Surviving Character Death

Death in the family

What happens when a PC dies, or is about to? Do you pull punches to let them get out without a scratch? Do you kill PCs at will, and if they might survive you add another Dragon to the fight? Regardless of how you choose to handle it, you should prepare. Because each player is different and so they will all react differently to this event.


There are two parties to the player death and it is best if you come to terms with this as soon as possible. You always, as the DM, play a part. Sometimes it is less active and other times it is more active, but you always play a part. It is, after all, your world and your story and your antagonist. The other part is of course the player; they bear a certain responsibility because they choose not to avoid danger. After all, the player can choose to run away from an encounter the same way you can choose to not create the encounter. You all need to be aware of the responsibility that you have for your own character, the narrative and game as a whole, and the enjoyment we all look for. It is important that people understand the mantle of responsibility does not rest on the DM’s shoulders alone, nor on one player. It is a group effort.


And this is the groundwork you should lay to avoid some potential future pitfalls. Have a session, or a part of a session, where you discuss with the players the consequences and possibilities of death, but also the options to avoid it. Make sure they understand that unless you are playing solely a narrative role playing game, death is always sitting at the table too. And sometimes it wants a turn. Clear up that if they march into a dragon’s lair wearing nothing but barbecue sauce, their lives might be forfeit. Then again, if the DM notices the players are not ready for an excursion into a dragon’s lair it might be a good idea to call for all around Intelligence checks. In other words; allow the players to make lethal mistakes but allow them a way to prevent them as well. In the Discworld novel “Hogfather” by Terry Pratchett we see a literal personification of Death that hands a child a sword as a Christmas present. The discussion goes like this:

“You can’t give her that!” [the mother] screamed. “It’s not safe!”
“She’s a child!”
“What if she cuts herself?”

And that’s your job; give the players a sword and let them use it. (The metaphor here is that the sword can be the entrance to a dragon’s lair, a cursed crystal, or a literal sword.)


So then comes the reaction, and in this you as a DM play a larger part. The player (potentially) has a lot of emotion invested in their character. Which means that when their PC dies, they react emotionally instead of logically. There’s nothing wrong with that reaction; it means they are invested in their character and the game. So do not try to stop their outburst by saying things like “calm down” or “it’s just a game”. Instead, prepare for how to handle the situation and then act when required. I play in a public setting and I play in a private setting. I also play at conventions when possible. And my plan is this: if a PC dies, I immediately gauge the reaction of the player. If they seem upset, I get up and take them with me. We walk out of earshot of the table and we discuss how upset they are. The focus is to ease the anxiety and frustration, as well as the potential embarrassment and damage this could cause to the group. You don’t want James or Mary to explode in anger and have friendships marred. So allow them to talk to you, and listen to them. If they need it, they can have some time in the kitchen or living room or in the other expo hall to sit and think. And if they need to, they can go home and we will revisit this next time we play or over a cup of coffee. With time, they will distance themselves from the emotional reaction and they will be able to better adapt to the events in game.

Of course, it is possible that the player shrugs and starts rolling dice to make a new character. That’s possible too, so always have some blank sheets ready to go! Sometimes a player anticipates a potential death, or even tries to kill his PC, which makes your job easier.

Moving on

The last stage in a death is always moving on. Maybe the next quest is to resurrect their fallen friend? Maybe a session is dedicated to their funeral rites? Maybe we now need revenge? And on top of that, f the player wants to keep playing, maybe you need to introduce a new character? The game goes on, and it is evident that people are ready for this when they start asking questions that lead into the above scenarios. Allow the natural process to be guided by your players, because more than just the deceased PC’s player might be affected by this.

So get your players back in the game, back in the zone, and back to their dice. And then? Well, that’s up to your group isn’t it?

Until next time, happy gaming!

