DMing Tips: Handling Character Deaths

Hello everyone! Today I am going to discuss character deaths, a topic which I am sure every DM, and many players, have experienced.

This is something I have often heard  DMs and players chat about. It seems like some people view character death as a form of punishment that DMs can dish out to their players.

DM Punishment

While I think the majority of people realize this perspective is a joke, I honestly think some people really do have sessions which end like this. This is one of the reasons I am very selective about who I allow in my campaigns, D&D is supposed to be a nice combination of tactical challenge, group story telling, and social interaction. If a party ever pisses a DM off enough that this reaction is warranted, well then why was that party formed in the first place?

Other people seem to view it as something which should only be a last resort, used to further the story. Monster critical hits fudged, in order to keep party members from dying to say random orcs. I also disagree with this approach. Combat, ALL combat, should be viewed with at least a little wariness, otherwise players get cocky, act invincible. Without an element of danger, except in major fights, 75% if the combats in the game start to feel like pointless grinds to award experience. I don’t play MMOs for a reason, and I don’t want the flow of my D&D campaign to start to feel like one.

My personal approach is a blend of danger, narrative, and consequences. I try to make all my combats have an element of danger, unless they are specifically engineered to feel pathetic. If the party fights an ambush of 6 goblins poorly, even if it is the opening encounter of a dungeon, they may lose someone. That is the risk of adventuring. I keeps combats raw and engaging. It also makes every combat feel somewhat rewarding upon completion.

That being said a character death should never be a mundane thing.


Even if the character dies from a swarm of stirges (has almost happened in one of my campaigns), that death should be given a great description. Example, “As the swarm of stirges crawls over your body, jabbing and probing you in numerous spots, your party watches on in horror as your face becomes completely white. You drop to the ground, and black out, the last image you see is half a dozen stirges hopping and buzzing over you.” When appropriate describe a characters heroics as helping save the rest of the party. A character death should have sting to it for a player, but should also add to the story in some way.

Recently, when I think it makes very little sense for a party member to die, or I see a story telling opportunity in keeping them alive, I inflict long term injuries to a character and/or capture them.

For instance, Grimgon, the dwarf samurai, was brought down by 2 wizards with quarterstaffs, after he and his party made a daring escape from captivity. The party grew quite distressed as they were forced to abandoned their heroic friend, or be captured by reinforcements.

Right after this, I wrote a note to Grimgon’s player, told him he was still alive, but badly hurt. I asked him for his sheet and to remain quiet. The rest of the party presumed he was dead, and returned to the wizards’ lair, with reinforcements, after a quick rest. They were quite angry, slaying all they found, shouting for Grimgon. Needless to say they were amazed when they saw their friend beaten, badly hurt, but alive. To reflect his near death experience Grimgon was given a permanent limp, slowing him slightly, and his scars lowered his Charisma. However, the scars also gave him a boost to Intimidate and other appropriate abilities.

This made an amazing story, much more interesting then just having him die.

Perhaps the most common cause of player deaths I have found is from very poor player decisions. On two separate occasions players decided they wanted to venture forth alone in a big city, despite knowing demons and a cult had been hunting them.

In the first instance, my player was soundly beaten by someone he was trying to murder for a Prestige class requirement. His equipment was taken; however, he was returned alive to his party. At 7th level my player was very distraught over losing his gear, and asked if he could just restart a character. I said no, and he took it in-stride and slowly regained a new stockpile of gear.

In the second occasion, the character, Mina, was knocked out, and actually became partially possessed by Zargon, the demon within the Lost City:


This possession would manifest itself in times of great stress, aka combats. Mina would then take a Will save, or I would get to do her actions. This really pushed this character to doggedly pursue slaying Zargon, which helped deeper entrench the player with the campaign.

I also found that the party as a whole started to make less silly illogical choices. They didn’t see a character death as just an opportunity for a reset; instead, there was the threat of worse consequences, when the situation warranted it.

Those are my brief thoughts on character deaths, how to handle them, and what role they play in the game. My methods will not work for every party, the key is to figure out your stance as a DM, and what your party would most enjoy. My party really came to love how cut throat my encounters could be, and the consequences of near character deaths have been talked about far longer then I think they would have been if the character merely died. For a period I even had a wall of fallen heroes, thumb tacking dead character sheets to my wall.

How do you handle character deaths? As a player do you mind the threat of death to be constant? What do you think of my thoughts and methods? I would love to hear back from more people, so please comment! 🙂


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