The important thing as a GM is to keep your story self-consistent. If someone falls into a lake of boiling acid, or gets eaten by kobolds, she's dead. Short of a GM-hand-wave that fixes everything back up again, your story must continue without that PC.

Which sure sucks for that player.

Solution? Bestow upon a brand new character an approximate match to the old character. This is easier to do if the old character was mostly or completely lost—consumed in a fireball, fallen down a bottomless pit, etc.—because that neatly solves the problem of having too much good equipment to go around in the party. You can transfer over to a new character sheet most of the equipment and character attributes wholesale, then tweak as follows:

  1. Replace the powerful/notable items the character had with different but equally powerful or notable items so there's no question of "how'd you get THAT? I thought the only one in existence fell into a lake of boiling acid?"
  2. Dock the character all of the money and good equipment (read: magical items) that were picked up by other party members, or the party as a whole becomes too wealthy. (Gear and cash that were lost do not have to be docked, they can be transferred as-is.) The "impoverished" character might then make agreements with the other party members to be given or loaned her stuff back, in exchange for the new character doing the grunt work (for example). Don't let this go on too liberally, though. The other characters, properly role-played, might be charitable to a poor adventurer whose help they need, but then again they might not.

    An alternative to allowing swaps between the party members right away works well when the party collects loot and distributes it at the end of the adventure: simply suggest to the other players that the dead character's gear is loot, and should be distributed evenly with the rest of the loot, and the natural tendency will be for the replacement character to get a lot of the original gear back if he has contributed significantly to the party's outcome.

  3. Arbitrarily rearrange the stats a bit. Don't completely reroll, because you'll have a hell of a time getting an equivalent character that way. Just alter them by 4-8 points, adding a 1 or 2 to this, taking a 1 or 2 away from that, so that you have a different but still close-enough character.
  4. Let the player in question flesh out a brand new role for that character - keep class, skills, proficiencies. You may be able to pick a new class kit if it doesn't change the whole character too much, but I don't recommend a brand-new class. Changing race is ok as long as it doesn't change the class or level (due to experience limits on some races). Similarly, changing gender is fine and even encouraged, since it is a simple hook to clearly distinguish the new role from the old.
  5. Make up a background story, including a brief account of how the character went from level 1 to his current level. This can and should be as different from the original character as you like. It helps if the background story results in a plausible explanation for the new character ending up in the same place as the original party.
  6. Most, if not all, of the above work can be done by the player on his own time (perhaps even while the rest of the players are continuing the adventure). There's no need to trust the player to be completely honest about the transfer, because you're going to:

  7. Give the whole thing a once-over, comparing old character sheet to new, and look for any area where major changes were made. Doublecheck that the new character hasn't suddenly gained something great without losing something great. And finally, make sure there are no "wow, that's lucky" pieces of equipment in the inventory, i.e. anything that would give the character an unfair advantage in the campaign where the old character died. If your campaign takes place on a tropical archipelago, don't let the new character end up with a folding boat in his inventory.

After the end of the process of creating an equivalent of the original character, you can optionally then dock the character an item or a couple of attribute points to punish him for getting his dumb ass killed. Most players won't even care about the punishment, because they get the fun of trying out a whole new role.

Finally, remember that the new character has no claim whatsoever over the goods, deeds, name, or titles of the old character. If the dragon left behind a Holy Avenger after he picked the last of the paladin out of his teeth, it belongs to whoever picked it up now, not the new character.

Although this works and keeps everyone happy it is a bit time-consuming. The time consumed is, of course, the time of the person who died, since he's the one who wants back in the game. Ultimately, this whole solution is a deus ex machina, but the important thing is it won't feel like one, because the new character is not the old one, if the player is roleplaying her properly.

