Dealing With Character Death In RPGs

How do you deal with it when your character is suddenly killed in a gaming session?

Well of course it depends on the session. Death in a one shot, especially a horror game is an expected inconvenience. Hopefully it happens towards the end of the session so you don’t feel your time was wasted. Maybe you will get to play the bad guys for the rest of the session or a transformed version of your lost character as a zombie, ghost, or werewolf.

Death in a long running campaign may be much more profound. It will certainly affect the other characters in the story, possibly even affecting the other players. There may be feelings of grief or guilt… Feelings that something could have been done to avoid the outcome. Certainly blame and finger pointing seems to be common, which can make people defensive and guarded. A discussion needs to take place addressing how to integrate a new character into the story. How are they introduced to the team? How much do they know about the goals and experiences of the group? Why are they accepted by the team? And keep in mind that the new character NEEDS to be accepted. Even if your character doesn’t trust the newcomer it should be represented with in game tension, not by rejecting the player’s new character from the group. We are after all, just people gathered around a table trying to have fun telling a story together.

Character death is much less common in modern game design. Many games have way to spend a Destiny point or toss a Fate chip and declare that a death blow wasn’t lethal. Modern games also may have mechanics that represent character growth from losing a team mate. Maybe you could change a Trait or Aspect to represent the sense of loss, which will have mechanical weight in the game. Talk about these options with the game master and the rest of the group after the session. The sudden loss of a character can be a great plot device for a story. Decisions have to be made on how this will affect the forward momentum of the plot. Maybe the remaining characters will be driven to complete their mission so the loss was not in vain. Maybe they will re-assess thier goals and decide to work towards a different end, possibly seeking revenge on the killer or even on their employer for “getting their friend killed”.

Of course in great hero stories death is often a temporary condition. Fantasy characters can sometimes be raised from the dead by magic (and a hefty donation to the local clergy). Science fiction characters can be healed by super science or rebuilt as cyborgs or clones. Superhero characters come back from the dead in all manner of mind baffling ways including all of the above, but often by the discovery that they didn’t actually die when it appeared they had! Always remember that when you are facing character death, the game master may have some ideas on getting the character back in the story. Don’t be afraid to talk about it. These games only work when we communicate, but don’t make the game slam to a halt to pontificate over the future of you dead hero… After all, everyone else is still trying to have fun too. The death of a character shouldn’t mean the session is over, unless the group seems to agree it’s a good time to start talking about how things are going to play out from here.

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When I started gaming in the 80’s character death happened a few times each session. No kidding. Characters often started adventuring with only enough hit points to survive one or two hits from the enemy. Healing was scarce or non-existent in most games. Danger was scaled by location, not scaled to your group’s capabilities. If you went too far in the wrong direction (especially down) you would often lose a character or two before you could run away fast enough to get back to a safer area. In games like Call of Cthulhu you could almost certainly expect to lose a character if you ended up face to face with the horrors of the mythos.

For example, in Dungeons & Dragons a typical character had an armor class that left goblins and orcs needing a 15 or better on 1d20 to score a hit. They started with about 6 hit points compared to the dozens of enemies they would face, dealing 1d6 damage per hit. If your character was lucky enough to come out of an encounter alive they needed to stay that way until they could find healing. Clerics wouldn’t get spells until 2nd level, then they could heal 1d6+1 hit points with cure light wounds ONCE per day. There was no way to rest and heal outside of town unless you could camp for a few days, but wandering monster tables usually prevented that. And even as you grew in power and hit points, there were always traps and special attacks that called for a saving throw. Typically this meant rolling a 12 or higher on 1d20, with failure resulting in death by poison, petrification, decapitation, falling into spikes hundreds of feet below, being submersed in acid or lava, squashed by a falling 10′ x 10′ x 10′ stone block, having a parasite of some kind burrow into your heart or brain, being dissolved into a hungry blob or jelly monster, going insane… I’m sure by now I’ve made my point.

So how did we deal with it?

Characters typically had hirelings and followers to take a few hits for them for staters. But players typically had multiple characters too. Sometimes you would even be running two or more characters at the same time, but most players had a second character back in town or up on the star ship. Everyone usually had a head full of ideas of what type of character they would like to play next. Sometimes losing a character was a welcome invitation to try out those ideas.

Before any game begins you should ask your game master if it is likely you will have to deal with character death, and if character death is permanent. In my own games it’s always on the table. If a situation ISN’T lethal I make sure my players know it. Typically their characters assess a threat as non-lethal but dangerous or time consuming. In combat an opponent might be obviously pulling punches or even come right out and say “I’m not going to kill you…”. But other than that my groups know, if they take risks then their character’s lives are on the line. I think knowing this helps avoid the real life bleed through of emotions when it’s time to “roll up a new character”. Again communication is key, and it’s worth repeating a third time… We are all just people gathered together to tell stories and have fun. So be good to each other, and keep gaming.

