What To Do When a PC Dies

Everyone’s time comes eventually. Eventually bad tactics, story, or cold dice kill a character. I’ve lost a couple and I’ve killed a couple.

But what happens next? I’m not talking about the long tunnel with the bright light or passage to the Shadowfell, but what happens at the table. A character just died and there are two or three hours left in the session. What do you do?

What Came Before

This is the spiritual follow-up to an earlier blog where I mused about killing PCs, but did not really touch on the follow-up. This seemed like an omission, which I now correct.

Below are some options and discussion on what to do when a PC dies at your table.

The Watcher

The baseline action for a PC dying unexpectedly is that player sits around bored, watching events unfold. At best the one player is a little bored. At worst they’re a distraction for the rest of the table.

This option used to be best avoided due to how boring sitting there can be, but is a little more palatable with distractions such as mobile devices. The player of the dead PC can just amuse themselves quietly playing Angry Birds while half-listening to the story.

While the initial reaction to allowing a player to be bored is to declare this option “bad DMing” and to be avoided at all cost, there are a few times it can be valid.

First off, in one-shot or tournament-style game where the party is expected to die eventually anyway, worrying about a player being bored is missing the point. Especially if the player’s own foolishness lead to their character’s demise. Likewise, in any form of organized play you can’t just allow the player to roll a new character and appear halfway through the story.

In a traditional campaign, this should still only be done if the session is almost over or there’s just a short delay until the party manages a quickie resurrection. It’s a valid option when any other effort to keep the one player engaged and involved would just take longer than continuing to play. You don’t want to bore the rest of the table. Similarly, sometimes bringing in a new PC would strain verisimilitude. There’s no reason someone of similar level to the PC would be found miles underground in a forgotten crypt. There are ways, but they shouldn’t be done too often.

Re-Roll

The easiest and quickest option other than having the player be bored is to have them start making a new character. While it’s not always possible to bring the new character directly into play, it keeps them occupied and the new character is ready for if opportunity strikes and they can jump right in.

This can be a distraction on the DM, as the player pulls them away from the game with questions such as what treasure or gear they start with (if there are not hard rules) or other character creation questions. This could be quite a chore in 3e with higher level characters where the wealth-by-level could be particularly high. 4th Edition certainly simplified this, limiting it to the choice of three items, but there are still other limits or questions.

While technology has made sitting but not participating more palatable, it has made creating a new character harder. My 4e players relied on the Character Builder to make their character, so dying and rerolling meant finding a Windows machine with the Character Builder installed. My current Pathfinder players don’t rely on HeroForge, but I’ve had players that do, which is even trickier as that program has a hard cap on installs and is limited to a single machine unless you pay extra.

I can see this problem getting even trickier as technology continues to rapidly change. During my 4e campaign – a mere three years ago – laptops were still the reigning portable device, so my players just defaulted to installing the Builder on their laptop, so there was a high probability of someone having their laptop and the Builder. Now, iPads and other tablets have entirely replaced laptops at my table, so the 4e Builder – even the more portable online one – is inaccessible (let alone HeroForge). Building a new character means going into a different room with a desktop computer (or using a workaround, such as a desktop streamer like Splashtop or TeamViewer).

NPC Promotion

An easy option for many games is the rapid field-promotion of an NPC. It gets the player back in the game quickly and they get to try something different, but they can still bring in a new personalized character later.

The ease of handing over an NPC does depend on the system. Hirelings are not always the most supported subset of the rules; it took quite a while for friendly NPCs to appear in 4th Edition, and it’s equally unlikely to be supported out of the gate in 5e. Because making an NPC in any edition is a slow process, unless the DM has one at hand, it’s not going to be a viable option.

NPCs shouldn’t just appear out of nowhere, so this option only works if there’s a ready NPC sitting in the wings. Just like running into a new PC mid-dungeon isn’t always the most acceptable thing in terms of verisimilitude, running into an NPC is silly at best. I regularly like including a supporting cast member that can act as a replacement character (as well as other miscellaneous jobs such as acting as a character for a guest player, being the DM’s voice, and the like).

