Dungeons & Dragons

Death is Meaningless, and that’s okay

One of the things that I’ve seen several times recently is the idea that before a player’s character dies in a game that there should be some meaningful reason behind their deaths. We, the DMs, shouldn’t allow the dice to arbitrarily kill a character because of a few bad die rolls.

I’m baffled by the idea.

Death is a part of most role-playing games and can be a consequence both of poor planning and play. It’s a consequence to the violent lives that players have their characters exposed to every session – and if you don’t want your characters to have a chance of dying then do not expose them to dangerous and life threatening situations.

4 thoughts on “Death is Meaningless, and that’s okay”

  1. Absolutely.
    But I think “meaning” is emergent, just like the “story” of a campaign. You don’t really know the meaning of an event in the moment, and you don’t see the plot except in hindsight. That “random” death is meaningful in the context of the larger campaign because it provided room for a new PC, or changed the party’s course of action, etc. I think the people demanding no random deaths want more control over the drama and how their PC dies. But unplanned events are actually more dramatic a lot of the time. And the uncertainty of combat and encounters are a big part of the fun of D&D.

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  2. You appear to be starting from a position that may hint as to why the idea may be baffling you.

    “If you don’t want your characters to have a chance of dying then do not expose them to dangerous and life threatening situations.”

    First and foremost, no one wants their character to die. No one WANTS that. Have you ever created a character you liked for a game and hoped they would die? Every PC goes adventuring and doesn’t want to die. Most understand it could happen. They are prepared for that consequence even if it isn’t the outcome they desire.

    Like in real life, no one wants their life or death to be meaningless. Random death is perhaps the most tragic way to go I can think of – or one of them anyway. Say to yourself, “I hope my beloved Half-Elf Ranger is randomly killed by a bad die roll while fighting rats.” Does that feel even remotely realistic or satisfying to you?

    When your PC dies, especially in combat, they lose. No one wants to lose either. In a contest there will be a winner and a loser but no one wants to be the loser. This is especially true if the loss is permanent, resulting in that PC no longer being able to play or participate in the goings on of the campaign.

    This effect is lessened if the PC goes out with style. If there was some purpose or meaning to the death that will allow the PC to be remembered. Maybe not as memorable as the characters that kept going but not completely forgotten either. As in real life, Humans feel sad at the thought that they will be forgotten when they’re gone. I am pretty sure one would rather be remembered for their epic death rather than have people draw blanks when their name comes up.

    As GMs, we do have control of the drama and how a PC dies, as Mike notes above. So do players in the form of deciding their PCs actions. I can’t speak for those who are looking for no deaths (that depends very much on the type of game you’re playing) but ‘no death’ is very different from ‘no random, pointless death’.

    I could go on and on about this subject as I run a lot of games where death is rare (Star Wars, Star Trek, Superheroes, etc.) but when it happens people feel it. It means something to them.
    The death of a PC is as special as the life of one.

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    1. I disagree. Imagine if the game ground to a halt for every NPC, monster, or animal the party killed, because there should be “meaning” to it. Life is cruel, deaths are meaningless and dungeoning is a fickle, dangerous profession.

      Most people seem to prefer to run Marvel Cinematic Universe adjacent style games where there’s nothing but melodrama and big hero moments with no real risk or grit unless the story calls for it. It feels like self indulgent wanking to me. If Glorfindel didn’t want to die in a “meaningless” way, he probably shouldn’t have tried to pry open that acid-trapped chest with a shortsword. He may have been destined for greater things, but nature declared elsewise.

      I think there’s a big difference from vindictively taking any opportunity to snuff out a PC and simply holding them accountable for their actions.

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  3. Um. This is D&D you’re talking about, right? Where characters can get raised from the dead, resurrected, reincarnated, and wished back to life?

    If the rest of the party isn’t willing to bring the dead PC back, perhaps s/he wasn’t interesting enough to deserve a “meaningful” death.

    *sigh* This kind of discussion hurts my brain.

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