Avoiding character deaths

The death of a player character (PC) can be the worst thing to happen in a game and dealing with it is often a hassle. Fortunately there are plenty of ways to avoid a PC death without giving up on realism or on the overall threat of disaster. Of course generally don't want to get ride of the threat of death completely as it can cheapen the game tremendously and cause the players to play carelessly with their characters.

In some cases you do want to get rid of character death though, but this depends entirely on what the entire group wants and on whether or not you and your group would be able to handle it well, but that's a subject for a different guide entirely (found here).

In this guide I'll go over many of the elements you can use to make the threat of death real without making the risk of it too high. In many cases it means using other forms of defeat and what the consequences of those defeats will be.

The death of a player character (PC) can be the worst thing to happen in a game and dealing with it is often a hassle. Fortunately there are plenty of ways to avoid a PC death without giving up on realism or on the overall threat of disaster. Of course generally don't want to get ride of the threat of death completely as it can cheapen the game tremendously and cause the players to play carelessly with their characters.

In some cases you do want to get rid of character death though, but this depends entirely on what the entire group wants and on whether or not you and your group would be able to handle it well, but that's a subject for a different guide entirely (found here).

In this guide I'll go over many of the elements you can use to make the threat of death real without making the risk of it too high. In many cases it means using other forms of defeat and what the consequences of those defeats will be.

Resurrection

Let's first get the most obvious one out the way. Most games have some form of resurrection in play that allows character to revive other characters. While this isn't exactly defeat without death in the strictest sense, it does result in the same, which is a defeat without the permanent loss of a character.

Resurrecting the dead is no easy feat though and should be handled as such. Sending the party on a long quest to fetch the materials or magic needed for the ritual or to find a person with the powers to resurrect a person can be a great way of keeping the campaign going, albeit in a side tracking way.
On top of that the cost of resurrecting somebody could be a high one to either the party, the resurrected member or both. Perhaps a piece of their soul is gone, perhaps a favor was asked of a divine being and this favor needs to be returned one day or perhaps the party had to spend all their money to buy all the required materials.

Resurrection is an obvious answer to a character's death, but it doesn't have to be used in the obvious way. If resurrection can be performed without too much struggle it tends to cheapen the threat of death, but the way you make it a struggle is where the possibilities are abundant.

Hero points/Fate Points/Etc.

Some game systems award points to the players for playing the game a certain way or performing certain tasks, these points can then be used to alter the story line and change facts within the universe. While this system isn't fit to be used in all systems as-is it does offer a way of allowing the players to avoid their character's deaths.

By awarding your players points they can exchange to death or an outcome of a fight you put part of the responsibility in the players' hands. Points shouldn't be given out freely though, perhaps once at the end of every session or at the end of a stage of the campaign. You could also put certain point thresholds on certain changes. Rerolling a killing blow might take 1 point, avoiding death completely might take 3 for example.

A point system like this often changes the way players play the game though. With points they might take more risks than when they have none left to spend. Whether this is a change you're willing to accept is of course entirely up to you and your group and best talked about at the start of a campaign.

Debilitating injury and knockouts

If you want to keep the risk of death, but lower it tremendously you could alter the way the death mechanics work in the game system you're playing. For example, if your character normally dies when they reach 0hp you could instead change it to being knocked unconscious at this point. Then if they drop a further x amount of hitpoints they will die. Some game systems have this by default, but for those that don't it could be a good adaptation.

Alternatively or perhaps on top of this you could add debilitating injuries. When a character reaches 0 hitpoints they will be severely injured and as a result will lose some stat points, have to roll with disadvantages and/or take another kind of punishment. You could even go as far as losing body parts if you really want to play a more gritty game.
Doing this means you won't lose the dread and fear of losing a battle, but you do postpone or completely remove the threat of losing a character permanently. The injuries are great for character development too, but some players might not like every type of injury, so make sure you discuss this system with your players before implementing it.

Non-lethal force

Perhaps the biggest effect you can have on avoiding character death is by using non-lethal encounters. I don't mean switching to social encounters or timed events, although those certainly help, but by changing the amount of force the opponents use and how far they're willing to go you drastically change the chances of PC death.
There are plenty of ways this can happen too without giving up on realism and I'll delve into some of those now.

Theft

Your typical thug usually just wants to steal stuff without actually killing somebody. Once they figure out they're not getting any easy loot and are unable to scare their targets into giving up their loot they'll usually try and get away. While this might mean the party doesn't gain any gold or loot from this encounter you can still award them xp for overcoming this obstacle. Plus when a party member gets particularly close to death you can steer the fight a little in favor of the attackers running away instead.

