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I'm quite new to role playing games; I've got about 10 sessions of experience. I'm interested in the role of game master, and I've tried an introduction game where everything is pretty much set up for me, I just had to do the storytelling and some easy decision making.

What does it mean for a PC to die? In terms of what happens in and out of the game when it happens, I'm not sure what "death" is.

For example, do you lose your character? Do you just lose all your character's items? Do you personally get removed from the game (I guess that's silly)? Do you simply lose some of your character's XP? Does your character get teleported to HQ to respawn?

Some of these sound like players might not fear them enough to be careful with their characters. The games I've read (I'm setting up for All Flesh Must Be Eaten) just say that the PC dies, but assumes that I know what that means. There are so many different ways that "death" can be done in games that it's not obvious what "you died" means for the PC as a game-piece.

I intend on playing a whole campaign (not one-shot sessions) where players can evolve, and I don't know how to implement death so that it matters but isn't frustrating. Right now they don't want to die obviously, but as soon as it happens I want the consequences to be sufficiently harsh so they're really careful, but not too harsh for them to stop enjoying the game. I know losing is a part of the game though, so I'm trying to find a balance here, and the only solution I came up with is: here, start another character and I'll introduce you into the story, you lost all your XP, maybe your items if the other players got the chance to loot you.

But I don't know what's normal or reasonable in RPGs in the first place, so I'm just making stabs in the dark at what death is supposed to mean in an RPG. When a game doesn't explain what “death” means, what is that supposed to mean?

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In AFMBE, as in most traditional RPGs, character death means "that character is dead and that's it. The player can generate another character now if they want."

AFMBE, also like most RPGs, assume a somewhat realistic world so video gamey things like "and the new character gets the old character's gear" is not a thing. New characters don't remember things the old one does or get things they had, they're a new person who was out there in the world and has now come on the scene. The old character was a person in the fictional world, they're dead, so except for police inquest and burial that's the end of their direct participation in the story. (They might come back as a zombie, though that's technically a GM-controlled NPC - although it can be entertaining to let a player play their zombified corpse attacking their former friends to blow off some steam and give them something to do prior to new-character introduction time.)

The player of the dead character would generate a new character based on the rules. You as the GM could allow them extra advancement and/or gear beyond a normal base character if needed in your judgement. Then you would introduce the new character at a point that makes sense in your story, ideally in a way that allows the existing characters to take them into their circle without relying on "well the players know they're a new PC so they may as well suddenly be best friends with this guy they just met." This can be during the existing session, at the start of the next session, whatever works for your group. In the end, everything should seem like a progression of events that makes sense for real life (or at least a movie version thereof).

That's for campaign games - in one shot games, often once your character dies that's it, you chill and watch the others till they all die too.

Of course you can implement any alternative way of handling character death, but this is the core assumption of what death means that drives every trad RPG.

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    \$\begingroup\$ It might be worth mentioning that in many cases, there's nothing to stop the dead PC's still-living compatriots from prying the dead guy's stuff from his cold, dead hands. Even if your new character doesn't get the previous one's items, that doesn't necessarily mean those items are forever lost. \$\endgroup\$
    – GMJoe
    Jun 2, 2017 at 23:43
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If the game doesn't explain what something in the game mechanics is, then the participant(s) with authority over rules interpretations get to decide what it means. In the case of character death, in most games it generally means the player needs to make a new character.

However, I have seen groups who do play character death very differently. I have seen groups who roleplay NDEs and life after death. I have seen groups who run their game like a video game, and just penalize the dead character, putting them back at a set "Spawn point" type location. And, though it does seem silly, I have seen a group that kicks players from the table when their character dies. (This is mean, I did not play with them.)

Simply put, if the rules don't explain, describe, or justify something, it's up to the interpretation of whoever's in charge at the table. When the subject is a very large, complex topic, like death, those interpretations can be wildly different. This may not necessarily be a design flaw- it may actually be a feature, giving the ref/GM the right to write their own rules for how life and death work in their setting.

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Every game is different.

If the rule and setting books for a given game do not explicitly describe something other than the common-sense meaning of "death", then there's no reason whatsoever to believe that, for that game, "death" is to mean anything other than the common-sense meaning of "death".

"They're dead, Jim.". At which point, their party mates might do whatever is appropriate in their culture to do with the body and the belongings.

There are plenty of games in which "dead means dead" and the character is gone. At this point, the player can't play that character anymore. Some of them even say so in the rules, but if they don't, then, dead still means dead unless the rules say so.

There are other games which have resurrection, haunting, re-sleeving, and other means of either "new life" or "life after death".

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    \$\begingroup\$ Can you speak to AFMBE specifically on this topic? It's a system with 'something' after death for many/most people in the world, but it's not necessarily obvious how that 'something' interacts with a player character's death and their relationship to the player. \$\endgroup\$
    – BESW
    Aug 29, 2016 at 0:42
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Technically speaking, you're the GM. You decide (to some degree together with your players).

The rules books will only act as guidelines.

(Views on this may differ. Granted, as soon as you do changes to the rules you can no longer claim those changes to be part of the official rules. They are an will always be house rules and you may find that new players not aware of the circumstances of the creation of those rules can be ready to argue you to death about them.

