Years ago I wrote a piece called “And Then You Die: A Good (Character) Death.” I’ve been thinking more about it recently, because two of my players’ characters died in the last session of D&D that I ran.
Did I actually follow my own advice?
First, did I set expectations for the possibility of character death?
We were playing D&D 5e. This isn’t the best system for reminding your players that their characters are mortal, but the players had seen several close calls previously and were aware that their characters were in danger. In this particular case, I offered several warnings and freely gave my own assessment of their characters’ options. I think I forecasted the danger that the PCs were in well enough for the players to know they were making risky choices. After the session, the players acknowledged that they had heard my warnings and knew that they were in a dangerous situation.
That said, I’m not sure whether the PCs’ decision to stay in a risky situation came from the players not correctly judging risk, or from the players playing their brave-to-a-fault characters well. These PCs had previously taken on huge groups of enemies and—with aid from a narrow staircase that made a marvelous chokepoint—won. This apparent overconfidence might have been a simple misreading of how big a bite they could chew. I’m not sure. It could have easily been a combination of the players’ confidence and the characters excessive bravery.
Second, did the characters’ deaths matter?
I’m not sure how well I’ve managed to make those PCs’ deaths feel meaningful.
We haven’t yet had another session (scheduling is hard), so we haven’t seen what impact those deaths will have on the rest of their party. I think at least one other PC is shaken up, based on their plans to memorialize the dead. But I’m honestly not sure what impact this has had on the players whose characters died, either. They very clearly didn’t want their characters to die.
On the other hand their characters fought while shouting, “Fear weakness, not death.”
I’m not sure how much of that was because the players didn’t think their characters would die, and how much of that was them playing their characters to the hilt. In all honesty, they played their characters well; I loved them, and I believed their choices even as I worried where those choices would lead. Furthermore, their characters served as the front line of the party and also defeated the vast majority of the gnoll war band that they faced. If it hadn’t been for those two brave souls, the rest of the party would certainly be dead.
I won’t go back to change anything that happened in that session, but I’ve got an idea. I plan to ask all the other players how their characters feel about the loss of their comrades-in-arms, and what personal changes the deaths of their companions might cause. Assuming there’s some connection the other players feel there, I hope to reference the lost characters and their heroic stand as an emotional touchstone. As is so often the case, the moment of death itself needn’t be the most meaningful part. The meaning can come from what people do with it afterwards.