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issueRoleplaying Tips Weekly E-Zine Issue #381

PC Death And Your Campaign


This Week's Tips Summarized 

PC Death And Your Campaign

  1. Is There An Alternative Outcome?
  2. What's The Campaign's Power Level?
  3. Maybe We Should Just Call It Quits
  4. Timing Is Everything
  5. Player-Killers
  6. Bad Character Concepts

Readers' Tips Summarized 

  1. Handouts And Props Ideas
  2. Two Random World Building Methods
  3. Reignite The Flame
  4. Giving Good Feedback Is Hard

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A Brief Word From Johnn 

Volume 2: 5 Room Dungeons Ready For Download

The second volume of 5 Room Dungeons contest entries is now ready for download. Featured in this volume:

Warts and All by Paul Darcy Temple of the Volcano God by DJ Mindermast The Necromancer's Cave by Morpha Merchant's Crypt by Aki Halme The Temple Defiled by Tyler Turner

Download (PDF 1MB)

Roleplaying Tips Weekly Turns 8

T'was November 1999 when I sent the first issues of Roleplaying Tips Weekly to friends, family, and other victims. Thanks to Steve B. for the awesome HTML volunteering, and to Erin Smale [ Chimera RPG Core Rules ] for webmaster fu. Thanks also to Scott, Leslie, and 1d100 other generous folks who've helped with their time and expertise over the years.

And thanks to you, dear GMs, for playing RPGs and having more fun while doing it!

To best celebrate this birthday, I figure it's time for this week's issue, is it not? It's about tips and strategies on recovering from PC death. Thanks for the article, Kate.

Get a game in this week.


Johnn Four,

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GM Mastery: Adventure Essentials: Holidays

Plan, prepare, and GM better adventures. Use this info- packed book to craft interesting holidays, and use holidays as the backbone for campaigns, adventures, and encounters. Holidays can be much more than the minor quirk of your game world. With strategic design, you can transform holidays into a vital GMing tool to create immersion, realism, and most importantly, more fun in your game sessions.

Adventure Essentials: Holidays overview:

  • Chapter 1: How To Design Compelling Holidays
  • Chapter 2: Holiday Design Elements
  • Chapter 3: GM & Campaign Advice

GM Mastery: Adventure Essentials: Holidays at RPF Now

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PC Death And Your Campaign  

by Kate Manchester

You're running your campaign, and everything's going great. At least it was, until one or more of the player characters dies. So, what now? Do you continue the campaign, or bring it to an end? If want to keep your campaign going despite this setback, here are a few suggestions:

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1. Is There An Alternative Outcome? 

Ask yourself if you want the PC to be truly dead. If not, here are a couple alternatives:

  1. There In Spirit

    The character could be dead, but their spirit could have remained, either as an immaterial ghost or in possession of the nearest sentient creature (giving them the ability to speak). Restoring the character could become a new quest for the remaining PCs (or at least entertaining if the PC came back as a talking dog, bird, badger, etc.) While this option is more believable in a fantasy setting, it could still work in a modern or sci-fi setting.
  2. Penalty

    The character survives, but incurs some sort of penalty. For example, in the Shadowrun system a player can elect to spend a stat point to bring the character back. You could enact a similar system, where the PC is returned to life, but loses levels, experience, abilities, or items.
  3. Change Of Fate

    Alternatively, you could change the PC's fate. Instead of letting the character die, you could slate the PC for a darker Fate of your choosing, and thus is allowed to cheat death _this_ time.

    Avoid bringing the PCs back so often your players become complacent. If they know you'll bring their PC back, they'll be more likely to try more foolhardy actions. Though, that's not always such a bad thing.

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2. What's The Campaign's Power Level? 

If the player must make a new PC, consider the current power level of your campaign. For more on this topic, take a look at Roleplaying Tips Issue #129 Old Campaign, New PCs: Creating New Characters For Existing Campaigns.

  1. The Lower Levels

    In a low-powered campaign, it's not a big deal to make a character starting back at square one. The other characters are either relatively low level or haven't gained lots of items, contacts, abilities, etc. If the PC died as a result of bad luck or the campaign is close to approaching the middle levels, consider giving the new PC a little extra, perhaps an additional level, a few more build points, or a small, special item (for example, a +1 sword that belonged to their father or a very helpful contact.) That 'advantage' could also serve as the plot hook for the next installment of your campaign.
  2. The Middle Levels

    In the middle levels, you have to balance the creation of a useful and viable PC without penalizing the surviving ones. How do you accomplish this? Many systems allow for rapid progression at lower levels by setting progressively higher requirements for any sort of advancement, whether it be in levels or abilities.

    If the other players don't mind a campaign temporarily geared to help keep the lower level PC healthy (for example, going after orcs instead of hill giants) then a low-powered character might be the best option.

    If that doesn't work, let them start at or below the party's average level. For systems that don't have levels, you could:
    • Allow the player to use some or all of the dead PC's unspent xp
    • Give the player extra build points
    • Give them xp equal to the number of sessions they attended prior to their PC's death
    • Award an amount based on the average xp earned or spent by the rest of the players.l

    Another possibility might be to establish a player points system, where players gain points by contributing to the health and enjoyment of the campaign (buying pizza, writing a diary for the character, helping/bringing in a new player, etc.). These points could then be traded for xp or levels (at a ratio previously explained or agreed upon) to be used during creation of subsequent characters.

