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I am looking to run a one-shot adventure and want to have a fair chance of character death, but I would like for the player to remain engaged even if their character dies. I want the adventure to be tense, and time-sensitive, so going back to town and raising the character would be clunky.

Some techniques I have considered:

  • Of course the player could just roll up a new character, or grab another pre-generated one. However, this seems clunky too. "Ok, so Steve is dead now, but hey! look! your buddy Mark just so happens to be in the cave too! And he wants to join your party!" The players should care that their character has died and it should impact them negatively in some way.
  • Player comes back as an undead of some sort. Does his ghost live on? If so, how does a ghost interact with the party and the adventure? Does some weird anti-hero necromancer bring the PC back as an intelligent undead? How does this even make sense and not seem too hokey and is it even fun for the player.

So, my question to all you DMs and Players: How do I keep a player in the game when their character dies, without resurrecting that character? Give special emphasis to one-shot type sessions where time-management is an issue and continual character development is not.

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How do I keep a player in the game when their character dies, without resurrecting that character?

Don't kill the players darlings

First, always make sure that the players are okay with losing their characters. Before running the game, explain that there might be character death and that they should create their characters accordingly.

I seldom run games where character death is a thing, but when I do I make sure the players know about it and are prepared for it before we start.

Bring a backup

Have a few backup characters in tow. Let the players create them so that they're invested in them and let them be mostly passive during play. This allows you to have new characters at-the-ready.

In a game I'm preparing now, the players will each create one "officer" of sorts and one "second in command". If their character dies, their replacement steps in. This also gives a reason for the secondary characters to be more passive.

One problem with this approach is party balance. The death of a character may not be a problem for the players, but the party looses in overall strength. This could, of course, also be an interesting challenge for them...

The chance encounter

A wild adventurer appears! Adventurer has joined your party!

Yes, it's a common target for ridicule and parody, but sometimes it just works. If the adventure is a bit cliché and campy anyway, this is a perfect fit. And a bit if sillyness is better than benching a player, right? Still, this is often not the best option so only use it when appropriate.

The prisoner

A more plausible reason for someone to be in the dungeon alone is to be the last surviving member of a previous, less successful, party of adventurers. Sure, the player will have to find some new gear, but that shouldn't be too hard. Hey, that other person who just died seems to have the same size as the newbie!

I've also used variations of this to introduce new players to an adventure or campaign.

The chance necromancer

A neutral necromancer lives in the dungeon. Who knew? She can resurrect the fallen character for a small fee. Or perhaps she's just imprisoned as well and will accept freedom as payment.

This option has to be done carefully. An undead PC can work fine as long as the player has fun with the character. Don't make the zombie too zombie-esque, let it be able to speak and retain intelligence. To make it feel a bit more like a proper death and not an upgrade, let there be a restriction to the resurrection so that the zombie can never leave the dungeon without losing its intelligence.

The reformed minion

After falling into a deadly trap, the characters are rescued by a minion of the dungeon. Before letting them out, the minion explains that he wants to change his evil ways and join the party. This can backfire if the other players decide not to trust the former minion, but it can also be a nice way to introduce a character with an instant backstory.

I've used variants of this to introduce new players and as long as the other players play nice it's a great way of fleshing out a group with some new blood.

The unreformed general

Give the player a major character in the dungeon. Perhaps even the main villain. Or simply invent a commander. Let the player look at the full map, plan a defence and command troops. This can become really engaging and rewarding for the player.

The downside is again that the party will become unbalanced. Although it might also help the rest of the party work together to keep each other alive in order to not gain another maniacal enemy...

The talking artifact

Want a weird twist to the adventure? Let the player take on the part of a talking artifact, such as an enchanted sword or shield. Try to make sure the thing is too big to shove into a backpack but also too valuable to leave behind.

I've never tried it myself, but the more I think about it, the more I want to.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Great write up, I actually went with a variation of undeath much like you discuss. I let the player come back due to the power of a powerful artifact present in the dungeon. However, upon 'rebirth' the character roles on a table to determine what catastrophic effect the death has upon their (unfortunate) character. This way death has a negative consequence, but isn't to bad and makes sense. Of course, if they try to leave the dungeon before recovering the artifact, their body begin to quickly wither away. \$\endgroup\$ – Destruktor Jan 3 '17 at 19:27
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I remember a high mortality campaign. It was not a one-shot and it was a desert instead of a dungeon, but the same general principle applies: what to do if you cannot bring in new characters in a believable fashion?

Just bring more characters! From the start!

Let everybody bring multiple characters. Obviously with such a large crowd, not everybody can participate. Some characters will sit back and hunt or gather or cook while a handful is doing the fun stuff. When one of them dies, one of the crowd will step up and take their position.

