Player death sucks.
When it happens at the table, the player is reduced to the role of a spectator. There is nothing worse than a Player Character dying early into a session. This leaves the player trapped in a limbo of boredom, casting a pall over the session as if they were the very ghost of the character that just died.
Player death not fun for anyone, especially the player, and most GMs actively try to avoid it, but too much avoidance comes with its own perils.
The Benign GM
There are some Game Masters who take a policy of absolute avoidance on player deaths. In their campaigns there is always some kind of a deus ex machina that saves the players.
This can be anything from bending the rules in favor of the palyers, finding every excuse to grant bonuses or advantage to death saves, allowing “one-time” exceptions for certain abilities to apply that save the PC, monsters suddenly deciding that they really aren’t that hungry, NPCs arriving just in The Nick of Time to save the character, etc..
None of these techniques are inherently bad and there are always times when a GM has to allot for special circumstances, but the benign GM takes it further and uses these techniques every single time a Player Character might die.
The first few times, a reasonably charismatic GM can get away without it detracting much from the session. But players are tricky creatures who are well versed in tropes and subversion and, eventually, they catch on.
The Disastrous Consequences
When the players catch on to the benign GM they may at first react recklessly, starting a downward spiral that ends with players becoming divested from the campaign.
This spiral begins when the players are confronted with the realization that their characters are effectively immortal, players begin taking more chances and try to push the envelope further than they normally would.
This in turn, places a lot of strain the the benign GM, who’s ability to explain away the deus ex machinae is tested and stretched further and further as the PCs start punching above their weight-class and taking on challenges that are ever more dangerous.
For most groups, the descent into reckless behavior is slow and takes sessions to unfold. There are, however, the occasional batch of players who leap recklessly into chaos, grinning and laughing all the way down. Until they hit bottom. And the bottom is the same for everyone.
Every step down this spiral, every divine intervention, followed by a deus ex, followed by a bending of the rules implies something, the very worst something that you can ever imply in a game of any sort: the player decisions do not matter.
Each time a player is brought back from the brink by the benign GM, their actions are devalued. Just before hitting the bottom of the spiral the players realize that the choices they make may have consequences for the game world, but will never have consequences for their characters and, by proxy, themselves.
As the novelty of immortality begins to drift away like leaves in the wind, the players are left with feeling of unfulfillment.
The players begin to grow lazy in how they approach problems. Everything will work out fine in the end.
The players fall back onto routine for not just combat, but all encounters. And still everything works out in the end.
Finally, the players begin losing interest in the game, becoming more distracted during the sessions, more distanced from the game world than ever before.
At this point, even the most obtuse GM begins to feel that something is amiss. Perhaps the game is just stuck in a rut and some new, interesting monster encounters or a change of locale or a new NPC will bring some life back into it.
And that may work, for a time.
But the benign GM will push it a little too far and save a PC again, by this point the player will be expecting it, and the event of saving the player is cheap and unremarkable.
If nothing is done, a wound of disinterest is formed in the group, a wound which will be endured exactly as long as the players and the GM can tolerate it.
Recovery and Killing Players
There is a solution to this problem, a way out of the deep pit that the benign GM has dug. It is the same solution that the master GM has practiced skillfully all along: make your players believe their characters will die.
It is not even necessary that the Player Characters be killed, only that the players believe they will be killed. If the players, working together, save the PCs from certain death through their own actions then those actions are validated by the strength of the belief that their character may have died.
The master GM instills this belief in the players early on, adding danger to the encounters and validating the player’s choices. The master GM knows that a combination of good storytelling, vivid monster descriptions, and non-conventional combat encounters can instill the possibility of death into the players without ever needing to kill any of them, though the option still remains on the table.
The benign GM, however, has set a precedent of immortality that will have to be overcome before the players can begin to feel that their characters may die. The only way to overcome the precedent of character immortality is to kill a character.
To ease the blow to the players, and it will be quite a blow as it is a huge betrayal of expectation for the benign GM to kill a character, the benign GM should do two things.
First, the benign GM must have the character death happen at a time and place of the player’s choosing. Inevitably, the players will attempt to punch far above their weight-class, that is when the death should occur.
Which leads to the second technique the benign GM must use to make effective use of the PC death: drop hints that the players are heading into danger. Everywhere, lots of them.
The players expect immortality. The benign GM must convey through hints and description that the path on which they are embarking is exceptionally dangerous and it would be foolish to go unprepared. The players will disregard the hints because everything will work out fine.
The players will think that right up until the exact moment that one of the Player Characters dies. The rest of the players will be thrown into a panic as a realization dawns on them: they are not immortal, their actions have consequences, their characters can die, right now they might.
Handling these reactions is key. There will be strong emotions and not all of them will be positive. Do not be defensive about your decisions as GM, instead, help the players into their character’s perspectives by recounting the events that them here and the warnings on the way. Try to lighten the mood in any way you can.
You are on the path to recovery from the downward spiral of the benign GM.
Handling Player Death
Player Character death is still never easy. When it does occur it should always be at a time and place of the player’s choosing, with hints to the impending danger and opportunities to turn back paving the way.
When the player does finally die, try to make it impactful and meaningful, if not to the story, then to the players at the table. Build up their killer to be as villainous as you can, make their sacrifice pave the way for the heroes’ escape or victory. When the dust settles, reiterate what their death helped to achieve.
All of these actions validate the player and their choices, lessen the blow of being temporarily removed from the game, and help the player to want to come back to the table without hard feelings.
Lastly, keep the player engaged. For some players, this means helping them to iron out their next character, what party role they’ll play, their backstory and connection to the world, etc.. keeping them active in the game even if they are distanced from the session by their character’s death. For other players, it may be as simple as acknowledging them.
If your trust your players enough, you may even consider letting one play an adversarial NPC or monster during the other encounters. Depending on the player and the group, your mileage may vary with this technique.
Player Character death is never easy, but for players to be fully invested in the game they must believe its a possibility. The possibility of death adds weight to the player’s decisions and validates their choices.
While it’s not always necessary to kill a PC, when it does happen, there are several techniques that can be employed to keep the player involved in the game.
The master GM validates and uplifts his players through the possibility of death, while the benign GM denies the possibility and produces disinterest in the players. Even still, it’s not too late for a benign GM to practice good technique and grown into a master GM.