How do you and your group handle character death?

Marvel Super Heroes – Optional Character Creation

Hello everyone, I am here again sharing my house rules for Marvel Mondays. I created these house rules in the late 90’s and have had a fair amount of playtesting with them using the Advanced Set rules for MSHRPG. I have since lowered the starting ranks to what you see here since it was easy to make characters that were on par with Hulk and Thor in the original writeup. The basis of the system presented here is that instead of random rolling everything, you are assigned an allotment of ranks and you can trade them off and shift them around to get the character you want. I have also streamlined stunts a bit. Check it out and let me know what you think. ‘Nuff said!


You get 2 Attributes at Typical (6), 3 at Good (10) and 2 at Remarkable (30).
Add 3 ranks anywhere after modifying for Origin. Maximum starting rank is Unearthly (100) in any Attribute, Power, Resources or Popularity after all modifiers.

  • Health: Total sum of F.A.S.E
  • Karma: Total sum of R.I.P.
  • Resources: Begin at Good (10). Ranks may be traded off to increase number of Talents or Contacts.
  • Popularity: Begin at Good (10). +10 if identity is public, -5 if identity is secret, -5 if you hang with Mutants, –10 if you’re a Mutant or Robot, -5 if Alien or frightening (like Ghost Rider). All modifiers are cumulative (so a frightening mutant who hangs out with mutants and goes by a secret identity has a starting Popularity of –15).

Choose any one.

  • Altered Human – May raise any one Attribute by +1 rank. Mutant – Gain +1 power at Remarkable (30), +1 rank to Endurance, –1 rank from Resources.
  • Hi-Tech – Must use 2 attribute ranks to increase Reason, +2 ranks to Resources.
  • Robot – Add +3 ranks to Attributes, dead robots may be “reactivated” at zero Karma.
  • Alien – Add +4 ranks to Attributes and lose 1 Power Choice OR choose an alien starting package from page 60 of the Judges Book. Beginning contacts must be from home world/dimension unless the alien is a renegade with only enemies on his home world.

Begin with 4 Powers at Remarkable (30).
Choose 2 Power Stunts (at –2 CS) plus any granted by the power descriptions. 

  • You may drop 1 power choice to raise another power to Amazing (50).
  • Remember that some powers cost 2 choices (Invulnerability, Cosmic Awareness, Combat Sense, Teleportation, Dimensional Travel, Probability Manipulation, Nullifying Power, Time Control, Body Transformation, Image Generation, Mind Control, Emotion Control, Possession, Transferal, Precognition, Health-Drain Touch, Immortality).

Choose any 6.

  • Talents may be traded for Contacts or ranks in Resources, Popularity or increase a Power Stunt (not to exceed the Power’s Rank).
  • Powers Stunts may be purchased with 2 Talent choices.
  • Powers may be increased by spending 2 Talent choices per Power Rank (Increasing a Power also increases related Power Stunts).
  • New Powers may be purchased with 3 Talent choices (6 if power counts as two) and begin at Remarkable (30).
  • Remember that some talents cost 2 choices (Marksman, Weapons Master, Weapons Specialist, Medicine, Mystic Origin, Animal Training, Heir to Fortune, Student, Leadership).

Choose any 2.

  • You must choose at least 2 be they patrons, allies, confidants, friends, or family. List each contact along with their home location and type of aid that they may grant.


My #1 bit of Player Advice

This came up on a post in a Facebook group, and it seems like people are always asking, “What is your #1 best bit of Player Advice?”.
So here is mine… GO WITH IT.


When the scene turns against your character, GO WITH IT. If you are supposed to flee or take another course of action your GM (Game Master / Referee) should be hinting at that. But if they use phrases like “there seems to be no escape” then GO WITH IT. They probably have something awesome planned and they aren’t trying to kill your character. YOUR CHARACTERS ARE THE HEROES and when bad things happen to them, it doesn’t mean that you “lost at the game” or that you are “being punished”. Most times the GM is just trying to create dramatic tension and make the game awesome. GO WITH IT!

The GM may be trying to capture (not kill) your characters to run a “jail break” mission. GO WITH IT.  Maybe they are going to have the floor collapse just as the swarm of enemies close in on you and now you have to explore the deep earth. Maybe they are trying to run a session where you crash land on a planet. GO WITH IT, don’t worry that the GM is trying to “take away your ship”, you will be able to fix it later or maybe even get a better one. If your character is infected with an incurable condition, don’t spend time arguing that it couldn’t happen. Just GO WITH IT, and the quest to find a cure will be awesome!

