Death’s Impact in D&D

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on October 24, 2011

Is the fact that characters can come back from the dead a good or bad thing for the game of D&D? From a player perspective nothing sucks more than spending countless hours building up and developing a character only to have him get killed permanently. The creators of the game understand that the fun ends when the PC dies so they introduced mechanics to bring dead characters back to life.

Sometimes these mechanics are as simple as the DM waving his magic wands and the character is suddenly back in the game (which is pretty much how it works in most public-play scenarios like D&D Encounters and LFR). Sometimes the mechanic is a little bit more difficult, but not out of reach. In these cases the PCs spend the appropriate resources to have the dead character returned to life, and depending on the power-level of the campaign the PCs may even have the power to do this without any outside assistance. And then there’s the situation when an entire campaign arc revolves around getting a fallen hero resurrected. It might be a quest to get the necessary material components for a ritual or the search for an item or artifact capable of such powerful magic. The point is that death is rarely final in D&D.

So if players know that actions that can (and sometimes do) lead to the death of a PC have no lasting consequences they will often play accordingly. After all, why be cautious when recklessness has no down side. Sure you may get killed but your allies will have you resurrected in that unlikely eventuality.

If you’ve played D&D as long as I have then this kind of life-death-life revolving door eventually seems out of place, even in a fantasy role-playing game like D&D. When you stop looking at the PC as a bunch of statistics on the page and start to develop the PC as a character you’re more likely to put yourself in that character’s shoes when you decide on your actions. Few PCs would knowingly and willingly put themselves into situations where death was a likely outcome. Fighting monsters is certainly dangerous and there is risk of injury, but what party in their right mind would intentionally engage in a battle with forces so superior that the chances of death and defeat were just as likely as the chances of victory?

Death and the value of life should be more important in D&D. I understand that in pick-up games like D&D Encounters there is usually very little emotional attachment to the PCs and people are just there to try out new builds, kill some monsters and enjoy the social experience of gaming at your FLGS. But when you’ve got a home game where you really work on character development you want you PC to live.

When living becomes a more tangible goal in you game what happens when a PC dies? If the idea of a simple down-and-dirty raise dead insults your sensibility, how do you work this death into the game? More importantly how does it affect those PCs who survived? In most games when a PC falls, the rest of the party doesn’t grieve for the loss of their friend, they grieve for the loss of resources necessary to bring him back to life. But if you’ve decided that death is permanent – or if returning from the dead is not a common, everyday occurrence – then how does this loss affect the rest of the party.

Survivor’s guilt is something I’ve never seen role-playing in any D&D adventure, but there’s a really good chance that some of the PCs would carry the emotional burden of the loss of their ally. It might be the leader who couldn’t heal the PC before he was killed, the defender who couldn’t mark the enemy that dealt the final blow, or the striker who missed the round before the hero was killed.

For players looking to really bring their role-playing side of things to the next level than death in D&D should have much more of an impact on the surviving PCs then it does in most games today. It doesn’t have to dominate the next six months of your campaign arc, but it should be in there somewhere. Something as simple as role-playing the funeral and last rites can really help the players better decide how their characters will react to the loss of their friend.

Sometime when heroes fall in the line of duty the survivors take it upon themselves to fill their friend’s shoes. Some will comfort and often support the deceased hero’s family. They will put their own life on hold in order to do what they believe their fallen friend would have done. Their actions moving forward will often be weighted against the internal question of whether or not this is something their fallen friend would have done if he was still here. Actions that the PC themselves wouldn’t normally do become necessary in order to appease this memory.

Over time the memory of whom their friend was and what his life could have been gets idealized more and more. The PC may feel that no matter what they do it will never be good enough to live up to their friend’s memory, a memory that is completely unrealistic.

There’s one more curve ball that this kind of situation should take into consideration. What if the day comes when the fallen hero’s companions decide that they should do whatever it takes to bring him back to life? In the kind of campaign worked we’ve established for this discussion it’s unlikely that such a task would be easy or fast. It may take years before they can finally bring their friend back to life. But what happens when they finally do raise him from the dead?

