Death in RPGs

Artwork Copyright William Ausland, used with permission.

Artwork Copyright William Ausland, used with permission.

Late last week I saw a thread on G+ (I have lost track of it now) where the subject of losing levels upon character death came up. A lot of OSR games expect you to roll up a new character at 1st level to replace your fallen character with – or at the very least, bring the new character in a level or two down. The conversation drifted from this being a “punishing” form of gaming by punishing the player for making a sacrifice to this being an entirely reasonable action.

The rules surrounding character death are often house ruled from table to table. One group will play one way, while another will tackle the issue completely differently. Sometimes the rule will vary depending on game system used.

I fall in the camp that I like the replacement character to come in at least a level or two lower than the original character that was lost. There are a couple of key factors that come into play on this decision – whether for or against.


One popular point of debate is that forcing a character in at a lower level punishes the player for a character action in the game. I see it less as punishment and more a meaningful consequence.

For example, if my 10th level Dwarven Cleric faces the decision of covering the party’s retreat, an action that will certainly put him in a situation of overwhelming odds – the actual level loss that will result from the consequence of that action puts more on the line. Sure, I am attached to that 10th level character and I have investment in it. But having the complementing mechanical downfall to character death is an element I feel should be involved in the decision to make that sacrifice.

I think the loss of a character from the emotional investment in the character concept and mechanical aspect covers the broadest range of players to make the sacrifice just that, a sacrifice. Character death should be meaningful for both types of players.

Player Types

While there are many, many player types – I think you can break them down into two very broad categories for this topic. Players that are more emotionally invested in their characters and players that are more mechanically invested in their characters.

We have all sat at our gaming tables with a mixture of both player types. Some are there for the character concept, their experiences and background. While mechanics play a role, they are not the focus of the character.

For the other player, the build of the character mechanically over time is where they are vested. The power gain from level to level, the meticulous crafting of the character. This mechanical aspect is the valuable part of their character.

The level loss associated with character death helps cover both player types. The concept focused player feels the character loss because their concept has ended. The mechanical because they lost some power, or seen their “build” get reset. These losses for either player type provide a consequence for character death. Without consequence it makes in-game decisions meaningless.

Power Level

The other topic is the disparity of power level. This can be an issue and this is where I understand the different house rules between systems. Losing three levels in Swords & Wizardry is much different than losing three levels in Pathfinder. The power gap that develops in OSR games is less pronounced than what you might see in more modern systems.

I do think it is wise to determine just how significant the level gap will be for newly introduced characters after a character death. In Pathfinder I can see a one or two difference as appropriate. In a retroclone, I might stretch that out to more like three or four levels.

Regardless of choice though, the lower level character will typically catch-up over time as they gain levels faster than the higher leveled party due to experience point boundaries. I see the level disparity as more of short term issue than a debilitating issue.

Meaningful Consequences

Consequences give meaning to character decisions. Level loss upon character death helps give these consequences to help give meaning to decisions. I feel this element helps give RPGs depth that I can’t necessarily get from computer games or other arenas. Level loss is not meant to punish players – but to make their choices meaningful.

2 thoughts on “Death in RPGs

  1. I don’t think death is that meaningful of a consequence. Unless death is the only reasonable outcome for risking a particular course of action (in which case, I believe it is the GMs job to let them know that is on the line), it is almost always more interesting to play out the fallout.

    Part of the reason it doesn’t feel that meaningful is that I have seldom seen in-game consequences come as the result of character death. It almost always exclusively affects the player who lost their character, which is where the death as punishment argument stems from.

    Characters want things. The most meaningful consequences you can introduce in a game make those things harder for the character, in my opinion.

  2. I agree with you about needing a meaningful consequence for death. Would just like to add that character death isn’t always a sacrifice. Sometimes it is a consequence of selfishness or stupidity. Even there, consequences are important, as they’ll encourage more team work and more caution.

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