Death is a very dull, dreary affair, and my advice to you is to have nothing whatsoever to do with it. –W. Somerset Maugham
We’ve all been there, when the randomness and challenges of a game prove to be too much for one of the characters and he shuffles off the mortal coil. Kicks the bucket. Takes the Big Sleep. Pushes up daisies. Assumes room temperature. Joins the choir invisible. Cashes in his chips. Becomes existentially challenged. Takes the eternal celestial dirt nap.
He’s dead, Jim.
Nobody likes the next two options:
- Someone rolls up a new character. The GM finagles a somewhat logical entrance for her. The normally hyper-paranoid group somehow manages to find a perfectly logical reason to let her join the party. “You seem trustworthy. Would you care to join us in our noble quest?” Verisimilitude is usually kicked to the curb.
- “Find a high level cleric” flies to the top of the party’s To Do List. If there’s already a high level cleric in the party, then your Blazing Saddles  fan gets to quote Slim Pickens: “Somebody’s gotta go back and get a shitload of diamonds!” The characterless player gets to play video games, recalculate experience, and kibitz . (This option not available in all genres.)
Sure, there are creative and innovative ways to introduce the new character, or to give the characterless player a way to keep playing. But why make work for yourself when there are some really cool alternatives to death? And despite the title, we’re not talking about cake .
Fantasy or high-powered sci-fi are usually pretty flexible when it comes to these alternatives, as limbs can be regrown or replaced, sight and hearing can be magically or technologically restored, etc. Simply put, when the rules allow for full recovery, grievous injuries are an improvement over character death because the player and the character can continue playing, albeit somewhat hampered.
On the other hand, in more ‘realistic’ genres and campaigns, these injuries may burden a character to the extent that retirement starts to look good. Even so, the injured character can still complete the adventure, or at least get to a reasonable stopping point. And the replacement character will have a better reason to join the party, and a more appropriate entry into the game.
Alternatives to Death
Some of these are not pretty. You might not want to read this around mealtime, unless you’re going on a diet.
Bones break (link )
(Link is to a search, not a particular video.) A broken arm will take the wind out of any hero’s sails. A broken leg is even worse, especially if it’s the femur (thighbone). And I probably don’t need to talk about skulls or spines…
Penalties are initially going to be more than “you have one functional hand” or “you move at half speed”. If you haven’t had a broken limb, then some pointers: Until properly set and splinted/cast, they hurt like hell when jarred or moved. In d20 terms, I’d penalize any Strength or Dexterity based actions at –2 to –8, depending on the location and severity of the break. These would be halved once the bones are properly set, and would go away over time.
Limbs get severed
(No links, you sick little ghouls.) Sure, maybe you have a clean cut, an ice chest, and a quick route to a Level I trauma center. Maybe the cleric has some troll’s blood and a transfusion kit. But it’s much more likely that someone just got a new nickname, and became the butt of many jokes to come.
Initially, there’s blood loss and probably shock, which sounds suspiciously (in d20ish) like Constitution Damage and a Will Save (adjust to your system of choice). Then there’s either getting that bloody thing put back on (mind the direction, so you aren’t half pigeon-toed), or dealing with a missing limb. Some systems have disadvantages or hindrances for having one leg or one arm, and this sounds like a great opportunity to use them. Missing limbs are a staple of at least one genre , and more  than  one  real-life warrior operates without a full set of limbs.
“You’ll put an eye out!”
It’s all fun and games until someone gets their eye poked out. Then, it’s hilarious.
Seriously, aside from a killer eye patch or a creepy glass eye, losing an eye will also give someone a serious depth of field problem until this is fixed. Let’s just hope it wasn’t your sniper, and that they only lost one eye…
Deafness is another occupational hazard of the adventurous. While not as detrimental to the lifestyle as blindness, the inability to hear can make life interesting, and possibly short. If your genre/campaign doesn’t allow for the return of hearing, then perhaps it’s time the party learned something new: sign language .
There is nothing wrong with death, when it’s appropriate (see #99 here ). But when the cupidity of dice and the stupidity of players conspire against the story, there are alternatives.
What do you think? Have I missed anything? Got any mechanics for the above? Sound off in the comments and let us know!