I’m Dead?

I'm Dead Jim!

I’m Dead Jim!

The DM Killed ME!

Is often the knee jerk reaction to a character death at many tables. Much of this reaction depends on how the particular table plays the game and how death is handled by the group as a whole.

Let’s take a look at the mechanics of death in AD&D 1E and OSRIC and then have a look at death in the game and how it affects players and DMs.

AD&D mechanics of death

*Note* I am referring to 6th printing PHB and revised DMG (Jeff Easley covers) for page numbers below.

This seems like it should be a pretty straight forward situation. Zero hitpoints = Dead. In the Player’s Handbook (pg 105) it suggests any creature at zero is simply dead. The text gives the exception of regeneration.

The Dungeon Master’s Guide has a softer rule regarding being be ‘dead’. Compared to the newer game systems however, it still seems like a hard line.

In the DMG on page 82 under “Zero Hit Points”  the text says that any creature brought to zero, or as low as -3 Hit Points is unconscious. The -3 must be brought by the same blow that dropped the number to zero. Unattended, the victim continues to lose hit points at the rate of 1 per round until -10 is reached, at which time death occurs.

The decline is instantly ceased when another creature aids the fallen. This doesn’t need to be ‘healing’ in any magical or skilled sense. It requires binding wounds, respiration or other means of general first aid.

The text further goes on to note that any character brought to zero or less and back will be in a coma for 1-6 turns. Furthermore, the victim must then rest for a week with little to no activity, unless magical healing is applied.

Characters being brought back from -6 or less are likely to lose limbs or retain permanent scarring for life. Yeah, that’s what makes a tough fighter cool!

On page 110 of the DMG is a section of rather involved advice for the DM regarding death of a player character. It offers some ideas for DMs to avoid letting a player die if they acted cautiously, but simply couldn’t beat the cruel fate of the dice.

It would appear that throughout the books players are set up to understand that 0 hit points is death. DM’s are given the tools to make a dramatic close call of it.

AD&D and it’s various iterations have always had an ‘out’ for the condition of death however. Raise Dead, and rods of resurrection among other means exist in our favorite fantasy worlds. Some more than others. The spells or services don’t come cheap, and can often prohibit the resurrection. Even still, a character must make a system shock roll and they only get a limited number of resurrections based on constitution.

OSRIC mechanics of death

*note* I am referring to second printing hardback for the following

Not too much changes in the OSRIC rules around death, but there are a few variations.  A player is still unconscious at zero, and drops 1 hp per round until dead at -10. The variation here is the bit about getting to zero or up to the -3. It would appear that in OSRIC, you can get whacked to anything between zero and -9 without going to death.

The rules are clear that if a creature takes ANY damage in this negative HP state they will be killed. The rules for coma and rest are the same as 1E here as well.

Resurrection has a variation, in that elves are not allowed to be resurrected in the usual method since they do not have souls. The text also puts a starting price on the cost of the spell at 1,000 GP

Anyone that recalls the goldbox AD&D games for IBM, Commodore 64 and the like, may remember resurrection costing 1,000 GP/level of the character. (It’s been a while, so forgive my accuracy on that memory.)

Death for players

Death is part of life, and it surely is part of a fantasy RPG.

Be especially prepared for death if you attend conventions. Players have little invested in the characters and simply come for fun, not necessarily an extended campaign. GMs often put up heavy challenges just to allow players to test their mettle. The exception to such things may be tournament modules or adventures running over multiple days or sessions. For the majority of convention games though, death is certainly part of the game, expect it, embrace it, enjoy it. That is not to say one should game foolishly. Often players have gamed a particular adventure a number of times, and the challenge can be to see how far the party can get.

Home games with friends tend to take on a different air when death and danger are at hand. Your GM likely has a campaign world, and your friends have been pulling as a team for many sessions to achieve long story arcs. This is where players tend to become attached to characters and dig deep into backgrounds and family ties.

These characters too will likely die. Without death in the game, especially player death, the risk gets lost. You could simply charge off in any direction challenging every town guard, dragon, or elf without concern. Why bother rolling dice? why bother tracking hit points if you know there is no threat of death? Why play any game if you know there is no way to lose?

How hard or soft your GM is on the topic of death changes at every table, and even in various situations. The AD&D DMG suggests that if a player acts foolishly and without caution, to let the dice fall. If the player has been the victim to bad dice rolls, a GM can wear velvet gloves.

In the end, character death is not about a game master who is ‘out to get you’. Well, it shouldn’t be anyway, as such an approach loses the spirit of the game in many ways. Character death was a calculated risk that simply didn’t work out. Battling is dangerous, dungeons are dangerous. If they weren’t, every peasant would trot in, and no one would have any issues.

Those piles of gold you find, are the result of rich heroes, laden with treasure who didn’t come back. When you lose a character in the game, you have lost a character in the game. You are among friends, and there should be no more personal attack behind this event than if you totaled up your scrabble score and came out behind.

