So last night was the first time I've killed a PC in Google + game while acting as a GM, it's a strange thing but it got me thinking about character death, lethality and GMing. Contrary to popular opinion I don't think there should be a great deal of character death in an old school game of D&D. I think endless character deaths are boring, and each one should ideally have an effect of future play both in how the player's approach adventuring and the overall story of the party.
So the death went down like this: Huxley Chuff was a 2nd level ASE cleric devoted to the "God of Lost Things", he was a great character and his player is quite game for whatever sort of in world shenanigans I throw at his PC's. He's one of those players that actually thinks about the game world and schemes up faction interactions and uses the lore. This is great to see as a GM, so needless to say I felt a little bad about Huxley's death. I don't feel terrible though because the player had several opportunities to avoid it by not taking a risk for an obvious reward.
Huxley, while exploring a trapped chamber knowingly activated some guardian statutes and lost initiative while alone in the room. One of the statutes rolled really good and pulped him despite his magic shield. The other stepped into the hall and crushed the party illusionist, and smashed a henchman.
I allow a saving throw vs. death for getting killed in battle (unless it's a spectacular sort of getting killed) and for most traps. These not quite dead deaths result in penalties to the characters - usually one point permanent stat loss with a gruesome story attached.
For example - Huxley had previously taken a goblin boss's saber to the gut, but made his saving throw vs. death. I gave him a permanently weakened lung and a loss of one point of CON as a result. The previously mentioned illusionist survived her statute smashing but eneded up with a badly broken arm and a permanent loss of one STR point. Another character has suffered turning purple from poison and developing a speach impediment (-1 CHR).
This gets me to what I've learned about handling high lethality games.
1) Death should not be arbitrary - None of those classic Gygax traps where the floor suddenly drops and a magic force pulls everyone within 30' into the pit. I want my dangerous monsters to telegraph their deadly from far away (with rumors, with noises, with the obvious appearance of deadly). I want traps that are so obviously traps that the player can't say "didn't see that coming" unless they were asleep. Of course the key to such traps is that even with a warning the players want to mess with them, and that the mechanism is not completely obvious. Basically death feels acceptable as a GM (and as a player) when there is a player choice to take a risk.
2) Death should have a random element - This is where the saves vs. Death come in. I don't want to tell a player "Your PC is dead" I want to say "The gnoll strikes for nine points of damage, because I rolled an 18". This isn't because I'm afraid of being the one who decides something bad happens, but because tabletop RPG are a game of random elements. Combat is dangerous because it's random, and even when you mess up and the party is caught in a trap there should be a chance it won't work. This is why I don't like spells without saving throws. I give the victims of sleep a saving throw, monsters and character's both, because otherwise it's a very dumb way to lose a party.
The Save vs. Death mechanic also allows an escape for player's who feel PC death is too serious and too upsetting for them. If they want to fudge the roll, I'll never know because I don't use die rollers, and I'll never doubt it. I don't think anyone does fudge this roll, but given that fun is the prime purpose of playing, if it will absolutely ruin someone's evening to have their character die I'm okay with them saying they rolled a nineteen and survived. I think the permanent injury is a serious enough penalty for dying. On the other hand if a player wants to play high lethality style dungeon delving, that's fine to - they can say they failed their save vs. death when they didn't.
3) Death Should Not be Hugely Punitive - If death is a regular part of the game, it shouldn't be hugely punitive, the player who died because of bad luck or a bad plan shouldn't be way behind the rest of the party in experience or the adventure will be handi-capped a bit. This is why I tell my players to roll up a new PC and give him or her 1/2 the dead character's experience points. This means they're about a level lower than most party members, but it's not crippling and they'll catch up in few sessions. Likewise in my ASE game I am allowing deaths to open up "prestige" classes. As the players explore more of the world new classes become available and the only way to play them is by losing the current character. This might even make death desirable to some players, who really want to play a gun-slinging paladin of the Orbital Inquisition or a Robot.