How to Handle Player Character Death in D&D
We all know that our players are their own worst enemies. On occasion, player characters (PCs) are going to die. Excluding Meat Grinder modes and Tomb of Annihilation, player characters aren't necessarily going to die regularly. When a player is invested in a character, whether because they've been playing their Dwarf Barbarian for 2 years or love the efficiency of their Gnome Wizard, losing their character can feel gut-wrenching.
These tips will help you deal with it both in and out of game.
If you are playing a high fantasy romp filled with magic and jokes, it is unlikely that a gory beheading of a character mid-combat is going to fit the tone well. The jump from light-hearted fun to sudden brutality may be effective, but it will most likely cause more of a shock than needed for an already shocking event. This may also upset the player who runs the character because of the jarring change of tone.
This isn't true of a Meat Grinder style game where the players are routinely taking intense damage, sustaining permanent injuries, and lack magic healing.
Making sure the tone of the death fits with your campaign can help to make sure your players don't despise you as a Dungeon Master (we call them Quest Masters) and makes for a more consistent experience.
2. Say Goodbye
Sometimes this option isn't possible. If the PC takes point-blank dragon breath to the face or a 100' dive off a cliff into a 5' spring water pool, keeping their life is unlikely.
But you are the Quest Master (QM). Their life (and death) lies in your hands. According to the rules, if they hit 0 HP and fail their death saves they're dead. However, you could grant them final words so they can croak out one last quip, bequeath their +3 Holy Avenger to a friend for safekeeping, or make a request of a fellow party member to avenge their death. This way they'll feel better about losing the character and the party will have an epic death to remember. Always remember that a player would rather die like Boromir than Lurtz.
3. Last Rites
Encourage holding an in-game funeral, sharing memories of the character who has died, hitting up their favorite tavern, and singing their favorite rowdy songs. This can be an excellent bonding experience for the remaining party members and reinforce the fact that death can having a lasting impact on the world your players are playing in.
Furthermore, this process lets both the players and characters heal whatever emotional wounds they may be feeling.
In some campaigns, this process will need to be done a few sessions later. If a character dies mid-dungeon or deep in the forbidden woods, it may be a little while before the party has time to mourn properly. Of course, some parties won't offer much more than a poorly built pyre before commencing the distribution of the dead party member’s money.
4. Grieve Out-of-Game
In my games, players can get very attached to their characters and their deaths can have a huge personal impact that is challenging to handle at the table right away.
In these instances, there's nothing wrong with stepping away from the table, grabbing a beer, and remembering the good times everyone had with that character.
Doing something cathartic like this can help bring the group together, take their minds off the tragic events which just occurred, and grant them the energy to keep on adventuring.
5. New Beginnings
In my regular game, after everyone learned the mechanics and got used to combat, I gave them a stark message: The training wheels are coming off.
I asked them all to think of ideas of what future characters they might play if their current one died. This was to make sure, as one player suggested, they didn't just stop playing if their PC died. I don't want to exclude anyone by killing them off.
By doing this I got them excited about future characters and prepared them for the possibility of a death in the group. It also meant I had an idea going forward of where the strengths of the group would lie after one of them died.
Character death is hard. Whether it comes during a fight from a number of bad rolls, or from a narrative where one character nobly sacrifices themselves to destroy the Hand and Eye of Vecna, death is felt by everyone at the table.
Remember that every player will react to their character's death differently. Some will want to simply sit back and watch how their party reacts to their character's death while other will need to step away and put the game on pause for a few minutes. By being accommodating during these times, you show that player a great deal of respect which will make returning with their new character a much more enjoyable experience.