Being Dead Sucks III: Better Ways to Die and Stay Dead


So, having been dead for a week and come back, none the worse for wear, I’ve come to a conclusion. In the end, we want our PCs to mean something. We want to remember the moments that we turned a general into a pacifist, that we blew up a troll during the first round of combat, flirted with an icon and lived to cherish the memory, saved our friend from something that by all accounts should have put her down to stay or that we moved on from that thing that had been holding us back (and ate him). We want our PC’s lives to mean something and if they die . . . well . . . there are deaths and deaths and deaths. Deaths that make the story, deaths that ruin the story and plenty of deaths that mean nothing at all. We want our death to be one that makes the story, that we remember fondly in 15 years– not a speedbump on the way to level 20.

Thing is, to do that, we need a system that supports it. Take a look at these:

Dungeon World

Move: Last Breath

“When you’re dying you catch a glimpse of what lies beyond the Black Gates of Death’s Kingdom (the GM will describe it).  Then roll (just roll, +nothing– yeah, Death doesn’t care how tough or cool you are).

*On a 10+, you’ve cheated Death – you’re in a bad spot but you’re still alive.  *On a 7-9, Death himself will offer you a bargain.  Take it and stabilize or refuse and pass beyond the Black Gates into whatever fate awaits you.  *6-, your fate is sealed.  You’re marked as Death’s own and you’ll cross the threshold soon.  The GM will tell you when.”

I like it for multiple reasons. Hitting the threshold doesn’t mean you’re dead and that’s the end. Hitting the threshold leads to *10+ gaming on, but hurting *7-9 choices, choices and more choices! *6- death . . . but . . . not just now. You play on but you’re on borrowed time. At a thematic point you die thematically. Your death can have meaning as you save the day on the way out.

Planet Mercenary

“If your character suffers enough damage, they can die. It doesn’t even take an action!
All damage that you suffer lowers your Health, and when your Health drops to zero or below, you immediately fall unconscious. The next attack that hits you will kill you. 31st-century medicine is amazing, but there’s a point at which it runs up against “meat salad” and moves on.
You also die if you ever sustain damage equal to or greater than double your maximum Health (see “meat salad,” above). This may mean you die instantly without falling unconscious first. Yes, that’s harsh, but if you suffered that much damage you probably did something pretty reckless, right? Right?
Unlike actual combat, dying in the game doesn’t mean you stop playing. Battlefield promotion of NPC grunts as full player characters is quick and easy. You’ll be building these characters during every mission and perhaps even eyeing them with interest. The death of your current character is a chance to seize control of your favorite fire team member and start a whole new adventure.”

This is okay by me for multiple reasons. Planet Mercenary makes no bones about your PC’s being expected to die. This game isn’t about individual heroism. It’s dark comedy about a mercenary company. Your mercenary company has a name and identity every bit as important as your PC’s identity– moreso even. Sort of like my attachment to my kingdom in Kingmaker, the game encourages you to invest emotionally in your company, your ship, your AI and your grunts. In effect, you’re playing a little bit of you and a little bit of everything else but your fellow PC’s and the enemy. You might be risking your life day in and day out. There’s no retirement plan. But the company? The company doesn’t die.

You can generally have someone take the bullet, beam, or whatnot for you. If you take damage that drops you, your friends have an awfully good chance of saving you. Lastly, you’ve already got a backup PC on hand, in a company, with a ship and an AI that you’re heavily invested in. So instead of punishing you for dying by hurting your Kingdom, Planet Mercenary offers the bereaved a new life in the same place.

Add to that, once you’ve reached a certain level of success, your company can afford something akin to resurrection for dead PC’s. So if you’ve play long enough with your PC, they get harder to kill so that they stay killed.

