My apologies for the lack of updates so far this week. We were dealing with a death in the family, and it was a difficult time.
Now that all of that is done, I started thinking about the whole process…of everything we went through to lay this person to rest. I thought about D&D, where death is handled a bit differently, usually.
In Dungeons & Dragons, we typically don’t go into as much depth and detail to describe the burial process – if there even is one. Hard to bury a hero when they’ve been swallowed by a dragon or disintegrated by a beholder.
But when it is just an unlucky arrow to the face that does one in, what is the process that we go through?
We’re currently playing through Curse of Strahd, which is no stranger to character death. The odds are stacked against the party, and the campaign is brutal. So far, we’ve had 3 character deaths, and several NPCs have perished. Generally, the players have done what they could to pay their respects to the dead. The party’s cleric did what he could to lay to rest those whose bodies didn’t disappear in the middle of the night….
But we don’t spend a lot of time on the subject. Our cleric’s player was good at describing the things his character did to the dead to properly lay them to rest, and that was good and all. But do we tend to move on because it’s an unpleasant aspect of real life? And this game is meant more for escapism? Is it because the players want to get back to the story?
I’m suddenly thinking of doing a game session wherein the party comes across a group of their enemies, mourning their fallen and conducting a memorial service for those that died at the adventurers’ hands. What would they do? What kind of attitude would this create?
Thinking about player-character death in D&D, my mind goes to Critical Role, and how the danger of a character dying brings nearly the whole party to actual tears. Anxiety rips through the players as they scramble to keep their comrade alive. Matt Mercer’s emotionally effective, storytelling-based resurrection ritual mechanic typically leaves the players at the table sobbing messes.
And, if I’m being honest while thinking back to my recent funeral experience, that’s quite realistic.
That being said, the players of CR have been doing this for years, and are super invested in their characters. So I totally understand why it’s so emotionally traumatizing when one of them dies and bringing them back hinges on a few die rolls.
In our game of CoS, there’s usually an urgency present in the air. I’m not pushing a “ticking clock” type of campaign, but the player characters (or maybe the players?) seem to feel that they need to get where they’re going and get there fast. So maybe they don’t feel like there’s a lot of time for rituals or services recognizing the dead. Hard to say, I’ve not spoken to them about this. That’s just the feeling I get.
Perhaps it’s because there have been no consequences to not holding services so far (well, despite the body of one adventurer disappearing before they had a chance to bury it). If I brought back one of the deceased NPCs as a zombie to harass the party because they didn’t perform the necessary rites to put them at peace, perhaps that would prompt them to be more thorough – not that I’m looking for them to be, I’m just musing.
This whole weekend and past couple of days just has me thinking on the subject. I’ve lost two grandparents in 5 months, and – while their deaths have not been quite as dramatic as the often-explosive ends the player-characters meet in D&D – they’ve been far more emotional. I, of course, understand why…but what I’m thinking about is, “why aren’t the character deaths more emotional than they are?”
Then again, do I even want them to be? I know my players are having fun, because they tell me as much. So, am I chancing the ruination of that fun by bringing the mood down with memorial services? Especially considering I’m not the only one at the table to recently lose close relatives?
What is it exactly I’m looking for in my players? Do I want them to imitate the kind of emotion that I see in the players of Critical Role? No, definitely not – especially if it’s not genuine. I already get the looks of shock and surprise when one of their characters bites it, and that’s reward enough as a DM and storyteller. And I’m definitely glad they’re not sore losers who get huffy about it.
What’s funny is, I feel like we – as DMs – would more readily make a big deal about an NPC’s death than a player character. Think about it.
Scenario 1: the party is ambushed on the road by a group of bandit assassins. They’re overwhelmed and one of the heroes is slain. Once the bandits are defeated, the DM asks the party what they’re going to do with the character. The player says he’s ready to roll up a new character, so they decide to bury the fallen, and hold a short vigil before getting back on the road, maybe sharing some drinks over a fire as they camp for the night.
Seems pretty normal, right? Okay, now try this.
Scenario 2: The local high-wizard – patron to the party and resident exposition-giver – dies. The baron of the region approaches the party and says he’d like the heroes to speak at the memorial service that’s happening in two days. Despite never speaking of them, family members of the wizard start coming out of the woodwork, each with their own motives for attending the service. As the heroes prepare what it is they’re going to say about their cherished quest-giver, a message arrives from the mortuary summoning the heroes right away. Upon arriving they discover the wizard has died under suspicious circumstances, and foul play is alleged. Can the heroes figure out what happened before the memorial? Or before the wizard’s living trust is divvied up to these unscrupulous relatives?
See what I mean? The death of a character – while often jarring and full of DM possibilities – can be handled quickly and succinctly. True, there are times where Scenario 2 can play toward the character death, and Scenario 1 can revolve around an NPC. But I feel like DMs are more ready to make a bigger deal – and a new quest – out of an NPC death. And that’s because we, the DMs, control the NPCs and we know their fate. We can decide things for them. We can kill them “off-screen.” We don’t have that power over the player-characters.
One thing I would like to try is to kind of reward my players for when their characters die. It’s a big deal for a player…to create this person that they’re going to inhabit and adventure as – their avatar within this world. So, when that avatar is offed, it can be sad or disappointing. So, why not leave the players with a little token?
Crawling Dungeon created a rather amusing Character Death Certificate that you can print, fill out, and give to your players as something to remember their fallen heroes by. I think it’s brilliant, and may start doing just that.
How have you handled character death in the party as a storyteller? Do you stop down and ask how the players will be taking care of the deceased? Do you let them handle it themselves? What was the most emotional player-character death you witnessed? Join the conversation in the comments below!
Until next time – Well Met!