Death and Resurrection

by Bauxtehude (Liam Gallagher) on May 4, 2010

Resurrection is a part of most fantasy games. Resurrection sits very comfortably next to fireballs and disintegration spells in the magic toolbox, but the player’s access to resurrection has a huge impact on more then the way that they die, it will have an impact on the tone of the entire game world.

Some of your fellow gamers may have had close and devastating experiences with death in their family or community. The topic of loss of life should always be discussed with respect for the fallen and for the survivors who carry their legacy. This article addresses death as it takes place in role playing games and is not intended to be a statement on the value of life.

Consider the treatment of death as the starting point for the flavor of a campaign setting. You should consider it the first decision you make about the world your PCs inhabit, even before you address issues like the number of continents or the role the gods play. Knowing and understanding the value of life in your campaign will dictate how PCs interact with their world.

In a world where resurrections are preformed liberally, death is of little consequence. Players can enter dangerous dungeons and fight terrible beasts with little consideration and even with the anticipation that one of them will die. Life is in great supply; so long as one party member can escape with a portion of each of the deceased’s body and can afford a nominal donation, the party can be raised from the clutches of death to fight again. Campaign settings that allow PCs to cheat fate in this way lend themselves nicely to “hack ‘n slash” and “kick the door in” types of adventures where death is seen more as an inconvenience.

In hack ‘n slash adventures death is a nuisance. What players tend to want out of a game like this is a lot of combat and dice rolling with glorified action and violence. There’s really no place for player death in the arrangement because all the fun is in playing the killing machine characters they created. Death of these characters does little to improve the gaming experience. The game isn’t about coping with loss or settling up that character’s last wishes. When a character dies in this setting they need to be resurrected and sent back into action as soon as possible. After all, this character is the source of the enjoyable mayhem in the first place.

If resurrection is easily accessible in the campaign setting then it’s quite likely that the setting also features wretched lesser races and enormously evil villains. If the heroes are going to be incredibly violent then their enemies either need to be pure evil or so foul that they don’t deserve to live. This treatment gives rise to a particular characterization of races like goblins, kobolds, orcs and the undead. If it’s easy to be resurrected than it’s likely the aforementioned races will only exist to stand in front of treasure chests in dungeons and to hatch plans to attack, conquer, and destroy the world. Hack and slash adventures need absurdly villainous villains in order for the violent heroes to be justified in their violence.

If resurrection isn’t limited the domain of the gods is curtailed. If any mid-level Cleric can raise the fallen, then the gods above (or below) cannot be of much substance since fate changing powers are already readily accessible. In the same way, moral behavior becomes a minor consideration if you’re of the point of view that consequence is important to moral behavior. If the consequence of death is removed from a campaign setting then moral standards become less relevant. Death becomes more of an inconvenience than anything else.

What if the world that the PCs inhabit is one where death is permanent? What if, when your character dies, the only way that they are coming back is as some awful undead fiend? Life becomes more precious and the PCs are less likely take on incredible risk. A setting that treats death as permanent takes on a much more realistic or gritty tone. In this setting holding funerals and mourning the loss of a friend suddenly becomes part of the gamut of possible roll playing experiences. With a more realistic tone, NPCs are more likely to cherish their lives as well; as it’s the only one they’ve got. Enemies will be less likely to fight to the death, and PCs with a willingness to kill will be seen as immoral monsters, as they strike down the town guardsmen who plead for their lives.

In a setting where death is permanent a skills-heavy play style will flourish, while the incredibly violent characters will need to be rolled up again and again. Political intrigue has a chance to take root as personalities can develop more fully and there is a need for people to organize together to protect their assets. People whose lives are important to them have a different quality than henchmen who are born to die. They live their life once, and so they make choices about the way that they want to live it, and as such have aspirations and a moral standpoint. As the loss of their life holds greater consequence, so to will they live a life of greater consequence.

In such a black and white setting it is likely that mechanically it would take on almost an agnostic tone, which isn’t to say that religion would be absent. There’s less room for divine intervention, though plenty of possibilities for interesting stories about why the gods grant miracles but not the miracle of resurrection. This “one life” setting would resemble many of the modern day military combat RPGs that feature no divine influence.

In these settings the coward and the idealist have more weighty characteristics and justifications for their actions, as the enormity of their position has increased. The pacifist’s claims seem extreme, as they are unwilling to fight for the only life they have, rather than being a pacifist because they don’t like fighting and they’ll be back to life by suppertime anyways. In the same way pain stakes a greater claim, as it is death’s calling card, the submission to it is more tragic and overcoming it is more impressive.

Making resurrection a restricted possibility creates the middle ground. Maybe the process is costly and will require the party to liquidate all of their assets and enter bankruptcy in order to revive their companion. Perhaps the arrangement is as such that there are but a few individuals who are actually able to perform such a change of fate. The PCs make the long trek out to meet Ne’hek-ne’hek-ne’hek “the Death Defier” Ne’hek, only to have her demand from them a life size, solid silver statue of a gorilla. This silver lined errand can become the continuation of a heart felt quest line that developed from the party’s desire to bring back their comrade. Though silver gorillas are fascinating, ideas on the way resurrection ought to be carried out is the subject matter for a different article.

