Some GMs call it taboo. Other GMs revel in it. Most players despise it. The death of a player character is often a weird subject in most role playing games, to the point that some don't even acknowledge it. When telling a story that involves living thing, there are often times when that thing may die. What makes a role playing game different than cooperative story telling is uncertainty. If you are telling the story together (like in straight improv), you and your partners want the outcome of some sort of conflict to be the most meaningful possible to construct a certain story. But in an RPG, there is often a mechanic which will semi-randomly decide the resolution of a conflict. Death in a straight storytelling setting is usually agreed upon during the story's construction. In an RPG, death could happen narratively like this, but more often than not, will happen via the roll of a die. This has led to much discussion over the consequences of killing off a PC. In this article, I will discuss a PC's death via game mechanisms from the eyes of a GM who views it as bad, a GM who views it as good, and the view as a player.
Lately, I've been hearing from multiple podcasts or people that I listen too that player character death via a die roll should never happen. If they're losing a fight, the characters don't perish, yet there is some narrative thing that happens that keeps them from dying. This can be used to keep the game pretty much on track. Introducing new characters into the game isn't easy, and getting them invested in the story is even harder. Most of these GMs will insist that a PC character should never be killed by goblin grunt #4 or Stormtrooper FN-2187, but rather if they are to be killed nonnarratively that the foe has a name. You rarely see in cinema or read in literature about the protagonist killed by a random extra. The PCs are exceptions, heroes, and generally awesome.
During my last D&D 5e game I just ran, I told my player's before we even started that I was not going to stop random monster x from killing them this campaign. My goal was to try and make this system as gritty as possible. In the first few weeks of the campaign, I had killed two of the PCs. When death is on the table for every instance, the game takes on a new dimension. The players now must be much more cautious, not just busting into any room they want and killing everything in it. They lose the sense of security they have when the GM takes death off the table for most encounters. They can make rash decisions with little fear of PC death most of the time. Keeping death on the table reigns this in. They want to avoid more combats now, and ones that are inevitable, they want to have the advantage. The down side to this is what I will call the 10 foot pole problem. The players are now overly cautious, tapping every flagstone and door with a 10 foot pole to check for traps or monsters before continuing. This will slow the game down tremendously. Luckily for myself, this didn't seem to happen during my D&D 5e campaign.
Those views are from the perspective of the GM, which is widely different than what a player sees. A player who's PC has been killed now has real world consequences. They now can not take part in the rest of tonight's game (easily) and now must invest more time into creating another character. Depending on the game system, this could be only a few minutes or a few hours. Nobody wants to sit at the table next to their friend as they play the game and you have to sit there digging through a book, especially if it's a new system. Now, occasionally PC death can be OK for a player. If the scene makes it incredibly cool, a player may make the choice to have a PC die. But it must be incredibly cool. As a player, real life time is usually more valuable than in game themes or story arcs. If a player has to make a choice between sacrificing themselves for an NPC, more often than not they won't do it. The story would be much better with the PC saving the princess in exchange for their life, but the player doesn't want to have to spend the next few hours building a character.
So that's my thoughts on PC death in an RPG. I switch up my GMing style depending on the system I'm running and the themes I want to play with. Currently, I am running a 13th Age game on the rare PC death spectrum. I believe that most systems should be run in this spectrum, because it makes it a hell of a lot easier for me to GM and keeps the game flowing pretty quickly. If my players start making rash and dumb decisions, I will find another way to punish them, which PC death may be delivered for a particularly brash offense.