Lost in the Echo (Working with Character Death)

DISCLAIMER: In no way do we feel that character death is of a magnitude anyway near real-life loss. However, patterns of human psychology are echoed and occasionally display recognizable correlation between in-game and actual reality. If you are recently grieving or otherwise struggling with real-world loss this article MAY NOT be for you. If you feel you don’t ever grieve for a lost character and have never watched a player have those reactions, this article MAY NOT be for you.

Burden of Power Teaser

Last night’s game was off to a great start, your last level unlocked some new abilities and you enjoyed the role-playing but were really itching to get into a nice crunchy combat and open up with your new flash. Hours rolled by and at last the fiendblooded merchant double-crosses you  and now the alley is full of ogre-mages… You unloaded your new attack and despite its effectiveness, they were still fighting mad. Cindy’s healer droped in a wave of cones of cold and as you and the other front-liner watched your HPs start to dwindle. You realized your character was in danger. One gurisame critical later 10 levels of stories, role-played efforts and carefully selected mechanics dropped to the ground like a sack of spilling beans…

Thoughts on Character Death: The (Sometimes) 5 Stages

While not a true death, on many levels loss is loss, and grief is grief. Particularly in a game meant to alleviate stress and distract from painful real-world issues the cessation of fantasy and sudden grief mirror the real patterns of loss (though hopefully far less devastating). If someone has engaged the process of heroic storytelling as a personal developmental strategy, these losses can be very painful. Magic and the nature of the game system can interfere or mitigate with these feelings as well. When death comes to the table, players and GMs should be ready for any (or all) of the following:

  1. Denial and Isolation – Commonly upon the loss of a favored character, a player may just clip it off and say, “No big deal. It’s a game.” While a lot of experienced players and GMs have lived with character death often enough to move right to an acceptance phase, this is not always the case. If a player immediately wants to leave the game or go home, you are probably looking at a significant feeling of loss situation. Respect your player’s needs but also understand that a lot of the following patterns may emerge while the player is not present. If your character does die inspect the truth of an immediate lack of response, you might be in a light state of denial or just trying to distance yourself from deeper feelings.
    • Let players have distance if they want it.
    • Don’t pick at a lack of reaction, it means they are ok OR need time to process.
    • If you feel numb to a character death reaction, give yourself time to feel before you commit to a course of action.
  2. Anger – If a player stays at a table long enough to allow this to happen, be ready for the heat. Criticisms of rules, circumstances, misleading story elements or outright hostility (out-of-game) can happen. If you or another character seem to experience this surge of upset near a character death it is good to consider context and try not to take the situation personally. Sometimes it is just a really bad combination of statistics and bad luck and applying the very-real feeling reactions or reacting to the anger of another isn’t productive. But understand those feelings will happen particularly if the game has been long term.
    • Game systems are simulations and are as such incomplete, this can lead to “bad math” deaths.
    • Rules are easy to make mistakes with, don’t overreact to a rules issue that kills a character.
    • If a character death situation happens, consider the context before reacting to heated or emotional statements.
  3. Bargaining – This is really the key difference in RPG death because unlike real loss, the possibility of this “negotiation” phase is for MORE powerful than in out out-of-game experiences. It IS possible to return from death, creatures do have abilities and motives operating of time scales and complexities we can’t fully comprehend. Trust your GM and the direction of the story. Also understand that the “normal” grief process can suddenly end at this level if the world DOES answer the bargaining players requests, and know that the feelings won’t always sync with the logical response of a death repealed.
    • Be willing to accept miracles, they are part of the Pathfinder Roleplaying experience.
    • Be willing to trust GMs interpretation of NPC motives and consider that you might not be operating from a rational space during a character death reaction.
    • Listen to feelings and ideas from players feeling character loss, allow space for the ideas if possible to enter the game where they are productive.
  4. Depression – It is VERY common for player to have a particularly bad long-term reaction to character loss. Resentments or issues with the death situation in and out of game can linger for length periods. Offer encouragement or support to players seeming to struggle after a character loss.
    • If a game ceases to make you feel better about life, hope and your ability to triumph after a reasonable amount of time, it might be time to leave it. Don’t hesitate to protect your well-being.
    • If a player seems to suffer a chronic reaction to the character dying, it is appropriate to offer support in and out-of-game as you may be dealing with feelings that deal with out-of-game realities.
    • If a death has had a long-term negative result on a game but all players are still interested in gaming, it may be valuable to place a campaign on hold and try something new. Make sure to have group consensus before pursuing this.
  5. Acceptance –  Eventually, a character’s loss is something that a player really does move beyond. Nostalgia and honoring the story told take precendence in soaking in the loss. Everyone processes differently and what it takes someone to get to okay might take a day, or it may take years. It also may include moving beyond a campaign, gaming group or game system.
    • Let okay be okay. Once someone has moved beyond loss, respect that and avoid dragging negatives back up into the current environment.
    • Don’t try to rush recovery, you can’t just make be someone okay.
    • Understand the differences between long term and short term actions, a player with an immediate need for a break might come back two sessions later, while a player who seems ok might take a couple months to decide to hang up their sword for good.

Whether it is Organized Play or a friend’s table, not everyone at a game will be aware of other players relationships with death and being prepared for real emotions to surface when dealing with this subject. A few general tips about character death before we go:

  • Candid Play-Style – If Death is likely at a game, advertise it. If a character has an issue with it they can choose to avoid it and survivor players will only feel cooler for having beat the hyped “lethality” of your game.
  • Setting Matters – Both in context of when a character death happens and making that death possible setting is far more important than you may think. Creating the circumstances that lead to a death can be as much from accident or unplanned terrain or circumstances as the planned challenge of an encounter,
  • Numbers Can Kill – While mechanical inattention can kill players, understand that even sub-CR encounters  with bad rolls, gaps in equipment or holes in the metabalance of party WILL adjust the reality of CRs and other aspects of challenges. Even well-planned adventures may result is odd combinations of ability and lack. This can kill a character or an entire party.

Have fun and remember it is game, but remember also that in the desire to embrace the, power, the freedoms and the responsibilities of the Hero–Real feelings WILL be engaged if a GM is running well. That means real grief, real sadness, and real anger when we fail. Embrace and prepare for the passion and games can grow better by the day!

Want to breath new life into your game? You can pre-order the Book of Beyond WIP subcription or see our other products at: d20pfsrd.com, drivethruRPG, paizo and RPGNow.

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