Pining for the Fjords – Player Character Edition

The rogue shifted himself too far back and got caught in the wizard’s blast.  The fighter just couldn’t save against the stunned effect and the monster front line made a beeline for the wizard.  The cleric just couldn’t get to them in time to heal them.  However it happened, someone’s dead.  And not “I’m at 0 HP and I’m making my saving throws” dead, but dead dead.  Negative bloodied value dead, failed three death saving throws dead, the spirit is no longer in residence in the body dead.  Now you have a problem.

Thankfully, Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition makes it much harder for a PC to actually die.  You start the game with more hit points than you did in any other edition, you can go far deeper into negative hit points than you could before, and if you drop, you have a better than 50/50 chance to make it until the end of combat (assuming your party doesn’t also fall).  There are feats and racial traits that can even keep you on your feet at negative hit points, making it damn hard to actually die in a game.  At least one race, the Eberron campaign setting Warforged, literally cannot die unless you as DM actively attack him or her after the character is down.  But even with all these safeguards in place so that the PCs can lose a battle without dying (which in my opinion is a good thing as a character will stick around longer, causing the player to become more attached and able to add more depth to the character), characters can still die.  It’s been a challenge of the story-oriented DM since the dawn of gaming, and there’s a few ways of handling it.

The first, and probably the least desirable from a story-standpoint, is the hand-wave.  There’s a lot of ways this is done in many cases.  Beldar the Dwarf Fighter dies, but his brother Delbar the Dwarf Fighter (who happens to have the same attributes, skills, powers, feats, and gear) is ready to go in the next room.  While this may satisfy some, I’ve always found it to be the least imaginative and clunky story-wise way of bringing a fallen character back into the game.  The good news is that the player can carry on as if nothing happened.  The bad news is that the player can carry on as if nothing happened.  It greatly reduces the threat of death and the dramatic tension if players know that anytime their character happens to die, they can just pick right back up like they found that 1-Up mushroom on Level 1-1.  If there’s no chance of death, there’s no tension in any given combat.  And without that dramatic tension, there’s no fun.  Ever played DOOM with iddqd turned on?  Sure, it was fun, but it just wasn’t the same as the tension and panic when you rounded a corner only to be confronted by a massive demon with a chaingun for an arm.  Taking that bastard down by the skin of your teeth was a massive rush, but without that tension of death, you lose a lot of that triumph.

If you want the player ready to go, you can always have them create a new character.  Depending on the player’s experience, this may only take a few minutes or it could take the rest of the session.  Sometimes, this is the best way to go.  The player may be out for a bit longer and they’ll have to switch to a new character, but sometimes, you want a character to go out in a blaze of glory.  If the death was dramatically satisfying enough, let them have their moment and start anew.  If the death was just a matter of bad rolls, though, then that character’s story shouldn’t be over quite yet.  This isn’t a decision you should make on your own, though, as this is not something you want to force on an unwilling player.  Talk to the player and find out if they want to go in a different direction or if they want to stay with their same character a bit longer.   They may be tired of playing that race/class or they may have read something else they find more interesting, or maybe they’ve done all they feel like they can do with the character story-wise and are ready for a change.  Or maybe they feel there’s still a lot going on for the character that hasn’t been resolved.  They haven’t slain their evil twin brother or restored their father’s honor or whatever other character motivations the player created.  If that’s the case, then switching characters wouldn’t be the best option.

So your player’s made his or her choice and either wants a new character or wants to stick it through with this one.  Depending on how high level the party is, it may take them some time to make that new character, possibly longer than is left in the session.  Or there may not be any logical place for a new character to come in.  If they’ve decided to stay with the character, the other PCs still have to get that Raise Dead ritual completed to bring them back.  So you’re left with a player staring into space, chatting, and otherwise sitting around not able to be part of the game.  You can always try the tips I’ve provided in more detail before for spectators at your game, such as letting them run an allied NPC, play assistant during combat by moving minis and tracking initiative, or be the snack and drink provider.  You could also make a “quick version” of the new character by simply assigning attributes and picking powers as they play through the game with the option to change them, or play a “ghost” of the deceased character by applying a template to the character.

No matter how you decide to deal with player character death, it should be a rare thing in your games.  The threat of death should be there, but actual character death should be rare.  You should think about your style of game and your players in order to determine what you will do, and you should think about it long in advance so that it doesn’t blindside you.  But whatever choice you make, be sure to keep your players in mind.

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Published in: on January 3, 2011 at 6:00 AM  Leave a Comment  
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