The Fun of Character Death

Dead Adventurer by Andrew Olsen http://andrew-olson.blogspot.com/“Obvious” is a tricky concept, because most of the time it’s not actually obvious. Some facts which are obvious to one person may only seem that way because that person is surrounded by people who take that fact for granted. And that obvious fact may not even be true! For many subjects, it’s not too difficult to find two people who hold mutually exclusive viewpoints to be obviously true. We really shouldn’t be so hasty to name something “obvious.”

Due to this, it is often helpful to state that which may seem obvious in a clear and descriptive manner. Maybe I’m wasting time, but I have a feeling that this is not as well understood as it ought to be. So here we go:

The more time a player has invested in their character, the less fun it will be if that character dies.

There are some rare exceptions to this rule, but it remains largely true for any manner of time investment. We Pathfinder GMs are at something of a disadvantage. At my best, I can help a first time player through the process of creating a level 1 character in about 40 minutes. And, generally speaking, the task is viewed by a new player as something of a chore. They may come to find it much more entertaining once they begin to understand the system better, but that comes later, if at all.

The result is that, in a game like Pathfinder, there’s no way for a GM to handle character death in the first session without significant frustration on the player’s part. After spending 40 minutes or more on a character, players are not going to want to trudge through the creation process a second time just because they failed to check for pit traps. And if you’re playing with first-timers, then they’re probably going to fail to check for pit traps more than once.

When I’m running a Pathfinder game, I handle this in two ways. First, I try never to run a game composed entirely of new people. I try to find at least one veteran of my game table to sit in and provide an example of skillful play. Second, during a new player’s first few sessions, I bend the rules, and give them advice in an attempt to show them how they can best survive. But that can’t last forever. It can’t even last very long, lest players start to think they can rely on the GM for advice. And even before I do stop giving advice, it’s important to allow the players to suffer the consequences of their mistakes.

The game is no fun if there is no danger of character death.

That’s slightly more controversial, but I hold it to be no less true than the statement above. If a player’s decisions lead to their demise, then a good GM will not protect them from their fate. The fact that a player has invested enough time in a character for that character’s death to be upsetting is not a justification for allowing PCs to cheat death. In doing so, we rob the game of its danger, and without the chance of failure, it ceases to be a game.

Games with shorter character creation methods are not immune to this problem. If it only takes 5 or 10 minutes to create a character, then players won’t be too upset if their character dies in the first session of play. They probably won’t be too upset if their character dies in the second session of play, or the third. Once they reach level 2, though, they’re going to be a little more upset if they die. And as they progress through the levels, it will become more and more disheartening to lose a character. It doesn’t matter if the GM allows them to come back into the game with a new character of equal level. Losing a character you care about is never going to be fun.

I don’t bring this up because I think it’s a problem which needs to be solved. I don’t even think it really can be solved. On the one hand you have you player’s desire for their character to survive the game, on the other hand you have the entertainment value your players get from surviving a world which is legitimately deadly. You can play with the balance all you like by making characters more resilient, increasing or decreasing the availability of resurrections, or whatever. But in my experience, players are the most interested in the game when they’re coming face to face with their character’s own mortality.

I guess I don’t really have a point to make with this post, so much as I wanted to put those thoughts down somewhere.

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9 thoughts on “The Fun of Character Death”

  1. Ah well timed. I just ran a session in the Caves of Chaos which saw the deaths of 3 PCs. Despite agreeing that character death makes things tense and interesting (and telling my players that upfront), I still was fairly generous with accessibility to raise dead, and some lucky rolls mean that everyone is back for now. But as I said in my post on the subject, everyone is also now aware that death really can and will happen, and that while I was generous the first time, it will be many months before the next raise dead scroll will make it to town.

  2. I like character deaths i play in a live action game and run games for that to and i all ways think that if my game is well stated then one player should die unless the players work together. But as you say it is a game where you can stat in 5 minutes

    i would all so like to suggest a house rule that worked well in one game i played in

    rather than dieing at -10 a character dies at -10- his level this makes it harder for a player to be killed in one hit and adds the fun of bleeding out in a dangerUS place

    1. Actually, -10 is the D&D 3.5 rule. In Pathfinder, characters die when they reach negative HP equal to their constitution score. So a barbarian might not die until -16, while a wizard might die at -8.

      I’m interested to learn that a LARPer reads my blog. Thanks for commenting!

  3. I agree with this post entirely, but please allow me to pose you a question that I have a hard time with myself: While I do agree that it is good to put on the kid gloves for new players, when do you take the kid gloves off, and how do you convey that to the player?

    I have a largely new group that I am DMing for now, and I have made it a point to take it easy on the new players initially, but I want to make sure they know that I will stop giving suggestions and let them play out their mistakes more. I don’t want it to sound like I am bashing them or upset at them though. I just want to bring mortality into the game.

    1. I make it clear every time I give them advice that they should not expect advice.

      I usually usually say something like “Normally I’m not going to give you advice, but you’re still new to the game, so I’ll let you know that the rogue ought to be the one pickpocketing the keys of the sleeping ogre, not the cleric.”

      I really only do that if I feel like the players have some kind of fundamental misunderstanding about how the game works. (for example, many players think they can resurrect dead characters easily).

      More often than not I prefer to let the players fail.

  4. “I don’t bring this up because I think it’s a problem which needs to be solved. I don’t even think it really can be solved. On the one hand you have you player’s desire for their character to survive the game, on the other hand you have the entertainment value your players get from surviving a world which is legitimately deadly. You can play with the balance all you like by making characters more resilient, increasing or decreasing the availability of resurrections, or whatever. But in my experience, players are the most interested in the game when they’re coming face to face with their character’s own mortality.”
    Why don’t you give just one “second chance” when a player is death, regarding the situation the player’s are in?
    For example, when a player is supposed to be killed at their first time, they are not killed. They are just KO’d and becomes unconscious. Of course, there is a penalty for the “death”, tough. Like losing all their current XP to level up and some items (especially weapon). But still, that’s better than really losing 1 character. I started using that system about half a year ago, and that’s work really fine.

    1. If I felt that the character’s death would be problematic for the game, I might do something similar to what Tpmoney suggested. That is, I’d allow the players to encounter a scroll of resurrection, or similar magic doodad, to bring their fallen companion back to life.

      More often than not, though, I think a dead character should be left alone by the GM. An undue amount of resurrections reduces any sense of mortality the game has.

  5. I tell my players up front that they will likely lose at least one character during a campaign. I also tell them it is best to have at least 1 back up character at any given time.