Dear DovahQueen – Finding Meaning in Death

Death happens. Sometimes characters die, and it’s rarely enjoyed by anyone. Today, we’re going to try to find a way to kill a PC that the controlling-player is actually pretty okay with.

Dear DovahQueen: I am a fairly new GM with a small weekly group of players and have been playing for almost 4 years together. When a character dies, my group moves on and quickly forgets their fallen comrade for the players new character. What are some ideas I can use to make a character’s death more meaningful and have a greater impact on the adventuring party?–Gone But Not Forgotten

Dear Swayze: You’re right to be thinking of ways to make player death a bit more meaningful. They happen, aren’t always anticipated, and are rarely enjoyed by the victim. Since it is so often viewed as a set-back to the party, its pretty common that players like to get the new party member as quick as they can so the blood, loot, and XP can flow again. It’s not necessarily something that the players or you are doing wrong, so much as it’s just the nature of the game sometimes. This doesn’t have to always be the case though. There’s a few small tweaks I want to recommend for your story that may help, and if the death never comes, these should enrich your narrative regardless.

Consider the ties to the characters have to the story before they ever even get into a life-threatening situation. If your player wrote “Random Fighter 7,” you’re going to have a hard time generating any concern when they bite the dust, but if they neededRosalind the Reluctant Champion” because only her bloodline was capable of wearing the ring that could dispel the wards to the MacGuffin, then they’re going to be more inclined to feel her loss in a more tangible, plot-driven way. If you work with your players in the very beginning to give them intricacies which you can tie into your plot, creating meaning for them in the story, as an unique individual, will come much easier. This, as opposed to simply saying, “Make a lvl 3 character and be here Saturday at 6.” I’ve even gone so far ask to openly ask the group if at least one player would make a character of noble-birth.

One thing I don’t like to do, yet am reluctant to discourage others from its use, is pulling punches. When you make a roll that would kill a character, many GMs will fudge this away, and there are a lot of good reason to do so. Especially, if you took the above-mentioned advice and need that character to progress your plot. I would strive for a middle-ground; let them know that they were stuck with a life-taking blow AND let them know that you will granted them one more turn while they feel their essence leave their body. I’d even go so far as to grant it to them immediately, and out of turn-order, so they have all of the tools in their hands to make the sacrifice more valuable.

Ok, listen up. Leland gets struck across his abdomen in one harrowing blow from the Moss Knight’s sword. You take 35 points of damage which puts you at -13. You can feel a pull on your soul and you know no about of healing potion will save you from this fate. I’ll let you take one more turn right now before the life leaves your body.”

The biggest problem you’re left with then is that now you know you’re not gonna have Leland for the rest of the story as planned. On the surface, it feels like a detriment, but it’s really not. In fact, this is more of an opportunity to have the plot head in a direction nobody was prepared for. Allow the players to feel hopeless in the moment, knowing that they have failed in their cause with his death. Leave room for the impact of the lose. Consider asking Leland’s player to run monsters and NPCs during the first part of the next session; maybe for a whole session even. Make the absence of the character as conspicuous as possible. If Leland dies and Loulod shows up seemingly next day, the party, and the story for that matter, weren’t given any time for the death to be felt. Sure, the party will be at a disadvantage, but that’s kinda the point, yeah? You can’t miss isn’t gone.

I know I say it a lot, but helping your players build more involved characters in the very beginning goes a long way to keeping them engaged down the road and making your job a lot easier. I still won’t say I recommend pulling punches, but maybe delay them instead so the player has a moment to make it memorable. And, always leave room for the impact that you’re looking for; the party won’t mourn if they don’t have a reason to and the player isn’t absent.





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Loren Sieg

Loren has been writing and playing in tabletop RPGs for over 15 years. As both a GM and player, she pours heart and soul into producing new content and helping shape the way tabletops are experienced. She's worked with companies including Paizo Inc., Legendary Games, Swords for Hire, and Encounter Table Publishing to publish material for Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. Dear DovahQueen began early in 2016, and Loren has been helping GMs and players fully realize their stories and game concepts ever since. When she's not knee-deep in characters sheets and critical hits, she can likely be found studying Biology at Indiana University and/or doing research on different types of marine life.