How do you house rule death?

Posted by on June 13, 2017
'Montecassino Abbey - Cassino, Italy - Black and white street photography' by Giuseppe Milo

‘Montecassino Abbey – Cassino, Italy – Black and white street photography’ by Giuseppe Milo

The one aspect of RPGs that I’ve seen most house-ruled are death rules.

For example, in the last few editions of Dungeons & Dragons, a character that drops to 0 HP or less makes death saving throws unless stabilized or healed, and if the character fails three rolls, they die. A lot of groups nerf that.

My group house rules as follows: If you fail three death saving rolls, you fall completely unconscious–attempts to stabilize or heal you fail outright–but you do wake up after combat ends. If the entire party is knocked unconscious, they all die.

This is a big change from our previous campaign, where player-character death was flat out impossible.

Now, I play with a group of players who care deeply about developing their characters over time, so losing one a few sessions in–or even many sessions in–isn’t fun for them. They find the plot twist of PC death less interesting than a PC changing an opinion or an aspect of their personality.

On the other hand, de-fanged death drains combat of its emotional power. PCs can throw themselves at crazy enemies, because failure lacks serious consequence. It just means your character misses a few minutes of events, which the other characters will describe anyway.

Some groups play with immediate death: if your PC drops to 0 health, the PC immediately dies.

I’ve heard of groups where dropping to 0 health triggers the possibility of death: the player decides, in that moment, whether this is the right time for the PC to die. It causes a conscious, thoughtful decision by the player.

And, of course, there are games where PC death is common and expected, as in Dread, or ones where it’s practically impossible, as in Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple. I’m talking about a more standard, long-running RPG.

I don’t have a good answer for this. Would my players ultimately have a better/more powerful/more impactful/more emotional time if they did fear for their characters’ death? Are any of those goals more important than the others?

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