    Thus, the more a player helps the campaign, the more points he or she will earn. If the amount gets excessive, you can change the ratio (but warn the players in advance) or set a limit on the amount that can be used per character.
  3. The Upper Echelons

    The death of a PC in a high-powered or long-running campaign presents a thorny problem for the GM. It might be a good idea to consult with your group, or have the rules agreed on in advance to avoid conflicts later.

    Most of the suggestions used for the middle levels can be used for the upper ones:
    • A starting or low level character could serve as a henchperson for the party, always staying in the background and exposed to less risk than the rest of the party.
    • The 'average level' ruling could be modified to something closer to two or three levels below the party.
    • The special item could be translated to a protection spell that lasts until the character can catch up to the party's current level.
    In addition to the above suggestions, consider the institution of accelerated progression. The DMG once suggested this alternate rule, where you award an additional 20% of the experience earned, similar to the 10% xp bonus given to a character with better than average stats. This gives the PC an opportunity to catch up without overly punishing the other PCs (or making them miss out on RP opportunities.)

    On the subject of such opportunities, you could also run one or more adventures between games (over e-mail or phone if need be) that allow the new PC to gain xp without the party. These can serve the dual purpose as part of the new PC's back story.
  4. It Doesn't Matter

    Some GMs simply make you use a starter PC when your character dies, no matter how powerful the surviving characters are or what happened to the dead character. This is common in live-action or IRC (chat) gaming, where you often have lots of players at varied power levels.

    Tabletop, however, tends to have a more stable player base, and I feel GMs should make some allowance, lest you offend the aggrieved player. Good players are hard to find, especially if you're running something more exotic than d20 or Dungeons & Dragons. But don't feel that you have to sacrifice game balance just to make a player happy.

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3. Maybe We Should Just Call It Quits 

All good things come to an end eventually. Sometimes it might just be better to end the campaign. Here are what I consider some of the most important reasons:

  1. Total Party Kill

    If you kill off the entire party or the group's last original character (made during the campaign's first round of character creation), you might want to consider a change, whether it be of campaign, setting, GM, or even game system.

    For example, during a Shadowrun campaign the entire party (including my long standing original character) wound up getting killed off. The group then took a vote and decided to take the campaign in a new direction. We're now on our third campaign.
  2. Lack Of Player Involvement

    If PCs have minimal ties to the campaign, players might not feel they have a stake or ownership in it. Uninvolved players quickly leads to bored or unhappy players. At this point, you might consider starting over with a new campaign, especially if you can't think of ways to create strong character hooks.
  3. Player Request

    If a majority of your players decide it's time for something different, it's not a bad idea to give them what they want. A DM should try to be flexible and responsive to their players' needs.

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4. Timing Is Everything 

PCs don't always get killed right before the end of a session. To avoid spending valuable session time approving a new character or leaving a player out of the action, encourage your players to give you a reserve character for your approval between games. Keep a copy in your files so you can easily hand them the character sheet (it can be tweaked later at your discretion if need be).

You could also allow them to play one (or more) of your minor or unnamed NPCs for the rest of the session, freeing you for other things. (Rule of thumb on this is if you don't want the player knowing the NPC's stats, don't let them play it.)

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5. Player-Killers 

Some game systems allow evil PCs or otherwise encourage PCs to kill one another. If this is something you want to discourage, then create both in-character and out of character penalties for this.

For example, in Vampire the Masquerade, an ST (GM) might decree the player-killer's PC is now marked for death _and_ the injured player receives part or all of the offender's xp.

If this isn't a concern for you, do nothing, but realize that allowing a PK to go unchecked can kill a campaign. PC killing can also be a symptom (or even a cause) of enmity between two players, so this is something worth watching.

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6. Bad Character Concepts 

There are two character concepts that should be avoided:

  1. Out for Blood If the player makes the brother/lover/whatever of their dead PC, looking to avenge the PC's death, just say no. There's just too much temptation for the player to metagame and have their new PC know about the former PC's death. In addition, the player might focus more on avenging the old PC instead of becoming part of the existing group.
  2. PC Version 2.0 It's the exact same PC with a different name or a few tweaked stats. This gets pretty old after awhile. Gently encourage them to play something else, especially if the group is lacking a critical type of PC.

* * *

In closing, PC death isn't necessarily the end of your campaign. Instead, consider it an instrument of change. And change isn't always a bad thing when you know how to deal with it.

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Readers' Tips Of The Week: 

Have some GM advice you'd like to share? E-mail it to - thanks!

1. Handouts And Props Ideas 

From: Laura Thurston

  1. Scrolls And Other Writings

    I've discovered a web page with a variety of ancient and fantasy fonts.

    These fonts are useful for undeciphered spell scrolls, ancient writing, and languages your PCs don't know how to read. I keep a list of which font goes with which language and eventually the PCs will be able to recognize the language from the font. There are dead languages in my game, language families, and similar fonts for similar languages.

