Illustration Copyright 2011 Jody Lindke
I HATE character deaths in fantasy Role-playing games, for the most part. I certainly think death has a valid place in the milieu. I can't recall ever running away from an encounter, ever. And for this reason I've had many characters die on me. The most telling example is 1st edition Basic D&D where this is pretty much the norm. Even printed adventure expect DMs to be killing characters left and right. I've rolled up at least 10 characters for a level 1 adventure in basic D&D. As a result the cast of characters for our campaign include a cavalcade of boring faceless dead. I just stopped putting any effort into developing them. They were ammunition in a gun. Not the richly developed characters;with character links to other players, emotional ties to NPCs, well developed back story that creates good heroic motivations for actions, that I usually enjoy playing. When the first basic D&D came out and there was nothing else to be had on the market I'm sure that I would have been fine with it. My introduction to the RPG scene was much later. I started really heavily playing paper and pencil role playing games with Star Wars D20, which is a cinematic role-playing game about being awesome(read Jedi Knight). It's certainly not the wild west days of RPGs anymore.
As a member of the RPG 'new school' it is my expectation that character death is not an imminent threat. Party level balanced encounter design is the norm for new school RPGs and I think this is a good thing. It takes a lot of headaches away when the maths is all figured out for you. Game expectations are to tell a collaborative story and not an antagonistic one. GM and players are working together to have fun and tell cool stories. There is no sinister villain behind the DM screen trying to kill the player characters anymore.
As a player I want character death to have meaning. I get attached to the characters create and unless it's a character I was provided for a 4-6 hour convention game I'm looking to create long story arcs with them because I sure as heck have imagined an entire back story for them even if it's not written down or well articulated to the other players. And even when I'm playing a 'con' game I want the death to be meaningful. I didn't pay money to have some GM bully me for six hours and finish the story with "I'm sorry you died".
As a GM I don't want to frustrate my players or have them feel like I overwhelmed them. The goal is to tell a heroic story. If the high critical zombie minion takes out the Dragonborn paladin with a lucky shot its not that heroic of a tale. PC death can be an interesting part of the story but it should come organically from storytelling not from opposed tactics and lucky dice rolls. Sure the villain should be trying to stop the PCs from interfering with their plans. But there are many ways to be 'taken out' of a situation that aren't lethal. Setbacks are great in these kinds of games. But having to develop a new character in an established game because of chance shouldn't be a goal or a byproduct for fantasy RPG play.
This is specific to Fantasy RPGs (i.e. D&D and its clones). I can see the value in having disposable characters for other types of role-playing games. Character deaths in a gritty noir story or a Lovecraftian horror story make a lot of sense to me. Check out Sean Preston's discussion of Grittiness in Savage Worlds in regards to Bennies at Reality Blurs. Although to be honest I'm lying about this point. I still hate character death unless it serves some story purpose. Rob Donoghue talks about character death in Fantasy over at his Some Space to Think blog (with Game of Thrones spoilers), which also touches on how it adds that gritty feeling to the genre. It is unthinkable to kill your characters in other genres too. Doc Savage and friends aren't going to be biting the bullet in your pulp RPG.