Survival at a cost
Let’s talk about player character survival. Combat and danger are part of most role-playing games, and it’s a big part of what makes them exciting. While a campaign, a crisis, or even a role-playing scene can have high stakes and dire consequences, character death doesn’t have to be one of them.
Blasphemy, I know. It’s not that I haven’t killed PCs, or that I refuse to if the story calls for it. If the player puts their character directly in death’s path, or if the dice really want to see a PC dead, it happens. But it’s not something that I take lightly.
I’m a story-first Storyteller. It’s why that’s my preferred label at the table. I’m here to tell a story, and I’ve invited my friends to come tell it with me. If I can help it, I like to keep their original characters around to see the end of the tale — especially because I go to great lengths to weave their backstories into the campaign plot arc.
But sometimes, player characters die. I’ve killed a character by accident once or twice just hitting them too hard in combat. It’s usually the dice’s fault. Sometimes it’s the player who kills their own character. Perhaps they want to retire that PC because they have a new one in mind, maybe their character arc petered out quickly or unsatisfactorily. Or they just had a moment when they knew exactly what their character would do — and it was to sacrifice themselves.
If the party is being pursued and a player decides that their character hangs back to buy the others time at the cost of their life, I’m not going to say no. That’s way too awesome a moment for me to pass up as a Storyteller. The same goes for characters volunteering their lives to save someone else — a fellow PC or NPC or whatever — or they jump in front of some danger to protect the innocent. That’s adding something to the story, even if they’re giving up the plot arc I’ve made for them.
To me, character death is the least interesting outcome of combat or a dangerous scene because it cuts off the character’s story. Remember the golden rule of improv: Yes And. Killing a character off is a big, harsh “no.”
My goal is to make a player losing their character more of a choice. We’ve talked before about how to make the game feel dangerous and how to generate stakes besides just threatening to kill everyone’s PC. So let’s assume that you at least want to make a character death something more optional and talk about how to do that.
I do my best to make sure that any safety nets I have in place are as invisible as possible. I’ve been gaming with my group for decades and they know me pretty well, so they assume that I’m not going to just casually murder their characters. But PCs have died.
My players never know if the dangerous situation they’re in is one that I’ve balanced for them to triumph, one where they should run, one where they might suffer, or if their character could really die. By keeping them guessing, they never know if the safety net is there or not. Thus, I keep suspense alive.
But you may have noted that there’s a range of outcomes in any dangerous situation: victory, flight, suffering, death — and everything in between. This gives me a range of safety nets to use, too, depending on how safe I want the characters to be.
What actually constitutes a safety net?
House rules are one way of doing it. In Snake Eyes, for instance, when a character reaches the point of death, the player gets to decide if their character actually dies, or if they pull through with a limp or a scar. I really want to put the choice into the player’s hands, which is the whole point of RPGs. If people talk about how PCs should be able to do anything they want, why not extend that to their death scenes? Are you ready for your character to die? Do you have unfinished business that you really want to see through? Is this a good moment for them to die?
If the player says, “Oh, yeah, this’ll be dramatic. Let’s do it,” then it’s time to have final words and some amazing RP from the rest of the party as they grieve. And then they get to meet a brand new — but probably somewhat familiar — character. But if the player doesn’t feel that the time is right, or that they want to finish out their character arc, then a house rule to take on some kind of permanent penalty gives you a way to keep their story going while still showing that there was a steep cost to the event.
Or maybe if a PC would die during an event — got their butt kicked in combat, caught in an explosion or whatever — then they don’t die right away. I don’t mean that they survive with injuries and then just die more slowly, I mean that fate steps in and the character somehow dodges death.
But now the player owes the Storyteller a death. The player chooses for their character to survive, but at some point in the story, they have to choose another time for their character to die. No rolls or anything — the checks that killed them already happened, all we’re doing is moving the death outcome to a later time. Some shot that wouldn’t have dropped them, or a fall they could have survived now becomes fatal. Put the fate back in fatal.
There are plenty of other safety nets. Instead of adding mechanics to the game — fated deaths, permanent penalties, etc. — you can take in-game actions to find other options than killing a PC. One that I read even in published game systems is just having the villains knock the characters out instead of killing them.
First of all, throw out the idea that the villain would just kill them, that it’s what they would do in character. You’re the Storyteller, the all-powerful creator of that villain, and the gun in the villain’s hand. Get clever! Can you really not think of any use the villain might have for this meddling hero? Keep them as a hostage against the other PCs? Ransom them to take back some of the loot that you didn’t really mean for the party to pick up? To torment the captive PC and make their death lingering? To lay foreshadowing that the villain might not be evil to the core?
Yes, there’s an argument to be made for killing the hero quickly so they don’t have time to escape. But here’s the thing — as the Storyteller you have the power. First of all, you can make escape as easy or as difficult as you like, so why not take prisoners? Second, just killing the PC outright isn’t always fair, because as Storyteller you have all the power. “The villain would actually have an army of dragons. It’s in character for them, so you’re all dead.” Yeah, so that’s not really being true to the villain, that’s just showing your players that you had the power to kill their characters and you used it. So you can make a villain that would take prisoners and then be true to that.
