The Evolution of Character Death in Roleplaying/DND Games

Character death in roleplaying is a hotly contested topic, and, in the opinion of many long-time GMs, one of the major ways in which roleplaying games have changed in the last ten years. In prior generations, hero death was fairly common. Not only that, but it was often seen not as an antagonistic action or failure of the GM, but rather a noble or fitting end to a character. Today, character death is seen as something that needs to be avoided at all costs -- and that’s led to an interesting shift in roleplaying mechanics.

The Purpose of a Character Death in Roleplaying

Characters die in stories all the time -- well, depending on the type of story. Certainly they die in fantasy stories frequently. Probably not so much in children’s books. A character’s death fulfills the character’s arc and, in many ways, does the character a service. Everyone has to die sometime, after all: what is more noble a death than saving the rest of your party from a seemingly unbeatable foe?

And it doesn’t have to be a noble death to be interesting -- a chaotic neutral wizard consumed by his own greed and madness is just as compelling. The death of a character ends that character’s story, but that does not by any means reduce the impact of that character’s story. If anything, it instantly intensifies the drama.

That’s not to say that characters didn’t occasionally die for absolutely no reason or at the hands of a vindictive DM. The stereotype does exist for a reason; there were enough brutal DMs at one point in time that character deaths could feel unfair. But that doesn’t mean that character deaths are always unfair.

Storytelling vs. Video Game Mechanics

There are two types of RP player today: those who are crafting a story and those who are playing a pen-and-paper video game. And neither of these are wrong, the only issue occurs when players of these types are mixed together.

When storytelling is the major focus of a roleplaying game, character death can become incredibly useful. A single character dies, yes, but it spurns the party on, giving them motivation. The next character rolled can tie into this in some way, giving that character more backstory. Everything becomes grander.

And it can simply be a quirky way to drive a story. In one game, our female bard died simply due to bad rolls, but because the wizard had a healing spell the entire time (and was waiting to use it) he became wracked with guilt. After rerolling a second character, we joked, “When this character dies, she’s going to say, with her dying breath, ‘please take care of my sister.’ Inside the locket will be a picture of the bard.”

We haven’t done that yet -- but we will.

But when players are playing a game as a “video game,” character death is wrong. The goal isn’t to tell a story, the goal is to build their own character. People would hardly play a modern video game that made you create a new character every time you died. So, the line of thought goes, why should they play a roleplaying game that does the same?

The Burden of Death on the DM

An interesting side effect to this is that it has made it so that the burden of a character death is primarily on the DM. Players blame the DM when a character has died, often going as far as to claim that the game was unbalanced or that the deck was stacked against them. This naturally leads to DMs who are afraid of killing off characters.

Some DMs get around this by polling their group early on about what character death means to them. One experienced DM even noted that he puts it on the character development sheet itself, asking, “Out of all deaths, what would your character’s preferred death be?”

Other DMs simply spend all their time relentlessly balancing their game, in hopes of avoiding a character death -- burning out the DM and reducing the amount of time they have for their story.

Whether this is all a problem really depends primarily on the group, but it’s worth reflecting on for DMs, GMs, and players. As a storytelling mechanic, character death adds a layer of intrigue, complexity, and urgency that can seldom be replicated in another way. With the right group, character death can lead to some glorious and dramatic moments -- with the wrong group, it can lead to the entire thing disbanding.