Avoiding player character death with the "excuse" of using thieves goes a step further though. The punishment for robbery is nowhere near as severe as the punishment for murder, so while some scoundrels might be willing to risk the punishment for theft for whatever the characters posses, they might not be willing to risk the punishment for murder for those same possessions.
Theft might not even get the authorities to do something if it's pretty common within that universe, but when murder's at play the stakes get higher and the investigations get more thorough.

To take it another step further, keeping adventurers alive is good for business. Stealing their stuff and allowing them to keep on adventuring means you can steal from them again later. So it makes sense for clever and well organized criminals to allow adventurers do the dirty work of venturing into tombs, overcoming traps and other obstacles and bringing the loot out in the open.

Ransom

On the topic of good business, some people are worth more alive than they are dead. In the majority of cases people are willing to pay to get somebody back alive and in one piece, so instead of killing the characters the enemies could simply kidnap them and demand ransom from their loved ones, the people who employed them or anybody else they might think would benefit from keeping them alive, or perhaps from anybody who might want to have the proverbial honor of killing these characters.

Lawful goodies

Not all enemies are out for blood, ready to kill all their enemies and anybody else who stands in their way. Some people live by a code of honor, most people aren't capable of killing somebody in cold blood and some people are simply not willing to kill people unless they have absolutely no other choice.
It's usually also in people's best interest to not kill people when they don't have to as it means they can usually expect similar treatment. This may seem counter intuitive to some, but this is something that's been part of real life throughout history, but heavily depends on the circumstances of course.

Drive away

Most beings simply want to drive away anything that poses a threat to them. Animals protect their young and their territory, villagers will protect their crops and other assets and most people will protect their private property.
A hungry animal might be desperate enough to fight for longer and take more risks than an animal in regular conditions, but in most cases they won't push themselves to the point of risking death or major injury. The same goes for most beings who wish to protect what is theirs.

Humiliation & ego

Some fights are simply about showing who's boss. After one side has been beaten enough the fight's usually over and one side leaves embarrassed and the other side has bragging rights.
When the adventuring party strolls through town looking all high and mighty it's pretty easy to incorporate a fight in which some drunk or otherwise judgment impaired folk might wish to try and show who's boss.

Information

Some beings are simply after information and are willing to beat it out of others if needed. The dead generally don't tell tales, so it's usually not really worth killing somebody if they're willing to die with their secret, but it can make for a very interesting encounter, if only to see how the players will react to being asked for information from a non-playable character (NPC) instead of being the ones to do the asking and to see how far they're willing to let their characters slip toward death before spilling the beans.

Deux Ex Machina

Deus Ex Machina, literally meaning 'god from the machine', is a plot device in which the impossible suddenly is resolved, usually in the way of some kind of intervention or addition to the story out of nowhere. For example, the hero might be doomed to die at the hands of their enemy when suddenly out of nowhere their friend arrives and saves the day.
It's usually something people don't really enjoy all that much and therefore best avoided, but you can always use it as a last resort. Of course the being doing the last minute saving can expect a price for their heroic deed or the saving itself could be a terrible fate in and of itself.

For example, say the adventuring part is saved by a group of peasants who come out of nowhere in the nick of time, tales will do the rounds of how the supposedly might heroes needed to be saved by a group of regular folks. The damage to the heroes' reputation and the mockery that comes with it is definitely something the players will want to avoid, similar to how they want to avoid death.
Another example is when a divine or perhaps unholy being saves their skin just in time and expect them to repay this favor, perhaps with part of their soul or by performing a certain task for this being. It's not like the party really has a choice, this being saved them and probably has the power to revert this twist of fate by simply killing the party themselves.

Consequences

The main thing to take away from the previous example and this guide in general is that there have to be consequences to losing an encounter, but that the consequence doesn't have to be death. As long as the consequences are severe the players will fear losing a battle and in many cases the fear of losing a character permanently can equal the consequences of losing an encounter without losing a character.
Evil might prevail, reputation and relationships might be lost, innocents might die or powerful artifacts might be lost forever. If you want to avoid character deaths simply ask yourself "What consequences of losing do my players fear?". Whatever the answer is it is that which you can revolve your encounters around. If the question is nothing and death's the only thing the players fear then death may have to be part of the game after all, but could be toned down through the various ways covered in this guide.

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