The same is true of things that other players add to the story. GO WITH IT. Don’t ever say “No no, your character would….”. Let them decide what their character would do, and play along with them to craft the story. There is a term for it in improve when you block something that someone else is trying to add to the story. I don’t know that term, but I know it’s a terrible thing to do, especially at the game table. Once something has been added and everyone is thinking about it, GO WITH IT or you will just be making it harder to remember what “really” happened in that scene.

This is especially true of rules lawyering. If you think something isn’t being handled properly it’s okay to ask about it, but try to do it without citing the rules or examples. People are there to play a game and you are ruining their immersion in the story. If the GM seems to understand what you are saying but still doesn’t change anything, then GO WITH IT. They may be planning on looking into later when there is more time, or they may not want to handle that way for story reasons. Every RPG rule book has a section on how it is the GM’s job to interpret the rules, decide which ones to use, and which ones to change. You could be sitting there arguing about a spell effect, only to find out the villain was using a magic item that worked differently than the spell. Meanwhile everyone is just waiting for the game to resume, and now the GM is trying to rethink the plot because you forced them to reveal something that was supposed to be a surprise reveal later on. If things don’t seem right state your case briefly, and then whatever the ruling, just GO WITH IT and keep the game moving. Everyone is there to have fun.


As a side note – some GMs actually ARE trying to kill your character, and will gloat and laugh about the TPK (Total Party Kill) they “won” over their players. Don’t try to protect yourself against these GMs. Don’t play sessions with a wall up and all your defenses bolstered. Just have fun and GO WITH IT, and if the GM turns out to be one of those types, stop gaming with them. Or better yet, talk to them about it. Let them know that you aren’t into gaming with an adversarial Referee, and that you intend to stop gaming with them if it continues. There are plenty of good GMs out there who want to tell rewarding stories in which YOUR CHARACTERS ARE THE HEROES. You will find one if you let your guard down and just enjoy the games you play, and don’t settle for crappy games.

Be good to each other, and GAME ON!

For a full list of best gaming practices check out 11 Ways To Be A Better Roleplayer by Grant over at Look, Robot 


On Jeff Grubb leaving TSR…

Jeff Grubb released an article yesterday on his reasons for leaving TSR. As you of course know, Jeff Grubb has worked extensively on the Marvel Super Heroes RPG, Spelljammer campaign setting for D&D, Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms, and a slew of other projects from Warcraft novels to Heroclix sets.

The article really grabbed my interest though, partly because anything about the history of the hobby appeals to me, but more because of the mention of Mystara. Mystara, the Known World of the D&D game boxed sets, was the my home away from home as a child. I would spend hours reading about that world, and cross checking information about it. Then many more hours writing adventures there and running them for my friends. In fact I still do every Tuesday night on

You can read the article Mr. Grubb posted on Grubb Street, here;

It wasn’t surprising to see that the transition of Mystara from Frank Mentzer’s classic boxed sets and the gazzeteers under the supervision of Bruce Heard over to a new format for AD&D 2nd edition was a disaster. I have ranted many times about how the 2nd edition products were the death throes for the world of Mystara. They took possibly the most in depth and complex world in their product line and reduced it to audio disc adventure learning tools for First Quest players. It was a disgrace.

And before you go on saying “Forgotten Realms is more detailed and complex than Mystara” as many do… Consider this quote from Jeff Grubbs article

 “Unlike the Realms, which had empty space where Ed hadn’t any stories/games in (Sembia, for example), there [Mystara] was a very complete world to start with here [and] I wanted to embrace the complexity.”

There is a joke about Boxed Sets – “How much does it cost to produce Boxed Sets? More than what you make on them.” (I didn’t say it was a funny joke). But I believe the financial crisis that the company faced shortly afterwards was not only the result of too many boxed sets, but a growing tendency to make bad decisions about what was good for the hobby and what was good for the fans of the product lines. Every time I read an article like this by one of the great game designers and their past with that company, I am more convinced that they drove the company into the ground with complete foresight of what was happening. The products became cheaper, the art was being re-used over and over, and the product lines and teams working on them became smaller and smaller.

I am glad the hobby survived through the 90’s and the rise of video game systems that were becoming ever more advanced. Today we see a thriving community of Retro-gamers bringing back the old school feel, as well as many companies taking new concepts and turning them into amazing new game systems. And we have even seen the phoenix-like rebirth of Dungeons & Dragons, first through the Open Game License of 3rd edition, then on to the massive multiplayer onli appeal of 4th edition. And now with the 5th edition of the game they have learned from the community that less is more, and a return to the roots of the game was in order.

