It seems to be every few months the discussion surrounding player character death pops up and a heated "debate" (more of a shouting matching of "I'M RIGHT!") on social media ensues. I've seen and heard everything from "no PC death ever" and "ask your players for permission" to "PC death = a bad GM" and "PC death must be meaningful". I'm going to explain why, in my humble opinion, all of these "takes" on PC death are bad.
Let me begin with a story from my ongoing Symbaroum campaign.
"After a few days of resting, carousing, and resupplying in the outpost town of Melima, deep within the heart of Davokar forest, the adventurers headed out in search of the fabled Twilight Thistle. Near the end of the day, they were ambushed by a group of blight born humans. Given that the PCs riding point both failed their Vigilant tests, the abominations had a surprise round of attack. The PCs defended themselves well and not only was nobody harmed, they weren't even pulled from their horses.
The PCs then jumped off their steeds and engaged in combat with the blight born humans, who outnumbered them (8 monsters vs 6 adventurers). After a fierce battle, three PCs were left on the ground dying. The first to perish was the goblin Gristle (the player fumbled his second death test which results in instant death). Next, one of the two PCs with the Medicus ability rushed to aid the fallen swordsman Dellio but he failed his test and in the next round, the player of Dellio failed his third and final death test. The final fallen PC actually rolled a critical success on her death test and thus Crepitus rose with 2 Toughness restored.
The party is now in shambles, having lost a total of five PCs in the last month of travel through Davokar. Not only did these corrupted humans claim the lives of two PCs, but before that wraiths sucked the life out of two more PCs and a final adventurer fell to a swarm of crystal flies."
Why am I sharing this quick recap of a seemingly very deadly campaign? Well none of these deaths were "meaningful" in any particular way, if by "meaningful" you ascribe to the notion that it needs to fit a campaign arc, be at the hands of some big boss, or "advance the story" (don't even get me started on that notion). They were all relatively mundane encounters that shouldn't have even ended with such a high body count.
I certainly didn't ask the players' permission for their character to die and I would never classify any of this as me being a bad GM (all of my groups enjoy themselves...at least that's what they've been telling me for decades).
What these deaths did do was show the players that they have true agency over their characters and that decisions & actions have real consequences.
The crystal flies encounter was completely avoidable. The PCs encountered a dead horse along the trail. Instead of moving on, one PC decided to poke the carcass with a pole and that aggravated the swarm of flies feeding on it. The flies attacked and a player kept making odd choices compounded with bad rolls and died a most pathetic death in a wet trailside ditch. The party healer was unable to help, because he was suffering from hypothermia (due to a bad decision when crossing a river earlier that day) and failed his Medicus test. Here you can see that a chain of events that were of the players own doing led to a PC's death.
In the encounter with the blight born humans, the PCs had every chance to simply leave them behind. When? After the failed surprise attack they could have spurred on their horses and attempted to push through and past the monsters. Instead, they dismounted (losing an advantage) and engaged them on the ground. Yes...some bad rolls that evening didn't help the group, but we play TTRPGs with dice and sometimes they don't come out in ourfavor. Symbaroum is an entirely "player facing" system, meaning that players make 100% of all the rolls. There's no blaming the GM here (or fudging rolls).
So once again, the choices the players made had direct and deadly consequences. Hopefully they will learn from such strategic blunders. I will add that most of the players in this group (6 out of 7) come mainly from the "modern D&D" genre of games (D&D 3.5e/5e Pathfinder 1e/2e) and they sometimes fall back into the patterns and bad habits these games can teach (that will be a subject for another article in future). Before we began the campaign, I explained Symbaroum and how deadly it is as a system.
The players take every PC death in stride. No tantrums or hurt feelings (they're all adults), even though they are naturally disappointed when their characters die (we all hated seeing Gristle perish). They understand that it is part of the game and fits the tone of the setting & system.
Before I leave this subject I want to address that point about PC death needing to be "meaningful" in a heroic or storyline/plot sense. The deaths described above were not heroic in the least and since I'm a sandbox GM there is no storyline/plot arc where these fit into. In fact, they were randomly generated encounters. Where they were absolutely meaningful was in the sense that they reinforced the tone of the setting and the dangerous nature of venturing into Davokar, as well as showing the players that they are in full control of the fates of their characters. Every decision they make can have serious consequences, which my players love.
No PC deaths that have happened at my tables in 30+ years were anything less or more than described above. They were the results of a combination of player choices and dice rolls. I do not condone the vindictive behavior of those GMs who revel in PC death and see that as a badge of honor, marking each PC death with a line in the back of their DMG. Rather, in a setting that is alive and full of player agency and choices, PC death should be a possible outcome and never fudged away or forced.
So I hope you join me in embracing player character death as a "good" thing when it is part of the natural consequences of the game. You will see that when players know that they are in control of their character's fate with true agency and that choices matter, your campaigns will reach a new level of depth and satisfaction.