RPG Blog Carnival: Negotiating For Souls

by Wimwick (Neil Ellis) on March 30, 2011

Who truly determines whether a soul can return to the realm of the living – the ritualist who just performed the Raise Dead ritual, the gods themselves or the soul of the recently departed?

Yesterday as part of the RPG Blog Carnival hosted by Campaign Mastery we took a look at what it means to Cast the Raise Dead Ritual. Today I wanted to follow up on that post and examine the inner workings and role playing possibilities that are available when this ritual is cast. Some of these idea’s were inspired by the excellent comments in yesterdays article.

When a ritual caster performs the Raise Dead ritual they are merely the initiator of a divine miracle. This isn’t to belittle what they are about to do. As I mentioned in yesterdays post, I believe that casting this ritual takes a grave toll on the caster. However, once the ritual has been cast everything is out of their hands. Raise Dead is the only ritual where once it is successfully cast there is actually no guarantee that it will be work as expected.

Divine Will

In reading the flavour text of the Raise Dead ritual we find the following sentence: …the gods can intervene to prevent a soul from journeying back to the realm of the living. In short this means that the caster may pay the gold piece cost of the ritual for nothing. Now from our perspectives as players, the ritual is going to be successful. If the player wants to keep playing his character it is a cruel, and soon to be out of a job DM, who denies the request.

However, from an in-game role playing perspective things aren’t that easy. There is no guarantee that the gods will allow the soul to be released. There are multiple reasons for why this might be so.

The deity of the deceased may not release the soul as it feels that his faithful servant deserves the rest and reward of eternity. The character has fought long enough, sacrificed much and now deserves peace. Therefore it may ignore or rebuke the request that the soul be returned to its body. I truly see the casting of this ritual to be a negotiation of divine proportions.

In the games of the gods many factors are at play. The deity of the deceased may be willing to release the soul, but perhaps a rival god intervenes. This malevolent deity finds a way to trap the soul, or misdirect it on its journey back to the mortal plane. The reasons for this are various. It could be a way to strike out at the deity of the deceased, a way of harming this divine being. The reason has nothing to do with the deceased at all. Perhaps, the deceased and his companions have been fighting against this one deity and stopping the Raise Dead ritual is in the deities direct self interest.

Finally, while we mortals toil in our own lives we recognize that there is a far greater conflict being fought on other planes. Perhaps the deity of the deceased is unwilling to release the soul because he is needed to lead an army of angels to war.

In his comment on yesterday’s article, Mike Bourke mentions the idea of a skill challenge being incorporated into the Raise Dead ritual. This would be a great way to move a campaign from the mortal planes onto other fields of battle. To have the remainder of the party attempt to find the soul and then navigate their way back home. Fiction and movies are full of this type of idea, simply take a look at Greek mythology and you’ll find many examples.

It makes for an interesting plot twist and allows a DM to introduce new monsters for the heroes to fight. Getting involved in heavenly conflicts is a sure fire way to make enemies that can come to haunt the characters for many levels to come.

Character Will

Perhaps the deceased truly doesn’t want to return to the realm of the living. Eternity or heaven is the reward for a life of faith. In D&D most NPCs and PCs would identify with a faith group of some sort. Whether it is a dominant part of their life or not might depend on the campaign world or player preference. The exception to this is Dark Sun where there is no real divine presence felt at all.

Given that heaven is a reward why would a character want to come back? Now from our perspective as players, we of course want our character back. Death is an inconvenience that keeps away from the dungeon and lumps penalties on us. From a real in-game perspective the reason that Raise Dead is such a rare ritual, beyond the cost, is because most people don’t want to come back.

Where this idea works best is if the deceased is an NPC. The caster of the ritual realizes that the ritual failed because the soul didn’t want to return. This once again sets the characters up for a journey to the planes to search for the soul and convince it to return.

What are your thoughts on the Raise Dead ritual? Is it best left as a mechanic to return a character to life or should it be more fully explored and developed into role playing and adventure opportunities?

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1 Jacob Dieffenbach March 30, 2011 at 10:41 am

It reminds me of a Tamora Pierce book in the Circle of Magic series, I forget which book. In the book (spoiler alert I guess) the young mage Briar’s mentor, Rosethorn, dies. And Briar is angry. So, he ties his magic to the fleeting magic of her soul, and when he opens his eyes he’s in a gray city with no plant life (both of them are plant mages, so this looks like Hell).

He wanders around, grass sprouting in the cobble beneath his feet, until he finds her, and realizes that it’s not Hell, it’s her personal Heaven: she’s standing in a massive garden, so tangled and gnarled and overgrown and weeded that it would take a thousand lifetimes to tame. A thousand lifetimes of gardening, for a plant mage? Heaven. And then after it’s tamed, there’s the entire stone city to make green and bright. An eternity of work doing what she loves.