The hobby has certainly had it’s ups and downs, but with so many games out there now, digital products, diceroller apps for phones, virtual online game tables, youtube, twitch, podcasts, and even professional quality television shows like Titansgrave, Critical Role, and Harmon’s Quest… It truly is a GREAT TIME TO BE A GAMER!


Return of Scholastic Fighting Fantasy gamebooks

Scholastic Book Club is what introduced me to Choose Your Own Adventures, Endless Quest books. It was in those Endless Quest books that I saw the same ad over and over, for the D&D red basic boxed set. When I was 11 I used my birthday money to buy that set and RPGs became my new passion. My entire life was shaped by that.

Gaming has lead me to lifelong friendships, job opportunities, and romantic relationships. I wouldn’t have met the mothers of my two kids without gaming, and my twenty year old son would probably not be coming over on weekends if he wasn’t into gaming and painting minis with his dad. It has led to an interest in science and history that has kept me learning all these many years. I developed all of my communication, social, and leadership skills from gaming. And I really don’t know who I would be without this hobby that is such a large part of my life.

I am thrilled to hear that Scholastic and the classic Fighting Fantasy gamebooks are making a comeback. Maybe some nerdy little kid like me can have their life changed forever. Read more about it on Beasts of War.


Marvel RPG System Revised

Here are some of the house-rules I use when I run Classic Marvel Superheroes on Roll20 for my game group. If you play in my games bookmark this page, otherwise enjoy this sample, there is more to come. 


Marvel RPG System Revised – Feat rolls and Time & Movement

Feat Rolls general rules. Most feat rolls have a stated Intensity. A character may assist another if they have Abilities within one rank for a +1CS (p.19).

  • If the Intensity is MORE THAN 3 Ranks lower than your Ability, the feat is automatic.
  • If the Intensity is LOWER than your ability, you need a GREEN feat roll.
  • If the Intensity is HIGHER than your ability you need a RED feat roll.
  • If the Intensity is MORE THAN 1 Rank higher than your Ability, the feat is impossible.

Resource feats house rules: Each resource feat made reduces the resource rank for the week. The Resource rank is restored (all penalties removed) at the end of each week when the characters funds are replenished (TGIF).

  • If an item’s cost is more than 3CS lower than the Resource rank, the feat is automatically successful and the Resource rank is now at –1CS penalty.
  • If the Cost intensity is lower than the Resource Rank, then a Green FEAT roll is required and the Resource feat is now at a –2CS penalty.
  • If the cost intensity is 1CS higher as the Resource rank, then a Red FEAT roll is required and the Resource feat is now at a –6CS penalty.
  • If an item’s cost is more than 1CS higher than the Resource rank, the feat is automatically failed and the Resource rank is now at –1CS penalty.

Movement in “Areas” is based on Endurance or on a Movement Power. NOTE; 40 Areas = 1 mile

  • Feeble = 1 area/ turn.
  • Poor – Excellent = 2 areas / turn.
  • Remarkable or higher = 3 areas / turn.

Movement through a window or door costs 1 area of move. (If this ends the character’s move then he is standing in the window or doorway).

Breaking through a door, wall or other obstruction requires a Strength feat against the material strength of the obstruction and costs additional areas based on the material.

  • Up to Poor cost 1 area.
  • Up to Excellent costs 2 areas.
  • Up to Incredible costs 3 areas.
  • Greater than Incredible causes the character to stop movement and lose all momentum.

While moving the character can turn up to 90 degrees without losing momentum. Any turn greater than that cuts movement in half (possibly ending the move). Taking another action while moving reduces the move by half (minimum one).

Time is based on 6 second “Turns” (about the time of one comic panel).

  1. Judge determines actions of NPCs and other events.
  2. Players state their intended actions for the turn.
  3. Initiative is determined on 1d10 + Intuition modifier.
  4. Dodge, Block, Evade and Change Action* rolls are made.
  5. Each participant now takes their actions in initiative order.

​Changing an action requires a YELLOW Agility feat and then all actions thereafter are made at a –1CS penalty.

​On a green the character may choose to take no action.

​On a white the character must follow through with the original intended action.

Multiple actions in a turn:

A character may move half speed and still take one action without penalty.

Moving at full speed uses the entire turn (character may Charge an opponent).

Multiple “non-combat” actions in a turn are increased in difficulty by one color rank (p19).

Multiple targets; A single attack using Slugfest, Energy, or Force may affect multiple adjacent targets with one roll at –4CS. This may also be used to Escape multiple grapplers at –4CS.

Multiple Attacks Characters may make additional attacks with a successful Fighting feat roll:

  • Remarkable intensity for 2 attacks,
  • Amazing intensity for 3 attacks.
  • If this roll is successful the attacks are made at –1CS each.
  • If the roll is failed only one attack is made at a –3CS penalty.