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A death in the family – coping with character death

C: I wonder what we should talk about this week, Ange. Do you have any immediate ideas?

A: Snacks!

C: I was thinking maybe we could talk about the fact that, in one of our campaigns, a player character died…?

A: Oh, I mean, sure. Sure.

C: I know it wasn’t that big a deal—I don’t know, we can talk about snacks.

A: I had so many great snack puns I was going to throw out there. Dungeons and dragon rolls.

C: Well, now I want sushi.

A: But okay, would you like to talk about death?

C: So last session, one of the player characters in my campaign was killed. And in all seriousness, it did feel like a big deal—our campaign doesn’t have resurrection, and no one had died before. Plus the circumstances were very dramatic. There was quite a long run-up of foreshadowing that maybe one of your allies wasn’t the best, but I think it was relatively concealed foreshadowing.

A: Absolutely—now that’s it’s happened and his true colours have been revealed, it seems obvious, but during foreshadowing moments we were just like, ‘A little bit weird, but okay.’ Even right up to the end we were like, ‘Typical Adethure wanting to wear his sword to dinner, what a strange bloke.’ And then he stabbed Hamish with it.

C: Yeah. It hasn’t really sunk in yet that Hamish is gone. This character has been with us from the start, way back in 2016.

A: And, as we’ve mentioned before, our game doesn’t have resurrection.

C: Right. This wasn’t like, ‘Oh no, how emotional will the resurrection be?’ This was a perma-death. Like, this character is gone now. Finished. Finito.

A: Yeah.

C: And I think for narrative reasons, perma-death is important and significant. There should be moments which cannot be undone. And yet, even having that opinion, when it came time to do the deed…Heavy is the hand that swings the sword, you know?

A: Although not in this case because the villain failed to kill Hamish with his sword and had to have his bodyguard finish him off.

C: Yeah, Adethure and Hamish got into a tentacle duel linked to their oracle powers, which I feel would take a while to explain, but suffice to say—even with the element of surprise—he could not beat our boy Hamish one-on-one and had to call in one of his many servants to do the deed and strike him a blow through the chest, at which point the villain then sucked out all of Hamish’s life force, and the rest was just…

A: Sadness.

C: Yeah.

A: And as you said, this was our first character death, in either campaign. We’ve obviously had beloved NPCs die, but Hamish was the first player character to be killed. Which I think is in part because neither of us have necessarily gone out trying to scalp-hunt.

C: Yeah, I don’t think either of us have had our sights set on killing characters off, or been gunning for a Total Party Kill.

A: Yeah, which isn’t to say that having a game with a higher attrition rate is bad; it’s just not something we’ve aimed for.

C: And having done it once, it’s not something I’m desperate to do again. Like, I knew that, if a series of events went down without the party catching on, it was very possible the antagonist might kill Hamish this session, and it’s been an intense headspace to occupy, given it grew out of a series of betrayals. I stressed about it a lot, thinking about the logistics of it, thinking about the planning elements, wondering what would happen. Plotting to kill a character your dear friend created. Because in D&D, it’s not a kill-your-darlings type situation, because they’re someone else’s darlings.

A: We’re both lucky that our players are really good about this though. Our friend who plays—played—Hamish was very much like, ‘I’m okay with this. Let the dice go where it goes.’

C: Yeah. I knew he could take it—frankly I was more worried if I could handle it than if he could handle it. He was really invested in the character, but he was also there for the ride, which helped me a lot as a DM. I knew that this game existed in a space where this series of events was possible.

A: Right. And we’ve had it before where there have been close calls—villains getting crits; characters failing a death saving throw, that sort of thing—and our players are always like, ‘It’s okay, I’m fine with this’, which really helps make me not feel so guilty.

C: Yeah; I was already losing sleep over Hamish, so I’m grateful to the players for trusting me, in moments good or grim.

A: But in a weird way, this was also a really good death for Hamish. Like, I often get very upset when NPCs die because it’s always like, they just got caught up in our war. But Hamish had a little more control over his fate.

C: I get what you mean. I am very sad, but this was also a very definitive point in Hamish’s story as well. Like—obviously literally—but the way it played out with what was essentially an assassination plot, made it a very powerful moment in a lot of ways. It’s added this new through-line and motivation to the story in a big way, and was a poignant conclusion for Hamish.

A: True. Although having finally had a character death, having seeing it happen—it did also make me go, ‘This is not a thing one needs to make the game good.’ Because the game is good anyway.

C: Yeah, you don’t need to kill anyone to have a high-stakes game. And you also can’t plan on doing so. With Adethure, I created an NPC who wanted to kill Hamish, but I couldn’t guarantee that it would happen, and honestly, I didn’t want it to either.

A: True. There is that feeling with a character death of, ‘If only we’d done this differently’, or ‘If we hadn’t done that just then’. Ah, the regret.

C: I mean, this was an antagonist who plotted out an assassination attempt with a big in-world ambition and justification for doing so, as well as the ability to (more or less) carry it out. You shouldn’t feel bad as a party for not being able to flawlessly anticipate and outmanoeuvre it.

A: I think this is also one of the times where I really wish our games did have resurrection—not to cheat death but to have that moment with the spell like they do in Critical Role where everyone says all the things they found most important about the departed. I want to let Hamish’s spirit know that there is a reason to come back because he was loved and cherished and we didn’t tell him it enough while he was still with us.

C: I imagine you’ll at least have some sort of memorial at Pettygrave or somewhere.

A: True. Though first we’ve got to get out of Adethure’s house.

C: Yeah, you were caught in this Red Wedding-style ambush at the baddie’s dinner table, and you guys are still there—we ended on a cliff hanger. So maybe next time we’ll be talking about a TPK, who knows.

A: Hahaha. Oh dear.

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