So while death is certainly still on the table, it's not a sure thing, nor is it necessarily saved away, as in certain modern editions.
So, an alternative that I'm thought experimenting here... At 0hp, one still dies, but has the chance to go out in a blaze of glory.
In Pathfinder, orcs have 'ferocity,' the ability to make an additional final attack or other action upon being reduced to 0 hp (dying the following round unless healed).
So, give the characters an opportunity to die a cinematic death via one final action upon hitting 0 hp. They still die at 0 hp, but there's that chance to slightly salve to wound of losing a PC by closing out their chapter with something cool.
|"Roland at Roncesvalles"|
by Alphonse Marie Adolphe De Neuville
Now, not ever character gets to take this action. After all, most will still die ignominiously in the dark (shanked by a goblin, melted by slime, bonked by a falling rock trap)...
So here goes:
Upon a successful save, the PC may take one final, glorious action the next combat round before expiring. This is tailored for combat, as that is when these actions may have more relevancy, but there are other opportunities to play this out (traps, natural hazards, etc.)...
|...or, you know, holding a door...|
The player states what action their doomed hero will take, and the GM adjudicates target numbers and effects. With a success, the player then narrates that final moment of Pyrrhic glory. Followed by an appropriate moment of silence.
- Fighter - one last all-out strike, push/grapple an enemy over that chasm edge, dive in front of a comrade and take damage meant for them
- Mage - cast one last spell, or alternatively 'spellburn' - release any stored magical energies from uncast spells in an arcane conflagration (effects variable and highly risky of collateral damage)
- Cleric - Solicit their deity for a final blessing or curse (dependent upon the attentiveness and favor of the god)
- Thief - stab 'em in the back, take ALL the trap damage.
|Kikuchiyo's death, "The Seven Samurai"|
Of course these actions are flexible and not specifically relevant to any particular class (magic notwithstanding). Anyone can likely find that terminal courage to dive in front of a blade, or grenade, er, fireball. Although their success is not guaranteed, it provides a moment of character closure, rather than just, "You're at 0. Roll up another PC."
Oh, and throw in some poignant and/or defiant dying words. Goes without saying.
And since we're talking dying cinematically, have a Sean Bean death reel, just because: