It had taken months, but finally the moment had come. Risanda, Tolath and Orlay had tracked down Nergülat, the death mage of Zavvura. Finally they could catch him or, if necessary, kill him. Finally he would answer for his crimes. For all the kidnappings, the graveyard thefts, the murders…

Especially for one murder.

Two years ago, they had their first chance to catch Nergülat. They thought he wasn’t much of a threat and that had cost them dearly. They had him cornered, wounded – vulnerable. The fourth member of the group, Karleg, a burly warrior from the southern lands, approached the necromancer with rope and sword. This was supposed to be simple.

And then Nergülat used a spell to charm Karleg. They had no solution to this problem. All they could was watch as the necromancer and their friend made their escape together. Once they followed they found their friend, the strongest man they’d known, with his throat cut.

It was no longer a simple bounty-hunting. They were after the man who had killed their friend. And they had caught up to him…

There is in most RPG’s the tendency to make life a bit trivial. Battling hordes of evil monsters, fighting in epic battles or destroying the base of the evil organisation. Finally confronting the BIg Bad End Guy…

This is at least partially justifiable. The bread and butter of fantasy is fighting evil and lives will almost inevitably be lost. Epic space battles will involve blowing up massive spaceships and those have a crew.

Lives are cheap in RPG’s. Even for players.

Back when I started playing, it was perfectly normal to have a stack of characters because 1e AD&D was brutally merciless. Warriors dropped like flies and wizards could be killed with a single blow.

This attitude has thankfully changed. Somewhere along the way we started to do more roleplaying and less hack’n’slashing and started to have more feelings towards our characters, less ready to see them die.

The difficulty of death

One of my greatest weaknesses as a GM is handling death. It’s an ironclad rule of mine as a GM to be completely neutral. I am a storyteller, arbiter of rules and create or dictate situations and encounters. I am not there to help the players nor unnecessarily hinder them. And I am absolutely not competing with them, we’re all there to have fun, not for them to beat me or vice versa. Player deaths do occur in my games – not regularly, but it happens. I don’t see it as my role to dictate how the players should handle a death at the table but perhaps I should do more about it. Since I expect my players to be the ones to make a death in the group a big deal, I probably seem a bit cold to it.

RPG death can become mundane, and that’s the worst that can happen. We GM’s should make death a big deal. But I really think that this particular problem is one best handled by the players.

It’s a big friggin’ deal

When a fellow player’s character dies, put yourself in the shoes of your character. You have just watched a friend die, probably in the most terrible of circumstances. This is someone you have known for years, possibly all your life and you have done incredible things together.

What if you’re the one who just lost a character? You didn’t just lose a piece of paper and statistics with a great set of skills and abilities that you have spent time building, you lost a person who is your creation entirely, who has a personality that may match yours or be completely different, a person you wanted to play. You shouldn’t just sit down and start rolling dice and thinking up another one. You should be extra motivated, whether your new character was or wasn’t connected to the previous one.

Treating deaths of PC’s or major NPC’s as trivial is simply bad roleplaying, on both sides of the screen.

In a perfect world

If RPG’s had no interactivity, any main protagonist (i.e. PC) death, would be a dramatic high point. It wouldn’t be a random mishap, but a major villain’s evil act or a heroic sacrifice.

Such is not the luxury of a lot of our games. A random encounter or a bad roll of the dice can spell the difference between life and death. In the heat of the moment and flow of the game, it can easily take a while to sink in what just happened. In some systems you can ramp up the tension between a character falling unconscious and actually dying and here the GM can actually shine.

But even a trivial encounter with a random, unforeseen outcome can and should fuel so much more. It should motivate the group to mourn their fallen comrade, honour his or her memory and make it a major deal to replace their fallen friend.

If you’re “lucky”, a character dies directly because of the actions of a major villain. Then there is endless potential for the growth of both the PC’s and NPC’s. There are giant opportunities for a big story that revolves entirely around seeking justice or vengeance.

That’s precisely what happened that one time I did everything right when it came to a PC’s death. I’ve mentioned that this is one of my GM weaknesses, but the short story in the beginning is a very condensed version of how this should be. Nergülat was meant to be very minor villain in a one-shot, between campaigns. The group had him beat but turned overconfident. The one trick the necromancer had left was a non-combat charm spell – which worked all too well. It became inevitable that he murdered his charmed prisoner and that fuelled months of fantastic stories and roleplaying. The players made hunting him down in memory of their fallen friend the entire motivation of the mini-campaign and I wrote and designed months worth of some of the best stuff I’ve done.

Don’t forget – death matters and touches us in real life. Why shouldn’t it in the virtual one?