The previous post here discussed how to handle damage sustained by a character. But what happens when that damage hits the ultimate limit? What happens when a character reaches the point of actual mortality? Among new tabletop players there are a number of misconceptions about the game, but character 'death' is probably the most misunderstood aspect of tabletop RPG.
The false impression that many people have about games like Dungeons and Dragons is represented in the above panel from a comic by Jack Chick. The assumption that the player invests their self in a singular character to the point that they 'become' that character and if that adventurer dies, their game is effectively over. Even on the TV show Community, during what was otherwise a pretty faithful representation of Dungeons and Dragons, one of the players is depicted turning in their character sheet and permanently leaving the room when they lose a character. This is representative of what might happen in tournament play, at a convention event where you are a guest, but it is certainly not the case at the game table with your friends.
In fact, this would be the equivalent of perma-death in video games, a process that would lock you out of your World of Warcraft account if you got ganked during a raid. In the early days of D&D, back in the first edition Gygax era, death was hard core and final, with few second chances or options to stabilize. If you ran out of health, that was pretty much it. However, there were five words that would soften the blow following such a loss: "Roll up a new character." That is, roll the dice to generate statistics for a new character to play.
This was such a standard of the game that most players know what that means. Dungeons and Dragons was supposed to be a game of life and death adventure, and that includes the basic principle that when one story ends, another begins. Players were never intended to immerse themselves in one character to the point of assuming their identity, they are simply affecting certain roles and characteristics as part of the shared game experience. So the simplest answer to the question "What happens when a character dies?" used to be that the player plays someone else. Maybe next time they will be a bard instead of a rogue, it offers the opportunity for new experiences despite the short-term loss.
Additionally, high-level adventurers could sacrifice treasure to bring their fallen comrades back from the great beyond, to prevent long-time players from losing characters they have invested a lot in. These days, the tabletop RPG has expanded its options for handling lethality, to accomodate a greater variety of preferences and a less immediate boundary between living and death.
The Backup Plan
You don't want a character's demise to ruin a player's night. But at the same time, it shouldn't be without cost. A game is fun because it is a challenge, and there is no challenge without cost. If players could instantly respawn then there would be little point to taking damage at all. So how I handle
Firstly, I almost always have a back-up on hand. Either a pre-generated character or a second character designed by the player, this is a fall back option in case of the first character's demise. The player should know this in order to reassure them that there is a safety net for their continued adventuring.
The most important thing in this whole process is what I consider my golden rule of player death: Never let any player sit out of the game for more than a few minutes. That means that even if they aren't in a position to play their new character, they should have some kind of role to play in the game at hand. If there is an NPC or minor character that can be introduced, let them play that character until they can get their official one. If that isn't available, let them play one of the bad guys. If all else fails, introduce their new character through a cheap contrivance, but don't make them sit in the corner doing nothing. The consequence of losing a character is enough of a bummer without exiling your player from the table, even for a little while. If there is any reason you wouldn't be comfortable with putting this player back in action ASAP, then you've got other issues that should be handled through different methods. Let them get back in there and get back to having fun.
To be continued...