The Right Way to Handle Character Death in D&D 5e

If you have played Dungeons & Dragons for long, you have likely lost a character (a moment of silence, please). This is difficult as a player, but it is especially difficult as the DM. How are you, as the DM, supposed to lead your group through the loss of a player character? There are several “Do’s & Don’ts” when it comes to player character death, here are my top tips: Do
  • Let the player have his/her “last words” if possible
  • Have a funeral or celebration of the life of the character in-game
  • Allow the fallen character to write a letter or journal entry after the fact that the other players can find on his/her body
  • Celebrate the character OUTSIDE of the game
  • Keep the memory alive
  • “Punish” the player for dying
  • Brush over his/her death
  • Bring in a new PC immediately
  • Blame the player (even if it was their fault)
  • Be afraid of PC death

Should Players Ever Die?

The first question you need to ask yourself is this, “Do I want death to be a real possibility in my campaign?” Most DMs never consider the fact that they, are in fact, in charge of the world and have the option to exclude death from it. If the purpose of your campaign is character development and your group is extremely attached to all the players and their stories, then you can exclude the death from your game and focus on the aspects you and your party enjoy. You are allowed to do this. Does this mean your world has no consequences and lacks challenging elements? Of course not! If you choose to exclude the death element from your game, there are other ways to make encounters challenging and tense. Try using some of these non-lethal methods!

Creating Challenge Without Death

Permanent Scars

When a player would normally die in combat, either from negative points or failed death saves, instead give that player a now permanent scar which they must deal with for the rest of the campaign. This can be as small as a scar down the face, to mental damage (see the insanity chart in my 5 Diseases post) to losing a limb or eye. These scars can add to the character’s development, make the game more challenging, but keep players alive without the fear of death.

Out of Action

Another option is to require the party to recuperate after any encounter in which a party member is knocked unconscious. The time required would vary based on how many were injured and the extent of their injuries. For players that would normally have died, I would recommend a week of recuperation AND the limitation of a skill. For example, if the wizard would have been killed in the fight, I would explain that the damage they received makes it impossible for them to physically withstand the casting of spells of 3 level or higher until they are fully recuperated (about one week). This can apply to all classes in different ways, a torn rotator cuff prevents the barbarian from swinging his great-sword. A leg cast makes the rogue roll with disadvantage on stealth checks. Or a concussion prevents the cleric from using divine magic. This way of playing actually makes fights more challenging, as a simple “cure-wounds-and-keep-going” isn’t going to cut it. All encounters will carry consequences, but especially those in which players could have been killed.

When to Use Death in Your Campaign

If you still want to use death as a real and present threat in your campaign, then it needs to be real and present. Whether you choose to use death or not is not the issue, it is whether or not you are consistent with whatever you decide to do. If players can die in your campaign, then they need to know that this is the case. Players need to understand that death is a real option and then you need to stick to your guns. This does NOT mean that you come out the gate swinging and kill a PC immediately just to prove that you are serious. But it does mean that if a player would die according to the rule, then that player should die. No exceptions. Not even for your favorite PCs.

When Should PCs Die?

The PHB (Player’s Handbook) states that a player dies when they take damage in ONE HIT equal to 2x their total max HP or when players fail 3 death saves after falling unconscious. Players can also be instantly killed by spells, such as Power Word Kill, or events, such as a rock slide or falling building.

Do’s and Don’ts of Player Death

If this is the way you are running your campaign, then players are sure to die at some point. When this happens, it is important that you, the DM, handle this correctly. A poorly handled death can lead to feelings of frustration, anger, and even players leaving your game. To avoid this and make the experience one that brings the group together instead of tearing them apart, you should start by following this simple list of do’s and don’ts.

Do: Let the player have his/her “last words” (if possible)

If at all possible in the circumstance, let the player have a few “last words” for the other players to remember him/her by. In some instances, it might be appropriate for a “final conversation” if the player is dying of a disease or spell effect the other players cannot stop. Last words give a sense of finality to the scene. They also allow the player to say what they have been meaning to say but never did. One of the biggest struggles players face is regretting what their character didn’t say. A great way to avoid this is to give the player the ability to bring their life to a close with a few last words.

Do: Allow the character to write a letter or journal entry after they have been killed for the others to find

Some DMs might scoff at this idea and its lack of continuity, but hear me out. Allowing the player to have some time to think about what their character might have said to the party and writing it out is an excellent way to help the player move on. Sometimes, players get stuck on characters and it can be difficult to let them go. A letter or journal entry allows the player to grieve, express feelings they might not have otherwise, and get a sense of closure. The letter could even contain a will written in case of an accident while adventuring, leading the party to the player’s hometown and unknown backstory. There are lots of ways to do this without feeling forced. I like to have the player read the letter in their character’s voice after it is discovered. This leads to laughs, tears, and touching moments that otherwise would have been covered up by the sadness of loss. Give it a try! You might be surprised how well it is received.

