I’ve been stewing over this piece for a few weeks now, and it’s something that has been prompted by the backlash Matthew Mercer has gotten for the death of the beloved character, Mollymauk Tealeaf. Oh, yeah, spoilers if you’re three weeks behind on the show, sorry. So, yeah, I’m going to talk today about handling character death in tabletop RPGs. Now, before I went back to grad school, I worked in the funeral industry, so I’ve been around a lot of death. I’m not going to bore you with a discussion on the stages of grief – you can Google that yourselves. I do want to talk about the following things: (a) Why character deaths can happen and be okay, (b) When character deaths are not okay, and (c) How DMs and Players should interact following the death of a player’s character.
Pre-Discussion Statement. Yes, we all know that we are talking about fictional characters dying in a game. That said, these characters, like our favorite characters in comics, books, video games, and movies, the characters we play in tabletop role-playing games become real through our interactions with them within the context of the stories we tell as a gaming group. They are real people to us, and we become attached to them. As a result, their deaths feel every bit as real as when a friend or a family member passes on. That’s okay. It’s okay to grieve when our characters – or when a beloved NPC – passes on in game. And, just like in the “real world”, we need to handle that grief properly and understand the hows and whys of death.
Why Characters Die and it be Okay. First off, we know why our characters die – either they reach -100% of their health or they fail three death saving throws or they day as a result of certain spells/traps. “Them’s the rules,” as they say. That’s the mechanical explanation, similar to the scientific explanation for death as a cessation of life-sustaining bodily processes.
But let’s look at the more emotional, narrative side of death. There are some who believe characters can’t die, because they’re heroes. Sure, in some narratives, we have the hero “living happily ever after” – but, being mortal, that hero’s death happens “off-text” or “off-screen”, so as far we know, that hero doesn’t die. But, death is the inevitable end of all things, so we know these mortal heroes, great though they may be, will die. And in many ancient traditions, like say the Anglo-Saxon, Germanic, and Nordic (aka, the Germanic peoples), all heroes die. Beowulf died fighting a dragon to protect his people. Even Thor dies at Ragnarok after slaying Jormungundr. Heck, let’s go south to Greece: Achilles dies by being shot in the heel. The focus should not be on whether or not a hero can die, but instead, it should be on how and why did this hero die – was it a death worthy of honor, was it a fair death, was it an inevitable death, and/or what can we learn about living from this character’s death.
So, let’s talk about “fair deaths” in TTRPGs. Starting with the most basic: a bad series of rolls. Sometimes the dice do not favor you. I had a player one time whose barbarian nearly died in his first combat, because the player rolled 6 natural 1’s in a row. That does not happen often, but it did that one night. And the player was upset, it was also his first time playing D&D, and this was the first combat of the campaign. But we talked through it, and things moved forward. On a similar note, I’ve had a “Boss Fight” that I worked hard on to make super challenging and strategically interesting, and then in the first round, every player rolled a natural 20 or something else happened so that their attack did near maximum damage to the enemy. This group did close to 300 points of damage that round. That’s kind of amazing. Was I bummed that my work became negated by a single round of lucky dice rolls? Yeah, but “The Dice Giveth, and the Dice Taketh Away”.
Another way death can be “fair” is if the death feels fitting for the character and narrative. Now, let me begin this by saying that this is not an excuse to kill a character when it feels like the story has stagnated. Character death needs to mean something to all involved. Did your noble paladin die saving children from an oncoming undead horde? Did your cleric make a deal with his or her deity – “my life in exchange for this other one”? Did your thief, who recently turned away from his/her old guild due to learning that they were involved in child-slave trading, die during a successful attempt to rescue some of the children? Did your character sacrifice themselves so the group could complete a mission for “the greater good”? A fitting character death, as these examples suggest, gives a story a sense of completion – the death accomplished something that the character wanted to happen.
Here’s another example from my own characters. In one campaign, I was playing an Elven Bard from a wealthy, aristocratic family based upon the legends surrounding Elizabeth Bathory. My wife was playing her brother-in-law who owed her a life debt. Well, in one seriously unfair fight, both of us went down. My character failed her death saves. Upon coming-to, her brother-in-law, seeing his chance for freedom, tried to cut off her head. Well, the party knocked him out and eventually he was punished by being turned into a vampire spawn. When my character was resurrected, she flew into a rage for two reasons: (1) she wanted to become undead and gain immortality, and (2) this peasant priestess dared to touch something of hers without her permission. She grabbed a ritual dagger and lunged at the priestess, who promptly responded with Power Word Kill. I’m okay with her death, because she died in a way fitting for her own character – a bitchy, “Old World” aristocrat. Plus, I chose the action that led to her death in a moment that felt totally organic, because I was so in-character that I didn’t plan, I simply responded.
