Musings Of The Bard: The 5 Stages Of Character Death

When you have a good character, a really good character, everything at the table seems brighter. The battles are more tense and thrilling. You are emotionally vested in that character, which means that both and your Game Master have done something right. That is why when that character suddenly dies in a brutal an unexpected way, the grieving process begins.

I know some may say, "Hey Ed, it's just a made up character. There is literally nothing to grieve".

Well, you are wrong, bucko. Character death can hurt you right where it counts, because that character is a pat of you. It is the sum of your creativity and imagination, so... ouch. There are five stages of death and grieving that a lot of players go through when a character dies. I know the feeling all too well. I've been down that dark and dusty road. Today I will show you the five stages of character death as I experienced them with the loss of my dwarf barbarian Klad "The Unbreakable".

First, A Little Backstory
Klad was a prisoner at an inescapable prison; a volcanic glacier. His crime? Inciting a war. So, suffice to say, Klad had a little something going for him. He and the party did the impossible and escaped this inescapable prison, but not without drawing the attention of the guards. A high seas pursuit ensued, and Klad and his companions ended up shipwrecked on a strange, uncharted island.

On the island they encountered a group of elves that worshiped a bizarre entity called "The Sleeping God". The elves did not tolerate intruders and attacked the group on site. They fled to a flying ship that was tethered down with chains. As we broke the chains, elves continued to spill onto the deck of the ship, throwing themselves at us. Wave after wave crashed into us as flying elves lobbed spells at us. Finally a mage landed before me. I feared not this weak little mage, for I was Klad "The Unbreakable". Only hours ago I had beaten a dire shark to death with my bare hands. What could this frail elf do to me?

Phantasmal Killer.

I laughed, both in character and out. As a dwarf (in pathfinder), my saves were through the roof, and Phantasmal Killer required two saves. I turned to my fellow players with a shit-eating grin and said, "I would have to roll two ones in a row to cock this up."

I rolled a 1...

I rolled another 1...

I died...

That was when the grieving began.

The 5 Stages Of Character Death
1. Denial: I couldn't believe it. I really couldn't believe it. Two ones in a row? It was impossible. Inconceivable! I was Klad, "The Unbreakable"! How could I be brought low by a lone elf using an illusion!

This is the stage when folks at the table stop everything they're doing, look to the Game Master, and say "Whoa. What? Really?". It is hard to fathom, especially if it is a long running game. This character you've been playing, who has been standing beside their comrades for Gods knows how many battles is suddenly gone.

2. Anger: Disbelief turned into anger. Not toward my Game Master, but toward Klad, and by proxy me. I spent a good deal of time building this guy to be a nigh indestructible badass that ate lightning and crapped thunder, and he failed! He failed to live up that golden standard.

Sometimes players can compose themselves and keep this feeling to themselves. Some cannot. This is the stage where a lot of anger turns toward the Game Master. After all, they are the one that just killed the character, right?

While the Game Master presides over the game and acts as a mediator, they aren't out to murder the player characters, contrary to popular belief. Their death upsets us too, and so the anger does not help. Less so when it is directed at the player by other people at the table for doing something that lead to the death. As my tale can tell you, sometimes luck just isn't with you.

The Dice Gods are a fickle bunch.

3, Bargaining: I hit the books like a man possessed. I looked up the spell description, I re-factored my saves. I accounted for every single bonus I had. I turned to the party, begging for anyone what might have a spell that could fix this little problem of mine. Alas, they didn't.

This is where the rules lawyers really shine. They show the strength of their book-fu, searching for any loop hole that could be exploited to undo this grievous act. Players search for scrolls and potions that might be able to help. Spellcasters comb their spell lists and look ahead to when they might have a spell that could be effective. Necromancers ask the grieving character if they mind the taste of brains, and if they'd mind a promising career as an undead thrall.

4. Depression: I was so cocky. I was so sure. What a fool I had been. What a buffoon! How did I think that one character could stand up against any eventuality. All the damage reduction and high saves in the world couldn't save Klad from his own mind.

Death can really bring down the mood at the table. The overwhelming realization sets in that if it happened to that player, it could happen to you. It's a sobering prospect to be sure, one that leads to a much more careful party, at least for a few sessions.

5. Acceptance: He was a good character. I had a lot of fun with him, but he dropped fair and square. I could accept that. It isn't the death I had hoped for him, but it was a solid death, and I was okay with that.

 Even if a character dies, the player can bounce back, sometimes with more enthusiasm than before. As strange as it sounds, the death of a character can be a truly energizing experience.

On a side note: I didn't have to grieve long. A cleric with the party raised me from the dead at the expense of his sight. While I wasn't "Unbreakable" anymore, I was still Klad, "The Reasonably Tough".

But if you think character death effects on the player who ran that character, you are dead wrong. It is no secret that I have killed a few characters. Fewer than people expect, but enough to ensure I have a reputation for it. I have bared witness to how a character's death affects the whole table, and they too cycle through the staged.

A few months ago, during my Dragonslayer campaign, a player of mine was besieged by kobolds and took an arrow in the back, Unfortunately she had a sword that ate souls, and would eat the soul of its wielder if they dropped to 0hp, no saves. She knew it going in, but thought it was a good trade off for the powers the sword gave her.

 "Feed me Seymour!"

Well, her soul got ate (that is for the grammar nazis), She died. It was brutal. Immediately the table began going through the stages. Her boyfriend asked if I was serious (denial). She stood up, a tear rolling down her cheek, and left the room (depression). This caused her boyfriend to become angry with me for killing her (pretty sure you can figure that one out). Both the player who had died, and the party's bard came to me and asked if there was anything they could do to bring her back, or strike the death. Even the boyfriend wanted me to retcon the event (bargaining). At this point I left the room to talk to the player whose character died. I told her my plans for her soul, and gave her an idea for a character she could play in the meantime that fit with the upcoming portion of the story, which she liked quite a bit. She handed me her character sheet and went to work making a brand new character (Acceptance).

We ended the session early that night, as emotions were running pretty high. It is the joy of any Game Master to see players really get into their characters, and love them. It's equally heartbreaking to watch them mourn that character when or if they die.

Character death happens. Sometimes more often at some peoples' tables than others. Don't feel bad about mourning them when they fall. It is a perfectly natural process, after all.

Try to stay on the right side of the grass,
+Ed The Bard  

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