RPG Blog Carnival: Casting Raise Dead

by Wimwick (Neil Ellis) on March 29, 2011

What happens when you cast the raise dead ritual?

While Raise Dead is only a level 8 ritual, I would argue that it is one of the most powerful rituals in 4e Dungeons & Dragons. The ability to return a soul to its body is awesome and is a power beyond the understanding of most people.

This month the RPG Blog Carnival is hosted by Campaign Mastery and the focus is on Life and Death in RPGs. At Dungeon’s Master our contribution to this discussion will focus on the implications of casting the Raise Dead ritual.

All societies have grappled with the question of what happens beyond life. In a society where the ability to raise the dead exists, the question becomes what does it take to bring a soul back and restore the body to life? What toll is imposed on the caster of such a spell? What is involved in casting such a ritual?

The flavour text of the ritual is as follows: You bend over the body of your slain comrade, applying sacramental unguents. Finally his eyes flutter open as he is restored to life.

For a ritual that takes eight hours to cast the description is fairly brief. The text describing the mechanics of the ritual features even less information about the actual casting of the ritual. Instead it focuses on conditions that could prevent the Raise Dead ritual from working.

I find the lack of information about what it takes to cast the Raise Dead ritual disturbing and annoying. Perhaps the game designers just didn’t want to go there. Indicating that the cost of the ritual and the time required to cast it would reveal the complexities associated with it. What I feel has been missed is an excellent role playing opportunity.

What Really Happens When You Cast Raise Dead?

I imagine that there is a fair amount of liturgy read during a Raise Dead ritual. The use of expensive ointments to prepare the body are required and a deep belief in the power of ones deity to restore life. While all of these things are true and interesting, they aren’t what I’m really interested in exploring.

Instead, I am interested in what happens to the caster of such a ritual. What do they experience? Not what physical actions do they take, but what is the impact of casting such a ritual on them? The individual being raised suffers some penalties until three milestones are reached, but the caster seemingly walks away with no implications. I would imagine that casting such a ritual is a very draining emotional and spiritual experience.

Much of the idea of raise dead or reincarnation comes from our own religions. If you read in the Bible about when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead (John 11) you will find the following sentence: Jesus wept. This sentence is before Lazarus had been restored to life. If the build up to such a ritual caused the son of God to weep, what role playing implications might be involved for our characters?

In RPGs death is seen as a nuisance. Something that pulls us out of the dungeon so we can have a Raise Dead ritual cast, so that we can go back into the dungeon. We don’t often stop, slow down and make an event of the death and subsequent resurrection. From a meta-game perspective this is so that the player running the dead character can get back in on the action. Unfortunately this behaviour causes us to miss a great role playing moment.

So what happens when a individual casts Raise Dead? I imagine that they invoke the power of their deity. Further to that they actively negotiate that the soul be returned and the body restored. In effect a mortal is bargaining with a divine power. A power that on a whim could make world altering decisions. This is not the type of being that you negotiate with lightly.

I believe the caster invests a part of themselves in the ritual. To communicate and make a bequest of the gods and that such a request takes a toll on the caster. Such a spiritual toll might manifest in the form of a slightly lower Will defense or a similar penalty as the target of the Raise Dead ritual only with a shorter duration.

Expectations and Perceptions

The entire village has just watched you carry your fallen comrade into the church. It seemed like just days ago they were cheering all of you on. You were their heros, come to save them from the oppression of the dragon Smaug. Now, just a few days later one of you has fallen. The villagers respect your privacy and leave you to your grief, celebrating the demise of the dragon can wait.

It is to their great surprise the next morning that your dead comrade is walking once again. Word spreads quickly that the Cleric in the party is a devout and holy woman. As she appears outside the temple villagers flock to her, hoping just to touch her cloak or to receive a blessing. Those with illnesses beg for curing and one young mother comes forward with the body of her son who has just died of the plague. Surely, the Cleric can bring him back.

What are the social perceptions on a character who can raise dead? How will commoners view the character? If he refuses to heal others will they despise the character as selfish? Perhaps thinking his motives are selfish or unworthy of respect. If the character is generous will he be taken advantage of? Will some seek to find a way to manipulate this power for their own purposes.