A laissez-faire approach to rules is not always appreciated and you may find it easier to stick to the rules if possible.

However, one may argue that any rule that needs interpretation in itself is a rule which encourages deviation from the rule written in the books due to it being badly (or unclearly or incompletely) designed/written to start with.

Also, please bear in mind that once you start tampering with the rules and game world you are leaving the rails, any deviations you decide may come back and bite you in future releases of game material and you may end up with a game and game world which is unrecognizable to other players.)

Given the general theme of the game (AFMBE) I'd say dead is either dead dead or undead dead. If you (and your players) feel that there is something to be gained by incorporating sentient (and benevolent) undead the player character (if the circumstances surrounting their death calls for it) may join the party as such. Otherwise they will either join the shambling hordes or lay still on the ground.

If the player character shuffles off into the sunset it'll most likely take with them whatever they were carrying. Possibly dropping hand held equipment (that's up to your discretion) and would need to be re-killed in order to loot that nice helmet they were wearing.

If the player character don't transform into an undead players may choose to loot the body carrying with them as much as they can.

The player who once controlled the deceased is usually allowed to roll a new character or pick one henchman NPC depending on play style. I suggest you go with whatever generates the best flow for your group.

In high mortality rate games (such as Call of Cthulhu) players are often advised to pre-generate multiple characters with easy ins into the group (friends, siblings, relatives, military unit comrades) and this may work for you here.

Some games (and some game masters) incorporate concepts of luck/fate points which can be used to cheat death. If you feel that too many deaths will cause your players to lose their commitment to the setting, feel free to implement this in some way even if the game does not explicitly contain rules for this. (See my first paragraph.) A fatal blow does not land (easiest with players who are ok with that kind of things or hidden dice rolls), once all player characters are unconscious the cavalry arrives... that kind of thing. It should not be over used, to remove the probability of death altogether cheapens removes the feeling of risk and may cheapen the game. But it can be used arbitrarily to save a player who already lost a character for example.

But I can't stress enough: It's your game, you decide how you want it to be played. Regardless of what the rules say.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 22, 2018 at 16:16
  • \$\begingroup\$ I feel like there is good information in this answer, but it needs a bit more formatting and/or focus. There are large tangents and caveats that could be summarized, moved, or at least labeled. As-is, I got about half way through about how many people (such as myself) like to use the rules as written insofar as they're written vs freeform homeruling before my ADHD made me keep scrolling. \$\endgroup\$ Dec 28, 2023 at 21:16
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I've put five options here, though you're welcome to use more:

Creating a New Character

If a character dies, the player can make a new one. It should be the same level as the other players, and the GM and player should work together to introduce them into the plot.

I was in a Dungeons and Dragons campaign where one of the players decided he wanted to play someone new. So he created a new character at the group level (I believe it was somewhere around levels 5-7), and was introduced as the waiter when we stopped by a small bar. We were able to help him escape from his abusive boss, and he joined our party.

Leaving the Campaign

This option could even be set up. A player can't play anymore. Maybe they have a busy schedule. Maybe the game isn't fun for them anymore. Maybe they just want to watch and not play. While you could say the character just leaves, it could be more fun for them to go out with a bang. If a character dies and the player has no interest in making a new one, they can leave the campaign or be a spectator for the rest of the game.

In the Dungeons and Dragons campaign I mentioned above, when we were nearing the end, a few of the characters "went out with a bang" (for example, one killed a lich but was killed in the fight as well). It was a shortened end to the campaign, so they didn't really watch much, but the GM asked if anyone wanted to have their characters die.

Playing As A Ghost

Some roleplaying games, like Blades in the Dark, have the option to play as a ghost (this happened once in a game I was in, to a player character who had died). Not all do, however, so you might have to customize the rules a bit. For instance, in Dungeons and Dragons, you could switch all their attacks to deal Necrotic damage, and add some additional rules for ghosts.

Adventure In the Underworld

This option results in the death of all of your players - but continues with a new adventure, centered in the underworld. A game I was in (Dungeons and Dragons) had us die in a fatal trap, and we had to stop a few villains in the afterlife. It was a fun campaign, but I would warn your players first if you plan to kill them off for an afterlife adventure.

Revive Them

In Dungeons and Dragons, there are several spells that can revive characters. You could use one of those, either from a patron or god, or from another player.

What to do with your items?

That's up to you and the GM, but possible solutions include giving them to other player characters or handing them to your new character, should you decide to make one.

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I think this also depends on the intent, and the age of your players. In some games with younger players, "death is just sort of a tired feeling". :) Basically, if you "die" you are unconscious until all mobs in that area are dead, and then the player comes back to life. Or, you are unconscious until the rest of your team reaches a certain checkpoint.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Why the downvote? It's a valid solution for the right situations. \$\endgroup\$
    – Eric Burdo
    May 10, 2017 at 12:28
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    \$\begingroup\$ This answer only addresses a small number of games and playstyles. Could it be broadened? \$\endgroup\$
    – GMJoe
    Jun 2, 2017 at 23:46

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