In defence of character death

To sleep, perchance to dream

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There seems to be a lot of talk these days about character death in D&D and other roleplaying games. It seems that there's an audience that doesn't want their player character to die. Ever.

Which, admittedly, is the point of the game mechanic. If players don't care about death, then there's no point in having a death mechanic because it wouldn't influence the game. The game needs the player to fear character death, even though everybody knows that when your character dies, you just build a new one.

But some players don't seem to like the idea of character death, which is fine. Everyone should play D&D the way they want to play it. I happen to like the threat of character death, both as a player and as a game master. I think there are aspects to it that some people may not have considered. I believe death can be more fun than it may at first seem.

Character building is fun

When I started playing D&D, I had no external conditioning that it could be a goal of the game to have a player character reach 20th level. I was introduced to D&D in elementary school, and at the time there was a lot of noise about how the game was actually an occult ritual in disguise. Believe it or not, adults around me legitimately believed that playing D&D summoned actual demons. The game was banned at school, so it wasn't an easy thing to get into as a kid. However, my friends had learned from their older siblings how to build D&D characters, so we spent lunch breaks rolling a d6 (as I recall we didn't know you were supposed to roll 3d6) building characters that would never be played. We were really just rolling stats, and then making up a backstory for what we rolled. We didn't fill in all the other abilities, like bending bars and lifting gates and spell abilities, and so on. But we had fun believing we were builing characters.

Once I started playing the actual game, I viewed levels as a gateway to new abilities. Just like in real life, there's such a thing to me as being "wealthy enough." I never felt I needed all the powers, I just wanted to have enough cool powers to maximize my fun.

So when a character dies, I don't spend much time mourning its loss. I roll some die (or whatever the system demands) and make up a new character.

Die fulfilling your destiny

In Dragons of Autumn Twilight, Forestmaster the unicorn tells the heroes to never mourn someone who dies fulfilling their destiny. I'm not saying I never wanted to play a wizard that gained access to Power Word Kill or something cool like that. I'm not saying all characters should die before they gain 9th level spells or other cool abilities.

But not every character build has to reach the proscribed maximum possible potential. Just because a book says there are 20 levels doesn't mean that every character must reach 20th level. Sometimes, a character is what it needs to be, and then it ends. If that's its destiny, do not mourn.

Too many combinations

In all the years I played Pathfinder, D&D, Shadowrun, Blue Planet, and half a dozen other games, I've never come close to exhausting character options. In all but the most scripted systems, there seems to be near-infinite variety of combinations when you build a character. Even when a system doesn't provide a robust character builder, the personality of an imaginaray character tends to produce unexpected results. Even in Powered by the Apocalypse, one of the least flexible systems I can think of, you can use the same play sheet for completely unique characters just by playing your new character differently from the last one.


When a character is precious, players tend to be less likely to take risks. It's an obvious and rational function of wanting to keep a character alive. Unfortunately, it can also limit your RPG experience. The point of a simulated alternate reality is that you can do literally anything. We tell new players that all the time. But in practice, many of us don't do literally anything because literally anything can kill your character.

I feel like there's a disconnect here. You can do anything, unless it results in the imaginary death of a pretend person.

That doesn't have quite the same ring as "You can do anything."


A game is a game because there's the danger of losing. In modern RPG systems, there's a sensible emphasis on ensuring a game is delivered in full to its players. Keeping a player character alive has a lot of value, because constant setbacks can be discouraging and can, eventually, diminish the fun.

But sometimes you might want to temper that with a little game-anxiety. When your character's survival is guaranteed, then there are no threats. There's no reason to creep up on that darkened corner, or to slowly draw back the curtain, or to throw a stone with Light cast on it down the well. Part of the fun of a game is the uncertainty.

And it's not character death that creates the uncertainty. Strictly speaking, as I've already pointed out, character death itself isn't really a threat. Deep down, we all know that we can just build a new character. Character death as a mechanic isn't what creates the anxiety or a fear of losing the game. What we're actually afraid of is something emotional. Maybe you've formed a bond with your pretend person, or maybe you take pride in not dying because you consider that the mark of a "good" gamer, or maybe you just don't want to be bothered with building a new character.

Whatever the reason, character death is something that's "bad." And you don't want the bad ending. You want the good ending, and playing for the good ending is what makes an RPG a game.

It's not all fun and death

You delve into the Tomb of Horrors because you want to experience the tomb. You don't play it to die within the first hour, and then call it quits. You also might not build a specific character class to only experience the first few levels of that class. There are lots of great reasons to want to keep a character alive. But for that to mean anything at all, there must be the potential for the opposite to happen. As a player and a game master, I find it an interesting perspective to embrace character death.

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