What view will the nobility take on the knowledge that an adventurer has power over life and death? Will such an ability be abused? Might a noble seek to become the patron of such an adventurer in the hopes that if they die in some unforeseen circumstance the character could bring them back from the grave?

Finally, what view will the character’s church take upon learning that they have obtained mastery over life and death? Will the church seek to control who the character uses the Raise Dead ritual or will they allow them to carry on as they see fit.

The Raise Dead ritual is an easy way to bring a dead character back into the game. It allows the player to continue to play a character they have invested their time into with minimal penalties. The event of the death itself might make for a great story or even a joke around the game table. I’ll never forget the time one of my characters died to some Dire Badgers. I took a ribbing for that death for some time.

However, the Raise Dead ritual also carries some baggage with it. It comes with a whole host of social implications that need to be dealt with in some manner. To simply say ok, your character is alive again subtract 800  gp cheapens what has just happened. It robs everyone at the table of a great role playing opportunity. It makes the most powerful ritual a common day event.

How has the death and subsequent resurrection of a character at your table been handled? Were the role playing elements explored?

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1 QuackTape March 29, 2011 at 10:03 am

Great article. I’ve never thought about the drain on a caster before in this situation.

I wonder what it would be like if rituals in general were changed from skill checks to skill challenges. Some would be fairly simple and probably remain checks, but something like Raise Dead is complicated and there are a number of different things that could go wrong, causing the caster (s) or the recipient harm. It would probably be enough threat that you’d want to have many people casting simply to spread out the effects of failed rolls (each failure could be a stacking one milestone penalty that has to go to a caster as well as a minus on future rolls in the challenge?).

Religion, Arcana, and Heal are all obvious choices. Perhaps the recipient would have to make Endurance checks upon a failed caster roll or suffer consequences? Difficulty and failure consequences could also easily scale with the level of the character being revived.

At the very least it would spice up that one line flavor text and make a player more excited to have their eyes flutter open. At the most it’d be a great moment of RPing and help put more purpose into the story.

2 Sentack March 29, 2011 at 10:04 am

Raise Dead has come up at my table very recently and the amusing thing is who’s taken what sides on the debate. I DM, and my take is that it’s a cultural norm, something everyone knows about but few can afford. It’s easily accessible in any major city and most large towns. If the PC’s have access to it, so does the rest of the world.

One of my players seem to find this interpretation quite disturbing. Feeling it cheapens death, and makes a true assassins life impossible. Their idea is that Raise Dead should be far less accessible. I personally can’t see that. It just seems like it’s a tool people would use every chance they can get.

So nobody who dies of unnatural causes? Every Tom, Dick, and Harry live forever? I argue no. Only the wealthy can afford such costs and only those with a real desire to return to life will make it back. Higher nobility like Kings and Emperors, you could argue are Paragon and Epic level, increasing the cost vastly. And one could argue, it only works if you have a body, or at least part of. Tossing a corpse into a lava flow or burring it in the bottom of a lake, might mean you can’t restore someone if you can’t get to them. Thus, it’s not impossible to keep someone dead, it just involves more then just a little poison, if you want to make sure they stay dead.

3 Kilsek March 29, 2011 at 4:14 pm

Your mention of the social implications surrounding raise dead reminds me of when Buffy was brought back from the dead in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series.

It was thick with the harrowing and painful atmosphere of the whole experience, from its first moments in the darkness of the coffin, to her ultimate admission of sincere unhappiness with being brought back because “heaven” felt so amazing and peaceful. It was all written and presented so well, very compelling.

4 Dan March 29, 2011 at 5:27 pm

As a DM, I always had trouble dealing with these same ideas whenever one of my players’ characters required resurrection. Personally, I always thought that the act of bringing a character back from the realm of the dead should be an undertaking of great significance. Previous editions of D&D have attempted to address this in various ways, but they usually lacked the social implications involved.

I’m a firm believer in emphasizing the need for a strong divine connection to bring about a resurrection. The fact that a group of mid-level characters have the monetary/components necessary for the task is secondary to the whims of the divine agents involved. If the divine patron of a church decides that it is not in his/her best interest to bring that particular individual back to life then no amount of gold should change this. However, if the players agree to preform a task for the church in exchange for the service, then that might satisfy the need of furthering that god’s goals in the world.