Canadian DM

Personal Prep Series #4: Organization & Being Ready

Preparing for a game session can sound like a lot of work, but I have learned that if you treat it like work then that is exactly what it becomes. Of course prep always takes time, just look at all the things you may need for the session: maps, monsters, NPCs, locations. The list goes on and on for what you need to be ready for, but that doesn’t have to be tackled every single time you get ready for a session. Continue reading Personal Prep Series #4: Organization & Being Ready

Ask a DM #2: PC Death, Non-Combat Encounters, and Taking Up the Mantle

For our second article in this series, we asked a new set of DMs a new set of questions. This time we discuss the ever-debated topic of PC death, favorite things to do in game (that aren’t orc slaying), and what it is that inspired each of our respondents to begin DMing in the first place. Continue reading Ask a DM #2: PC Death, Non-Combat Encounters, and Taking Up the Mantle

Tips on Convention GMing

Convention season is approaching quickly, which means it is time for those con games! Some of my favorite games I have ever run have been with a table full of complete strangers. While some see running games at cons daunting, or they don’t like the lack of control of who is at the table, the best thing to keep in mind is that everyone wants to be there. With that in mind, here are a few things I found to ease the way into running a con game. Continue reading Tips on Convention GMing

Personal Prep Series #3: Pens, Docs, and Whiskey

The Essentials

I’m still figuring out what works best for me in terms of prep. Ten years ago I mostly winged it or ran packaged modules, and I’ve only recently come back to the hobby. Mostly I start planning and generating ideas using good old pen and paper. I’ve settled on the unique notebook from Code and Quill pictured above, which gives me a dot grid layout in the left-hand page and lined on the right. Decent pencils for drawing and a fountain pen for writing. Good quality tools are just more satisfying to use for me but your mileage may vary. I use a well organized series of Google Docs for my final work and long-term notes. As with many things in life I find moderate doses of responsibly consumed alcohol really lubes up the gears of inspiration.

Continue reading Personal Prep Series #3: Pens, Docs, and Whiskey

Railroad vs. Sandbox

Railroad vs. Sandbox

There are only two types of games. There is the railroad-style game, in which the DM places the players on a plot track moving them from one scenario to the next to resolve the overlying conflict of the story. There is the sandbox-style game wherein the DM allows the players free access to all parts of the campaign world evenly, ready for wherever they go and whatever they do. Alternatively, some games are a mix.

Three. There are only three types of games. Continue reading Railroad vs. Sandbox

Ask a DM #1: Themes, Reactions, and Must-Haves

As a way to get to know each other, some of us here at DM Support Group settled on an initial few questions to answer:

  • What are your favorite themes to include in the games you run?
  • What player reaction do you most long for?
  • What’s your favorite resource to have at the “table?”

Here’s a first batch of answers.

Continue reading Ask a DM #1: Themes, Reactions, and Must-Haves

Personal Prep Series #2 : Spreadsheets and Dice

My DM dice on the players' home base map.

Prepping the Game: What’s That?

In a broad sense, that means preparing for your game, yes. But what does that really mean for you? Do you run test combat to see if it is too difficult? Are you practicing voices for your NPCs, or comparing words to find the best one for your descriptions? Do you just use a name generator and wing it? In this article I take the baton as it is passed down by fellow DM Nicholas (from Nat One and The Notebook GM, as well as our first article in this series) and write about my preparation for a game with my players. The goal is to show existing and new DMs that there is no one way to prep. And that it is neither as scary nor as difficult as you might think. Continue reading Personal Prep Series #2 : Spreadsheets and Dice

Personal Prep Series #1: Notebooks and Wine

Notebooks and Wine

Good Articles (And Good Sessions) Have Introductions

Prep is something that few GM’s discuss openly for some reason. Partially I think that this has to do with the DM’s predilection for secrecy. It is much easier to err on the side of the clandestine if it is going to preserve some mechanic, stat block, story beat, or plot twist that might encourage “metagaming” or ruin immersion during the session. Here at the DMSG we decided that it was something we should get to chatting about—because that’s what we are here for, as a resource to DMs Continue reading Personal Prep Series #1: Notebooks and Wine