But Briar knows she’s not ready to die. So he wraps his magic around her, and argues with her and attempts to physically drag her soul back out of the afterlife and into the real world. She can’t go unwillingly, though, and doesn’t want to leave. So he tries to commit suicide by cutting his ‘lifeline’ to the real world so he can spend eternity with her, gardening. She sighs and agrees to go back with him rather than let him die so young.

Now, I’m not 100% positive since it’s been a while since I read these books (I’m probably getting this scene confused with a similar one in her Tortall series), but they also pass by the God of Death on the way out, a tall shadowy figure in a shadow-robe, and Briar puffs up his chest and tells him off and the god lets them pass.

When they go to the real world, two notable events happen for the sake of this response: first, Rosethorn loses the ability to speak at first, and speak without slurring in the long run. She has been brain-dead for quite an extended period of time (like a half hour or something), and so parts of her brain have ceased to function well. Second, when the headmaster at their mage school shows up and hears the story and investigates the signs herself and confirms it all true… she gets very quiet and tells the four young mages, as well as the adults, that what transpired in that room can never be repeated. Such things are not possible. You don’t just… BRING someone back from the dead, and letting it get out that this is even remotely possible would be… upsetting to say the least. As far as history will be concerned, Rosethorn never died, she simply fell unconscious for a while, and her slurred voice is from fever killing her brain slightly.

* * * *

Now, holy crap. Can you imagine pulling that kind of long-winded story on an adventuring party? I think that’s the stuff worthy of legendary campaigns, to be remembered and retold for years. “Hey, remember that time we had to put our quest on hold because we had to do a dive into the spirit realm to contest with a stubborn dead comrade and had to stand up to The Keeper himself in order to get a resurrection? That was awesome!”.

Now, I would never pull something as elaborate like that on a party. It’s just difficult in a game context: in the book universe, Raise Dead was NOT a ritual and NOBODY even considered it possible. How would you replicate that? Tell the party Raise Dead isn’t allows in your universe, and then when someone dies slyly hint that it might be something they could do? Straight-up tell them that they can use Plane Shift to bring a soul back to its dead body? And rituals take time to cast, and preparation, and ritual books. You would have to come up with some weird alternate rule set where you can just MAKE UP magical rituals on the spot (which wouldn’t be that bad, that’s how I love magic to be anyway).

These are the things I prefer to think about in terms of Raise Dead: not “How can I keep the Ritual and its status effects as listed, but make it more roleplay-ish? Maybe a skill challenge?” because that seems lame and boring and misses the whole point of the miraculous nature of the resurrection. I prefer to think “How can I completely redo death and dying to make it more momentous and magical, to make it another facet of the campaign to be remembered forever rather than cast for 500 GP and forgotten?”

Incidentally, I would probably end up rewriting the Raise Dead ritual like this:

Raise Dead
Level: 8 | Component Cost: 1 healing surge
Category: Binding | Market Price: 680 gp
Time: 1 minute | Key Skill: Arcana (no check)
Duration: Instantaneous

To perform the Raise Dead ritual, you must be standing over the corpse of a creature that died no more than 10 minutes ago. You tie your soul as well as the souls of your comrades to the soul of the departed, and your spirits enter their personal afterlife, which is usually a customized demiplane of pain or pleasure designed after their likes and dislikes.

Your comrades retain all of your statistics while on this demiplane. Every time you or your comrades take a short rest at any point while on the demiplane, the fallen creature must make a Moderate DC Endurance check; on a failure, your magical connection begins to waver as their body tissue dies and becomes uninhabitable, severing their soul from the real world. Three failed checks sever the connection entirely, and all intruders still in the demiplane die, their souls trapped in the afterlife. The party faces challenges suitable to the dead character in the afterlife; a carnage-loving barbarian might be in an afterlife filled with thousands of rampaging warriors for the intruders to fight, while a minotaur might be situated in a massive labyrinth. In either case, the challenges will be likely high above the party’s level and very probably lethal (this is an afterlife designed to provide amusement or suffering to the soul for an eternity, after all, it needs to be a challenge for the departed soul). Upon arriving at the departed soul, a skill challenge will likely ensue to convince the soul to come back–usually requiring High DCs, powerful threats and meaningful promises.

Leaving the afterlife requires returning to the point that the characters entered it from. If they bring the deceased soul with them to the exit, they can pass it back into the body, restoring the body to life (though the soul might immediately pass on again if the body wasn’t properly healed in the meantime; a severed head is still a severed head). However, before this can happen, the party faces one final challenge: the god of death in most campaign settings does not enjoy theft from his demesne. He must be overcome, and since the party is likely not level 21+ (the minimum level required to even damage a god), this will probably involve trickery, bartering, begging, trial combat, or whatever else is most suited to the god. Some gods even allow souls to leave if they beat the god at a game, or entertain the dreary god in some way.