5 Mike Bourke March 29, 2011 at 8:39 pm

As the preceeding comments show, the existance of Raise Dead can have a substantial impact on the game world and it’s culture. The questions posed at the start of the article should be considered seperately for each different campaign and chosen to integrate with the unqiue concepts at the heart of the campaign. There are wider, more metaphysical questions whose answers will change as a result: things like, “What is Life?”. Knowledge of these answers will have secondary effects on the campaign world.

It’s my opinion that the PHBs & DMGs don’t go into detail because there are too many answers and they would take up too much space for what is ultimately a relatively minor part of the game – until it comes up in play!

For example, what if Raise Dead placed the caster and his companions on a quest to find and retrieve the soul of the fallen from whatever afterlife it has been sent to – a quest rated far beyond the difficulty that the characters would normally undertake. If the hazards were potentially fatal to the PCs undertaking the quest, would they still go through with it? The need to bring back that specific person would need to be overwhelming.

Or, the quest could secretly be a manufactured conceit by the Gods who wish to ensure that the desire to return a spirit who’s time had come was sincere.

Or perhaps for everyone who is returned, someone of equal or higher character level must take their place.

Endless variations are possible, and all have something profound to say about the campaign world. Ideally, the answer to the questions posed by the article should grow out of the GMs prior decisions concerning the nature of that world, so that he’s ready ahead of time – but we don’t live in an ideal world, and game prep can only go so far. Deep philosophical questions, at lower levels, don’t tend to matter as much!

Thanks for the thought-provoking contribution to the blog carnival!

6 Wimwick March 29, 2011 at 10:13 pm

@ QuackTape
I like the idea of incorporating a skill challenge into the raise dead ritual. Especially at higher levels when the monetary resources are easy to come by.

@ Sentack
You raise some interesting points about how accessible the ritual is. If it exists it exists and if someone can afford to have it cast then that could happen. The part the PCs and NPCs can’t control is what the various divine powers want.

@ Kilsek
I never watched Buffy but the scenario you described is what I think any character who dies would be dealing with. Heaven or eternity is a reward, why come back?

@ Dan
A strong divine connection is key. Tying a quest into the actual act or as a requirement of the resurrection is a neat twist.

@ Mike Bourke
I like the idea of the ritual actually transporting the characters to another plane to search for the soul, or perhaps to search for the deity and then to bargain for the souls release .

7 Sunyaku March 29, 2011 at 11:00 pm

Interesting that you feel a strong Divine connection is required to succeed in this ritual. I have two players in my regular group whose characters worship no gods. I haven’t pressed the issue yet (they’re only level 3), but I’m confident that one of these two characters is an atheist of sorts.

Does that mean he should not be eligible to either cast or receive the benefits of this ritual?

I personally don’t know that divinity is necessarily required, though it would be helpful. I think the process consists of ritually preparing the corpse with certain elements to encourage the return of the soul, the ‘raiser’ searching the nether plane with THEIR OWN soul (out of body experience) with an important artifact from the corpse to guide them to the target spirit, then more or less dragging the found spirit back across the soul barrier into the corpse while simultaneously healing grave wounds to the body. Sure, a god “could” directly help with this, but they have more important things to do. I think all of these tasks are within the realm of possibility for any trained ritualist.

8 Naz March 30, 2011 at 12:06 am

There are so many good points expressed here that I don’t know that I can add much more but I’ll try.

I like how Wimwick has asked the question of what the “common people” would think about someone who has the power to raise the dead. It’s something I myself as a DM have commonly overlooked as it pertains to this particular mechanic of the game.

One thing that becomes very different about the ritual as presented in 4e however is that it is now a “Ritual”, and there by usable by any “Ritual Caster”, so a mage that happens to be trained in Heal and have a good check there could very well cast this spell (along with several other classes). The ritual itself puts quite a few restrictions on who can and can’t be brought back, but not much on who can actually DO the bringing back. There by, while the ritual does mention that you “Pray to the Gods” it wouldn’t seem to mean that it would have to be your God, or even the God worshipped by the Character being raised. All of this can be assumed of course, but I guess as the DM you have to decide that yourself.

