Death is one of the most feared things in D&D and in rpgs in general.
All players are scared by it.
- They lose their character, who has been developed for many years.
- They're out of the game until they create a new character and the DM throws it into it again.
Even all DMs are scared, and again it's normal too:
- A character out of the game means all the knots and plots about it are suddenly cut away. All efforts are wasted.
- A new character means much work for them. They have to work out a meaningful reason to introduce the new characters and maybe they have to tinker about upcoming encounters since the new PCs may have a lower level than other members of the party.
- Last but not least they could have arguments with the players, who may have bad feelings about the loss of his beloved character.
D&D offers you many game mechanics to handle those situations but before starting to describe them, you ought to know this Rule of the Good Dungeon Master
Any PCs death happens because you want it. You can always avoid it, since you're the supreme judge of the game.
You hold a great power them and you have to use it wisely.
Death: How much frequent?
You decide the mortality rate of your campaign.
Highest can have one death a session, at lowest can never occur in many years.
Decide it at the start of the campaign and mantain your decision.
Any can be the "right" rate as long you and your players still have fun.
Personally, I'm for a below-average mortality rate.
Death must be present, to cause thrills to your players and to force them to think carefully about their moves and their consequences.
A forced high turnover of characters, who last only for few sessions is useless.
Players have fun in developing their characters and to kill them after a while also kills their fun.
I appreciate a lot the Death Saving Throws: they create tension, like the end approaching slowly but certain, but at the same time they give concrete chances to save the PC.
They satisfy two players' needs: tension and to keep alive their character.
Death: How, When and Why?
Many DMs reserve death for special occasion just like the end of a campaign or a Boss Fight.
Others have it to happen only under some clumsy actions of the PCs or if they costantly behave risking too much too many times.
I don't like that choices.
If you limit death under some very specific circumstances, you limit tension.
Make your players do realize that death, even if rarely, can hit your players at any time in any place.
D&D has many spells that can be used to raise a dead character.
In D&D 5th edition a 5th level Cleric can already cast Revivify and bring back a creature being dead for no more than 1 minute.
Resurrection spells modify the perception of death.
The more those spells are available the less your players will be scared by death.
As a rule of thumb you should set those spells' avalaibility according the mortality rate you have set in your campaign.
Easier is death should mean easier is to have access to those spells.
You have many ways to limit their avalaibility:
- Forbidden Spells. Second editions had the concept of Spheres. All spells belonged to a specific Sphere. A deity granted spells only of a few Spheres. If you're still playing it then you can simply Block the access to Necromantic Sphere. In last editions any Cleric has access to the same spell list but you can surely rule that only some gods grant resurrection spells.
- Gods Fiat. Gods are not happy when someone cast a resurrection spell. When someone is dead it means he has ended his time on Earth. Gods don't like when mortals play with fate. A successful Wisdom check should be rolled to cast the spell.
- Men's Fiat. People don't like cast those spells. When someone is dead, he's dead. To raise him leads to a lot of troubles: inheritance above all. To raise someone without permission of the highest priestly and mundane authorities is considered an awful crime and the raised one is viewed as an abomination, without rights. In such a case PCs would have to work hard to find someone willing to raise a dead companion of theirs.
How to handle character's death
If the PC is dead and he cannot be raised there's no left to do.
The player should pick up dice and a PHB copy and start roll over a new one.
You can use one of the following tips, to speed up the operation:
- Make roll for reserve characters at the beginning of the campaign.
- If some characters have henchmen, followers or if some regular NPCs are with the party, you can allow the player to take control of one of them, at least until the end of the session.
- Put the new PC into the game as soon as possible. Don't get into troubles like "but it's not the right time for my campaign's story!". Campaign story is not the most important thing. What it's really important is that everyone have fun. Therefore improvise a reason to make him encounter and join the party and go ahead. You'll think later about your campaign's story.