Gaming Tonic

Is PC Death Enough Of A Death Tax?

6a010535ce1cf6970c0134899a9ee6970cCharacter death is a part of almost any role-playing game.  When you take on the forces of darkness, megalomaniacal globe crushing maniacs, or a group of stealthy assassins it just might happen to a character.  Recently it has struck me that character death if not handled properly can actually be a huge advantage when it comes to magic items and equipment as well as more advantageous builds from starting at higher levels.

Let me clarify what I meant when I said that death and the introduction of a new character might set up the new character with powers and abilities.  Some feats, talents, tricks, knacks, and such are much more useful at lower level than they are at higher level.  So players are much less likely to select those.  In games where you can retrain it isn’t much of an issue at all as players can dump the less useful feats for more useful ones at any time.  Now that I took the time to clear that up, back to PC death.

When I was a young gamer in the early 80’s and your character met an untimely demise your new character always started a couple of levels behind the other characters.  With the way experience points doubled in D&D from level to level you usually would catch back up to the other party members in an adventure or two.  You also received less starting wealth to outfit your character.  Those were disadvantages to dying and you avoided it at all costs.

Some players might say that dying is punishment alone as many of the role-playing opportunities, allies, favors, story elements, and goodwill that their character had acquired during the adventuring career of their deceased character was gone.  That is true for some players but there are some other players that don’t put as much focus on those things and play the game to roll dice, do damage, and crush their enemies.  It is those players that can benefit from PC death in a lot of games by dying, especially when it comes to equipment.

If you stick to the guidelines for D&D or Pathfinder and you have a PC death, the player who had their character die makes a new character of the appropriate level with a certain amount of starting wealth.  If that appropriate level is the same level as the rest of the group and the DM has been keeping PC wealth according to the guidelines, the new PC has the opportunity to outfit their new character with exactly what they want.  In a lower magic world or in a game where the DM runs a lot of published adventures and hands out the magic that is written into the adventure without changing it to fit the PCs this is a real issue.

If you run published adventures and hand out the magic as it is written up in the adventure and then allow the players to trade it for half the listed value then the characters will have even less level appropriate gold piece value of magic and equipment.  If you allow the characters to purchase the exact items they would like then the characters will gain a little bit of power back by outfitting their characters with the exact items they need, which typically means what will give the characters the biggest advantage and best chance for survival.  The player with a new character from character death still has an advantage if the new character starting wealth is level appropriate.  That player simply purchases the most advantageous gear for the new character without needing to trade items in for half value to acquire the desired magic and equipment.

I tend to give out magic items to the characters which are more powerful than they might get at a certain level if I stick strictly by the rules.   My homebrew world is a low magic world and having fewer magic items but making those items more powerful seemed like a great way to keep that low magic feel.  This method of magic item dispersal is also an excellent way to deal with a newly introduced character that is replacing a deceased character from having choice gear in comparison to the rest of the party.

Another area that a DM should consider when it comes to PC death, and new character introduction is that the new character doesn’t step all over the toes of another PC already in the party.  I will admit that this is a sore spot with me because I have seen many a campaign, especially in early editions of D&D, which nobody wanted to play a wizard in the beginning.  I don’t blame them as it was difficult to survive with low hit points, no armor, and a single first level spell a day.  Although if there was a character death and let’s say the party was 9th level, then playing a wizard was an excellent choice as they were much more powerful at the point.

Do games need a death tax?  I have seen it used in a lot of campaigns by various DMs in the past and it is usually not a huge deal.  I will say that I think gamers of years gone by were a bit tougher and more likely to accept this.  Am I biased because I am one of those gamers?  Probably a little bit.  That doesn’t necessarily make it any less true.  I think lots of gamers at their home game table would balk at the idea of starting a new character a level or two behind the other PCs.  In organized play like Pathfinder Society or D&D Encounters you are much more likely to see PCs of mixed levels than in a home game and it is just accepted.

So do you think that a new character added to the group at higher levels has an advantage?  Do you think that some sort of death tax should be used to help minimize the new character advantage?  What do you do in the games you are playing now or have played in the past?  Use the comments section to tell me your stories, tell me I am wrong, or whatever else crosses your mind.  Until next time, Roll Hard!

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  1. There is lots of room here for questions, and lots of house methods for answers. But in the end comes back to some basic points to me. If your character dies and your were attached to the character, losing that character is a plenty high price. On the other hand if you have no attachment to that character then there is really no price at all, and your really just switching up sheets. My guess is that most cases falls somewhere in between those two points. For the game I’m active in, a game which admittedly has a high turn over, character come in at 2 levels below the highest level character. Now to be fair we haven’t ever lost a character to character death, only to players leaving the table.

    Concerning wealth by level, at least for pathfinder, most current paths are not running anywhere near the wealth to level scale, most are well ahead. Society play is also well ahead of those amounts, so I’m not sure what to say on that. But there remains points in society and path play where character death can be a problem. Mainly in the 1-3 range.

  2. In terms of a new character getting an advantage because they are created at higher levels, I recently counteracted that issue by allowing all characters a skills and talent reset periodically.
    They are able to tweak but not majorly alter their character concept, alter point distribution, and generally switch things around. This means the new PC has no advantage. I did limit the switch so that anything which has occurred in terms of skill use or major story elements cannot be undone.
    As for the gear the new character should return with either the level of relative power they had in their last character before it died, or at equal lowest compared to the existing characters.

  3. If treasure selection, especially magic item selection, is the main issue, why not either make the player roll randomly for magic items, or compile a short list they can choose from?

  4. @Mark Mueller: Rolling randomly would more than likely be received with outrage by most players but compiling a small list would be a good way to handle the situation if magic item acquisition is the only concern. Allowing for a minor tweak periodically as long as the tweak doesn’t affect a power, feat, or ability that has been a major focus of part of an adventure or campaign. Some systems allow for this anyway. Probably the best way to deal with this is to hopefully craft adventures that draw the players in and make their characters come to life so that the players form an attachment. It is not always that easy. As Ark mentioned starting a little bit behind the other characters is another way and from reading the comments here and on reddit, I believe more groups are doing this than I would have suspected. Perhaps players have more mettle than I was giving credit. Thanks for the comments and I hope you keep reading and tell the rest of your friends that you share the gaming table with to follow the blog as well.

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