How permanent Death is in your campaign will set the tone for how seriously and how carefully players must run their characters.
If death is an unquestionable final end to a character with no hope of Raise or Resurrection, players will understand that a fatal mistake in planning will have a distinct and unavoidable outcome. They will take fewer risks in role-playing but they will take smarter, better calculated risks when they do.
If death is a temporary setback with no long-term consequences, the campaign may become a farce. When the worst outcome to a mid-level party’s decision to go out of their way to attack a Great Wyrm red dragon, is for the lone survivor to shell out some of the party’s riches for abundant True Resurrections…then the party has no reason not to dive headlong into any bad strategy. No conflict in your story will be taken seriously, because nothing can or will have any lasting consequences.
In C.H.’s L5R game, there are no second chances. A dead character is permanently dead, never to return by any means. Knowing this, C.H.’s players are much more cautious. We choose our actions carefully; employ smarter tactics in combat to minimize Wounds; and play it safe when faced with serious threats or antagonists beyond our means.
The L5R campaign stands in contrast to D.W.’s 2nd Edition D&D game from many years ago. There, characters were effortlessly returned from the dead by well-meaning party members – even when the player no longer wished to play the character any more. It seemed both a gift and a curse of immortality. There was never a chance of failing a System Shock or Resurrection Check; “death” just meant that your character was out of the fight until the next day when a local temple would provide a Res. Consequently, no idea was a bad idea.
How the death comes about is important. Again to quote E.G.’s maxim, “The DM doesn’t kill characters. PLAYERS kill their characters.” This cannot be understated. Players will react poorly to an arbitrary character death.
Running a D&D game many years ago, G.W. would grow tired of a player’s powerful character, and decide to do them in. In the next adventure session, that character might awaken to find himself naked and facing a Pit Fiend in combat. G.W. wanted characters dead and so accomplished it by the least-reasonable methods possible.
A DM must never kill, or allow to be killed, any character whose player is not present for that game session. Players have the right to role-play every action of their character in your campaign. To kill off their characters in absentia is a mortal RPG sin; it disconnects the player from her character and assumes too much power for the DM.
Circumstances and the dice decide if a character (or the party) lives or dies. The DM’s role is to play out the logical outcomes to players’ decisions. Providing, of course, enough warning signs to let the players reign in their own actions before hurtling headlong into Death.
In pretty much every scenario, the DM has the ability to escalate the real and apparent danger signs to warn the party away from foolish endeavors. If the players receive these warnings and blindly charge past two, three, four evident cautions, then the DM has little choice (and every blessing) to go ahead and deliver the logical outcome. Players cannot argue against their character’s fatal end when that death was entirely avoidable by smart role-playing.
There is also the possibility of Player vs. Player combat, to the death. Sometimes things get heated between players during a game session, and this disagreement is fought by proxy through characters. Other times it is good role-playing taken to its logical end, between a Paladin and an evil party member. Other players may have their characters intervene to stop the violence. The DM, too, may make use of NPC’s to stop a deteriorating situation and attempt a diplomatic solution.
Remember, a DM is a neutral party in regards to the characters. The DM is the storyteller, referee, and omnipotent god of the campaign. The DM neither bends the rules to let the characters succeed, nor sets her heart to killing off the characters. Players might not like that their character has died, but they should accept the reasons why it happened, and further, they should understand why they let it happen.