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.!)
â€¢ Player character death is usually final, but there are ways to come back. Offhand, I canâ€™t think of a game that uses this approach. What am I forgetting?
Some of the white wolf systems that you don’t mention otherwise fall into this category.
Vampires are usually finished if they die though if someone manages to recover their body (before it’s utterly destroyed) and care enough to feed them blood (as opposed to feeding off them for a boost in power or making sure their death is permanent) they COULD be ressurected.
Werewolves and Mages have really high level gifts/spells that can bring back the dead (sometimes with unreliable results).
These things are by no means common, but with enough effort on the part of others (or with a REALLY good contingency plan set out beforehand) you can sometimes manage to beat death.
Not sure where you want to put it, but the Paranoia idea could be different. A character has, what, nine clones? Clones go down like sand castles. But then you get another clone, effectively having multiple lives. But then you run out of clones, and it’s all over.
The Arcana Evolved twist on the D&D version hearkens back to eariler versions of D&D, where losing a point of Con on every raise dead eventually made the character doomed–and not worth playing, before that. In AE, most characters have a truename, because a truename is a lot more beneficial than harmful–as long as you keep it secret from enemies. Raising is harder in AE, and once you come back a seventh time, your truename changes to something generic for your race. By that time, your character is probably high level–which means your typical opponents have ways to really hose you knowing that your truename is generic.
I assisted on the the theoretical side of a MMORPG that never got off the ground for lack of funding. In that game, we intended to make people pay for their “raise dead” ahead of time. In effect, you had to align yourself with a deity that had the power, then make sure your donations and service were up to snuff. Once dead, your “ghost” could get help from the church. However, if you ran out of favor (somewhat random based on total service and donations), no raise for you. It was possible for duly appointed officials to perform an execution by locking a criminal PC in a room where his ghost couldn’t get away, then repeatedly kill the character until he ran out of favor. It was supposed to be an exercise in MMORPG player governance of trouble players, in that a PVP kill was easily overcome, but final death was still possible after a trial by your peers.
In Universalis you can spend one coin to add a “dead” trait– but it just costs one coin to buy it off. Or you can go all out and destroy someone, but you have to buy off every trait they had. (By buying off some traits and adding new ones you can simulate less permenent conditions.)
A variation of immortality is serial immortality– in D&D via Magic Jar; in other games, the character’s “soul” takes on a new host, with a new set of traits, etc. (Nephilium was this way, I think.)
Elves in The Shadow of Yesterday are immortal; when they die, they can create a new body to house their ego.
Superhero games often suggest having NPCs die off stage, so they can be brought back later. While it’d be harder, the same trick could be used for PCs. You can also bring back dead characters with “parallel universe crossovers” and the like.
While death is final in Dogs in the Vineyard, it’s difficult to arrange and easy to prevent.
There’s also “PC exit is under player control, but when a player chooses to have their PC leave, they keep, in some way, some or all of their stats for their next character”. Dogs in the Vineyard has a variation of this. I think Living Steel might have, too.
Crazy Jerome – The last time that I played Paranoia we were given 5 clones which I think is the recommended amount. But that really isn’t a PC death in my opinion because you know that you are guaranteed 4 more chances with an exact duplicate that for all intents and purpose is the original character. Now that final clone biting it is the actual PC death. No coming back from that one!
I played a game once where the GM’s encounter resulted in a TPK and he really didn’t think that it was a possibility beforehand. We were all sort of stunned and didn’t knwo what to do (the GM included), but my brother said “Let’s play our characters in the afterlife and see if we can find a way back to the land of the living!” This was a GURPS game with a HellRaiser like theme and the GM liked the idea. So next week he gave us some modified PC sheets that contained some unusual abilities that everyone gets in the hereafter and we had a great adventure getting back to the land of the living.
The best part was confronting the villain who had been behind the plot that killed us. There is something about playing a character who has gone to Hell and back and then sending your killer there for a permanent stay! Of course, if we could come back who knows what could happen . . .
> Player character death is usually final, but there are ways to come back.
Car Wars, maybe? I seem to recall that you could make a “brain backup” into a clone and activate it upon death. It was pretty expensive.
Death is a transition.
I mean, it’s pretty central to the idea of more than one White Wolf game, but I’d also not call that death in the sense of a character being dead.
But imagine a game where, say, if a character died, different things could happen based on how they died. Stabbed in the back by your best friend? You return as a zombie assassin, unable to rest until you take revenge. Slain during a valiant quest? You awaken in a new body, reincarnated so that you may finish your task. Died in service to a god? You’re now his messenger/avatar. Etc…
Actually, I bet you could make a cool RPG out of that.
Player character death is usually final, but there are ways to come back.
That is the classic superhero situation, as summed up in the saying “Nobody stays dead, except Bucky.”
Ian has some neat thoughts as well. I recently did a solo adventure for a character who was about to be killed but was rescued by a fey in exchange for three services (“One great and two small”). That was a lot of fun to play out.
The Witchcraft game offers a variety of “after-death” experiences. Some possibilities:
1. waiting in the Death Realms until reincarnation.
2. becoming a ghost
3. becoming a vampyre
4. becoming a “relentless dead” (think the Crow or Jason Vorhees)
5. becoming an angel or demon
6. reanimated as a zombie
7. being sent to Heaven or Hell.
Also, IIRC, Toon had a system where characters never died, they merely “fell down” for a bit.
Finally, Primetime Adventures doesn’t have a system for dying. Every scene has a “conflict,” which is agreed on by the player and the Director. The only way a PC can die is if it is made part of the consequences of the conflict.
â€¢ Player character death is usually final, but there are ways to come back.
I would think that Iron Heroes fits into this category. Since magic is exceptionally rare and essentially only used under DM discretion, death is final.
I’m going to have to figure out how best to add your comments to the original post — these are great! I knew I’d missed stuff, but I didn’t think it’d be this much stuff. 😉
* Player character death is usually final, but there are ways to come back.
I think this was the way DND was supposed to be, however I think since it had a “ressurect” spell it became a lot more bland.
Our game, Silvervine, has spells that allow this, but aren’t so cut and dry as now your resurrected. Every means of this is hard to come by, and has some (not necessarily bad) consequence.
There is a very high level Druidic spell which has you plant a tree seed with the body and over the course of a month the tree grows into the shape of the person finally expelling a resurrected version of the person who is now nature attuned (as opposed to their previous elemental attunement).
There is also a necromantic way. Someone could use one of the spells that traps a soul . You could then do a spell to raise the body and give it motion, imbue the soul into the body with a BOND spell, and then cast restore and use the permanency spell technique to create a constantly regenerating undead. I.E. mummy.
Alternatively if you’ve got the soul trapped there is another spell that could give an object motion (Immaterial Movement, causes an immaterial object to move under the command of the caster as if it were a living creature), and imbue the soul into that with a BOND spell, while doing the permanency technique to the immaterial movement spell and animate a suit of armor, a statue, etc. (ala ED of Full Metal Alchemist)
Creative use of the Elemental force spell, and the MODIFY technique (which lets you change the wording in the description of the spell), could turn that last configuration into a very close version of the original person.
An In Nomine character’s vessel could readily get destroyed, and they may or may not have a backup vessel to stay on Earth.
Otherwise, there’s a period of traumatic downtime, then the need to convince your boss to give you a new vessel.
Not too bad for an effectively immortal being.
The original post has been updated with the variants from your comments. Thank you!