If your players are like most out there they likely hate dying in a session. We get it, dying sucks. But what if we told you could kill your player’s characters and they’ll still have fun? There are plenty of ways to augment your game so that dying isn’t a terrible thing. We’ll give a handful of ideas you can use to make dying in game fun rather than a punishment.
Why Kill Your Players
Many players of DnD never experience a death scene. And to be honest, we don’t consider that a terrible thing. But death in DnD can be a monumental occasion. As a story element it’s amazing if done right. As a gameplay mechanic, death can carry a ton of interesting features into your game.
The big issue is that your players certainly don’t want to lose their character and you certainly don’t want to go out of your way to kill them. It’s something that players and DMs both avoid on a regular basis. Because of this you need new ways to introduce death in your games and expand the tool kit of how to kill your players in a fun and exciting way.
Remove the Consequences
Many times in DnD death is looked at as a permanent punishment, but it’s not meant to be. It could be bad luck or just a combination of unfortunate circumstances. Death in DnD is important because for a player character it’s an end state. A game over. The fact that the threat of death looms is also what gives your players reason to think through things rather than just blindly rush ahead.
With all that in mind, removing consequences sounds like it should be a bad thing. But there’s an art in how you have to do it. We all know making it too easy to revive a dead character takes the edge off of avoiding death, so to remove the consequences of dying you need to add another mechanic that represents a fail state, even if it’s a less permanent one.
Taking a page right out of Paranoia, a game about a dystopian future where the GM is a crazy AI known as Friend Computer, we can replace death with a limited number of clones. When someone dies in Paranoia they are replaced with a clone, essentially losing a life. In this way dying is not so much a game over as it is an indication that something went wrong. The game state is maintained in that players only have so many clones – die six times and you’re done.
The main reason this is so compelling is that rather than just removing the consequences of death, you’ve given your players a new tool in their tool kit. They can now test out potentially deadly ideas without worrying about long term loss. They can only do exceedingly risky things so many times, but that’s still a great new idea for them to play with.
You don’t need much to implement this in DnD. Some hand waving as interference from the gods, a mad wizard’s Clone spell gone awry, or even just a dungeon specific curse will work. There’s a lot of ways to introduce the concept of clones and you don’t need to be overly precious about any of them.
The important part is that you make the mechanic and its limits known to your players as soon as you introduce it. The rules should be direct and not cryptic at all, because if someone uses too many lives, that’s it, they’re dead. As the Dungeon Master you can always fudge the numbers a little, but you shouldn’t have to if you’re clear.
So let’s talk about utilization. Your players have clones, but how do you use them effectively? Clones might not come back with their stuff. Additionally, clones might respawn in a different location. These are all fun twists.
A player walks into a room with a deadly trap and is killed without warning – this is okay now because they have clones and will remember to look out for it in the future. The game now becomes a series of “How do I get my stuff back while avoiding that trap that just killed me?” hijinks. This is something that you couldn’t explore before and it opens the game up in all sorts of new ways.
While Clones are a ton of fun, they are definitely more on the wacky side of death avoidance mechanics. Furthermore, they feel a lot like ammo that’s too good to use in a video game so you end up beating the game never using it. The way you handle clones needs to be more reckless so it can lead things to being on the sillier side no matter how much thematic lore your drape over the scene.
Your party enters a dungeon and rests by an old bonfire at the entrance. They take careful and methodical steps through disarming traps and dealing with dangerous foes. Eventually they find themselves in a room with a foe they weren’t prepared for and death comes for them. As the veil lifts they are not greeted by the afterlife, but instead by confusion as they are sitting at that bonfire once again camping on their first night at the dungeon. Welcome to the Dark Souls of DnD quests.
With this death mechanic, any party member simply resets the dungeon. Think of this more as a time loop; until they complete the dungeon, the adventure will keep starting over. They can take all the knowledge they acquired while going through the dungeon to get a better outcome next time.
What makes this mechanic so appealing is that each death is still a penalty. Your players have to start over in some ways, but they can now explore in ways they never would have before. What’s that, a note at the bottom of a spike pit? I hope I can read it before I bleed out and restart.
Clues in precarious locations are now opportunities for the players to explore things on the edge of death. Ideally the solution to the whole dungeon also has a razor thin path to success as well. This doesn’t just make the restarting feel different, but it makes the whole dungeon more of a puzzle.
Mechanically this also opens the door for expertise and proficiency that would not normally be there. The second time through any particular trap or obstacle, grant your players advantage if nothing else has changed. If they go through it a third time grant them advantage and let them re-roll 1s and 2s. After 5 or more attempts give them automatic successes. This way each time they run the dungeon they may have to redo things, but they get better and better at it each time; something that starts hard becomes effortless with practice.
Give your players the option to just bail if they decide they’ve had enough of the dungeon for now. Play out several sessions, different storylines, full arcs even. The moment someone dies, BAM, right back at the bonfire. While this might break some people in your group, it’s certainly bound to be a fun time.
When a sitcom needs to retcon something, lazy writers tell the audience “it was all just a dream.” You can do that too! In all seriousness though, premonitions are a way to have players experience death, but not actually. Death still remains a penalty, but it allows your players to explore something that would almost certainly end in death anyway.
