Inevitably, crits and failures add up, forcing you to declare a player’s complete destruction. After all, the chance of death is the underlying game mechanic that makes every action important in D&D. It keeps tension high in combat and gives the party’s decisions more gravitas. There are no resets and no continue screens. However, players can feel trapped in a game that’s too dangerous, too unforgiving. Nevertheless, without even the possibility of death, the game has no meaning and quickly devolves into anarchy, climaxing into utter boredom. It’s your job as DM to find the balance between these two extremes by finding more interesting ways to engineer your players’ destruction.
Dying in D&D has become a lost tradition. In early editions, character creation was almost entirely randomized, allowing players to quickly roll another and easily rejoin the fray should their first character drop dead. While this made the stakes extremely high for long time heroes, it was unanimously agreed upon that long running campaigns with repeat heroes were more fun. This led to the fully customizable characters we have today. In recent editions, characters have become progressively tougher to kill. With healing surges, second winds, immediate interrupts and three-strikes-you’re-dead rolls, it's extremely rare that any freak occurrence will cause a character's complete demise. Careful players with good group arrangements can go an entire campaign without seeing a single unconscious party member. If a death does slip through these walls of countermeasures, it comes off as cheap and unlucky.
Outside of heroic sacrifice and prearranged player departures, death is not a fun mechanic. As long as the player wants to continue their involvement in your campaign, they should be given a choice to continue. That being said, just because you’re avoiding dealing death doesn't mean you have to go easy on them. On the contrary, it’s your DM privilege to come up with fates worse than death.
Random deaths are an excellent opportunity to spice up the group dynamic. It’s your chance to infuse new qualities into their characters, add baggage or advance the plot. Depending on the world you've built, there are a number of ways you can do this, however, your first action whenever you kill a character should be to reaffirm the seriousness of the situation. Regrettably inform the character of the massive damage that led to their demise and request to speak to them away from the rest of the group. The weakest choice you can make is to pretend it didn't happen.
In my own games, the gods are very Greek—emotional and fickle. They must use heroes to enact their will upon the material plane below. When a character would be dead, they are summoned before one of these entities and given the choice to return at a price.
Sorcerers and Wizards seem to attract foolhardy players, often with very low early level health pools. It’s not uncommon for them to be unexpectedly killed. Most of these players are also eager to make deals to increase their power. Upon their death, summon them before an Evil deity posing as benevolent but misunderstood guardian of death. Give the hero the option to return to the world so long as the hero sends a good-aligned soul in their place each month. Gift them with a ring or brand, marking their service. By sending more than one soul each month, allow them temporary access to additional vile spells. Ideally, you have some good-aligned players in the group who the recently resurrected would like to keep their new powers secret from.
For good and neutral characters, give them a physical burden that can only be removed by completing a specific task. A paladin of Pelor appears as a rotting corpse when not in sunlight or a druid of Melora has to care for a flower growing from their chest that’s keeping them alive. These players might be more public about the details of their revival, but they will have a difficult time roleplaying their characters normally.
For combat oriented players, consider giving them a burden that makes combat more interesting without attacking their stats. Perhaps a fighter has to feed a specific blood drinker sword each day to stay alive, or a barbarian knows his rage will make him uncontrollable, possibly irreversibly insane.
Depending on the circumstances of the death, you can infuse other traits into your story. If the player is willing to take on a different character until they can be revived, consider trapping their soul inside another character, particularly one of opposite alignment. Allow them to make Will checks against one another to discover secrets. A character soul can also inhabit an NPC body, giving them a different stat sheet.
As for the task to be completed, this should tie closely to objectives already set by the party, but be wary. The death boons will naturally place more attention on the revived character’s actions and can easily side track a campaign in progress. Try to give each player their own vignettes during each session. Treat the completion of the task as just another side quest. You don’t want the death and revival of a few clumsy characters to become the focus of your story.
Thank you to Ben for the email that inspired this article.