Embracing Character Death
I've been playing tabletop RPGs since before the creation of the dice subscription box: over five years of Pathfinder, Dungeons and Dragons, Vampire: the Masquerade, and more. Up to this point I've avoided character death. This streak, however, came to an end with the death of a beloved Pathfinder character. Nathaniel “Ditto” Varima was murdered in his sleep by an assassin. One dice roll – a fortitude save – decided between an abrupt end or his continued existence. The metal dice made its choice: I rolled a natural 1…an automatic failure. I’d enjoyed my time with Ditto, an ostentatiously dressed young man who alternated between rebellious indifference and a nobleman’s perfect etiquette. He was taken from the world too soon, mechanically at only fourth level, and I immortalized his final moments here on Twitter. I felt responsible for dooming this young man, a character whose personality was unlike any other I’d played before. The temptation to right this terrible wrong was difficult to ignore, because the power of playing in a fantasy world means that a character’s death needs not be permanent.
In a world full of magical means of rebirth, as well as player options such as hero points, character death can be merely an obstacle which must be overcome. Especially at higher levels of dnd, the financial cost of spell components or spellcasting services is easily achievable. For this reason, and certainly for personal reasons, many players make the choice to resurrect or reincarnate their beloved character. This is a completely legitimate choice that is well-within the rules of every roleplaying game I’ve played to date. It’s a way to finish the journey your hero has started, and I recognize that such a desire is important. I could have spared Ditto with hero points, but I made the choice not to do that. I respectfully submit that a character's death should be meaningful, and here are a few ways we can embrace the narrative power of that death.
A Memorable Farewell
The Lord of the Rings is a masterful work of epic fantasy. It’s a story that begins with a fellowship, a group of adventurers marching towards a shared goal. Each person in the fellowship helped Frodo make it to Mt. Doom, either by accompanying him along his perilous journey or through defending Middle Earth against Sauron. While much attention is rightfully given to Frodo, Sam, Aragorn, and Gandalf, for example, the sacrifice of Boromir should not be overlooked. Wracked with self-loathing and regret over succumbing to the ring’s temptation, he uses every last ounce of his strength to stall the overwhelming enemies in order to provide Frodo with a means to escape. His death is redemptive, powerful, and brutal. To have him miraculously survive or be magically restored would not fully negate his death’s bravery nor its impact, but it would significantly minimize it. When our tabletop characters die valiantly, their death can similarly become a powerful legacy by which they can be remembered.
A Death to Avenge
Not every character will perish in epic fashion. Traps and random accidents are just as likely to take a character’s life as would a determined foe, and those are frustrating situations. But even these seemingly meaningless deaths can be powerful narrative moments for the other members of your party. It is understandable to regret losing the time with one’s own character, but a lost companion can give an adventurer something to fight for. These unexpected deaths can breathe life in to a campaign, energizing the rest of the party to complete their goals and avenge the unnecessary death of their compatriot. Whether that’s railing against the pantheon or seeking vengeance against the castle’s evil tyrant, your character’s loss can give the other adventurers a renewed sense of vigor and purpose.
Mysteries and Answers
Whether you start with a three-sentence backstory or an in-depth novella, a D&D character’s story and goals grows throughout the adventure. A chance loot drop can become a treasured weapon and an NPC can become a fast friend or love interest. Tabletop roleplaying games are wonderfully collaborative storytelling experiences, and that allows our character sheets to come alive and gives players an opportunity to see the world through their eyes. We can create lofty goals for our characters or they can be driven by wanderlust. Whatever their motivations, a character’s demise leaves some amount of business unfinished. This might excite the curiosity of the other players by presenting them with an opportunity to finally get to see what was in that locked chest, for instance. On the other hand, the death can create an anticipation and mystery about whether or not they’ll ever know the answers to a character’s secretive past. In both examples, you have the ability to excite the other players and shape the game’s world.
Many GMs give a dying character an opportunity to describe their final scene and give final words. This is an incredible opportunity to set the tone for how your character is to be remembered, as well as to do many things: ask forgiveness, demand that your death be avenged, or profess your character’s love for another. Rarely does a player get such a powerful moment: such an opportunity should be taken seriously. For the GMs reading this, consider giving your player time to put thought in to this, perhaps allowing them to play out the scene next session.
There’s nothing wrong with choosing to bring your character back to life! Their stories are important to us and every player has the right to decide for themselves what to do in this situation. Before you choose whether to let a character live or die, think about whether their passing can be inspiring to the other players and whether the chance to write their last moment is worthwhile to you. Whether the death is heroic or seemingly pointless, their death can be powerful, and their loss can energize a campaign in a unique and exciting way.
Jairys Tak is a writer, IT professional, and all-around nerd. He is a Pathfinder player and GM, enjoys board games, and is probably drinking coffee right now.