Depending on how much time has passed his family may have moved on. The son that the survivors worked so hard to provide for only knows his father as the near-perfect champion that his allies have described all these years. Will the real person, once living again, ever be able to live up to such unrealistic accomplishments? What if his widow has married another man and even started a new family, will the resurrected hero accept it? Will his wife discard her new life in order to return to her old life?

Looking at the in-game consequences of death can add a lot of emotional and solid role-playing to your campaign. How far you choose to take it is going to depend on your group, but even an acknowledgement of how the rest of the party copes with the death of an ally will likely change your game. Fortunately PCs aren’t killed that often so this isn’t something that should come into play at your gaming table that often. But he next time it does it might be with taking a few minutes as a gaming group to decide how you want to have things play out. Do you just accept that PCs are capable of returning to life and move on or do you go for the role-playing challenges that come with the loss of a friend?

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{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Sentack October 24, 2011 at 11:45 am

It’s hard to take death in D&D all that seriously. The issue is, it doesn’t make sense for any major NPC or PC to stay dead. I can’t argue against the fact that if Raise Dead is available to the PC’s, then it’s available to anyone important around them. If it’s the PC’s not footing the bill, usually major NPC’s will have the cash to do so as well. Now, one could argue that the soul doesn’t want to return, and that’s fine, but then it suggests that death was not an unfortunate situation but an accepted change of state. So suddenly it lacks emotional impact.

“Oh, the King that was supporting us for the last 3 major quests was assassinated and his successor might be behind it? Well we can pay for the local high priest to bring him back for us like he did Phil’s character last month!”

The above example just shows that some story elements are just closed off to DM’s. You can’t just ‘kill’ an NPC that’s important to the PC or even important to a major villain even! Powerful NPC villains should have accesses to almost everything the players have. So to truly kill a character, you need to go through extreme measures which sound completely inane, or just ignore it all together and then players see a huge hole in the plot.

Yet, I see no fix.

2 William October 24, 2011 at 12:01 pm

I think the kind of game you’re running determines your relationship with death to a large extent. In the long term game I run, I discussed it with the players and they wanted death to be a constant threat. However when the party got in over their heads with only 1 survivor each time we decided that we would keep raise dead with the restriction that it would take divine intervention. Basically if you want to come back you need to convince your god that your soul is worth going head to head with the Raven Queen over. This has worked really well for us. They’ve lost friends and sometimes the burden of dying is just too great when they have other responsibilities (One character retired when he became King, as it wasn’t responsible to keep adventuring). Death in that world is very real, and without access to easy resurrection magic it has changed the characters and forced them to grow.

I also play in a game where we rotate the DM after each adventure. To keep it fresh so we have everyone contributing, the reward for running an adventure is that you earn a “regeneration”. Just like in Doctor Who, if you die, you regenerate with all the same memories and experiences, but you might have changed a great deal (Rebuild into another class/race). This is the only way to be returned from the dead. In terms of roleplaying the changes faced are for the entire party…sometimes the character that comes back has a different personality and is put at odds with other party members. When the male Eladrin Pyromancer came back as a female Eladrin Enchantress it changed things for the party dynamic with people generally liking her a lot less.

No matter how you deal with campaign death it gives you hooks. How might a party feel about a member that keeps dying and getting raised on their dime? Or if they come back “wrong”? The chart in the old Heroes of Horror book was the best…Making the prospect of getting your friend back deeply unsettling.

3 Sentack October 24, 2011 at 12:27 pm

William: “Basically if you want to come back you need to convince your god that your soul is worth going head to head with the Raven Queen over.”

While it’s a great way to get around the revolving door in a lore sense, it feels like DM intervention to me. The DM is saying, “While the ritual is there, I’m going to just decide who I want back or not because, it’s convenient to me.” which works but can make some players groan.

Case in point, in my campaign after the players just took out an important co-conspirator to the major villain. One player said after they managed to get away from the villain without being able to destroy the body of the co-conspirator, “Who cares if she’s dead, the bad guy can bring her back with Raise Dead. If not, then it’s just some lame hand waving excuse.” And while I do agree that the DM has the control to just say, “No, the gods say it must be this way!” it just feels like DM intervention or maybe DM Fiat to me, and that doesn’t work.

