Dealing with Death as a DM
Unless you’re running a fairly specific type of game, with corresponding players, the death of a character is something that shouldn’t come up too often in a game of Dungeons & Dragons (or any other tabletop system). The ideal battle tends to be one with danger, not assured destruction. You want the players to understand that if they make foolish choices, they can die, but by the same token the situation should reward competency. Yet the dice do as they will, to say nothing of the insane ideas players sometimes pursue, and occasionally that final death saving throw results in a failure.
If you’re new to DMing, this is something that might sneak up on you, and it’s one you’ll definitely wish you were prepared for. Character death is one of the defining aspects of playing a D&D-style tabletop, the risk that puts a little weight onto every choice. That doesn’t mean it’s always easy to get your players through, however. Hopefully, this will give you some idea of what to brace for so you can be there for your players.
Accept the Emotions are Real
People sometimes get upset when their character dies. I’m sure to some of you that sounds stupid, so try to understand that these are more than pages of paper. They represent a tremendous amount of time, energy, and often emotional investment. Making a character, writing a backstory, playing through dozens of games to reach this level, the entire experience is built to make you give a enough of a shit about that fictional person that you play them with a sense of self-preservation. They’re supposed to feel real, so it’s natural that people have a reaction to losing them.
Whether the player is angry, sad, or just generally upset, don’t try to minimize what they’re experiencing by saying it’s just a game. They know that, but emotions aren’t always based on logic. I’ve often found that making space for the surviving characters to say goodbye, a burial or a few kind words over their melted remains, helps the player feel some closure. You know your friends better than I do though, so it’s going to be a matter of what works best for them.
The point here isn’t any specific tactic, just to acknowledge what they’re feeling and go from there. Remember, the fact that the character felt real enough to mourn is a good thing, it means you’re building an involved experience that lets the players get attached. This is the flip side of that coin, so be ready when it comes.
Consider Tie-In Options
One of the worst aspects of a character dying mid-game is having to start over with the group. You’ve been traveling with these people for however long, all of whom are played by your actual friends, and now you have to pretend to be a stranger re-learning the introductory shit. You can always elect to skip over that, though it does lessen the character interactions.
A solution that speeds things along nicely is bringing in the next character as a tie-in to the one that died. Perhaps a lover, or an enemy, or an old friend. Some connection to expedite the relationship-building phase of a new character. One example from my own history was when I lost a few characters in one game, and each new one brought in was a sibling out to avenge the last character’s death. By the end, the avenging chain was five-siblings deep, but it made bringing in new ones go way smoother, and turned into something of a fun running joke.
My main point here is that while death is essential, the crappier parts that go along with it aren’t. As the DM, you’ll know your players pretty well by the time they’re in a death situation. If one is about to pass on, take a moment to think about that player and what parts of losing a character might be the worst for them. You can take some of the sting out by smoothing out those areas, be it through tie-ins, story elements, or a simple element of DM magic.
Focus On What’s Next
Not to over-generalize, but you know how they say the best way to get over an ex is get under someone new? That might be hit-and-miss with love, however it is a pretty solid tactic in terms of D&D characters. Once they’ve had time to mourn and emotionally settle, turn the discussion away from what they’ve lost, and onto where they’ll be going from here.
This is a time to bring out any frustrations or issues they had with the now-dead character. Remember how you wanted more versatility, how about rolling a druid? Got tired of pure melee, so why not test a wizard on the sidelines? Hated feeling stuck, so why not zip around as a speedy monk? The point is, every class (by design) has limits and drawbacks. Whatever sore spots your player had with the last class, suggest new options that will make those aspects fun. Or, if they loved the old class, talk about different build options they could test.
The focus here isn’t one specific point of discussion, it’s just to move them gently toward the excitement of building a new character. Trust me, that’s a joy that persists even after decades of play, and once they’ve moved onto it you’re through the worst of the loss. Bring the other players in too, if appropriate. There’s a lot to be said for discussing team composition as a party, and rolling in a new character who feels like they’re filling a necessary gap in a functioning team.
At the end of the day, the people you play with are your friends. Keep that in mind through the process and you’ll probably guide them through fine. Just be prepared to stop the session and give this issue the time it requires, especially if it’s the game or player’s first loss.