Once back in the real world, the body will have some sort of persistent condition, or several, depending on how many failed Endurance checks were made in the afterlife. The specific type and duration or conditions for removal are up to the DM, but they might include ability score loss, a lost level, or even a penalty equal to -1 to all attack rolls, skill checks, saving throws, and ability checks.

* * * *

Now, something like that would be impressive. It maintains D&D’s notion that death is cheap and any high-level cleric can raise dead people…. but it also answers the question of “Why doesn’t everyone just live to old age in the D&D universe due to resurrecting if they die in war/by accident?” with “Because their bodies might be too mutilated to resurrect, and also no cleric is going to risk his entire soul on an excursion into an unknown plane for some random farmer who got kicked in the head by a cow and died.”

And it creates an extremely memorable side-quest when the player dies.

Bonus points if you don’t actually reveal how Raise Dead works, or you inform the party that it doesn’t exist in your universe (at all), but once they hit level 8 you give the cleric Raise Dead for free but say that the description says “This is impossible. Nobody’s ever done it before. People have tried but they always just mediate for a few minutes over a dead body, then drop dead themselves. Some return claiming to see the afterlife, and it was a horrible gray city or overrun with barbarians or a massive maze or things like that, but their soul was almost shredded within moments of entering the plane.”

Now THAT’s a dangling carrot. What party can ever resist the DM telling them “Nobody has ever gone to the afterlife and come back alive. Nobody. You can try, but you’ll fail unless you have massive balls and lots of luck.”

Hell, my typical party would murder one of their comrades just so they could show the DM who’s boss by entering the afterlife to retrieve the soul.

I think I might use that from now on… this was only an off-the-top-of-my-head rough draft of a ritual system for it, but I think it has real potential for hilarious super-awesome fun.

2 Wimwick March 30, 2011 at 12:33 pm

@ Jacob Dieffenbach
Awesome comment. Thanks for joining the discussion.

3 Bleash March 31, 2011 at 6:37 am

Great post by Wimwick and what a massive comment by Jacob.

I struggle with this same issue in almost all of my campaigns so I decided to drop a comment.

Reading the books it just feels that death is a minor issue that any 4th level party can overcome with a couple of coins in a major city.

I take a lot of time thinking about how my D&D world functions. I care about my world, the rules it follows and how everything is connected and some sort of balance.

The first thing I told the players when we started the campaign was that there was no raise dead. That knowledge was long gone and forgotten. My goal was to make them care about their characters. They need to know that this is hardcore and that there are no second chances. This was obviously also to control them, I don’t want them to start raising people just because they can. If I kill a friendly King, then it is probably because they screwed up big. Anyway, once again its to make them responsible for their actions.

So far none of the players has died so I’m pleased. But when it happens, and it always does, I will have to give them a hint on how to retrieve the lost information about the raise dead ritual.
I will make them fight for the ritual knowledge.
I will make them fight for the obviously hard to find summoning materials.
I will make them fight to bring the character back to life (great idea to send them into the character’s heaven or hell).
And finally I will make them fight to keep that information a secret.

Death is supposed to be a problem.

4 Grokkit March 31, 2011 at 2:25 pm

Wow… superb comment Jacob… consider this knicked and now part of my growing bag of tricks. Now I just need to kill a party member. 🙂

5 Jacob Dieffenbach April 1, 2011 at 4:28 pm

This is the Raise Dead I have typed up after a couple more drafts. It might require a little bit of work (probably some trimming down), but I like its themes.

I modeled the afterlife on a combination of the Divine Comedy and fantasy resurrections I’ve read. I don’t know if it’d be for everyone, because it directly describes the afterlife in the text block (I don’t even know if it’s for me, since I play Eberron and all souls go to the same place!) instead of letting the DM write up his own afterlife, but it’s a good starting place at least:

Raise Dead
You bend over the body of your slain comrade, releasing your inner wellspring of magic to tie his soul to yours, closing your eyes and entering his personal afterlife to convince him to come home.

Level: 8
Component Cost: 4 healing surges
Time: 1 minute
Market Price: 680 gp
Duration: Special
Key Skill: Heal (no check)
Associated Houses: Jorasco, ??