What we did was that for every "expedition in the desert" we put together a new party from the pool of characters. If you have four players for example, you could say "only 4 people fit into a room, pick four to spearhead your adventure. When one falls, another one will step up from the ranks." So death will mean something. That character is dead. Permanently. But the player can just pick another character from the pool of characters that are already there in the narrative, without clone technology or "Joe 2" materializing out of thin air. Just make sure that the characters are premade and ready to play. They are already there and therefor need to be complete, not just a concept or an idea.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Heh. I just noticed this. I had added a comment to Dale's answer suggesting he add this. I used this "have a back up" for years, and it was very helpful. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Dec 20 '16 at 14:04
  • \$\begingroup\$ Ye old funnel o' death... \$\endgroup\$ – C Anderson Dec 29 '16 at 3:43
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Offer the player some monsters to run. This keeps them engaged with the game, without making character death less meaningful. It's surprising how easily many players can get into running monsters, given half a chance.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I've played in games where this was done -- the one problem is that players are often much cleverer than GM-played monsters. Giving monsters to the players to play may make encounters more hazardous. NOT down voting -- but not upvoting either, at this point. \$\endgroup\$ – Zeiss Ikon Dec 19 '16 at 16:43
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    \$\begingroup\$ Did this for years. It works great for a one-shot. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Dec 19 '16 at 16:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ This could definitely be fun, but then you run into a "split party" type situation where now I have to basically run 2 tables. Would be awesome to see the monster player plot to "recruit" more players to their side! \$\endgroup\$ – Destruktor Dec 19 '16 at 16:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 to this idea. I've LARPed for years and a constant concern we have is the concept of players being 'dead in the mud'. To circumvent this issue, dead characters are regularly raised as undead or other creatures in order to prevent the player from having to sit dead on the ground for an indeterminate amount of time. This has other boons, too, but the primary goal is to keep that player and their character engaged in the game, even if they're now the bad guys. This has consistently worked well for us and I've no reason to think it wouldn't work well in tabletop. \$\endgroup\$ – Pyrotechnical Dec 19 '16 at 17:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ This assumes the whole adventure is a series of combats... what if it's not? What will the monster player do if there's a trap or riddle or skill challenge? \$\endgroup\$ – nvoigt Dec 20 '16 at 14:42
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The players are there to play: don't stop them

It's really, really bad manners to invite someone to a party and then exclude them from the fun because of bad luck or bad judgement.

Fun trumps verisimilitude

Ok, it's weird that Jim is dead and Jim II happens to be just around the corner. However, I'll swallow weird over unfun any day and twice on Sundays.

You can explain this in cameo however you like, Jim II is a survivor of a previous expedition, Jim II was looking for the party and following them, Jim II was teleported in by a benign deity to give them a hand and was actually eating noodles and is personally a little put out etc.

Or just don't. Jim II is here, let's keep playing.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ While I hate this answer as I love the story telling aspect of DnD, I think it also holds such an important truth that it's a game to have fun, so +1. Kinda wakes you up a little with the harsh reality \$\endgroup\$ – Ian Dec 19 '16 at 23:23
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    \$\begingroup\$ I found that a key to making this a successful transition in the one shot is DM prep ahead of time. Have a few pre rolled / pre made characters (up to one per player) in a folder before the game starts. That way, you can hand the player the sheet/card, and they can get familiar with the new character as the rest of the party does "X" and then trips over the new guy. Used that a bunch over the years. You can add this to the answer or not: your call. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Dec 20 '16 at 14:03
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I've introduced new characters into the situation in a lot of different ways. The easiest is to have the character be a prisoner in the dungeon/area you are in. Have them being actively tortured as the players come in, and kill their torturers, and they can agree to work with the party.

This gives you a lot of things, really. Your player gets back in the action, they can provide information about the big bad (e.g. "Some old guy in a robe kept asking me questions about the McGuffin, but I didn't know what he was talking about").

Or, if you really want this to be a one-shot, have that player be aware of the fact that he is really working for the big bad and will turn on the party during the last battle :)

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One option, close to the "undead PC" you mentioned, but different in application and feel, would be for characters to be "immune" to death -- but not to injury. When a PC reaches zero hit points, he's too weak to fight further, but can still be healed (if the party has or can find some healing). While too weak to fight, he can still make suggestions, adding his cleverness to the group's, but he can't so much as pick up a pebble (nor even carry his own pack, weapons, and armor). This forces additional decisions on the still "living" party members, akin to whether to haul a body that might be raised later, but without losing the input of the player -- and there's still the possibility they may take a healing potion from a monster or opponent and be able to have the downed character back for the final encounter...

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Gem of necromantic convocation

It's a quick-and-dirty one that comes into my mind just reading that, offer the players a magic item (Necromancy) that can conjure someone from afar, but the materials for making it work are... a fresh corpse and some magic items/gems/money (so players can't user monsters as conjure-fodder)

Just a quick idea to add to all the other good solutions offered before.

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Lots of great answers here for how to introduce new characters into a campaign quickly. But I say, don't kill them in the first place, instead use:

Grievous/Critical Injuries


There are plenty of critical/grievous injury home brew tables you can find. I've dabbled with them occasionally, but they don't fit my style of DMing that much.

But for a one-shot, they're perfect. Instead of dying, if a PC can't stabilize with death saving throws, roll on a table, and now they have -1 to a secondary stat, disadvantage on athletics checks, -1 to damage with STR or DEX weapons, whatever the table says. Now the player doesn't have to sit around and wait for their new character to enter, but they still have a reason to avoid death.

I highly suggest you vet whichever table you use, and ensure that the effects are purely mechanical, and not severely damaging. Twice I've been on the receiving end of a permanent (non-healable) critical injury that significantly reduced my abilities. Once as a Jedi in a SW game, where I got a -1 my primary force stat (stats go from 1-6), and once in a superhero game, where I was reduced from mid range super strength to just peak human strength. Both times, I re-rolled my character within 3 sessions. It just wasn't fun anymore.

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