The last two sessions of our game have been particularly brutal for the players’ characters — in two session, we’ve lost three PCs, almost lost another, and scads of popular NPCs, to boot. Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of players lose characters, either to bad rolls, bad decisions, a hostile GM, etc. Their reactions have varied from one player that claimed he was haunted by his character in a dream (the character [read, player] thought his death heroic, but he had actually done something incredibly stupid) and was upset that he wasn’t getting respect; to players who were overjoyed that their character went down doing something incredibly heroic, and just about every variant between. No matter the event, losing a character that you’ve invested a lot of time and effort on breathing life into, that you have used to vicariously experience danger, adventure, and heroism, can be a traumatic experience.

There are a few key points for players and gamemasters to keep in mind at point. First the players:

1) It’s only a game. It’s fantasy. It might not feel that way; good role playing can make the characters seem as real (and sometimes more so) that actual people in your life. But they’re not. And like all good things, they will eventually pass, as well, if the game goes long enough.

2) It’s not personal. Sometimes the dice screw you. (As infamously cried by a player in one campaign, who dropped to his knees in a moment of frustration and bellowed, “My dice are fucking me!”) Sometimes no amount of tweaking and hand waving by the GM is going to save you — as in the six, count ’em, six botches a player rolled trying to get control of his fighter in the middle of a massive battle, only to punch out and get humped on that last test, as well. Sometimes…it’s your time.

The same goes for when you make a bad tactical error in the game. Maybe you shouldn’t have read from the Book of the Dead. Maybe aggressing that company of Martian warriors armed with harsh words and stick wasn’t the epitome of strategic brilliance. Maybe taking that turn at high speeds on that twisty road by Lake Como in the spy agency’s Aston Martin was ill-advised. (That’s how they killed two DBS sedans while driving them to the shoot for the initial chase sequence in Quantum of Solace. Not while filming it. While commuting.) Sometimes…it’s your time.

 

2b) It’s not personal…except when it is: Yes — there are the old school DMs that take an adversarial pose in relation to the players and their characters, but that’s less common today. Your GM is (probably) not gleefully killing characters for his own enjoyment, then ritually burning your character sheet or keeping it as a trophy in his death room like some serial killer. Unless he is. Then it’s either time to find another person to play with, or it might be insanely cool in a freaky sort of way. YMMV. And on that note –A GM obviously looking to off your character might indicate an out of game issue that needs to be brought up and resolved.

Just don’t do it in his character death room.

3) If you are so torn up over a character’s death or incapacitation, or their failure, or their losing a loved one… you should reconsider your hobbies, at least for a little while.

As to the game master side of the equation:

1) If you are looking to off your player’s characters as a punishment for not showing up (more on this in a moment), or because you had an argument over whatever, or you’re just a malicious jerk like the lead character from Zero Charisma — see point 3 for the players. You’re not creating high drama; you’re being a jerk.

2) Try not to kill players’ characters when they are not there that night. a) It makes you seem like a jerk, b) the player is likely to see it as “punishment” for not attending, c) especially if they’ve been playing the character for a while, it makes the player feel they’ve been stripped of their agency. “I wouldn’t have done X” is a common refrain here.

This is one that I try to hew to, but inevitably, there’s going to be that “big fight” night that one of the players — usually one that’s going to be in the thick of things — doesn’t show up. At this point, I try to use GM fiat to avoid putting them in the crosshairs, but sometimes that just doesn’t work. I think we’ve only had it happen thrice in the last two decades that someone’s character was topped while they weren’t there. (Last week being the second time.)

3) Try and give the player some kind of “moment” in exchange for the loss — maybe the hero got blasted by that narco hit squad, but remember that grenade..? Good thing he had it to do a last action and save his team mates, huh? Or as their starfighter is coming apart around them, they set the nose toward the bad guy’s ship and do a bit of damage (or destroy it, if they roll well enough…) Or in the case one of the characters the other week, he last action before dying was to unlock his phone so the others could gain access to his notes on the bad guys. Or even just a nice dramatic death — something cool to go out on. (Think Tom Hanks’ shooting his .45 futilely at the German tank in Saving Private Ryan…useless, but damned cool.) I remember an early D&D campaign where my fighter had died, back to a tree, surrounded by bad guys — but he had provided a distraction for the rest of the team to achieve the victory over the Big Bad. This sort of thing gives the player something to hang their memories of the character on.

Characters’ deaths can be a hard moment in a gamer’s life, but it can also be a heroic memory to frame the character and campaign. Even useless deaths, in the right kind of game, can provide the proper tenor for campaign — “I can’t believe he’s gone…it was so useless!” is a very appropriate thing for a Call of Chthulu game, for instance, but sucks for a Hollow Earth  or other pulp style game. And while the character might be gone, there’s no reason you can’t reskin him or her with a slightly modified personality or stats — there are plenty of gamers who play the same thing (kinda like Harrison Ford or Paul Rudd…if the formula’s working, no need to change it.) There are gamers who like new and interesting challenges — character death gives you the opportunity to try something new.

In the end, it’s just a game.

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