Ashes to Ashes – Roleplaying a Hero’s Death

February 17, 2011 by deadorcs

The other day, my wife and I attended a visitation to celebrate the life of an elderly woman (and member of my wife’s church) that had recently passed away. While I had (on a handful of occasions) met the person that had passed, I really didn’t have the same strong emotional connection to this person that my wife had. Therefore, while it was a solemn occasion, my mind couldn’t help wander to how an event like this (death, funerals, etc.), could relate to a hero’s death in a role-playing game, particularly Dungeons & Dragons.

As I looked upon the photographs and other mementos of this person’s life, it occurred to me that a hero’s death in any fantasy role-playing game, is often treated far too callously. There’s a tendency to write off the event, quickly roll up a new character, and continue on as if the first character never existed. However, by doing that kind of hand-waving, I think it’s easy to miss excellent opportunities for role-playing.

In order to mitigate the shock of losing a favorite character, and to provide an excellent role-playing opportunity, there are several strategies that can be employed to make a character’s death an interesting part of the game.

The DM Should Set Expectations – Regardless of the other strategies I’ll discuss, a good DM should state up front how he or she plans to handle character deaths. Are deaths expected to be painful and frequent? Are character deaths likely to be rare? The further strategies listed below will also be helpful to the DM when setting expectations for his or her players.

Can You Be Brought Back From The Dead? – This is probably an important fact for the DM to research for his campaign setting even before the first dice are rolled.  The characters are heroes, after all, and might have access to some extraordinary magic. Questions like “How expensive is resurrection?” or “Will (insert deity’s name here)’s church resurrect my character?” As some of these answers may depend upon the region or circumstances the heroes are adventuring in, the DM might require the heroes to uncover this information as the campaign progresses.

Ask Your Players For A Eulogy – In order to provide a great role-playing opportunity, consider asking your players for a eulogy that they would like to have read in the case of their untimely death. Heroes are often buried with honors or with solemn funeral pyres. Maybe it would be nice if someone (even the local shepherd boy) said a few kind words over the grave (or pile of ashes).

Consider Working The Eventuality Of Death Into The Story – Imagine this. The heroes are about to embark on a dangerous mission. Have the king/mayor/chieftain/high priest etc. say something like the following, “You are brave heroes, but the path before you is very dangerous. Are there preparations you would like to make in case, gods forbid, you meet with an untimely end?”  This kind of statement can open up a dialog with the players and get them thinking about what may be the inevitable. In darker campaigns, you might have certain NPCs make it clear to the heroes that their doom is likely. Remember those scenes in Old West movies where the caretaker is making coffins before the big gunfight even begins? Consider having a local undertaker “take their measurements” before a big adventure.

Try To Have A Classic Death Scene If You Can – This should be a regular in the DM’s role-playing handbook, but a hero’s death should be a big deal. Forget turns, pause time, and let the hero speak his final words in whatever dramatic fashion possible. This is a time to let go of the rules, too. While a character’s heroic death shouldn’t necessarily end the big bad guy, consider allowing a final curse to damage the enemy in some fashion. Such a curse might manifest as a scar that never heals, or a minor penalty in combat, etc. Let go, and use the Rule of Cool to guide you on this one. Incorporate the hero’s death into the story. Bards need work too, you know. 

If for some reason the hero dies quickly (for example, in a “rocks fall, you die” scenario), consider acting out the hero’s death in the form of a spectral dream or vision. Perhaps you allow the hero to give the other characters a clue to some great treasure. Again, the goal is to have fun with the hero’s death while remaining inclusive to the player who’s hero made the sacrifice.

Don’t Neglect The Aftermath – Once a hero dies, carefully observe how the rest of the characters handle the situation. Do they drop the body in a ditch? Do they build a cairn out in the field? These actions can reveal a lot about how the player might treat his own hero’s death. If arrangements are made, gentle prodding by the DM might be in order, so that the hero’s final wishes are carried out.

As far as rules are concerned, a resurrected hero might have no memory of his demise or the period just before he was revived. Or, perhaps the hero took council with his deity and was “allowed” to be revived. Consider that the hero might have had a new vision revealed to him. Remember that priests and churches often demand huge sums of coin so they can afford to cast the rituals that might bring a hero back. Make sure to follow through with the consequences if the other party members decide to cheat the deal.

If a character is likely to be permanently dead, consider having an elaborate funeral and ceremony. Let the player (whose character is dead) sit in on the celebration, but not be allowed to speak. Maybe the other party members take their turns memorializing the dead hero. Make sure a local bard is around to jot down their heroic tales.

Introduce A New Character – Once the funeral is over, there’s no need to remove your player from the group. Have that player roll up a new character that can be integrated into the story. Maybe it’s a relative or old friend of the hero that recently passed away. That way, some continuity of the hero’s original story (and the player’s sweat in creating it) can be preserved. New adventures now await!

Also This – One final thing. Death can be a pretty serious subject, so as a DM, you need to make sure that everyone at the table is taking it with the same level of respect. Role-playing life changing events can be dramatic, and might upset players that have recently experienced the death of a friend or loved one. Responsible use, is the key phrase here. Just play responsibly and make sure everyone at the table is one the same page.

Until next time…

Game excellently with one another.

Thank you, Ann. I’m grateful I had the privilege of meeting you.  Without a single doubt, you will be missed.



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