Every once in a while, a novice GM pops up on the Facebook GMs and DMs group with questions about how to deal with PCs dying in the game. Usually this is in the context of “I’ve never killed a PC before, and I’m worried the Player will not be interested in the game anymore.” While ultimately, the answer is that you’re not responsible for whether the player stays or not, almost universally, we are DMing because we enjoy hanging out and playing games with our friends, and nobody wants to hear a friend effectively say “I don’t like hanging out with you anymore.” As with most things, there’s no one “silver bullet” to keep players at your table after their PC dies, but there’s a few things you can do to decrease the likelihood that they’ll leave.
Decide whether the Death is really permanent
A superhero may be down and out, but not really dead. A D&D character can almost always be raised from the dead by a friendly Cleric. A sci-fi cyborg might have a mental backup, or a digital “ghost”. James Bond might wash up on shore, and be nursed back to health by a lovely and friendly expat who owns a villa on a nearby island. A vampire might be roused from torpor by scheming rival who now has them bloodbound…
In any given game system and setting, there’s a dozen and one ways to say that dead doesn’t mean “dead”. Some game systems such as FATE Core offers a way for the characters to proactively concede the combat when things are looking dire. A concession guarantees that they won’t die, but leaves the fate of the character in the hands of the attackers. This opens up a whole realm of opportunities for the DM to come up with creative plot hooks and side quests that a simple, clean death doesn’t provide. While not all game systems provide a “concession” mechanic, like most of Fate Core, it’s very easy to houserule in to any system.
No Chosen Ones
There’s a temptation to create a world where your PCs are “Chosen” for a destiny, or are uniquely qualfied for the quest at hand. It’s a trope common to all sorts of media but in an RPG. However, in RPGs that’s building a very complex structure and balancing it entirely on the fate of a few (relatively fragile) PCs. While it might work for a very short campaign, or a one shot, an adventure which requires specific PCs to complete the story, or sets up the adventure so that only PCs who start the adventure have a reason to finish it make it difficult to integrate new PCs if one of them dies, or leaves due to real-life issues, or whatever. It’s best to keep your adventure plots a bit more open ended so that you can bring in new PCs easily, just by making them interested in the current phase of the adventure.
Maintain a stable of potential PCs
This is a hint I picked up from Call of Cthulhu players who ran long campaigns: Have a bunch of ally NPCs who are peripherally involved in the quest, but aren’t actively questing alongside the PCs. You’re searching for a kidnapping victim, and you have encountered a local sheriff who has been very helpful in the investigation, but who has had other duties that have kept him from “adventuring” with you. When a character dies, perhaps that helpful sheriff can become a PC. As a DM you can try to make sure that you introduce a variety of NPCs who might be willing to help out the party, so when a PC dies, the NPC can join up and pick up with very little “ramp up” time on to the plot that the rest of the party is following.
Depending on your party makeup, this can be an easy match. However, you’ll probably need to tailor this a lot to your game. Some players want to keep a specific “makeup” of the party, and you’ll need to decide whether you need to adjust the power level of the NPC to match the party. Some groups might not care about a disparity in character power level, but several may be deeply concerned if they lose a 8th level fighter and pick up a 3rd level bard in their stead.
Which kind of brings us to the “nitty gritty” part of the discussion. Most of my points up until now have been about making sure the new PC fits in with the rest of the plotline, but it’s also important to have the new PCs fit in mechanically with the rest of the game. For games that have explicitly defined levels, you should decide whether you want to bring the new PCs in at the same level as the other PCs or not. In general, I recommend that the new PCs come in at the same level. There are some tables where that might not be necessary. Some players may enjoy the challenge of starting with a “fresh” low power character. It can be a lot of fun, but in general the default should probably be to bring the new characters in at the same power level as the character that they’re replacing.