Some time ago, I wrote a post on permadeath. That a lack of permadeath removes death (as well as the fear of death and death’s consequences) as a narrative device is not in dispute. The real problem is how to handle the conflicting needs of roleplayers to have the full spectrum of narrative devices available, with the general desire of players not to lose their characters to a lag spike.
A possible idea comes from Hindu mythology. There was once a demon named Bali. This demon was an ambitious fellow; so he performed many austerities and acts of charity such that he became invincible and threw the gods out of heaven. They could not do anything about him. Eventually, through an act of trickery, lord Vishnu made him give up heaven and retreat to the underworld. What is interesting about this story is the simple fact that Bali had built up so much good karma that he could not be harmed. We could look at this story as a simple case where he achieved very high level, or had monsterous buffs, etc. that he simple owned anyone else who opposed him.
There is an alternative explanation however: the “die rolls were being fudged” to reflect his karma.
If you were to survey literature, one constant is clear; unless the hero is supposed to die as a literary device, he does not die. Normal people die, but heroes (and great villians) are blessed by fate. There are no reoccurring trips to the afterlife. Instead, it is narrow brushes with death that rule the day. The bullet narrowly misses the hero’s head. The bomb is shut off in the last second on the clock. The trolls about to eat the hero argue about how to cook him until daylight turns them to stone.
Which brings us to what I call the Heroes, not Serial Martyrs (HSM) approach to death. Simply don’t kill the player characters off. Give them some sort of buffer of fudged die rolls. The bullets that should be riddling their corpse are instead whizzing past their head. The deathblow from the black knight’s sword instead narrowly misses. While doing this, make it clear to them that they should be dead now and if they push their luck too far, it could end badly. If they heed the warning and remove themselves from the situation, then all will be well. In an HSM environment, a character can only die if the player means to allow it; such as heroically holding the rear guard and ignoring the warning messages. This is in direct contrast to the serial martyrs approach of it being easy to die, but just as easy to get back into the action.
The fudge buffer need not be infinite and there are many variations that can be used depending on how “dangerous” the designer wants the worlds to be. It could be set at character creation and not possible to increase. This is similar to the after X number of deaths, the character is perma’d approach to PD (one of the “soft” permadeath approaches). It could be on a per incident basis, allowing an infinite number of hair raising “near misses”. It could be based on pious acts of the character, such as in the case of Bali, or quests, etc.
The HSM approach may allow us to keep a relaxed approach to play in dangerous situations (and avoid the resultant player loss of hardcore PD), while retaining death as a narrative device. .