Many RPGs simply assume that most groups, and most campaigns, approach PC death in the same way. “PCs can die, and when they do, it’s final” is certainly a common paradigm.
But there are lots of different ways to address player character death. Here’s a list of 8 different approaches.
This post isn’t about how you, as a GM, should handle the death of a PC in your campaign. The Player Character Death Survey takes a look at that topic.
Instead, I’d like to look at the ways that different RPGs incorporate PC death into their rules, and use that as a springboard for discussion about what kinds of assumptions (implicit and explicit) are involved.
8 Ways That RPGs Address PC Death
PC death is final. Period. Common to many RPGs that focus on realism, like Twilight: 2000.
Player character death is usually final, but there are ways to come back. Offhand, I can’t think of a game that uses this approach. What am I forgetting?
PCs can die, but they can usually come back. D&D exemplifies this approach, until you hit higher levels (see below for what happens then).
The PCs can die, but they always come back. At high levels, D&D can be like this.
PC death is final, but there are plenty of ways to cheat death. d20 Modern uses Action Points to accomplish this — they’re not 100% guaranteed to save your butt, but they can. I think Buffy has rules like this, too.
Death is final, but PCs have 100% effective ways to avoid dying. Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (at least in 1st edition) PCs have Fate Points, which can be spent to avoid death — not have a chance to avoid it, but simply to do so.
PCs are immortal. The 2nd edition of Mummy (not the standalone 3rd edition) featured immortal PCs, although there were some limitations.
A PC can only die when the player wants them too. Primetime Adventures, which aims to emulate TV shows, uses this approach.
Two things surprise me about this list. I prepared it off the cuff, and yet after the first couple of items it was clear to me that there’s a continuum under the hood, progressing from very low player control to very high player control.
The other thing that surprises me is that I could only think of 8 approaches. Are there really that few, or (more likely) am I forgetting some? Past lists point to my having forgotten at least a couple. (Edit: Yep, I forgot plenty — see below!)
I’m not surprised that most RPGs I can think of fall in the top half of the list. Putting death on the line is a simple, effective way to encourage (if not ensure) that your players are invested in the game. The top few approaches are also the most traditional, largely because of D&D’s dominance of the hobby.
Do you agree with my assessment that the PC death continuum (also a punk band, appearing soon at a bar near you!) progresses from near-zero control to full control? And what does that imply about the games that opt for certain approaches?
Update: Your comments below helped to flesh out this list, which is now quite a bit longer. Here’s the new stuff:
Death is final, but you have a finite number of clones. Paranoia is the most famous example, but Car Wars and Shadowrun both feature something similar. (Thanks, Crazy Jerome!)
Death has no real impact on the PC’s effect on the game. As seen in Capes, where dead PCs can be brought back freely, used as memory-PCs, etc. (Thanks, 1of3!)
Easy come, easy go. In Universalis, it’s easy to kill a PC but equally easy to bring them back. (Thanks, Scott M.!)
The dead PC’s abilities all transfer to the player’s next PC. A variation of this appears in Dogs in the Vineyard. (Thanks, Jerry Stratton!)
Dying turns the PC into a new type of character (zombie, spirit, etc.). Possible in many games, but incorporated into the rules in Witchcraft. (Thanks, Walt C.!)