Ultimately, I’d say that really its up to the DM, and the Players, to decide what they find acceptable with regards to the ‘Consequences’ of casting a ritual as seemingly powerful as the Raise Dead Ritual. In the games that I run, I haven’t had this come up that often. What I will say is that while the ritual may be described in a rather mundane way, what it takes to get that ritual could be something all together different. Will a temple in a big city simply hand over a copy of such a ritual? Or do they closely guard the secrets of it with guards and traps? Will the party have to chase down many leads, possibly in search of charlatins with no real power over the dead, before finally finding someone who does? Is there an evil necromancer that is charging outlandish sums to “resurect” a fallen loved one, only to be long gone when that loved one suddenly begins to eat the local villagers? This to me is where the adventure and role playing can come in. Once you have the ritual, fine, use it as needed. If you want to be a miracle worker, have at it, but also, consider that if the party is simply using it like a tool, what is stopping EVERY single enemy they have left in their wake from taking advantage of it as well? A party that acts recklessly, simply because they know they can afford to cast the ritual, may be shocked indeed when a small army of previously “dead” enemies is suddenly tearing through the country side, cries for revenge on their tongues.

Well that’s my 10 cents worth. Thanks for another great article, and keep them coming!

9 Nathaniel March 30, 2011 at 5:45 am

To preface this I should probably come out of the closet as a Raise Dead hater.

Death happens so rarely in 4E that Raise Dead is almost unnecessary. And the vending machine nature of rituals is bad enough when it comes to magic items, but I utterly detest it when it comes to bringing the dead to life.

In one of my campaigns, raising the dead was a profoundly powerful act. If you did it, the dark gods would see the blinding light of the act shine throughout the cosmos. They would see that a being was so important or powerful that it broke the cycle of life and death. Their eyes would be drawn to such a being in a way that no one could prepare for.

In my current campaign, the gods are gods of nature, with the four of them representing the cycle of the seasons. Someone comes back to life after dying is beyond their power and domain. It is simply outside the scope of their power.

It’s actually the demons who have the power to raise the dead. And those who perform a ritual and call upon the gods are heard, but not by the gods they think heard them. Any time someone returns from the dead, it’s a drastic reversal of the natural order and the demonic gets a greater and greater foothold in the very fabric of the mortal realm.

10 Wimwick March 30, 2011 at 8:00 am

@ Sunyaku
Raise Dead is one of the only aspects of 4e where I find myself going old school. The roots of the ritual are a cleric spell. Which means only a cleric could cast the spell. Though any ritual caster in 4e can cast this spell, I think it should be restricted to divine classes only. Anyone can receive the benefit, but only a divine caster can cast it. Having said that, the rules state that any ritual caster can perform Raise Dead and that is how it works at my game table.

@ Naz
You make a good point about how easy it would be to come across a copy of this ritual. Does the church keep it a closely guarded secret? Great role playing possibilities with that question.

@ Nathaniel
You make a good point about death happening very infrequently in 4e. I’ve yet to see a player death that wasn’t voluntary. At the end of the day it’s up to each DM on how they want to handle this ritual. However, if it isn’t available or extremely rare the players should be aware of that from the beginning of the campaign.

11 Kenneth McNay March 30, 2011 at 9:09 am

believe that the designers reduced the rules of the Raise Dead ritual down as much as possible in order to encourage each DM to make their own flavor behind it.

I made a campaign in which it was an unheard of ritual until the party found a mysterious text that took weeks of an ongoing skill challenge to decipher. It required onnly specific locations to be used where the veil between the natural and shadow realm was thin, required an altar made of extremely rare and special stone, tools for the ritual made of very spcific metal, and an increased cost both in time and ritual components. Although it has not yet been needed, the knowledge alone has given the campaign added weight due to the great rarity of Raise Dead. Also, though it has not been used, if used, they would quickly find that RQ strongly objects to this ritual ever being used and the party would instantly become her enemy.