With this mechanic it’s not simply a retcon in that your players get a do over. It can be even more than that. What if what your players dreamed wasn’t real? Perhaps they gained no actual insight from the dream they had, but instead only gained paranoia. By messing with your players’ sense of what is real you open your story up to possibly have fatal endings. Players can never be too sure if they’re actually moving forward. To balance this out there has to be consequences for some actions, so you need to pepper that in with your story telling.
In stark contrast to the repeating dungeons, information from dreams and premonitions is not always reliable or easy to interpret and your players will constantly update their restart points. Things still move forward, but the rules of redoing things are obfuscated from them which makes death still scary, but not so scary they won’t try potentially risky things. In a way this is a mechanic that can help players that are overly cautious step out of their shells.
Kill Them With A Great Story
While mechanics driven solutions to death in game are great, you don’t necessarily have to have alternative mechanics for death to be a fun part of the story. Player character deaths can be rewarding if they’re sufficiently dramatic and purposeful. Maybe the player chooses to sacrifice themselves for the rest of the group. That’s a super cool death scenario that doesn’t leave the players feeling bad. It’s inspiring and the player who died gets to feel like a badass.
While there are lots of ways to handle this, the most important thing you can do to make it go smoothly is give the character’s death weight. Without it they’ll feel let down and the story won’t have the glow you need to carry on.
Thematic and Cinematic Deaths
How does one make a death cinematic? With description. You want the final blow to a PC to be dripping with style. Just slather the scene in descriptors and get into every little motion. This is simply storytelling, but it has a problem: the death save. Three rounds of rolls before someone dies can be a long time in real life. To avoid this, any time a player is down and not instantly dead, you’ll want to ham up the descriptions. Really get into them. If you don’t then you’ll have missed the moment and they won’t feel good being retconned into the scene.
Deaths with Meaning
Alternatively, you can skip the cinematic descriptions and give the player character’s death meaning. Heroes don’t just bleed out while fighting bandits, heroes die fighting off bandits just long enough for everyone in the town to escape. Heroes’ deaths are not just powerful because they were heroes, they’re powerful because they often die protecting something greater than themselves.
This method only works if your team is heroes typically. While it also works for evil parties or murder hobos, the meaning in their deaths is usually “crime doesn’t pay” or “the wicked get what they deserve.” In either case, these are much less satisfying and often way less fun.
Let Them Choose Sacrifice
You’ve set up a scenario where a player can choose to sacrifice themselves for the group or the greater good. These are really cool, lots of fun, and ultimately satisfying. In some cases a convenient real-life situation comes up, like someone moving or having a baby.
But more often than not your players will take one of two routes. They either won’t bite the lead at all and do one of those “We’re all getting out here!” moments where they lock eyes and decide to overcome their hardships together. Alternatively, more than one player will step up to the plate and now you have to adjust on the fly to figure out who’s actually dying. This can make these scenarios hard to pull off without telling your players you’re trying to kill one of them for the sake of the story.
When you do get to the bottom of things and a player chooses death for a very good reason, you must go to great lengths to ensure that their death is not in vain. They’re acting heroic and the story should reward them as such. Even if they start a new hero in future sessions, make sure they are rewarded for their selfless act. It encourages good storytelling habits in your players.
Once a player is on the chopping block you also need to be ready with your next steps for them. What are they going to do while dead? They are still going to need to be in the session somehow, so make sure they can still take part in the story. Even if you have them playing a villain or NPC for a bit, whatever they do should have a way to impact the world moving forward. Otherwise they’re just on the sidelines and that’s no fun for anyone.
What to Avoid
While killing your main characters can be an absolute blast, it is also something with lots of pitfalls. We’ve highlighted these various times before in other articles, but here’s a quick rundown of what not to do.
Deaths for Bad Rolls
No one wants to die because they have terrible dice rolls. Don’t kill off players because they got a series of bad roll unless it really makes sense to do so. Just like we don’t encourage extra punishment on critical failures, we don’t encourage you to murder players with random chance.
Save or Die
Similar to random chance and bad rolls, save or die spells and traps are lame. If you walk into an encounter and are asked to roll a die and then you’re dead, it doesn’t feel good. There’s no weight there, it’s just a mechanic where there was almost no control over the outcome. Saying “Well, you should have rolled higher” is essentially all save or die mechanics do.
“There Was Nothing I Could Do”
Players always want to feel like they have agency in the game to affect the story. A player should never come away saying there was nothing they could do to change things. If a player is going to die, make sure they have an opportunity to succeed in the first place. At any given point a player should see a path towards success and they should feel like they are influencing the game around them.
Kill Your Player Characters Today!
This collection of ideas is nothing revolutionary, but it’s foundational for introducing failure into your games. Whether it’s through mechanics and do-overs or by making death a meaningful part of the story, you’re likely to have a better time with player character deaths than just letting them go silently to a failed death save. Remember, there are lots of ways that dying in game can feel bad, but if you keep your wits about you, your players can have an amazing time with the story you all craft together, even if they don’t survive it.