GM Advice - Death Becomes Us: Making the Best of a Bad Situation

"The Wraith reaches into your chest. Your body grows cold as you feel the last fleeting spark that was your life leave you. You fall to the ground in a crumpled heap as your final breath escapes your ragged lungs.... No, Dave. There isn't a save.... No, you don't have any more actions... You're dead, Dave... Dead. As in not alive. You've moved on. You have shuffled off this mortal coil. You cease to be. You are an ex-fighter... Put the gun down, Dave.... No, I am not afraid to die. I'm not you..."

"Reap what you sow, son!"

Death, that fickle mistress. Always waiting in the wings for your HP to go away, and your Cleric to be mind controlled by Illithid ponies. It is, for all intents and purposes, a very large part of any Role Playing Game. After all, without the threat of death, those pretty hit points your so desperately covet would be meaningless.

Death is the ultimate consequence. The final defeat of a character. It is a powerful thing to behold. Many of us have seen it at our tables. Some foolish fighter gets the bright idea in his head to go all "Leroy Jenkins" on the ghast in the crown with three hit points and a "What's the worst that could happen" attitude, or an overconfident barbarian staring down a mage casting Phantasmal Killer, while saying, "What are the odds that I'll fail both saves?"

"Pretty good when you roll double 1's"

Sometimes we've been that person and have fallen into the void by no fault of our own. If you play long enough, you'll eventually rack up at least one corpse. Hell, a friend of mine has a small cemetery of fallen "heroes".

So powerful is the possibility of death, that some DMs-the people who quite literally have control of the universe and hold sway over life and death-shy away from it. When Ozzriphathimus Zorrastigellion, Wizard of the 5th Circle, decided to use the cursed Flute of Owlbear Summoning he procured from the treasure horde in the Crypt of Cursed Items, a rampaging herd of (you guessed it) owlbears materialized from wherever forsaken hell owlbears materialize from, and trample his robe-wearing ass into the forest floor.  This is a delicate situation for many DMs. They will go out of their way to hit the reboot button. They look for loopholes, addendum, errata, and put the group on a quest to search the books for any passage that could deliver their crushed comrade from the clutches of the reaper.

"Seriously, owlbears! What the actual fuck?!"

In these rare cases, I have all the confidence in the world that a determined table of gamers could be the greatest team of lawyers walking the Earth,

Now, any old person would give you reasons arguing for, or against letting that character move onto the next life. I am, however, not any old person. I am-according to my closest friends-a "genocidal monster intent on nothing more than bringing about pain and misery".

While I can agree with most of that, I can also argue that I want nothing more than my player characters to live. They are sort of essential to this storytelling aspect I've grown so fond of. But sometimes, peeps gots to get ganked.

Let's look at our example above, with the crushed wizard.He's dead. Dead like you read about. Deader than disco. But here are a few reasons why he shouldn't be.
  • Sometimes players get their hands on cursed items. Sure, it can be fun for a little hindrance here and there, but for one to kill you outright doesn't seem entirely fair.
  • The player of said character could become alienated by the whole experience. After all, they put all the work into the character, their backstory, their little nuances. It's a shame to have that ripped away in a moment because rules and stuff.
  • The other people at your table could likewise become disturbed by your decision to sever the thread of fate. They could be next on the chopping block. Paranoia breeds mistrust, and before long you have a player vs. GM mentality working against you and your artfully crafted campaign world.
  • Fun is rule 0, no matter what you're playing. Not being able to play your character anymore is not terribly fun. Unless you're a necrophile, in which case, have at it!

Now, I think we can agree, that when Ozzriphathimus Zorrastigellion, Wizard of the 5th Circle, decided to use the cursed Flute of Owlbear Summoning he procured from the treasure horde in the Crypt of Cursed Items, he done fucked up. Little gnomish bastard deserved to die, and here is why.
  • He's a gnome!
  • He willingly produced an item that was modestly described as cursed, and on a whim, activated it. There are consequences to actions in the game. You open a trapped door without searching for a trap, you are going to get at least mildly fucked up. Death is the biggest consequence. It's a harsh, but effective learning tool.
  • There are going to be instances where a character is in over their head (or in this case, neck-deep in owlbear). Bad things happen, even to good people. Especially good people. When death can lurk behind any corner (or any cursed flute), it makes your players cautious. Adventuring is a short and brutal life. Very few ever reach retirement age, and those that do are canny old bastards that approach EVERY situation cautiously. This is how characters that started as farm hands and apprentices grow into the rough-and-tumble adventurers we see in all our favorite fantasy novels and erotic fan fiction.
  • Fun is rule 0, and as strange as it sounds, dying can be a positive experience for the player. Imagine if you will, that you are standing in a long corridor, and at the end of it is a stone relief of a green-faced devil, with an open mouth just wide enough to fit through. You know you want to crawl in, despite every logical thought in your brain screaming at you for even entertaining the notion. You throw caution to the wind, and inside of 6 seconds, there isn't enough left of you to fill a matchbox. While some would call "bullshit" you simply turn to the DM, laugh, and say, "Oh, you got me good". Then you can begin plotting his demise.
"Free hugs inside!"

Dying is a pretty definitive thing. 9/10 Clerics agree it's super bad for you (Watch out for number 10, he's a real Lich). But, as final as it is, it doesn't have to be the end. Lords no! It can begin a whole new direction for things. Sometimes dying can be downright cool. I mean, all the funky fresh hip kids are doing it these days!

For an example, let's say your players are squaring off against some truly bad dudes. Like, Kardashian-level evil. They fight valiantly but succumb to their dark foes. Total party kill. Roll up new characters next week, right? Hells no!

Resurrect them. Maybe some other adventurers discover their remains years later, and take them to a nearby temple to have them raised. Perhaps the villains beat them to it, and bring the party back from beyond the veil for some nefarious purpose. Or, keep them dead, and venture on into adventures in the afterlife.
"Death is not the handicap it used to be."

Another fine example of embracing your fate is the "Blaze of Glory" scenario. Your players are beaten down, and hopelessly outnumbered. Hit points can be counted on one hand. They decide to launch one final push, knowing full well they charge to their doom. Everyone dies, but perhaps they vanquish the evil-doer, fulfill the prophecy, destroy the MeGuffin, or defend the town. There is a great deal of satisfaction and finality to that. 

And that is where death can come full circle. The game you run, and the game you play are fun now. But the great ones, like stories of old, are kept alive in stories the players tell. You may have done a load of cool and badass things over the history of your campaign, but the thing you may remember the most is how you laid down your life defending the door against the merciless dracolich while your friends destroyed its accursed phylactery once and for all. In dying, that character transcended mortality and effectively became immortal.

So, what do you think? Is the prospect of death important to keep in your game, or does it impede the fun?

Live long and prosper, dear reader
+Ed The Bard 

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