Your players have done it again. They've pushed their luck to the limits, made all sorts of extreme and havoc-inducing decisions, and despite your best efforts (and fudged dice rolls bordering on an obscene insult to the Game Gods) they've found themselves in a situtation where the sure death of their characters is the only likely result. Do you conjure up your most glorious narration to describe the characters violent end, or activate deus ex machina once more to allow the characters and the player an escape route?
Certainly storytelling, creative social interaction, and allround fun are paramount to the game, but at what point does the genuine fear of a fatal conclusion disappear, driving players onto even wilder desicions, game-hijacking, or unchecked powergaming? Something like a television show where the viewer knows that none of their favorite characters will EVER die for real, campaigns where a healthy respect for the possibility of death doesn't exist suffers from a collapsing 4th wall. This could be argued to even hamper the ability for players to embrace losing themselves in a character by encouraging anachronistic thinking. There are campaign and game groups where this is absolutely the kind of game they enjoy playing, and this thread shouldn't be confused for an assertion that that is somehow wrong. It's all about fun.
Yet for the DMs who run games that exist in a "realistic" universe, this is a dilemma that can easily present itself every single combat or encounter. Even when everyone is onboard with character death from the get-go, it gets hard to seperate oneself from a beloved character when the time arrives. Hard feelings can bubble up from even the most even-keeled players if they feel like they've been treated unfairly. In larger groups a characters death can often be avoided in permanancy simply through game mechanics that allow for ressurection and magical healing, but can also have great value as a storyteling tool. An adventuring party forced to deal with the aftereffects of losing their beloved cleric and leader, or a gang of deceptive crooks silencing a snitch can lead to some great entertainment and player interaction, not to mention the joys of auditioning new "recruits" after the players have rolled up a new sheet.
Personally, I prefer to run realistic games, and always make it clear from the start that death CAN happen, but that I'm not going to play favorites or entertain myself by maliciously taking lives. With my regular players this is generally understood and nearly everyone has rolled up a couple of characters (we play Shadowrun and one players grizzled street samurai has had so many rookie runners join him that he's become quite the cold bastard, and given the player ultimate bragging rights having survived even a change of editions), and when new players join up I encourage them to come up with two character ideas right off the bat just to get them thinking about it in case the worst happens.
So let's hear you thoughts on the issue. Do you play in or run a game where death can lurk behind every dungeon door or up the sleeve or every "helpful" stranger? Or is your party filled with the same proud heroes that were there in session 0? Do you handle character deaths with a unique house rule, or allow characters to play clones. What's your opinion on PC vs PC deaths, or have you used a character death to remove an overpowered or game-breaking character? When is it right to kill a character?