meaning back to death. A PC who dies need not be replaced. The purpose of the adventure can be focused, making the PC's personal failure visible. And the impact of being down a person can be strongly felt by the party.

The roleplaying game Dread follows this model, and has shown good success at keeping random death interesting in my play group.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This is great. You might want to additionally mention that picking "longform" and "random" can still give you "some deaths are meaningful", which might be worth settling for. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Apr 2 '15 at 15:19
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    \$\begingroup\$ Really like this answer; holding out for more; but the 7th Sea background question is worth the price of admission alone. \$\endgroup\$ – Rob Apr 2 '15 at 15:27
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I've found 2 ways that really work for the groups I've run with.

But first thing's first: random die rolls, and things they really couldn't avoid are a no go. That would only serve to annoying the players.

  1. Make sure it's early in the campaign (so rerolling isn't such a chore). Make it seem kinda obvious that fighting here would get you killed. "This giant beast made of stone that towers nearly 20 times your size looks like it's about to pounce: what do you do?"

  2. Make it something that's really important. If they died to finally defeat a long-time rival, or to finally end the plague, they will think themselves true heroes. For instance, by someone who can recount their campaigns better than I:

Originally Posted by redzimmer:

My group was in the middle of a battle on a sinking ship, where the foes were trying to retrieve the black dracolich phylactery the group had fought long and hard to find.

In-game an oracle told them only a blessed weapon could destroy the phylactery, so the VoP monk punched it until it broke. Sadly he did not make it out of the ship in time, but the phylactery was destroyed.

Or was it...?

Three months later in game time the same monk appeared, only now with the supernatural abilities of a black dragon with equivalent HD, including but not limited to water breathing at will, and adding the draconic template to him. [as an NPC]

However there was one catch: He was now a living phylactery, and a cult loyal to the dracolich was trying to get him near a dragon corpse or kill him with a trap the soul.

Yeah, in hindsight it does sound a bit like he was Voldemort's last horcrux. But great fun at the time.

...I promised no more black dragons after that campaign.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Using dead PCs as new villains or plot devices can either be the best thing ever or horribly backfire, depending on the player. So do be aware of the kind of player you're dealing with when you do this, and remember how they died. If you player felt cheated by their character's death this is a good way to have said player try and shove the DMG up your nose. \$\endgroup\$ – Thomas Jacobs Apr 2 '15 at 18:40
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This answer assumes that one of the things interfering with the memorability of your character deaths is disrespect and looting from peers. We have done a few things in our campaign that address this, which you may consider in yours.

Our campaign features occasional character death. One of my concerns as Game Master was that looting the corpses of one's peers can lead to unintentionally powerful inventories as well as lead to a dissatisfactory experience for the victim.

We addressed this by having two simple rules related to character death:

Rule 1: No looting allies

What we mean by this rule is that all players assume their deceased character's possessions will be delivered, if retrievable, to the character's next of kin. The replacement character will arrive with her own inventory.

As players, my group understands that this is necessary to preserve game balance and to de-incentivize death. As characters, they treat it as the mutual respect due to allies and dear friends. Even our rogues agree that this is the way to be before we begin.

Rule 2: No unavoidable character death

I don't like boring deaths or un-entertained players. As a result, I don't allow them.

Our wizard stands in the center of his allies in a veritable wall of meat-shields. The troll-like "Thought Stalker," selecting the most intelligent of the party as his prey, materializes out of thin air and strikes... and strikes... and rends.

In situations like these, I intervene as DM. There's nothing memorable about playing as defensively as you can only to be one-shot by an ill-conceived encounter. Usually I can describe it away, but sometimes I ask the group if they have an imagination, they nod, and I rewrite history.

Contrast this to an encounter with an Umber Hulk.

Our rogue had many warnings that this was a creature to keep some distance from. He moved adjacent to the beast, ignoring the protestations of his allies, shouted a challenge to the beast, and got ripped to shreds on the creature's turn.

I didn't intervene. The party went to great expense to resurrect him later, which was an adventure on its own.

My purpose in relating these two stories is that you can make character death memorable by denying non-memorable deaths from occurring. Choose your character deaths carefully. Sean Bean can only die once a campaign, so make it good.

Memorable Trap Death

Traps are tricky to make memorable. Luckily, the kinds of techniques that make succeeding on a trap memorable also make failing a trap memorable.

I like to think of Indiana Jones when designing traps into an adventure. In his action films you never imagine the benign voice of the DM saying: "Roll your check. You failed. Take 3d6 falling damage. Next?" Instead, traps are interesting things where many dangers occur at once.

The floor gives way exposing a yawning chasm beneath. Indiana desperately grasps out, catching the ledge (in our campaign, using some ability check). He suppresses a rush of vertigo at the sight of venomous snakes and vicious spikes below. As the rock crumbles under his weight, he tries desperately to pull himself onto the safety of a ledge (another check).

At this point, whether he succeeds or falls to his death, the scene is thrilling.

Die for a Cause

Dying for a cause is far more interesting than dying because the dice were cruel. Boromir's death in LOTR was memorable less because he took several arrows to the chest and more because it was an act of sacrifice and redemption in the ultimately unsuccessful cause of protecting the hobbits from capture.

