There are no practical limitations in role-playing games. It’s all a matter of imagination, and as such anything is possible. So, of all the worlds you can create and stories you can tell, if it’s to have some fun with your friends, why would you make death a part of it? Even if a GM approaches a game intending to let the dice fall where they may, it’s often hard to actually commit to letting a character just die. It’s not fun—at least in the short term.
But that’s just a single moment at the table! There’s still the entire rest of the game around it, and I thing that the potential for death—or really any major, lasting, negative consequences—can often benefit the game as a whole. Not that every game will need or want it, and that certainly doesn’t mean a game has to be highly lethal, but rare is the game where a little hint of mortal danger doesn’t lift the game as a whole.
In short, decisions matter to the extent they have meaningful consequences, and there’s not much more meaningful than the death of a player character. It completely ends their story. Generally speaking, the player won’t want that, and so the decisions they make—and in most cases, the dice that are rolled—are important.
Naturally the players should be engaged in the story regardless, and there are other ways to have player decisions affect them and the surrounding world, but lethal danger is a very powerful threat to have loom over the players. In a written story, if there’s a protagonist, odds are they’re going to survive until the end, and we just suspend our disbelief when there’s a dangerous scene somewhere in the middle. Arguably the same could be said for RPGs, but there’s one key difference: RPGs have rules for determining success and failure, as in combat. If you take away the possibility of a character dying before the very end, then the combat is little more than filler. Just roll the dice and pretend that good or bad results mean anything.
On a related note, lethal consequences make a game feel more real. It’s not just that a player doesn’t want their character to die, but that, yeah, if they charge in to fight an enemy that completely outclasses them, they would die. Frankly, it would be weird if they didn’t die.
This is, of course, only important when the players put themselves in dangerous situations. Haggling with the local shopkeeper doesn’t have to risk turning into a heated brawl. An RPG doesn’t have to be about violent confrontations at all. But, in most games, there’s an element of action, and that means danger. Even in a more peaceful campaign or session, there’s still the knowledge that, should the players stray from a peaceful and sensible line of action, there would be harsh consequences.
Apart from a low background hum in the quiet moments, there’s also the matter of the players’ enemies. A GM takes the role of all the NPCs, villains included, and there’s a good chance their motivations include killing the player characters. Aside from creating a realistic world where physical damage means something, the willingness to kill characters makes the villains scarier, more competent, and believable.
You have the players at the table—their characters are in a tight spot. They know the characters can die, they know they have to play it smart to get through, and the world they’re imagining has consistent, believable rules. As you’re talking, you realize that they’re really paying attention. Not every gap is filled with talking, they pore over every detail of what you’re describing, and off-topic discussions… well, they’re never going to be eliminated, you’re a bunch of friends hanging out. But the side tracks happen slightly less than usual!
The combination of raised stakes and realism focuses the players on paying attention to the game beyond what they usually would. In a social encounter, they may very well be immersed in the conversation, but its the conversation that’s the focus. In combat, or a survival situation, or whatever danger may befall them, they need to pay attention to their surroundings, and really think about what they intend to do. It’s the equivalent of getting the adrenaline running when you’re scared, giving you a heightened awareness of your environment. Of course the players will feel it less than their characters would, but that’s a difference in degree, not kind—and it’s enough for a empathetic connection.
None of the benefits listed above require a high level of lethality to work—in fact, you can get away with a relatively non-lethal campaign, perhaps even having all the characters survive from the beginning till the very end. Like I said earlier, death is just a moment at the table. Some games will have the players laughing off their character deaths and rolling up new characters in a snap, and in others the players will take deaths as major events. It’s all good, just play whatever you find the most fun. My point, however, is that the threat of death has a major effect on the rest of the game.
Death in RPGs is like salt. Not every recipe needs salt, and some recipes will be saltier than others, but most recipes will benefit from at least a little bit of salt somewhere in the process. So, whether you want a lot or a little, consider putting the fear of character death into your players—and try to be firm when the time comes to deliver on your promise.