We’ve all had it happen at least once. Your character died before their prime. They still had so much left to accomplish and so many feats left to pick up. Let’s talk about how we can make character death be more than an inconvenience.
Dear DovahQueen: My PC just died and I want to honor his passing when we’re out of this dungeon. How do I organize a funeral for a Pathfinder character?–Dead But Accepting It
Dear Taken Too Soon: I’ve always believed that player character death gets a bad rap in tabletop games. It kinda sucks to lose a character that you’ve invested so much of yourself into, and I think that that’s the reason many GMs like to ‘protect’ their players from just such a loss. In pulling punches and shielding players from character death, we’re denying ourselves the chance to add a powerful element to our narratives. Needless character death isn’t going to add very much to the stories, but dying in a dungeon doesn’t have to be meaningless and can still be quite impactful to the overall story. Having some form of an appropriate funeral for a late party member is one of the ways we can turn a crummy situation into something memorable.
One thing I’d like to note is that the player of the deceased character really shouldn’t be the one planning the affair. It’s just kinda weird and defeats a bit of the intended purpose. That said, I think an unfortunate majority of players are just gonna be of the mindset to loot the body and move on. Therefore, it’ll likely fall squarely on the shoulders of the GM to make this event happen AND be something that the remaining players actually want to participate in.
For starters, let me recommend making the event itself relevant in the story somehow. Perhaps when the town comes together to honor the fallen hero, the players might be able to witness or overhear something that progresses the plot. A less scrupulous character may be remembered instead in a small gathering of like-minded individuals who followed their exploits. This small gathering could be visited by a truly unexpected guest. Sometimes the rites have to be performed in a remote wilderness due to the impending situation. In this case, consider something less tangible like a smoking shape from the funeral pyre or an uncharacteristically warm breeze on a very cold night. The point is to make the event, however large or small, memorable.
As gamers, we’re fast to gloss over parts that seem ‘less-exciting’ at face value. I can’t even remember the last time I actually listened to a quest giver in Skyrim. That’s why it’s important to set the tone for the funeral properly. This needs to be a somber event. The players need to go into this with the intention of paying their respects. Almost universally, I’d recommend at least having a short moment of silence to really let the RP sink in. Granted, you can’t force a particular player to care if they’re not interested in doing so, but don’t compromise the event for them if it’s not exciting enough. It’s not supposed to be exciting, and even if something interesting does happen, the focus shouldn’t be taken off the deceased. The king making a surprise visit may be exciting, but if he insists on paying his respects and gives a McGuffin to those present, the moment won’t be lost while some plot can still be advanced. The same can’t be said if the services are crashed by an army of goblins. Sure, that’s exciting and moves the story, but the characters’ (and players’) chance to mourn has been ruined. That’s not to say I wouldn’t use combat at a funeral. Rather, I’d probably save it for a prominent NPC’s funeral.
Outside of that, it’s really the little stuff that’ll make the session memorable. Don’t have a traditional funeral for a barbarian. Throw em’ on a pile of sticks, set it on fire, and let the characters get blackout drunk while telling tales of their exploits. Make the funeral thematic with the character. A character popular with a secretive organization could be remembered in a candlelight vigil with faces hidden behind hoods and masks.
Finally, in order for the character to be remembered, they need to *actually* be remembered by NPCs at the least. Oftentimes, when we roll a new character, the old character is never mentioned in-game again unless used to jape at one another. In life, we’re reminded that a death matters because we’re prone to dwelling on our loss. Represent this in game. Have the watch captain lament that he sure would feel better about the impending battle if Traenor were here. Maybe the barkeep pours one ale every night for Sierra even though she’ll never come around again. In real the world, these are some of the ways that we keep our loved ones alive in us. They’re also good ways to keep our characters alive in the story…kinda. You’re still gonna roll a new character, but you know what I mean.
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