I was asked by the fine folks at The Going Last Podcast to participate in their May of the Dead Carnival. The blog carnival features a wealth of articles devoted to the undead. Realizing that many other talented writers would take on the task of creating monsters, campaign arcs and other gaming mechanics with an undead theme, I spent some time pondering a different angle for my May of the Dead column. I landed on the topic of character death and player grief during a roleplaying game. (EDIT: The painting below was created by Gene Gould. I first found the image through Google Image Search and did not know the origin. Check out other works by the artist!)
It is interesting to think about character death from the perspective of the player in terms of attachment. I previously discussed some thoughts about character death and how save-or-die mechanics can take away a player’s attachment to her or his character. How does one cope with investing effort and time creating a character and bringing that character to life at the gaming table only to see the character die? Everyone does not experience character death in the same manner, and while some players may grieve the loss of their favorite character, other players may not give the matter a second thought after their poor Paladin is pounded to pulp by a Purple Worm. Below, I discuss ideas for how a DM can handle the death of a character at the table. I frame the discussion by detailing the five stages of grief and present ideas to ensure the death of a character is not overlooked in a campaign.
The Five Stages of Grief
The five stages of grief proposed by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, M.D. have been widely accepted in professional circles and popular culture. Before her work, there was a dearth of information about terminally ill patients and their process of death and dying. Her theory was first applied to those that were suffering from a terminal illness, and was later applied to any catastrophic personal loss. Currently, the five stages of grief seem most often discussed as they apply to the coping process of an individual after the death of a loved one. The stages she proposed follow.
Denial. “This isn’t really happening to me.” Most simply, denial is the stage when an individual consciously or unconsciously refuses to accept the reality of a situation. Facts are dismissed and information is ignored. Denial is also considered a defense mechanism as it allows the individual to continue functioning when the reality of the situation would be too overwhelming to the system.
Anger. “What the f**k!? How can this happen to me?” In the second stage, denial is replaced with anger regarding the reality of the situation. The individual may seek out others to blame for their misfortune. The anger can at times be intense and prolonged as the individual channels the pain of a deep personal loss into a white-hot rage at other people, the outside world and even god. The individual may also be angry at themself for allowing such a terrible event to happen.
Bargaining. “I’ll do anything to make this right!” The third stage is the result of the individual attempting to bargain to delay or avoid the personal loss. An individual may negotiate with a higher power and offer changes to his or her lifestyle to prevent the loss, “I promise to never drink alcohol ever again. Ever. Just please make sure that boy in the other car wakes up from his coma. I’ll never drink and drive again.” Bargaining rarely provides a reasonable and long-term solution to the pain associated with a personal loss, and is thus not sustainable.
Depression. “Why should I even go on now?” The fourth stage begins the process of the individual coming to terms with the reality of the situation and the loss they have suffered. Feelings of sadness, regret, despair and uncertainty cling to an individual who is in the depressed stage of grief. The person understands the finality of death and experiences the emptiness the loss has left behind. Depression is often conceptualized as a negative emotion, but in terms of the grieving process, it is a clear sign the individual is beginning to accept the reality of the situation and their loss.
Acceptance. “I’m going to be alright.” In the fifth and final stage, individuals come to terms with the personal loss. Often the idea of acceptance is confused with giving up or giving in to the situation. Acceptance does not mean that the individual likes or enjoys the personal loss they suffered, but accepts the new reality and works to make the best of the new set of circumstances. The individual understands they will never be able to replace the loss, but is no longer hopeless or depressed about the future.
Applying the stages of grief to character death in a roleplaying game is admittedly a bit cavalier, but I believe there are things that DMs and players can learn from an awareness of the grieving process. Reflect on previous character deaths around the gaming table and how players responded to the loss. Better yet, let us discuss a historic player death that everyone can experience in realtime through the Penny Arcade/PvP Podcast Series. Of course, I’m referring to the death of one Eladrin Avenger, Aeofel Elhromane, played by Wil Wheaton.
Keep the stages of grief in mind and listen to the play sessions of when Aeofel falls into a pit of acid and slowly dies. It’s a beautiful symphonic demonstration of the stages of grief playing out at a gaming table. Wil displays aspects of denial, anger and bargaining – perhaps my favorite quote, which combines a few of the stages, ”F**K YOUUUU! If only I made the Aeo-f**king-fel shirt, then maybe Aeofel wouldn’t have died in the pit of f**king acid!”
And if you don’t think that character death in a roleplaying game can truly affect someone, please read Wil Wheaton’s blog post regarding how he reacted to the death of Aeofel. The stages of grief demonstrated by Wil and the party during the podcast episodes and extended by Wil’s very-personal description of his processing of Aeofel’s death is illustrative of how powerful the death of a character can be for a player.
Responding to Character Death
The primary thing a DM can do is be aware of the various reactions a player may have when their character dies. Anticipate those responses and understand that the immediate denial and anger are natural reactions to the death of a character. The other players should also know that some backlash from a player who just suffered the death of a character is normal. The player may blame other players, “Why didn’t you attack that guy last round? Why didn’t you heal me?” The player may voice anger at the DM, “That was some bullsh*t right there. That was totally cheap!” Other players and the DM could easily escalate this situation in a negative direction if they respond in kind to the player, “Calm down. It’s just a game. Relax, just roll another character.” Those responses are likely to further irritate the player and lead them to withdraw from the session – and possibly the gaming group.
Character death is not just another gaming mechanic. Respect it! The total loss of a character is a reality that may take a while for a player to process and ultimately accept, and that is okay. Obviously, the type of campaign will affect how significant a character’s death may be to a player. For example, a campaign that features many deaths will likely not phase the player when his or her character dies, but a multi-year campaign with the same group of characters creates a heightened sense of attachment to the character.
A great idea I have witnessed is the process my host has in his gaming room, which is pictured above. He has a chalkboard hanging on the wall, which serves as a graveyard for every character that has ever died at the gaming table – except for when we played the Crucible of the Gods Fourthcore module because the piles of dead bodies would not have fit! The graveyard is a wonderful mechanism because it respects the death of a character but assists the player with moving to acceptance, “My character is there. Dead. It’s time to move on.” Other ideas related to this theme:
- Hold a brief ceremony to acknowledge the character’s death, but be sure to not let your guard down!
- Allow the player to burn his or her character sheet like a viking funeral. Perhaps have one urn for all the ashes of all dead character sheets. “Brockmire’s dead, bring out the urn!”
- Out of session, discuss with the player if he or she would allow their character’s ghost (or some other form) to come back later in the campaign as a pivotal NPC to guide the party or perhaps a monster to haunt the party.
- Ask the other players to write a short eulogy of the deceased character from their character’s point-of-view. Collect these eulogies to present to the player of the dead character or have each character read them aloud around the table.
If nothing else, then respect the fact that the death of a character can affect a player in a truly personal way. Understand a character’s death may result in the player progressing through the stages of grief outlined above – their journey along the path to acceptance may take place by the end of the session or last multiple sessions.