The Paladin charged heroically into battle against the menacing Fire Troll. He rolls a natural 20 and unleashed a divine smite, dealing north of 50 points of damage in a single swing. This, combined with the next attack, almost halved the hit points of the troll in one turn alone.
It’s the troll’s turn. As it regenerates his wounds, it looks the Paladin in the eye. He looks right at the character that dealt massive damage to it just a few seconds ago. It lunges forward to bite but it’s teeth unable to penetrate the Paladin’s plate armor. Then it sees an opening and attacks with it’s long sharp, fiery claws, It rolls a natural 20, slashing a deep wound under his armpit, cutting deep into the bone and inflicting fire damage to immediately cauterize the wound.
The Paladin fell. That single attack took him down to -3 hit points but the troll had another attack left in him. I rolled a die to determine if the troll would hit the Paladin when he’s down and the d20 said yes. The troll stood over the fallen Paladin and took another attack, stabbing it’s claws deep into the neck of the unconscious body. That is immediately considered as 2 failed death saves.
When the Paladin’s turn came next, everyone at the table hushed and held their breath. The player had one chance to stay alive. He rolls and as the d20 bounced across the battle mat, hitting over a few minis, he knew it was over. It was a 9.
“The searing pain subsided and the sounds of battle faded to nothing. Your consciousness drifts off and in the void of death, you see a bright, radiant light in the distance. You feel yourself slowly floating towards the light.”
And to the rest of the party, “you see the Paladin’s body on the ground, lifeless in a pool of blood. The troll stands over him, grimacing as it pulls it’s blood-soaked claws out of his neck. You see the look of glee on it’s face, knowing that it had not only killed one, but it had a chance to take another.”
The party erupted in language that I would not repeat here, but they were pumped and ready to finish the troll off. The player who just lost his Paladin said, “guys, finish this asshole.” I granted advantage to all the players’ next attack, attributed to the adrenaline rush after seeing their friend fall in battle. The Fire Troll had no chance and was quickly dispatched by an angry mob of adventurers who didn’t hold back.
After combat, the party panicked – “can we just heal him?”, “can we resurrect him?”, “what can we do???”. There was nothing. They took his body and slipped it into a nearby lake, where they drank from before the battle to gain temporary hit points. As a party, they beseeched the spirit of the lake to revive the Paladin. Even the joker in the group, who never roleplayed, spoke in character. I had everyone roll a group persuasion check, recorded the results and called it a night right there.
The group of adventurers faded and the group of friends returned.
We sat around the rest of the night, decompressing and discussing the death. I witnessed different stages of grieving, from denial (“I can’t believe what just happened!”) to bargaining (“Can someone from the tribe nearby just resurrect him?”) to reconstruction (“Maybe if we did something else instead of muck around, we could have prevented it!”).
It’s just a game, and the characters don’t exist but the emotions felt by the people playing feels very real. Everyone was shocked and affected by the imaginary events of what happened after rolling some dice on Friday night. Everyone went home but they were still processing grief in the group chat, over the whole weekend.
What happens next? I don’t know. I’m still discussing options with the player lost his character but I guess the learning here is this: when the moment comes, don’t be afraid to kill the character. As DM, we have to adjudicate how the game world plays out and holding back a killing blow might damage the verisimilitude we’re trying to create. You should be fair, and let the dice be the bad guys when it doesn’t land in the players’ favor. But when it happens, be there when the players need to process and be very open to discussing any future options. Remember, the game is imaginary but the emotions of loss and grief feels very real.