However the process is completed, the players must assess their current situation and make decisions about the future of their fellow adventurer’s soul. Are the risks involved in pursuing resurrection too great? Does the current timeline of our quest permit such a deviation from the plan? If not, then did we fail to assess the foe that we’re up against? These are all possible questions that are unique to a campaign setting with limited resurrection. Though only in passing, for the sake of brevity, it is worth mentioning that resurrection allows for a relationship between the after life and the mortal realm, a very fatal tourism.

With great complications involved in performing a resurrection the task takes on a more heroic tone; resurrection is possible, but only the bold and the brave have the means. In these settings death is a factor that is weighted against the other factors involved in a task. Players can relate to these types of characters because they deal with the problems of mortality. Each person can see a bit of themselves in the characters they play and so they can feel part of that elevating or hopeless feeling when the PCs manage to rise to the occasion or fail in the face of glory.

Be considerate about how death will affect game play and character development and you will be one giant leap closer to attaining the setting’s intended tone.

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1 Sersa V May 4, 2010 at 1:20 pm

Great post. 🙂

2 Dave May 4, 2010 at 1:45 pm

I’ll second that.

3 Rhetorical Gamer May 5, 2010 at 12:33 am

I agree, great post, very well thought out. I think you short-shrift the heroic character somewhat though. In a large part of the fantasy genre heroes do not come back from the dead, but they’ll fight, and be willing to die, despite this. I’ve played and run Warhammer Fantasy 2e quite often and that system is deadly and without any coming back from the dead. Yet we ‘kicked in doors,’ fought the hordes and stood up to demons… because someone had to…

Even so, I love the way you extrapolated ideas from one aspect of the world to shape several aspects of a campaign. This is great thinking.

4 Dungeon Newbie May 5, 2010 at 3:34 am

What a coincidence. I was writing about resurrection in my own blog as well! I think this is a better post though :p

5 Monty Martin May 5, 2010 at 12:02 pm

An important shift can occur in a resurrection-common campaign: Risk and failure remain present, however, the stakes must change. The price of failure must be greater than death in a very tangible and apparent way.

The other consideration on the DM’s side is lethality vs. resurrection. In almost all cases, deliberately high lethality isn’t conducive to a good campaign: no matter how common or rare resurrection is; high lethality cheapens death and stifles character development. Players who must continually create new characters will avoid becoming invested in them at all; PCs that are being constantly ressurected break the believability of the experience.

If you are going to limit or remove resurrection — death needs to be something that is carefully used as a plot element to make the game better. It’s threat always looms, but if PCs are dropping every other combat — it’s going to get tiresome, the “impact” of the funeral and last rites becomes meaningless, and players stop becoming emotionally and intellectually invested in their characters and start making mindless killing machines again.

6 Bauxtehude May 6, 2010 at 5:07 pm

Hey gang,
thanks for the comments. The bredth of this topic is pretty great, and there’s a lot of good points that everyone brought up that either I didn’t consider or that just couldn’t fit in the article.

Though the dicussion of each premise wasn’t exhaustive I’m glad that the article genereated some thoughts on the issue even if it wasn’t difinitive. One of the best things about story telling is that in each situation where the state of affairs is contrary to what’s expected you have a chance to tell a compelling tale… As is the case in heroes who are born to die, fighting for what is right against the odds, ala the 2nd World War.
.-= Bauxtehude´s last blog ..Shattered Sea Talks #1 – The Wilden =-.

7 Volcanic Spider June 1, 2010 at 7:48 pm

This is some great, deep thinking. One thing about many RPGs that has bothered always is the fact that the PCs can engage a hoarde of orcs with abandon, get whipped, have one person escape, ressurect, and go do it all over again. But, the orc horde rarely has the same opportunity. You never hear about the one orc that escaped and ressurected his 32 bretheren to harass the PCs again. It’s unrealistically one-sided, for the sole purpose of making sure the players can move forward without any real risk, and to keep their campaigns from de-railing.

On the flip-side, the one-life scenario is a bit draconian. It is a game, after all, not real life. If your PC dies by some unforseen mishap or bad dice roll, and there’s no hope of bringing him back, the player that invested so much in that character will have a bitter taste for a long time.

I would advocate for the middle ground. Death must have consequences. But ressurection should not be impossible. I like the suggestions offered in this post, and I propose another– set a real-world penalty for death. One example might be a real-world minimum amount of time before the player can ressurect their character. For example, if your group meets once per week and the PC dies half-way through one session, their session has ended for that day, and they cannot attempt a resurrection until the next session. Or, set some other real-world consequence– the player of the character who dies has to bring the food and drinks the next time. I realize that penalties and rewards outside the game world will likely rub many hardcore gamers the wrong way, but these types of things will help check the player’s actions, and prevent the “well, what the heck, if I die, our cleric will just ressurect me” syndrome. Of course, if role-play dictates a seemingly rash action, consequences be damned, then so be it! But, in such a case, the player would be willing to accept the real-world penalty should the game world throw him a curveball.

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