Playing an NPC is only really satisfying as a short term solution. By design, NPCs are less powerful and/or have fewer options than a full PC. It’s unfair to ask a player to play an underpowered and inequal character for a long stretch of time. One session is fine and two is alright but pushing it. By the third session (excluding very unusually circumstances) the NPC should magically find themselves suddenly more skilled and the equivalent of a PC.

Co-DM

One option is to just skip trying to force the player to continue to be a player and have him be the co-DM. The co-DM can do assorted other tasks such as managing initiative, tracking rounds, picking music, and the like.

Monsters, especially in large fights, can be tricky to juggle so having a second person reading powers and rolling dice can help. This option works best if the former-player has a little bit of time to familiarize themselves with the monsters: reading powers in 4e and 5e, and looking-up feats and powers in 3e and Pathfinder.

Similarly, the player might be able to run the villain, allowing the Big Bad to be role-playing and given a little extra spotlight time. This might work especially well in a one-shot or tournament style game. For example, you can imagine the player of a dead character taking over as Strahd in I6: Ravenloft. The DM sets the stage and handles all the other monsters, but Strahd comes and goes as he pleases. This works best with a hard to kill boss or one that can be present without being vulnerable, such as a dragon that can project their image or a wizard that can appear in mirrors.

The catch with this is that not every player will be able to divorce themselves from their role as former party member. This is primarily a problem in an ongoing campaign where the dead character might potentially still be resurrected. The player might not play the opponent to the best of their ability, or make mistakes leading to an easier fight. There’s also always the risk hard feelings over their character’s death might also skew their actions, leading them to target certain players for a revenge killing. While the majority of players are likely mature enough not to do this, it’s still a risk to be aware of and considered.

Ghost

One idea that is not done often is the idea of a ghost PC. This is likely due to the rules getting in the way of the idea. There are some complicated or unbalanced rules associated with ghosts. In 3e and Pathfinder, applying the ghost template to a character requires a complete rebuilding, and it both of those editions and 4e incorporeal creatures take half damage while doing full damage (balanced in 4e by incorporeal creatures having fewer hitpoints). Letting a PC be as effective as a ghost as they were flesh and blood means dying has no sting. As the DM, you don’t want the party carrying on as if nothing happened, as their first goal should always be to return and get back to full strength. However, if they’re on a quest that cannot be abandoned just yet, there should be the option of continuing forwards.

(Aside: There was an entire book in 3.0e based around the idea of adventures continuing after death: Ghostwalk. But that’s beyond the scope of this blog.)

But the idea of a ghost PC is fun; a ghost PC allows the player to participate in role-playing for the rest of the session, and thus not be bored for the rest of the session until resurrected. There are some fun role-playing options as well, such as the ghost only being visible (or audible) to their closest friends. It does change the dynamic of the character because they suddenly become the master of stealth and can scout ahead, potentially making fights easier (but as the party is down a member, easier fights are not necessarily bad). The trick is balancing for combat.

Participation in combat is still a must, as you don’t want the playing just watching, but you don’t want to give the PC full access to their complete repertoire of tricks and options (read: spells). The tactical benefits of being incorporeal are too strong. Ghost characters might be able to assist, pushing enemies or offering a flank. They might be able to manifest to distract enemies or grant cover/concealment. There might be some lesser ghostly powers. You can imagine them inspiring terror or having a touch inflicting cold damage.

There’s probably enough material for a crunchy blog on being a ghost. I’ll have to do that some time.

Wrap-Up

Dying in the game sucks. Killing characters can really result not only in boredom at the table, but a distraction as ex-character’s player seeks ways of keeping amused. More than being stunned or held, being dead is The Un-fun. Yet, removing death from the game seems particularly unsatisfying. The fear of death drives the game. Death should always be a possibility.

But it helps to be aware of the possibilities for when someone dies.