May of the Dead: Character Death & Player Grief

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!)

Image created by artist, Gene Gould.
“We find a place for what we lose. Although we know that after such a loss the acute stage of mourning will subside, we also know that we shall remain inconsolable and will never find a substitute. No matter what may fill the gap, even if it be filled completely, it nevertheless remains something else”. ~ Sigmund Freud

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!”

Chris Perkins is a rat bastard!

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.

Let the bodies hit the floor, let the bodies hit the floor, let the bodies hit the floor.
Player Character Graveyard

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.

Final Word

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.

Author: The Id DM

The Id DM is a psychologist during the weekdays. He DMs for a group of fairly loyal and responsible PCs every other Friday night. In the approximate 330 hours between sessions, he is likely anxious about how to ensure the next game he runs doesn't suck.

14 thoughts on “May of the Dead: Character Death & Player Grief”

  1. Having lost a character just yesterday (a Changeling Chaos Sorceror) to Shadar-Kai besieging a city, I think I’m in the position to give a bit of a perspective of this:
    I think the way a character dies is very important in the griefing process. For example, I knew full well that it was risky when I said ‘Why don’t I shift into a Shadar-Kai and try to delay them while you guys work on the defense?’. I got a lot of blank looks and the DM threw up his hands in exhasperation and started erasing the map he had carefully prepared in favor of the battlefield map I was going to need. My fellow players gave me pre-emptive words of farewell.
    I knew the chance was slim that I’d succeed and that, should I get caught (I did), I’d get my ass handed to me.
    The Changeling died in a storm, but still, she died, and it was all because of a stupid decision and a couple of bad rolls. We all had a blast with it, though, despite the fact that I had started to like her and the fact that I had put quite a bit of thought in her backstory. So I guess that, when the player has nobody to blame but him/herself, the griefing process should be easier.
    At least, that’s my experience.

    1. Thank you for sharing; it sounds like she had a fairly epic death that allowed the other PCs to fight on for another day. You raise an excellent point that the circumstances of a character’s death can affect the grieving process. A “stupid” death or something that was accidental and completely avoidable might sting more than a death that was anticipated such as a noble sacrifice.

      My Dragonborn Rogue has flirted with death a few too many times. The worst of those situations would have been getting trapped in a lava and slowing dying while taking ongoing damage while unconsious – very much like Aeofel and the acid pit, actually. Thankfully, our Cleric rushed over in my direction and I had to double move and use an action point to move again to get out of danger. But it was close!

      Good luck with the next character!

  2. Interesting article. The latest session of the 4e campaign I’m playing in resulted in the death of a PC. In fact, it was MY action that killed off our cleric, but it was entirely an unfortunate side effect of stopping the BBEG from totally pwning the whole party. That, and I never expected her to fail three death saves IN A ROW (3, 9, 3) before I could get to her and heal her up. (Sadly, if she had remembered her human racial power “heroic effort,” she could have improved her 9 to a non-fail, and I wouldn’t be talking about this.)
    So now I’m in the position of having killed a fellow PC without really trying, and experiencing some survivor’s guilt (along with murderer’s guilt, I suppose). Thankfully, although this campaign world would normally NOT allow for resurrection, she IS the cleric, and it appears something will get worked out between her and the DM to bring her back. Still, the whole situation got me thinking about character death and all the emotions that come with it.

    1. Thank you for sharing. It does not sound like you “murdered” the PC, but made the best choice based on the information you had available. Failing three consecutive death saves is a statistical anomaly so it’s tough to foresee that outcome. We recently had a character die in one of my campaigns who failed three out of four death saves before we could rescue her. I felt somewhat the same, “Wow, did that just really happen? What are the chances?” We are in the process of following the Umber Hulk that dragged away the dead body to recover it and hopefully bring her back to life. Only she’s the Bard and none of us have a Raise Dead ritual.

      Perhaps our DM will be kind and include a Raise Dead scroll in an upcoming loot drop. We can dream, right!

  3. This thought is only partially formed but . . .

    How about a houserule that while a ‘dead’ character will die during that combat, they get to cause some significant narrative effect with their death?

    My experience as a player and a GM has been that PC death is upsetting in proportion to how random and meaningless it seems. Perhaps if the player were allowed to narrate their character’s death, and (after a brief consult with the GM) cause it to have some in-game effect, it would be a more satisfying experience for all involved.

    1. Thanks for commenting. That could perhaps be an option, but I wonder if you could give an example of how you see it working? It seems like something that could take place after the session when the death took place and before the next session. The (dead) PC and the DM could discuss ideas and come up with a story shift for the entire group.

      1. Yes, on re-reading my comment, I see how that was pretty ambiguous.

        Lazy choice of words on my part notwithstanding, I was thinking of smaller scale changes: For example, rather than getting gunned down while running for cover, the PC takes a bullet for one of their friends, or for the NPC the group is protecting. Or perhaps the PC suffers a mortal sword wound, but rather than dying on the spot (or lying on the floor bleeding out over the next round or two while failing Fort Saves), the PC is able to fight until the end of combat, knowing that they will die at the end of it and choosing to go out in a blaze of glory.

        Larger changes might work too though – there’s always the ‘the Bad Guys bring back the dead PC and use him/her against the rest of the party.’ Or perhaps the PC is captured (and is definitely going to die) but has an opportunity to leave crucial information for the rest of the party, or can ‘reveal’ dangerously misleading information to the bad guys during the fatal interrogation . . .

    2. That could work quite nicely, especially in more epic or heroic campaigns. Or, alternatively, in games like Masks of Nyarlathotep as a nice way to give the multitude of deaths a bit more ‘meaning’.

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