Combining these two reasons, we get the third way for death to be “fair” – it has to feel organic and honest. Death is inevitable and charged with numerous emotions. So, death in TTRPGs needs to feel the same way. It should feel like it arises from a combination of the story co-created by all at the table and random chance as represented by dice rolling. These two aspects working in harmony give all involved a sense that they controlled everything that they could control and did everything possible that they could do, but due to the randomness of the universe, this death couldn’t be avoided.
When Character Deaths are Not Okay. So what can make it feel like a character’s death is not okay? Per the last paragraph, if the death feels “unfair”. Did it feel like the DM was targeting the character without mercy? This feeling can emerge if all the enemy NPCs in a combat scenario decide to target one specific character – even if that character has taken no action at the time they make their first attacks. Did the DM throw a fight at the party with no hope of escape?
Example: I was playing in a campaign where we found ourselves on a ship in the middle of the ocean – five of us, all level 7 – where we had to face a group of slavers who tried to take over the ship – eleven sailors, and a Drown sorcerer who just happened to summon a Kraken after three rounds of combat. The fight was challenging enough without that CR23 Legendary Monster – and though difficult, without the Kraken, I would still call the fight fair, deadly, but fair. The Kraken could easily render one or two party members unconscious in a single turn. What happened? Well, my wife and I were playing twin Tieflings (a College of Swords Bard and an Infernal Pact Warlock/Rogue), and we decided that if we were going to go down, so would everyone. We told the slavers – surrender or burn. And then we blew all our high level spell slots on fireballs, setting the ship on fire. That combat felt like the DM was trying to get a TPK.
Now, I’m not saying that a DM should never throw an “unwinnable” encounter at a party. However, there are three conditions that should be met when throwing such an encounter. (1) The encounter should drive the narrative forward – either on the level of the campaign or of an individual player character’s story arc. (2) The encounter should make sense for the logic established by the world and in previous encounters. In the example above, we’ve never faced anything other than humans/humanoids in combat, so throwing a Kraken at us was out of nowhere. (3) There should be the option to run/disengage, and the fact that the players may want to consider this option should be clearly communicated through descriptions of the enemies faced. N.B. The “option to disengage” can be part of the enemy’s strategy: Consider Strahd von Zarovich, who can show up as a random encounter in Curse of Strahd. His strategy is not to fight to the death in the fields or forests, but to test these “heroes”. He’ll toy with them, weaken them, and then, after a few rounds, declare them “no threat” and depart, leaving them beaten, battered, and licking their wounds.
How DMs and Players Should Interact Following Character Death. Simply put, as friends who care about each other. Check in with each other from time to time. Not simply the “Hey, you need a new character by X day of the week,” but really check in to see how the players – and the DM – are handling things. Character deaths can be traumatic for people, so recognize that the player whose character died (and the rest of the table) may be going through the grieving process. Communicate openly about the feelings and thoughts and fears that this death has evoked. Offer to cook the player a special meal, or buy them one, or buy them a drink. Let the player(s) grieve at a natural pace.
Depending on how traumatic the death was at its moment, it may be appropriate to stop the session and (1) give the everyone a few minutes to decompress or (2) talk to each other about what just happened. The game, the world, the story should never be more important than the relationships among the people at the table. A character’s death can be a big moment, especially if its the first character or a character the player has been itching to play and finally had the chance, so treat this as what it is – a real death. Ultimately, as the great prophets of my generation, Bill S. Preston, Esq. and Ted “Theodore” Logan, advised, “Be excellent to each other.”
Concluding Thoughts. I’ve said all the profound things I have to say on this topic at present. Ultimately, I just want to reiterate that character deaths in TTRPGs can be traumatic moments for those at the table, and they should be treated as such. Trust, respect, friendship, and communication are values that make the TTRPG experience both possible and awesome. Some players won’t be impacted by character deaths. Some will. But even without a character’s death, it’s a good idea to check up on your friends at the table from time to time. Just to let them know you care.