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Dungeons, Dragons, and Death

Friday night. The Iskryn group is exploring a tainted sanctuary of Bjornar, the god of stars, location, and urson (bearfolk). Thousands of years ago, Bjornar’s sanctuary was invaded by a force of demons and gnolls, the spawn of Yeenoghu. In a last-ditch effort, the leader of the divine structure, Andromedus, teleported the entire building to the Astral Plane, and created a divine barrier that prevented scrying, and disallowed those within to leave. The demons trapped within quickly slaughtered the remaining celestial and urson defenders and looted the artifact which they came to the sanctuary for, but they were unable to break Andromedus’ barrier or locate the celestial.

Back to Friday night: The party clash with the demons, lead by Neegvym, Faithful of Yeenoghu. The battle is brutal and bloody, yet every demon is slain. Their bodies, though, are unable to return to the Abyss, so they simply lay motionless on the cold, stone floor. The victory comes at a cost: Rob Tully, the party’s ranger, and religious advocate died during the battle when Neegvym raked him with his enormous claws. However, his story did not end there.

After his death on the material plane, Rob’s soul materializes in Limbo, unable to find its way to the realm of his deity, Lykos, due to Andromedus’ barrier. In Limbo, he is forced to team up with Neegvym to survive the soup of chaos and impossibilities that is Limbo. Eventually, Rob takes a chance and exacts vengeance on Neegvym, cutting off one of the nalfeshnee’s wings mid-flight, causing the demon to tumble into the chaos of Limbo. Back on the material plane, Rob’s party succeeds; they cleanse the temple and lift the divine barrier, allowing Rob’s soul to journey to Lakotas, his deity’s realm. In Lakotas, Rob reunites with his family and makes peace, but learns of foul happenings on the material plane that entrance Rob’s player back into the campaign…

I recently had a PC die in my campaign, as described above.

When Rob died, his death scene was dramatic. The ranger passed within the sanctuary of one of his god’s sons, fighting his sworn enemies. Yet, his story didn’t end there. In a one-on-one session afterward, we played out his character’s messy journey to the afterlife and allowed him an opportunity to exact vengeance on the demon who slew him, which he was barely able to do. The oneshot ended with Rob reuniting with his family in his god’s realm, and learning that the villain of the campaign, the Woodsmaster, had managed to return to the material plane while the party cleansed the sanctuary. The extra session let his character be heroic one last time, gave the player closure, but also reinvigorated his interest in the campaign.

Today, we’re talking a tad about player character death in Dungeons and Dragons.

Player characters die in D&D. The event can be epic or sad, traumatic or dramatic, but in D&D, a PC’s death should always be memorable.

In addition, death should be a real possibility in D&D, especially during intense encounters. Without the threat of it, encounters with the incredible become far less interesting and exhilarating. This fact doesn’t only apply to combat encounters. Are the PCs dealing with a cutthroat gang of thieves, who could slit their throats at the smallest slight to their organization? What if they’re on trial for murder and robbery in the court of the king?

Moments during which the characters could perish are integral to D&D and should be present in almost every session of a campaign or adventure.

However, that doesn’t mean death should be mundane and expected. Deaths should be dramatic and carry the weight they deserve. Plus, after the character dies, their story doesn’t end in most D&D worlds. Instead, it continues in the afterlife, a soup of diverse planes and interconnected realms.

Alright, let’s dig into the dirt, and start with how a death should be handled.

A Beautiful Death

A player character’s death scene must be handled correctly. 

Players pour their ideas and emotions into their characters. Most of the time, it’s the only piece they brought to the table, and when it’s taken away, that can be saddening and upsetting. I posit, however, that the experience does not have to be this way. A death can be heroic and dramatic, even epic. In addition, as I stated before, it must be memorable.

I’m going to say something controversial here: When a character’s death is certain, let the player do what they want with their character’s death. If needed, assist them, but allow them to make the death memorable to themselves and to the other players.

Do they want to go out in a blaze of glory, perhaps getting one last attack on the big bad evil guy who is assaulting their fellow party members? Allow that to happen!

What if they’d like to get a chance to speak with the rest of their companions, and maybe even give some wise pieces of advice procured by the DM. Don’t object.

How about they protect a gateway or barrier while their party escapes, sacrificing their life to give the party a much-needed head start on the enemies? Sounds great!

If you don’t already, give your player as much agency as possible during the final moments of their characters involvement in the greater game. Let them make the scene memorable, and, if they need assistance, help them.

Handling the Dead

So, here we are: A PC is dead. You’ve handled their death scene well, but what happens after?

Foremostly, what occurs after a PC dies in D&D is completely reliant upon your world and style of play. Some believe the souls of the dead go to an extraplanar realm related to their deity or alignment, others posit they all end up in the same, dreadful place, and few think that their souls simply vanish, and the dead remain dead...forever. In addition, some DMs don’t care about this aspect of the game, and briefly brush over it.

I don’t agree with that.

Describing a PC’s journey to the afterlife gives a sense of closure to both the players and, in a sense, the dungeon master. Plus, it gives another layer of depth to your D&D world.

Quickly, we’ll go over each afterlife possibility, starting with souls going to a realm related to their beliefs during life.

When a creature dies, their soul leaves their body and goes on a journey to their particular extraplanar realm. This journey can be arduous and consuming, or it can be quick and painless. Depending on the type of DM you are, and the type of people you’re playing with, this can take seconds or minutes to explain, or can be played out over a single one-on-one session with the dead PC.

A single plane of existence for the dead is the second most common way to deal with the dead in D&D. Travelers to this realm are usually ushered along by an envoy, a reaper-like character. When the character is officially dead, perhaps the avatar of death in your world can make an appearance, or you can describe the character’s descent into the afterlife, following a path of thousands of other souls, or swimming down a river of ghosts.

The rarest, simplest, and most uninteresting way to handle the dead in D&D is asserting that they’re dead. When someone dies, they’re gone forever. They go nowhere, they can’t be communicated with, and their chance of resurrection is next to nothing. This goes against most D&D settings, but I’ve seen it used a few times. While it is uninteresting, I suppose it adds a sense of danger to your world that isn’t otherwise present.

Thinking about what happens when a PC dies in your world before it happens is important, and I encourage everyone to map it out. Remember, it need not be complex; simply stating that the character's soul leaves the material plane, passes over the elemental realms, soars through the outer planes, and into the realms of the gods suffices.

In Summary

Today, we learned:
  1. Characters die in Dungeons and Dragons, and their deaths should carry weight. Give your players a chance to describe how their character draws their final breath after being raked by a nalfeshnees enormous claw, or what their final words are to their companions who survived the encounter. Don’t just say, “You draw your final breath. You’re dead.” That’s boring, and doesn’t leave the player or their friends satisfied.
  2. Death is not the end of a character’s journey in the fantastical multiverse of D&D. The souls of characters can go on an ultimate journey, through the various planes of existence, or end up in the single realm of the dead, or they just die, never to be seen or heard from again.
As always, thanks for reading. Please like, share, comment, and follow. I love discussion and want my blog to reach as many folks as possible. Let's spread the joy of D&D far and wide, from the shining seas of Earth to the chaotic soup of Limbo.

Next week, we’ll most likely be discussing when the DM should twist the fate of the party, or the bounds of the world they adventure in. I like to call this phenomena divine intervention…

Until then, farewell!

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