I’ve read and heard of other instances in which the designers gave limited rules about how a mechanic functions wherein the author or speaker bemoans this fact. I celebrate it. It shows the designers are intending to give more authority to both players and DMs as to how such mechanics should be described in roleplay. It can also mean that the same mechanics can be described in many ways even by the same player or DM.

12 Nathaniel March 30, 2011 at 3:35 pm

It definitely should be something the players are made aware of in advance if a ritual (or a class feature when it comes to the Warpriest) is not available.

For my campaigns, in one, the only place they’re likely to die is in a demiplane that will trap their soul there and thus it doesn’t qualify as being free to return. In the other campaign, the player is going to have to choose to return by the power of what they consider the greatest evil.

13 Grokkit March 31, 2011 at 2:20 pm

I am in complete agreement with Wimick that this ritual (like many others) is poorly detailed. I also was shocked to learn this spell is a Heroic Tier ritual… what could be more Epic than bringing somebody back fromt the dead? At minimum this should have been a Paragon Tier ritual.

Fortunately, I am playing in the Eberron Setting, so the ritual availability is pretty limited unless you belong to a Dragonmarked House. This allows me the ability to control what the player’s can get their greedy hands on. It’s a GM workaround for sure, but it works for my campaign.

As an aside, keep in mind this last little bit in the Raise Dead ritual description:

“In all cases, death is less inclined to return paragon and epic heroes”

Interesting food for thought… while there isn’t an explicit “rule” on this, to me I interepreted this as unless you are a Heroic Tier PC, Raise Dead may not work, so don’t count it. It has certainly instilled the fear of death in my players now that they are Paragon heroes.

14 Jacob Dieffenbach March 31, 2011 at 11:03 pm

One interesting rule people might consider is that PCs are in short commodity in the world–there are only a dozen or so true PCs on the planet at any given time.

So if one of them dies… the player must take control of an NPC like a town guard until either a) a quest to resurrect their character is done (in ye olde D&D this might involve finding a massive diamond for the material component) or b) they manage to find (through a side quest to actually FIND one within a 100 mile radius…) another PC. And this PC won’t necessarily be of the class/race makeup the player decides, the DM might say “It has to be a half-orc, an orc, or a goblin… and martial and primal classes only”. And that’s their reward for a side quest–restrictive classes.

This accomplishes a few goals. First, it doesn’t exclude anyone; that’s the biggest fear, that the DM will kill a PC and they’ll have nothing to do all session, so they immediately allow resurrection / finding a ‘wandering PC’ immediately to soothe that fear. But, if the player simply has to play an NPC, that fear is eliminated anyway. Second, it makes each player character feel VALUABLE and each death feel SIGNIFICANT. Even if it’s only temporary and everyone acknowledges it’s temporary, the ‘temporary’ no longer means ‘for the next extended rest’ but instead ‘for X number of quests’. Third, makes a pretty decent plot hook.

Making death scary is really easy if you’re willing to make bend the rules a bit–Heck, I used to run games under the rule in 3.5 “If you die, you either resurrect or your next character has his racial and class options limited by the locals.” So if they were in town, no problem–I’d roll up the racial/class demographics. If they were in an orc-infested wood however… probably Bob 2.0 is going to be an orc. Elf city? No, you may not play a dwarf.

Removing player choice as a punishment for not treating their life as precious is a really good punishment. Especially if they can quest to raise their corpse later to get their old character back…

15 Sorain April 28, 2011 at 5:09 am

Raise Dead was what (in 3.5) separated killers from assassins. Anyone could kill a target, but an Assassin made it stick in some way. For those not of the actual class, it was typically by obliterating their body or trapping their soul. Assassins themselves prevented the raising of anyone they killed with a death attack by anyone lower level then they were (so long as the assassin was alive and on the same plane of existence that is) and also typically disposed of the body.

Where things get really whacky is ‘True Resurrection’ which requires doing something about the soul [or a special ability/rule]to stop. But that is Epic tier, when fighting your way into hell is pretty much expected.

I have to say, the idea of having the PC’s apparently sent on a virtually impossible quest to save their dead friend as a test of the god(s) of how important it is to them appeals. The first time though, no player would know that it was not potentially a TPK if they went ahead with it. That could lead to some interesting ooc discussion between the dead and the other PC’s on how important it is.

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