What To Do When A Player Character Dies In Dungeons & Dragons

Whether they’re facing deadly traps or vicious monsters, player characters in Dungeons & Dragons risk their lives with every adventure they undertake. Depending on the type of campaign you’re playing, player character death could be a common mishap or an earth-shaking tragedy. Either way, a good DM will have a plan for what happens when a hero bites the dust – expectedly or otherwise.

THEGAMER VIDEO OF THE DAY

SCROLL TO CONTINUE WITH CONTENT

Related: Dungeons & Dragons: Mini-Games To Add To Your Campaign

Use these tips to turn character deaths into opportunities for better storytelling and keep casualties from derailing your carefully-planned campaign. If your players know that death isn’t necessarily the end for their characters, they’ll take more risks and make the game more exciting!

6 Be Up-Front About Your Game’s Lethality

van richten's guide to ravenloft dungeons & dragons savra sunstar confronting her father jander sunstar in a fight
Savra Sunstar and Jander Sunstar by Andrew Mar

Every player and every DM has a different style of gameplay, especially when it comes to lethality. Where some players like the danger of knowing that they’re always one bad roll away from their doom, others want to see their characters grow, flourish and succeed. Before starting any new campaign, you should always let your players know how deadly your dungeons will be.

Related: D&D: Diseases For DMs To Use On Player Characters

For a gritty, dark-fantasy campaign, players will likely expect that an infected wound from a rusty blade is all it takes to see them to the next world. If you’re going for a more heroic tale, it can pay to give player characters extra chances when the rules otherwise say that they would die. Both are great ways to play, but a player who is expecting one style and gets the other won’t have fun – which is, of course, the last thing you want!

5 Resurrection

Dungeons and Dragons half elven cleric raising one hand from the player's handbook
Player’s Handbok 5e via Wizards of the Coast

In many campaigns, there are options to perform ritual resurrections for bringing back dead characters. The level of power and the materials necessary can make this a costly proposition, but it’s the go-to method for restoring an adventurer from the dead. Depending on the themes of your campaign, though, there could be other ways to perform a resurrection beyond those listed in the rulebooks.

If the party can’t pay for a resurrection and don’t have the capability to perform the ritual themselves, the deceased might be able to purchase their own way back to the land of the living. An offer from a deity, Warlock patron, or similar entity could restore the character’s life. The player character has a limited amount of time to perform a specific service for the entity – retrieving a magic item or killing a particular NPC – and if they fail they’ll be taken straight back to the underworld.

4 Undeath

dungeons & dragons The rivalry between darklords strahd von zarovich and azalin rex spills through endless ages and countless domains
via Wizards of the Coast

While it works similarly to reincarnation, having a deceased character return as an undead introduces more complications to the story. Depending on which type of undead they become, the character will likely gain some powerful new capabilities but also be subject to some debilitating weaknesses.

Related: D&D: Curses For DMs To Use On Player Characters

Whether the character’s unnatural return is intentional or not, they’ll have to come to grips with their new condition. Be careful with this option; an undead player character could potentially become too powerful compared to the living party members, but used sparingly a little necromancy can make for a great plot twist.

3 Succession / Reincarnation

kalashtar lightwalker by Lucio Parrillo
Kalashtar Lightwalker by Lucio Parrillo

If a player character dies and there is no bringing them back, a fun way to keep the story going without too much disruption is to introduce a relative, spouse, or friend to replace them in the party. The newcomer will have a built-in motivation to fulfill the original character’s goal and possibly even avenge their death! If the entire party falls, gameplay could resume years later as the next generation of heroes deals with the fallout from their defeat.

Related: D&D: Tips For Playing As A Dhampir

If your setting allows for it, new player characters after a time skip could also be reincarnations of the previous heroes’ souls. While they will be entirely different people, they could share a few traits that link them to their previous lives – perhaps a stern, no-nonsense Wizard softens their demeanor when they hear a song they played in their previous incarnation as a Bard.

2 Underworld Adventures

Dungeons & Dragons lich summoning undead
Dungeon Master’s Guide Key Art by Tyler Jacobson

If the whole party meets their end at once, why not take the campaign into the lands of the dead? Exploring the underworld, the newly-deceased shades could seek to influence the realm of the living, earn favor with the god(s) of death, or even seek to earn a second chance at life!

Naturally, this could be a pretty big tonal shift, but it also serves as the jumping-off point for a campaign that your players won’t soon forget.

1 Fated Deaths

dungeons and dragons mage raising a staff with lightning flashing in the background
via Wizards of the Coast

One great way to ensure that character deaths are memorable and don’t leave any hard feelings for their players is to establish a fated demise for each hero. During character creation, have each player tell you, secretly or publicly, how their character is fated to die. These fates should be possible within the scope of the campaign; a duel with a hated rival, a betrayal by a close friend, or the character sacrificing themselves to save others are all great options, while dying peacefully in their sleep decades after saving the world isn’t a useful fate for this purpose.

During play, player characters can only die in circumstances that match the fate described by the player. They can be beaten, broken, imprisoned, and otherwise disabled, but unless the situation matches their fate, they’ll live to see another day. Not only does this let characters go out with a bang, but it also lets players know when they’re in true danger. For example, if a character is doomed to be immolated in a blast of dragonfire, the moment that a red dragon soars overhead should be very impactful for the player – this could be the day the character meets their fate!

Next: The Most Epic Locations In The D&D Universe

Leave a Comment