And if the villain captures a PC, they give the character a chance to escape — but that’s good! That’s the point of gaming, to present players with challenges, puzzles, problems to solve and fights to win. The villain’s job isn’t to be victorious, it’s to be the challenge that the PCs rise to overcome. So if you capture the PCs and the character escapes, then the player is just doing their job.
Don’t like that particular solution? Or it just won’t work for your story? Then there are other safety nets, like NPC help. If a character is injured and dying, then maybe an non-player character can administer some life-saving treatment so that the PC doesn’t die. If you have to, an NPC can even arrive to help out in a jam before anyone’s dying, to keep them from death’s door.
I’m not saying that god-powered NPCs should swoop in and fix everything. I said NPC help, not the NPC swoops in and does everything. Players hate god NPCs, and for good reason. An NPC should just come in to take a little pressure off an encounter that’s not going well, or to give the PCs a bonus.
That’s why I make NPC bonuses for my non-player characters. Instead of the NPC rolling and taking actions, doing the stuff that the PCs should be doing, the NPC gives some kind of bonus to the player characters. An extra attack. A bonus to damage, or a defensive buff. That kind of thing. That way the players are still the ones overcoming the challenges, they’re just a little better at it now, with help from the NPC. Many games have a help or assist action, so maybe let an NPC give the players help — without the NPC taking all the glory.
There are lots of other ways to weave your safety nets, so play around with it. Get creative. Maybe some monster is stomping the party into jelly because they have no defense against some particular ability. Well, maybe a new group of adventurers rides in and kills the monster, saving the PCs… Only for them to take the monster’s place trying to kill our heroes. Now your players still have a fight on their hands, but without the ability that they just couldn’t overcome before.
Maybe the bridge that the characters are fighting on breaks and the villains go tumbling down into, um… How about acid? Yeah, they were fighting on a bridge over acid. For some reason. Now the PCs aren’t under attack, but maybe they have a crisis to grab onto the falling bridge and climb back up as it continues to crumble. I’d rather create something new than just finish off a PC and terminate their story because I didn’t balance the fight correctly.
Survival at a cost
This is different from success at a cost. When the players succeed at a cost, their characters get what they need or complete the task they were trying, but I inflict some flavor of hurt on them for it. They still need to perform the task, or learn the lore, but because they failed the check, the cost is uncomfortably high.
In the case of killing characters, this may be that instead of dying, the character lives but suffers a battle scar that leaves them with a limp. Or they lose an eye and have disadvantage on perception checks — and also wear a cool eye patch for the rest of the story! Maybe they get an impressive scar on their chest, but I can impose a 2-point penalty once per game when the scar aches and acts up. Or they have a phobia of the thing that nearly killed them, and have some kind of initiative penalty any time they face those things again.
Obviously, the character didn’t walk away without a scratch, so it’s not like they avoided character death for free. In fact, the PC is reminded of their death any time their shiny new scar kicks in. This way, the player walks away with a neat new role-playing hook instead of a dead character!
Make custom feats or traits that limit the character or cause some sort of penalty every once in a while. Let the player take a complication for their character to reflect their near-death experience. This way they feel the tension of the danger, but get to continue their story — and actually add to their narrative.
Take it seriously & take a moment
Unless you’ve talked it out ahead of time and all the players are copacetic with casual PC death, then it deserves time and thought. Maybe everyone wants to play a brutal, Game of Thrones-esque RPG where characters may die at any time, cutting off their story arcs without any narrative structure or dramatic payoff. Maybe it’s a one-shot game where everyone’s playing disposable characters. (I used to run one-shots in which I gave out main campaign prizes to the First to Die, Coolest PC Death, and Actually Survived.) Perhaps the whole idea is to throw away the safety nets and cross the tightrope at a sprint and see what happens.
But in a long campaign where I have a deep and complex story — or at least where I hope that my plot is deep — where the characters have personal arcs woven carefully into the main events, I don’t make a decision about PC death quickly.
If a player comes to you and wants to write their character out of the campaign, then take some time to work with them. Make it a badass dramatic exit. Try to give them a memorable death that the group will talk about for years!
If a PC death happens in the course of the game, then pause. Go ahead and take a fifteen-minute break to think about what kind of safety net you want to use — or if you want to use one at all. Give the player some time to think if they’re ready for their character to die, too, or if they’ll go ahead and keep them alive in exchange for owing a demon lord a favor or something.
Death will cause downstream consequences to the story and to the party that deserves at least five or ten minutes to consider. People can become deeply invested in their characters, so best not to make a snap permanent decision. Unlike real life, RPGs can be paused. If we can pause for someone to hit the bathroom or grab a snack, then we can take a break to decide whether to permanently remove a character from the game that we’re all playing together.
And if you need to end the session early because you need a longer break to think, that’s okay. It may take more than a few minutes to work things out with the player, and a character’s death shouldn’t be decided by just the Storyteller. RPGs are collaborative, so the player deserves to collaborate on their character’s death, just as they worked with you on their life.
You don’t have to let your players off when their characters die, of course. But when the dice fail a player, you underestimate the difficulty of a fight, or even when a character accidentally puts themselves in an impossible position, death isn’t the only option. Letting a character survive, but exacting a cost from them — the death of the NPC who helped them, a permanent scar, a deal with the devil — opens more role-playing opportunities than just terminating a character and their story.