Notable notes:

  • This system was designed for use in either a PnP RPG or in the rules for a software RPG, but the original idea came as a way to allow software RPG's something to do with all those dead characters. Character death is far more common in computer games than it is in most human DMs' campaigns, for a wide range of reasons, and it makes playability sense to allow the game to bring the player back from the dead—but how do you implement it without disrupting the consistency of the game world or simply declaring by fiat that resurrection is cheap and easy in the game world? This is one possible answer. A properly-designed software RPG system can handle all of the tasks associated with generating a near-miss character, with the single exception of backstory, which can always be filled in later by the player.
  • This method should not be allowed in either kind of RPG if there is a reasonable chance of the original character coming back into the game. If there's still a corpse, then the body can be dragged back into town and brought back to life. Reincarnation is also an option in some fantasy games.
Having a player character croak in the midst of a multi-day dungeon adventure does suck, especially if it is a popular character or has been around for ages. I was always the Dungeon Master, and part of my job was to pre-stage non-player characters.

Besides the typical tavern folks (which had a decent selection of five or six, pre-equipped with a history and personality type), each dungeon had NPCs hidden throughout the place. If nobody was dead, the NPCs would act like random encounters. If a character had been killed, I would hand over the NPC to the player to take over. At the end of the adventure, they had the option of keeping the NPC.

I also allowed divine intervention (rolling four 0's on d10) and possible reincarnation after the adventure was over, if someone kept something of the dead character. Usually the cost was very dear to the party, so that was rarely attempted.

I dislike this course of action for a number of reasons; mainly because it takes away from the fact that the character actually died. He is dead. The person who was playing that character should have time to grieve, not be pressed right back into the quest with “another similar character” that for all intents and purposes is the same as the old one. It is a big event when a character dies and if you are trying to role play properly, I think it is a bit self-defeating to just say “that’s too bad, you character has died but wait a minute here comes a very similar character walking over that hill to join the party.”. I guess it depends on the style of game you want to play, however I see the solution you suggest xant as encouragement to players to think of their characters as nothing more than a collection of statistics and equipment. If there is no fear of death, then players wont become so attached to their characters because they can be assured that if their character dies then they will just create another like him and continue playing. To each his own I guess.

If you are playing with a party that cares more about the action than the role-playing, the game than realism, then your method will keep players happy and in the adventure. However if you are aiming to develop real characters who slowing develop over the course of a number of adventures (the way I like to play), then those characters have to be able to die, and those around them have to face the consequences of that happening. I don’t see it as a big problem if a player has to sit out for an hour or two and just watch the proceedings, I think it gives that player time to think about his actions leading up to his demise and to contemplate what he did, and what he could have done. Maybe I’m just a really strict, pedantic GM, but I like to make my campaigns as realistic as possible.

Of course there is the option to resurrect the character. I find that attempting to bring a slain character back to life usually turns out to be a quest in its own right.

In my high school D&D group, this was kind of taboo. When I was younger, I didn't understand why. After all, if one player liked their character SO MUCH to basically bring them back from the dead, shouldn't they get to keep playing them? Don't they have a right to play who THEY want to play?

And this, dear reader, is where the veil of childish naïveté is removed.

Dungeons & Dragons is a social game with a lot of unwritten rules. No two groups are the same. One rule of my group was that our main DM, Alice, made her die rolls behind a screen. This heightened suspense when the going got tough, but it also meant that we players had to trust Alice to be honest.

Teenagers are not honest.

It's not their fault*. Teenagers are young people thrown into a prison by their parents and are forced to fend for themselves. They act like animals -- bullying anyone who is different, fighting over mates, establishing a pecking order. Most of them have no choice but to act like animals.

My friends and I prided ourselves on being different. We were the geeks, after all. We let anyone who wanted to hang out with us do so, and subtly, gently and politely asked them to go away if they didn't fit in. So I thought, back then.

When we played D&D, we all trusted Alice to make those die rolls behind her screen and be honest. We were above those jocks and jerks in our school, we were heroes. Looking back now, I realize that trust is power, and everyone reacts to power in different ways.