    I print scrolls using these fonts on parchment paper and have a translated copy to hand players once they've deciphered it.
  2. Gathering Information

    Every group of player characters eventually finds themselves in a situation where they need to know the local gossip, or they're in a position to overhear something that might be important. Turn rumor tables with random rumors into handouts.

    If I'm planning to produce rumor handouts, I make a list ahead of time and sort them by when the PCs are likely to hear them. With multiple rumors being handed out, I can route the important ones to the appropriate characters.

    This is a good way to give a less vocal player something that no one else has: important information. I encourage in- character conferences while I'm adjudicating other players.
  3. Monster Treasure As Handouts

    This takes as much time as you want to devote to it. The simplest method is to create a list of monsters and their equipment, print it, and cut out each monster list separately. If you want to be more elaborate, you can describe items in detail.

    I've been doing this for about a year and I found this makes it easier to arm the monsters with different weapons.

    "Hobgoblin 2L has a masterwork short sword, a short bow, and 6 flaming arrows. Hobgoblin 3S is a sorcerer with a crossbow and 8 quarrels, and 2 vials of green liquid."

    The DM list shows the masterwork short sword is actually a +1 short sword, and the vials are potions of flying. This way, I don't forget who has what - easy to do when you're running a battle scene with 12 monsters and 8 PCs. Monsters in my games always use their items.

    Rogues love this - the rest of the group doesn't know what the entire take was, and they can get away with stealthy stealing while the rest of the group is busy.
  4. NPCs

    When I know the PCs are about to arrive at a village, town, nomad encampment, or anywhere a lot of people will be, I'll prepare a DM list of notable NPCs with class, level, job, and short description. The session before will be timed to end just as they arrive and I'll have everyone roll on Gather Info and Diplomacy. These rolls will be recorded, and at the next session I'll give the PCs a list of who they meet the first day and how well they hit it off.

    This information can, but doesn't have to, overlap and is only as elaborate as you want it to be. My general rule is to have Gather Info determine how many people the player met and Diplomacy to determine how much they like the player.

    This can be helpful when a mystery needs to be solved. You have just handed the players a list of possible suspects and interviewees. They now have a jumping off point to start an investigation.

    And I shamelessly recycle what isn't used. NPCs who don't get referenced, even in passing, are now part of some other settlement once the PCs move on.
  5. Maps

    I recently bought Profantasy's Campaign Cartographer and now I'm addicted. This handy program allows you to map wilderness, towns, and dungeons, and you can print to any scale.
    • My PCs are traveling with a caravan, and I have a running map of where they've been.
    • I have a one-page area map for DM reference, but the PCs see a small piece of it. The DM map has coordinates along an X and Y axis, and I print for the players a 1 inch equals 20 miles scaled map and cut it into pieces that don't give away the secrets but give them a sense of progress.
    • Dungeons and other locations that are hosting adventures can be printed out to 1 inch equals 5 feet, giving you a battle map.
    • For people with a lot of ambition, you can print a page of furniture, cut them out, and have movable furniture.
    There is a free reader on their website. You can encourage your players to download the reader and e-mail them maps between sessions.

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2. Two Random World Building Methods 

From: Tommy H.H.

I use two types of world building now:

  1. The Random Table-Based World Generating System This starts out as total wasteland and a single city, then before each session some of the world is altered by randomised tables, letting mountains grow out of the plains, sink to rubble and become swamp, and so on.

    This world is chaotic. One session will order me to create a new city on the map, the next session destroys that place with a meteorite.
  2. The Random Encounter World This is based from an eternal, big city and stretches outward to infinite wilderness. Everything is made out of encounter tables, and the world in general does not change unless I redesign any of the encounter tables and their contents.

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3. Reignite The Flame 

From: Heather Grove

Hey there Johnn. I thought I'd pass along another burnout- related link:

Roleplaying Burnou

I'm a big fan of the idea of simply playing around as a method of reigniting the fun in a pastime. Give yourself permission to pick up an RPG book you've wanted to read, even if it's unrelated to your current campaign (and maybe find a way to work it in). Play with writers' exercises, particularly those related to world-building, characters, and plot; there are plenty of books on the subject, not to mention lots of online resources:

Errant Epiphanies

Or, run a spoof/humor session purely for fun. Playtime isn't just for kids!

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4. Giving Good Feedback Is Hard 

From: Jonas Dorn


Regarding criticism, giving good feedback is hard, and takes a lot of training, which many people don't have. Thus, criticism often tells as much about the person criticizing as it tells about the person on the receiving end.

Most criticism is not particularly helpful, and tells much more about what the person expected of the game than about the game itself. I am sure you have watched a movie with the completely wrong expectation that made you hate (or love) it, even though, in retrospect, the movie didn't deserve this reaction.

My tip for appreciating GMing again is to switch chairs and be a player for awhile. Maybe that is not possible with the current group of players, but then there are PBP communities, such as on [ Giant in the Playground Forums ], where you can easily get into a game.

Playing will remind a former GM why it can be so much fun to be master of the world, and it might actually teach him a thing or two.

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