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!”
“IT’S A SWORD,” said Death. “THEY’RE NOT MEANT TO BE SAFE.”
“She’s a child!”
“What if she cuts herself?”
“THAT WILL BE AN IMPORTANT LESSON.”
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.
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!