Do: Have a funeral or celebration of life

Some DMs avoid letting players have full funerals or parties in memory of their fallen comrades because they think it might be awkward. However, it is necessary. Funerals can be as formal or informal as your party wants. It can be as simple as meeting at a favorite tavern for drinks to collaborating with town leadership to institute a new holiday in memory of the fallen hero. Let your group decide, but don’t rush them. Tell the group that the next session will be a funeral for the dead PC and ask them to come up with ideas for what they want to do. Then, buy drinks, make some comfort food and sit down at the table and just celebrate an awesome character.

Do: Celebrate the character OUTSIDE of the game

During the game, emotions can run high, especially when the death of a character that was loving and painstakingly crafted is on the line. After the session when the player dies, if possible, ask everyone to go out for drinks, or ice cream, or a Sonic run and just sit, relax away from the table and decompress. Removing yourselves from the table reminds everyone that it is just a game and, no matter what happens in the game, you are all still friends who love each other. During this time, if appropriate, it can be fun to start brainstorming new character ideas and possible connections to the other players. Just get into a different environment and have some fun to lessen the tension.

Do: Keep the memory alive

While it isn’t good to fixate on a dead character, keeping his/her memory alive is good for the group. You, as the DM, can do this in a variety of ways, such as:
  • Continuing the quest or storyline the PC was on
  • Using the PC’s background in the main storyline
  • Having NPCs remember the PC and give the party gifts in his/her honor
  • Having a town/city declare him/her their patron hero and erecting a statue in their honor
However, you choose to do it, keeping the memory of the character alive in fun and creative ways will make it feel like they are still a part of the ongoing story.

Don’t: Punish a player for dying

I know many DMs will reduce the level at which the player’s new character begins. If the player died, and their character was at level 10, then their new character must begin at level 8 or 9. I understand the idea behind this is to make players really think before taking unnecessary risks. And if you want to do this to ensure your players aren’t just killing off characters they don’t like, then go for it. However, I have found, in my experience, that most players don’t intend to die and punishing them for something they tried to avoid is just adding salt to the wound. I prefer to let my players roll new characters at the same level as the rest of the party to facilitate an easy transition.

Don’t: Brush over the player’s death

The absolute worst thing you can do as a DM is to brush over a character’s death. But most all of us have seen it done. DM: “The rest of the party sees Bolrin lying on the ground, covered in blood. Dead. Knowing there is nothing you can do, you all continue on down the hall and…” This leaves the player feeling like their character didn’t matter and not knowing quite what to do. Also, DO NOT hand them a PHB and tell them to “go roll a new character real quick.” I know you spent a long time creating this encounter, DM, but show some respect! Honestly, after a player’s death, I end the session as soon as I can so we can all decompress and mourn together. NEVER tell a player to just roll a new character and jump right back in.

Don’t: Bring in a new PC immediately

After a PC death, you will likely want to get the player back into the action as soon as possible. But immediately throwing a new PC into the party after a loss is always a bad idea. First of all, the player who lost their character needs time to create and become familiar with a new one. Especially at higher levels, this can be incredibly difficult. Whereas they had loads of time to gradually understand the class mechanics while leveling up in the previous character, they now have to try and understand all the mechanics at once with a new build. Players should be allowed to take as much time as they need to come up with a complete character and understand their new features and abilities. The next problem with immediately inserting a new character into the mix is that it always feels forced. I much prefer to have the player there, enjoying the story, but wait for a natural feeling moment to introduce them to the party. This may take a few sessions, but it is always worth it for a natural feel it creates. I also find that the other players are excited to find out where the new character is, so they are much more likely to pick up on hooks and talk to strangers. Just make sure all your players know what is going on.

Don’t: Play the blame game

Player deaths are difficult, and all players react differently to them. One way your players might react is to blame you or others for their death. This is understandable. They are upset and looking for someone to blame. However, you must resist the temptation to blame the player for their death, even if it is clearly their own fault. Grief is not logical, and you will not win a logical argument with an angry player. The best thing to do in this situation is to tell the player that you are truly sorry their character died and that you only wanted to give your friends the best possible experience. Don’t shift blame, don’t get defensive, just listen to their frustrations and remind them that you are doing the best you can. Then go out for drinks. It really does help 🙂

Don’t: Be afraid of PC death

If you want to run a campaign in which death is a real consequence, then tell your players and don’t be afraid when it happens. If you are afraid of what will happen or what your players might do if you “kill off” their character, then you will start acting defensively and likely make the situation worse. When a player character dies, then that player has an opportunity to explore new classes and backgrounds. What’s so bad about that? There is no reason for you or your players to fear death in Dungeons & Dragons.
Only through death can your players be true heroes
Adventuring is a tough life filled with dangers. Not everyone gets to be the hero, most are forgotten in history. This is what makes adventuring so fun! So, keep fighting dragons and creating deadly encounters! It is the only way your players will become heroes, even if some of them must fall. Until next time, May your game have advantage, my friends! -Halfling Hannah

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