Giving players something to die for is more about story crafting than encounter crafting. Like traps, stories that are already memorable can produce deaths that are memorable.

When designing your encounters, pair the greatest threats with the scenes and storylines of greatest importance. This reduces the chance that your characters die for something mundane or uninteresting. It also increases the respect they will have for the fallen. Your deadliest traps should protect things that have great meaning to your players. Your most powerful villains should pose a threat to the community that your players are willing to die for.

Require Respect, but not Somberness

My players had some good fun over the years teasing our rogue for his death-by-umber hulk, and our rogue bore the teasing with good humor. We have real life for funerals, so go ahead and let your players get back to the adventure right away.

It seems you desire simply that your players not kick their former allies' corpses while they're down and capitalize on their misfortune. You can accomplish all this without imposing an overly somber tone on the game.

Make sure you have a strategy to quickly onboard the replacement character so you can move on. In our campaign, every player has a spare character sheet that only requires the DM to roll a stockpile of equipment to be play-ready. The less time spent at the scene of death, the less time for players do get bored and abuse their fallen comrades.

I hope these tips work well for you. We've had some good success in our game using them. A good part of our success is having good players to play with, who have the same kind of game in mind. The rest comes from good ground rules and evocative story telling. Good luck!

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I have nothing to offer in terms of how to stage a death memorably. It's a difficult task because so much of the circumstances will be beyond your control. But you've already got some good advice on how to make the best of things.

What I've always found to be a more important moment in making a death memorable is what happens afterwards. What do the players do with their dead comrade? Any adventurer worth their salt will strip the body of useful items, and as an ex-adventurer the fallen player will no doubt approve. But then what?

Encourage them to transport the body out of whatever vile spot it fell. It'll depend on your campaign setting, but most cultures treat bodies with a certain degree of reverence, only to be left as monster food in extremis. Look at the effort soldiers make to retrieve the corpses of their fallen colleagues.

This then becomes part of the journey, part of the adventure. Corpses are large, heavy objects. It'll take two living characters to carry a body without magical aid. Will they wrap it in something? What questions will NPCs ask? What'll happen during combat, negotiating traps, or if the party is surprised? All of this can help make for a truly unique adventure.

What do they do when they get it home? All but the weakest adventurers have made some significant mark on the world. Perhaps old friends, even enemies, might turn up to the funeral. Whatever patrons, gods or other supernatural beings the character served or venerated will be upset at the loss of such a powerful minion. They might do peculiar things in memoriam.

In one of my campaigns, the body of a fallen druid which the party buried back at their HQ ended up sprouting a magical plant which occasionally sprouted fruit that offered cryptic prophesies when eaten. I let the character's ex-player utter these pronouncements in the style of the deceased. No-one forgot that in a hurry.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Can you speak to methods for encouraging players to have their PCs retrieve the bodies of fallen comrades? \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Apr 2 '15 at 17:03
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This one can be difficult because a character can die to so many things...

The pit fall trap gave me an idea, which you might be able to homerule it abit. (For keeping the character memorable.) You could have the character roll a reflex save to use his weapon to try and latch onto the wall, the unfortunate thing is that he fell to far for the others to grab him easily and thus he slips away to his death.

If the player is a good roleplayer they could see this as "My characters life flashes before his eyes, and he closes his eyes with a smile, as he embraces his demise"

Other ways, is to give the ability for the character to fight, in rollplay wise a way that game mechanics dont.

My example for this would be an enemy hits him with his sword, the player races his shield but the sword misses the shield as the player is unfortunately too slow and stabs him. If the player accepts this, they can roleplay it as "My character drops to his knees in the sudden shock, placing his head down"

What I'm trying to say is, a player is more likely to accept a demise happily, if the demise is described well to the point where they can look back a few months later and say "Remember this character! He died in a way I loved"

(I apologise if this is not what you are looking for, I am not the best at helping)

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First consider:

  • There's no "best way", of course, as it's a creative problem with varied circumstances, and depends on the players and their tastes.
  • It's certainly not best to try to control other people and make them treat anything with respect. It doesn't work, can backfire, and isn't an effective way to get what you want.
  • Not all players want to play a game where they're supposed to be respectful.
  • Not all characters would be respectful. Also, even moral and generally respectful and considerate people often have coping mechanisms for severe stress that includes denial, withdrawal, brutal humor, or other behavior that's not respectful. Your players may do these without realizing why. If your game world involves a lot of violence and death, it may actually be appropriate for the PC's to be desensitized and have poor behavior.
  • Although violent RPG games may tend to lead to players/PCs becoming more and more savage or even becoming evil psychopaths, maybe this actually shows something authentic about humans in the situation your game world exhibits. Are you as GM in denial about how awful your game world really would be, and what might happen to human behavior even of heroes in that world? Are you trying to force your players to be paragons of virtue (or some other inauthentic ideal) and if so, what's that really about?

On the other hand:

  • Players may often not be taking the game in a way you'd all like better, and can drift into dissociated silliness and brutality pretty quickly, and the GM may be able to help keep the desired tone.