13th Age:

“Traditional d20 games have characters fall unconscious at 0 hp, with that character’s player rolling checks to avoid losing more hp each turn. We’d rather give you a chance of making a dramatic comeback while still risking death if your allies haven’t found a
way to get you on your feet.
Down at 0 hp: When you drop to 0 hp or below, you fall unconscious and can’t take any actions. But you do get to make death saves (see below).
Dead at negative half: Keep track of how far below 0 hp you go. You also die when you reach negative hit points equal to half your maximum hit points.
Healing while you’re down: If you’re able to use one of your recoveries (or otherwise get healed) while you are dying, ignore your current negative hit points. Start from 0 and add the hit points you’ve regained.
Make death saves while down: At the start of your turn, roll a death save on a d20. Death saves are hard saves (16+).
If you roll 16+, use a recovery to return to consciousness and heal up to the number of hit points you rolled with your recovery. Tell everyone what form of courage, willpower, stubbornness, or quest brought you back from the brink. But that is all you can do
on your turn.
If you roll 15 or less, you take one step toward the grave.
After the fourth failed death save in a single battle, you die.
If you roll a natural 20, you get to take actions normally that turn after telling everyone what inspired or caused your heroic return.
Stabilizing an unconscious character: If one of your allies is unconscious and you don’t have magic to heal them, you can still stabilize them and keep them from dying. Get to their side and make a DC 10 healing skill check using Wisdom as a standard action to stabilize your ally. Failure wastes your standard action, but at least it doesn’t hurt your friend. Success stabilizes your ally. If your stabilization check is 25+, you treat their wounds so quickly that it only takes a quick action; you can use your standard action normally that turn.
A character that has been stabilized isn’t safe yet, nor are they up. A stabilized character is still unconscious, rolling death saves on their turn, but failed death saves no longer take them a step closer to death. Ignore failed death saves while stabilized.
Healing potions are great: Feeding a dying character a healing potion always takes a standard action. It also always lets the downed character use a recovery and gets them on their feet . . . but the character feeding the potion doesn’t have any chance of rolling high and getting away with only burning a quick action on their turn.”

Granted I’ve only gotten to run this game, not play it. This game is about being a hero. I feel like this game is what I wanted Pathfinder to be. The death rules reflect that by trying pretty hard not to kill you . . . but there’s always a chance.

FATE: The Dresden Files Roleplaying Game

This one has a player-faced method of mitigating defeat. If loss seems inevitable, before the roll that takes you out “You can offer a concession instead of continuing the conflict.

A concession is basically a special form of being taken out– you lose the conflict, but you get to decide your character’s fate on your own terms instead of your opponent’s.

A concession has to pass muster with the rest of the group before it’s accepted– the conditions of the loss still have to represent a clear and decisive disadvantage for your character.”

Things like consequences, which affect your character sheet and the storyline are typical during a concession situation. The game sets up situations whereby doing what can make the most sense in a tough spot can both save the day and all of your friends . . . and turn your PC into an NPC, someone who made the choice that took them over the edge of their own humanity. Often, but not always, these NPC’s are evil and become villains in the story. But at the time, making this choice, this sacrifice, meant enough to the player that they were willing to do it.

Choice is always key, in life and death. Agency is key.

I know there are more out there, but these are the ones on my mind recently. If you have another (or just want to share your most awesome PC death) I’d love to hear about it.

2 thoughts on “Being Dead Sucks III: Better Ways to Die and Stay Dead

  1. I’m with you on Pathfinder. I see it as “consensus D&D” for a good chunk of the player base. No one (that I know) really loves it, but it’s familiar and there’s tons and tons of support for it. If I had my way, my current Kingmaker game would have been played using DungeonWorld, probably. But that was a bridge too far for most of the group. And hey, using PF I didn’t have to do any extra work and could just run the adventures as is, yeah? Well, that didn’t exactly work out…

    Anyway, player’s attitudes towards character death is an interesting subject in RPGs. I appreciated reading your thoughts. I’m mainly a DM, so I don’t have any good stories. But my very first character, a long long time ago, was a high-level illusionist/thief in 1st edition AD&D. He died in the very 1st hallway in the Tomb of Horrors, along with half of the party, because we thought a big carved stone mouth filled with blackness was a portal of some kind. Instead we all got disintegrated! We didn’t have a cleric, and so my character got reincarnated by the party druid, and came back as a black bear. Which put an end to his thieving and his illusioning days. That really bummed me out! That event pretty much spelled the end of our very first D&D campaign, although the other half of the party did go on to finish the adventure.


  2. One of the classic deaths in Tomb of Horrors! Coming back as a black bear seems pretty unique though:)
    I recently read quite a bit of Dragon Warrior material, and it reminds me of old school D&D, dungeon focused and deadly. It’s neither a ‘save the world’ type thing where it doesn’t matter who does the saving but it must be saved, nor is it a heroic game where you can count on following a few pc’s for the whole game doing whatever they do.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s