This ritual does not work and it will kill you if you attempt it.
To perform the Raise Dead ritual, you must have the intact corpse of a creature who died no more than 10 minutes ago. If you manage to succeed at the ritual (which you won’t), and the body isn’t intact enough to survive, such as still having the stab wound through its heart or a dislocated head, the body will die the moment it is restored to life.
Once you have performed the ritual, you may bring up to eight companions with you into the afterlife, which is usually a custom-tailored demiplane for the specific individual. The body will continue to decay while you are in this afterlife: if you stop for a short rest while in the afterlife, the soul will finish departing its body, and your link to it will be severed—you will die, trapped for eternity in someone else’s afterlife. Additionally, every 10 minutes a saving throw is made by the dead creature; on a failure, the link is severed.
The creature’s alignment determines whether their afterlife is hellish, purgatorial, or heaven; evil creatures receive what they desired in life in a twisted, ironic and punishing way, while good creatures receive what they desired in life in a pleasurable way. Unaligned creatures receive a realm of torment, like evil creatures, but know that the torments will, in a few eons, free their spirits of evil and let them ascend to a heaven. No creature can predict the exact form of punishment or reward another creature will receive; a barbarian might spend an eternity in a bloody battle (reveling or suffering in the bloodshed), while a minotaur might spend an eternity in a never-ending labyrinth (either eternally lost and despairing or eternally engaged in solving it).
Regardless, no sane adventuring party would continue once they saw the challenges before them. The minotaur’s labyrinth is designed to be unsolvable over the course of an eternity, and those barbarians are all high-level Elite foes; attempting to proceed further is a total party kill.
Even if you find the departed soul somewhere in their afterlife after overcoming the challenges laid out, they are not portrayed by the PC in question; they are portrayed by the Dungeon Master, who will refuse to go with the party. No soul which makes it to the afterlife is willing to leave it, even the evil ones, and a soul cannot be forced from the afterlife through any means. Convincing a soul to return to life must involve appealing to a creature which is receiving an eternity of everything it ever wanted in life.
And even if that impossible task is completed, and even if the party can run back through the obstacles to the entrance/exit to the afterlife with the soul in tow, there is one final obstacle. It’s only a minor one.
The God of Death kills people who steal his property.
Blocking the path will be a deity; stealing souls from the afterlife is an unusual event worthy of His or Her direct divine intervention. Fortunately, most gods of death are not immediately hostile in this situation so long as the soul isn’t immortal or a necromancer, since they know they will get the souls of all mortals eventually. Convincing them to allow this theft, however, is another matter entirely; no technique of begging or bartering or trickery has ever worked, so you should probably abandon the soul here and flee before the god tires of you and kills you.
Even if you somehow manage to get past this god—and again, this is impossible and has never happened and never could happen—you will manage to reinsert the soul into its dead body and be free of danger. But you will realize that dead bodies, with no blood flow in their tissue and no oxygen in their brain, complete their initial decomposition extremely quickly. Tissues will be dried out and crippled, the hearts and lungs may have collapsed, and even a couple minutes without oxygen to the brain can mean paralysis, memory loss, loss of speech, or mental retardation for the “rescued” target. The exact nature of this living torment to the dead body is up to the Dungeon Master; the ability to restore such permanent damage is entirely optional up to him.

6 Dan April 2, 2011 at 4:54 pm

I think the crux of the issue regarding the validity of the Raise Dead ritual and its impact on campagin world is two-fold.

At its core, the Raise Dead ritual is the primary means by which a player is able to continue to use a character he/she loves to play – even after a series of unlucky events (dice rolls) occurs that result in the death of the character. This is dependent on the level of commitment on the part of the player and how invested in the character the player has become. For some players, having a beloved character die after many years of roll-playing enjoyment is unsavory, and the prospect of rolling up a new one is too arduous. Therefore, the game designers saw fit to give DMs a means to say “yes” to the player who wants to contiune to play a character that “died”.

However, the “real-world” implications of such a spell is very difficult to deal with if looked at from a functional perspective relating to the “normal/non-hero” population. If the rest of the world’s population could utalize the Raise Dead ritual, then yes, any merchant, noble, or part-time adventurer worth his salt would have no fear of an untimely death. Death would essentially lose its power over many, and life would be allowed to continue until old age permitted.

So the question now is: how can a DM deal with both perspectives and still maintain the functionality of the ritual? If the ritual is too easily accessable death looses its meaning and if the ritual is completely removed from play then players may be forced to accept the loss of something that they have invested a large amount of time and effort in.

I like how many of the previous posts have addressed the issue and I may attempt to incorporate some of them into my own game if a character death should occur in the future. But, I think that would depend on the situation and how it affects both the campaign and the players involved. Personally, I feel that bringing a character back from the land of the dead should entail a significant amount of effort/negotiation/skill challenge/questing/whatever on the part of the players. No one should get a “free pass” to come back to life because it cheapins the experience.

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