Dead PCs present several problems for a GM (not least of which is the rest of the PCs descending like jackals to loot their comrade’s still warm—probably yet-twitching— corpse).
Much of the time we deal with PC death in a cavalier fashion. Typically, when a PC dies, his comrades act sad for a few nanoseconds and then loot the body. Quite often, they’ll then push on and leave their friend’s corpse where it lies!
Dead PCs are a fact of (game) life, and a necessary component of gaming—a part we shouldn’t avoid. PC death can be an emotive subject, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about it. (Fear not, I am not going to virtually hug you at this point).
You can find plenty of articles online discussing PC death—if it should happen at all, when it should happen and suchlike. Given dice determine much of the action in our games, I find much of this kind of debate baffling. Death happens when death happens. Of course, no one wants to die in a pointless random encounter, but sometimes that’s your fate!
One often ignored part of the discussion, however, is how to deal with the aftermath of a PC’s death. For example:
- Are there story or plot implications resulting from the PC’s demise?
- What level (and class) will the replacement PC be?
- If a crucial member of the party fell—say the cleric or thief—how can the party keep a good mix of classes and capabilities if the player wants to try something new?
But for all that, though, the GM is left with one pressing problem—how to insert the replacement PC into the adventure.
If the PCs are in the depths of a dungeon—and will be for several sessions—having a new PC magically appear might not be the ideal solution. Balanced against this: no one wants to watch his friends play for session after session while he waits for a “realistic” opportunity to join the group.
Usually, it’s best if the party retreat and regroup after one of their friends has just died. At the least, this might be a good time to bury the body, grieve and put their friend’s affairs in order. Sometimes, however, there are story-based reasons to push on—the evil wizard will soon complete his ritual, the dungeon is flooding and so on.
In those situations, what’s a GM to do?
Luckily, the GM probably won’t have to act immediately as the player will be wailing, gnashing his teeth, crushing the dice that betrayed him into dust and so on. He’ll also need to make a new character, which might take quite some time.
Given PC death—in most games—is an ever-present threat a clever, cunning and diligent GM should have pondered how to insert new PCs into the adventure. (As you might have guessed by now, I’m a big fan of preparation).
Given that, here are six ways to add a new PC to the group:
1. The New PC is a Captive
The new PC is already in the dungeon and is a prisoner. The GM should work with the player to work up a story describing the PC’s capture.
A captive PC could be:
- In an actual dungeon, prison cell or oubliette.
- In a torture chamber “enjoying” its master’s attention.
- About to be executed.
- A slave.
- Dragged—under light guard, of course—from one place to another.
However the PC is encountered, ensure the PC’s equipment is nearby, so he isn’t disadvantaged when he joins the party. In case the party find the gear first, ensure it is obvious it belongs to a fellow adventurer; that makes it easier for the new PC to claim it later.
2. The New PC is a Recent Captive
In a similar vein to #1 above, the PC is a captive, but only recently captured—and is being dragged into the dungeon/to her cell when the party encounters her captors.
The main advantage of this scenario is that new PC’s equipment is likely being carried by said captors making it blindingly obvious to whom it belongs.
3. The New PC is a Messenger
The new PC is a messenger. He could be carrying a message for the party—particularly if they are working for a patron—or he could have a missive for someone else thought to be in the area. He could even bring them a job offer, which could handily lead to the party’s next adventure.
4. The New PC is a Sole Survivor
The new PC is the sole survivor of another adventuring band exploring the dungeon. As luck would have it, she stumbles into the party’s path.
This method is perhaps the most overused of all those discussed here and works best if the GM has foreshadowed the other group (which doesn’t take much effort). The PCs could have heard rumours of the other adventurers while in town preparing their expedition, for example. Foreshadowing the other party roots them in the campaign world and makes the new PC’s arrival less jarring.
5. The New PC is a Spy
The new PC has been spying on the dungeon’s denizens for a rival (a rival—preferably—acceptable to the PCs; a local lord or good-aligned church are excellent choices). The party’s arrival forces the new PC to change his plans—probably to confess to being a spy, so the party doesn’t slaughter him—and to cast off his disguise. His cover “blown” he has no option but to join the party.
6. The New PC is a Turncoat
The new PC was once an enthusiastic member of the group controlling the dungeon (or perhaps was a mercenary in their employ). However, recently she has seen the error of her ways and has been plotting to flee. The party’s arrival provides the perfect opportunity to do just that. Turning on her fellows—or employers—she helps slay them, which is a powerful way of proving her worth to the party.
In this scenario, the group comes across a trapped adventurer. She could be trapped in a pit (unable to climb out), in a secret room (for which she cannot find the exit) or by a monster (which she cannot win passed on her own). The party saves her and she joins the party with a ready-made reason to work with them (at least until the party leaves the dungeon).
The Play’s the Thing!
Remember, the play’s the thing. A wise GM makes the best of the situation and uses a PC death to further the campaign. The manner of a new PC’s arrival into the group can lead to memorable role-playing situations. It can also be used to provide the party with information or equipment vital to their quest. It can also be used to present plot hooks for future adventures.
Using one of the options above makes the PC’s arrival more memorable than that of a random, wandering adventurer who is instantly trusted by the party for no real reason. In such a manner, the original PC’s death becomes something that helps the campaign grow and evolve and not a wholly negative event.
And—a final thought—the solutions above can work for more than one PC at a time; this is particularly handy if you need to replace more than one PC at the same time.
Thank you to Tom Ganz who recommended this article subject. I wish I’d thought of it myself.
What Did I Miss?
Did I miss some original way of inserting a new PC into the group mid-dungeon? Let me know, in the comments below.