Try a new class or race that you hadn’t considered before. It may be an opportunity for a fresh start. Character deaths can actually be liberating and refresh your game a bit.

Death for the GM

Death for the GM can create a new set of headaches, especially if the party is far and away from all connections to the civilized world. The 4th level of Hades is a dangerous place, and players die…. now you need to get a cheery little halfling freshly rolled up here to keep the game night flowing!

Some GMs allow more than one character per player, some have NPCs at hand, but most GMs will find a way to pull a new character in through a story vehicle of some sort. Granted it might require the table to stretch their minds a bit, but usually it works and can be accepted.

Some tools I have seen used to bring a new character into a game:

  •  Character is a captive or hostage of the villain
  • Character came with another party that were all slain
  • Teleportation accident (for when just nothing else fits)
  • Character attempted the quest on their own, quickly realized they were in trouble and hid.
  • Character opened a bag of holding in a pocket dimension (similar to teleporting accident)
  • Character has discovered the entrance to where the adventure is, but doesn’t dare to enter alone.

A party can only take so many ‘teleporting accidents’ before it becomes old hat and meta-gaming around death starts to become a joke. Your campaign can lose some traction if such devices are over-used. Captives turning PC, or requiring the party to return to civilization is often the best route.

Explain death to new players

This is really essential when new faces come to game, or young players sit at the table. It should be made clear that death isn’t a personal vendetta. It should be understood by everyone that it is simply part of the game. New players are most susceptible to the ‘hurt feelings’ syndrome of PC death. They may be left feeling like you are mocking their lack of knowledge of the mechanics, or don’t want them to be included.

I have literally seen players get up from a table in tears, only partly due to the loss of the character, but mostly because it was assumed “He killed my character!! he hates me!”

After the first few, this gets easier. Often I have found that a well informed player, even a new one, can often let a character go more easily. It helps ease the wound if the GM lavishes drama on the death. It also helps new players if you use that character death as some sort of vehicle to add purpose to the quest at hand or enhance the story line in some way.


Often if a quest is particularly difficult or dangerous I will remind my players that this is a dangerous adventure before we begin. Many modules hand out death traps quite matter-of-fact-ly. Phase spiders and other creatures have ‘save or die’ tactics.

Some sense of balance needs to be struck where your game has a sense of danger, threats are real and sometimes you need to run away. Your games should also not be a meat grinder where new characters are required every couple of sessions. (Unless you are presenting a meat grinder at a convention)

Sometimes characters die, let it happen. A GM struggling to throw in unrealistic story pieces to save a PC takes away from the game in the long run.

Level one!?!?

Should a new character start at level one?

This is strictly a GM call. A level one player with a party of level 8s can be cumbersome, but eventually that level gap will even out as experience points start rolling in. I typically request the slain player bring in a new character at the lower end of the quest range. If the party is in a module rated for levels 4-5, I will ask them to create a level 4 character. A character that I assign magic items to after they are done with creation.

In short, death should be a real risk that players face. sometimes they win, sometimes they lose. It’s a game, have fun, accept all parts of the game!
~Lloyd M

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  1. Good article and one I think players and GMs should look at prior to characters dying. Unfortunately all too often this is investigated after a players death and the emotions and frustration can make it much worse than it is. It is a game after all.

    These are lots of the considerations I put into when thinking about how to handle death in my tabletop rpg, the Fyxt RPG. Ultimately it came down to players are far more interested and invested in games when their characters survive. So I made it easy to drop players but hard to actually kill a player off. This way the drama and excitement of death or being out of the fight is still very real but the investment in time and effort on a character is rarely “wasted” on death. Keep in mind that they system is designed for regular groups that will run multiple quests in a more episodic style.

    I loved the unconscious mechanic. So that is there. However, the amount below 0 changes with level so there is always a balanced amount of unconsciousness. Unlike a static number where low level is hard to kill and high level might as well not even have -10 because it is not enough. Then there is a bleeding mechanic where players can bleed out. But also they can be healed easily and jump back into the fight.

    All in all I think death in RPG is always a specter hanging over players and GM alike and it is important for everyone to know how to handle it when it does crop up.

  2. My group has never handled death well, the first thing they always say when someone dies is “why did you make the fight so hard”. One of the things I found to handle death is the 3 life variant. With this variant the first 2 times you would die you are instead just out of the game until the fight is over, the 3rd time you are dead. Spells like revivify get you back in the fight and stop you from losing a life. My group has somewhat accepted this.

    1. I know some of the old school TSR guys put on no velvet gloves when it comes to death. Newer systems seem to go quite soft on character loss.
      With a three life system even, I would think for the first two lives players would be rather reckless and fearless.
      We used to have “Luck” as an attribute. It can be fun, but high luck scores would get a player ‘Luck points’ which were essentially a get out of jail free card. It would reverse a dice roll, or avoid certain doom by dumb luck.
      A similar situation to your 3 life scenario.

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