I, for example, feel uncomfortable when given any kind of power. When I graduated high school, my destiny was placed in my hands and I didn't know what to do. Eventually, my mom forced me to attend a community college. As I went there, I jumped from odd job to odd job, dropped out of college, went back, got my transfer degree, then decided not to do anything again (there are a lot of manchildren like me, society calls us names like NEET, beta male, parasite single, herbivore male, etc.) Basically, when given power, people like me sort of say, "fuck it" and shrug it off. We're not comfortable with power, trust or responsibility, because with those things come all sorts of risk. We like to take it easy. Others, like Alice, ABUSE THE HOLY FUCKING HELL OUT OF THOSE THINGS.

Here's an example. One game, a player named Bob, who was basically the "weird one," made a character named Carol. Carol was an obvious self-insert of Bob, except with reversed sex and gender. Our group didn't take too kindly to this kind of behavior, and Bob made it totally creepy, trying to hit on other players' characters. As a group of sexually insecure teenage virgins, this behavior was as uncomfortable being in a cramped elevator. Naked. And none of the people in the elevator are sexy. Something had to be done about Carol.

An interesting thing about D&D is that it gives geeks a steam valve to let out their pent-up passive aggression. Gary Gygax (may he rest in peace,) D&D's creator, was famous for this. Any time one of his playtesters suggested something that he didn't like, instead of just saying, "no," he'd give them a warped version of their request, like a Genie would. One example of this is Psionics, which one of Gygax's friends suggested**. Gygax didn't think it fit the flavor of his game, but instead of saying "no," he made a set of rules for it that was, for all practical purposes, incompatible with the rest of the game (it worked on a different time schedule, if I recall correctly.) His friend probably got the idea and kept his mouth shut from there.

So, D&D has a long history of solving problems with passive-aggressive shaming tactics instead of talking your problems out. Alice, presented with the problem of Bob's character Carol, did what Gary Gygax would have done: kill off Bob's character.

Alice could have just taken Bob aside and gently told him that Carol was creeping the group out. She would have done so if she were an adult and not a teenager. Instead, Alice betrayed our trust and had Carol "mysteriously" get killed by a long chain of critical hits from a band of gnolls that ambushed Carol in her sleep. Critical hits (especially long strings of them) have an extremely low chance of occurring***; but behind that DM screen, they can occur whenever an unscrupulous DM like Alice wanted them to happen. Carol's death was bloody and swift.

Bob was dismayed, but accepted that the dice were just against him that night and rolled up another character. This one was named Eve. Eve met our party in a tavern and started hitting on all of our characters. Eve tragically died to a rogue's poisoned dagger soon afterward. It becomes some kind of sick necrogenealogy after that:

After Eve came Mallory, who died to a Dragon just passing by who decided on whimsy to scorch her to death. After Mallory came Trudy, who died by falling into a pit trap she failed to detect. And after Trudy came Peggy, who mysteriously choked to death on her food at the Tavern when we met her. After Peggy, came... -- The Book of my Fucking Evil DM, Ch 11 Verses 10 - infinity

At some point, Alice got tired of killing Bob's characters and told us all to leave. Bob never played D&D with us again, and we had two unwritten rules etched into our minds:

RULE THE FIRST: No playing opposite sex characters.
RULE THE SECOND: No restarting a player after his character dies.

We're all adults now, and we realize that we acted like douches back then. We were young, so we were fucking around and making stupid mistakes. Alice doesn't cheat on die rolls anymore or arbitrarily kill characters, she knows now that adults solve their problems by working them out with each other. I've grown up a bit and am looking for work. Bob? He's going to school too. Whenever we have chances to get together and play D&D, we have a great time. We no longer wear the veil of childish naïveté.

* Paul Graham's essay "Why Nerds are Unpopular" is pretty insightful regarding this matter.

** "There's a number of things in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons that I never should have done. I shouldn't have put Psionics in there, but somebody talked me into it." - Gary Gygax

On another note, I don't hate the man. There's controversy over things that he's done, but almost all trailblazers are controversial. Gary Gygax, like all humans, was a flawed man, but he created something beautiful in spite of his flaws.

*** Usually 5%, up to 25% with the right amount of min-maxing. Two critical hits in a row is not unheard of, but uncommon. Six gnolls all critting the same target in one round of combat is something extremely rare. You've got a better chance of being struck by lightning in real life.

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