I think memorable deaths mainly arise from memorable lives. That is, a character who seemed like a real person, who was well characterized and well roleplayed, will tend to be well remembered. Even just a few personal details and quirks can make even an NPC porter a sympathetic individual rather than a faceless template. Even if you allow players to generate a very similar replacement character (which I'd generally discourage, for several reasons), I'd tend to require different personalizing details, or else it can become absurd.

Given what you've said you want, in your example:

RP techniques to make a death memorable; rather than saying "you fall a down a pit and die" what can be done to make such a scene stand out and be respectful.

I would first treat any threat situations seriously and make sure I am giving them any chances and opportunities to act to avoid the threat or do something useful about it. If I were a player in that situation, what opportunities would I want to have been given to notice and respond to the threat? I give them that deliberately. As they get closer to a deadly threat, and more likely to fall to it, my tone becomes more serious, I give them whatever clues their character should have that they are in grave danger, and make sure I give them a chance to consider and describe what they are going to do about it. I describe it all with appropriate gravity and detail. This tends to get everyone's attention and has the player focussed on their choices.

This is one of the main reasons why I very much prefer detailed simulationist games, to abstract, gamey, or unrealistic games. Actual dangerous situations, and the choices and cause and effect of them, are interesting to me, and I want that to make sense and be something players can work with in a rational way, based more on real logic than on invented game systems that don't correspond to anything.

This approach has also taught me that there are costs to the tone and nature of the games I run, to include pervasive violence and death. Games (and stories/films) where there is lots of violence but the main characters aren't usually really at risk (because the system is artificially safe), tend to desensitize people to violence, killing and death. I like my games about violent situations to do a relatively accurate job of modelling the danger of those situations, but that requires me as GM to then set up situations with the appropriate amount of violence, and to roleplay the NPCs appropriately. I can't place deadly traps everywhere in a realistic game and not kill lots of people. I can't have lots of people trying to murder the PCs and not expect them to become murderous back. But NPCs can be threatening and challenging without being murdering psychopaths (and even murdering psychopaths have some restraints), and everything then can become more human and more interesting.

As for:

what can I do to try and make sure that the rest of the players treat this moment with respect for the dead player rather than a sudden opportunity to get some bonus loot

By using a serious tone in my descriptions of dangerous situations and the results of violence (to NPCs too), it tends to get some attention and help set a mood, although people may react in other ways (as mentioned in "first consider", above). I also roleplay the reactions of the NPCs who are present, so that if the players are all being insensitive goofs or something, they stand out, and the NPCs may have appropriate reactions to that, which tends to reflect their behavior back to the players, which has them notice and adjust how they are reacting. NPCs are a great opportunity for modelling the type of roleplaying the GM wants from the players, and their reactions can mirror the players' roleplaying back to them, giving them appropriate feedback.

I ask the player for dying words and and actions. Even though the rules show the character is dead or dying in game terms, only the most extreme causes will mean they get no opportunity to do or say anything, or at least to describe the body language of their death. I also add my own description for anything the player doesn't describe, but which would be observed by the others, and I do it with the tone I want, which is often pretty striking and horrible, as death is, if I want a serious tone.

For players looting each other, item detail can also help make the dead character memorable and not just treasure. Relevant details from the dead character and his play can be described in his stuff. If the players take their items, I tend to have them record the name of the character whose it was before. The items can become a kind of minor memorial keepsake of the fallen character. You might want to have the player of the dead PC describe the loot to the players looting the body (but not reveal out-of-character information about it - some players may enjoy wondering whether there's something special or magical about some of the items, even if there's nothing). There could also be some appropriate clues or adventure hooks in the items found, leading the group to go participate in the background of their now-fallen comrade.

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Betrayal is always a good one, too.

One of my players played a character that he designed to betray the entire group. Of course, with the gaming style of my players, they all had a part in helping design the character (they all love a good story, instead of just hack n' slashing... they save all that energy for FSPs). The whole time the character ran with the group he slipped, little by little. One epic fail of a time too many at the just the wrong time: Our group had just been chased out of a kingdom right after saving it--betrayed by the local monarch there. All our families were killed, our homes burned down, businesses illegally sold to greedy merchants, and much of the NPC and other players were assassinated all simultaneously. It only took that one last slip for the group leader to have the light-bulb go on and finally see the betrayer character for who he was. The character I played specifically only cut off his enemies heads, a show of respect that I don't really want them suffering. When the leader gave the go-ahead, my character put two swords in his chest, both lungs, no respect, and left him for dead in a forest, alone. No one batted an eye when we had to move on to better hiding. It was pretty epic, he begged for his life, he pleaded to be healed, but even the healer of the group turned his back. Little lies, chipping away at his reputation, every so slowly, mounting and mounting, until finally... it caught up with him. He bled out hours later, thinking about what he really had done with his life.

That character was epic. Memorable beyond comparison.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Since this is a Q&A site rather than a forum, answers are expected to solve the problem rather than just share a cool story. Can you turn this into a "how to", and use the story as an example instead of the main point? \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Apr 6 '15 at 15:26

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