I even know that the damn ritual says, “and the gods can intervene to prevent a soul from journeying back to the realm of the living.” but exercising this clause sounds clumsy. It just feels like a convenient excuse. Perhaps a better story teller can make it work, but for me, I couldn’t on the fly find a good excuse. Maybe I need to work one out that feels convincing and reasonable. Not something that feels like “Because I said so.”

4 Kiel Chenier October 24, 2011 at 12:56 pm

I think this is more on 4e’s mechanics and presentation than just overall D&D, since instant-death traps and one-hit kill monsters and the like no longer really exist in the game.

Since later editions, death carried more weight, since players started front-loading their characters with personalities, back stories, etc. Also, 4e’s mechanics ensure that most player characters are so tough and powerful, that death is uncommon (depending on how you play the game, that is). So I feel that death usually carries at least a little more weight now for players.

I’ve always been of the opinion that the Raise Dead ritual or other life-restoring means should be used sparingly, if used at all. Depending on how you’re running your game, death is a very real thing, and should not just be intended for spiders, skeletons, and other monsters from the deep dark places of the earth.

If a PC dies, the party should be faced with consequences for bringing that PC back from the dead. If s/he is resurrected, the PC should somehow bear the weight of having been touched by death, or perhaps the PCs will need to go on an entire adventure to hell/otherworld/shadowfell/etc to get their spirit back. Hell, maybe raising someone from the dead brings back their spirit, but can only place it in a different body, meaning the PC’s race might now be different.

Resurrecting someone should have consequences outside of just a fixed gold price.

Oh, and for D&D Encounters, unless it ties into the plot somehow to resurrect a PC, when they die the DM should rip up their character sheet, and suggest they build a new character that can be integrated into the next encounter.

Deal with it.

(joking, of course…mostly…)
Kiel Chenier´s last blog post ..Preparing a game (and how not to do it)

5 William October 24, 2011 at 1:17 pm

Sentack: I agree with Ameron, that there needs to be a discussion about it. If your party wants or expects death to work one way, and you’re not on board it’s only going to cause problems. In my game we wanted death as a constant threat, and to make an impact. Why should the Goddess of death let ANYONE back from the dead? In my opinion (Which is really all DMing boils down to really is opinions) I don’t think someone would come back from the dead without someone advocating for them. Specifically a God or Exarch. If someone wants to keep their character active they have to convince the god they worship that the divine plan would be completely derailed without that specific piece in place. Sometimes they fail, and I have refused to let people come back before. Bahamut found another chosen one in that specific case.

Your player in the example seems to have an attitude problem specifically. He is unwilling to suspend his disbelief that for some reason or another the ritual didn’t work. It’s not you being unfair, it’s you crafting a story and narrative with the players. If they don’t want to buy into it, if they don’t like the rules that you set for the world, they should talk to you and find some resolution OR find another game. Maybe the gods do intervene and there should be a good reason. Maybe your BBEG has a reason to keep the conspirator dead. There are good story reasons. On the fly it could give a lot of people trouble. But at the end of the day you are the one writing adventures and running the game and you need to own that. If you come up with a reason that this conspirator can’t come back from the dead, then the players should accept that and deal with the way things are. If you can satisfy your own reasoning they will be satisfied as well.

6 Sean Holland October 24, 2011 at 2:55 pm

While characters can be brought back from the dead in my campaign, it is very difficult and will require quests to bring about. The players know this up front though and -in most cases- if a character is about to fall to a killing blow, they can choose to take a permanent wound/penalty combination to survive.

7 Brian October 24, 2011 at 3:04 pm

At some point when one of my major PCs die, I’d like to re-roll him/her as a Revenant. It’s a race that I’ve never tried because I feel having a Revenant in the party would have more of an impact if it was a former living PC, rather than “oh hey, there’s this random undead dude traveling with us.”

8 iserith October 24, 2011 at 5:28 pm

Raise Dead does feel like a throwback to when characters would die in droves in previous edition. “You didn’t think to check THE DOORKNOB? You’re dead.” If you’re playing 4e, it does not happen easily or often in most games. I could remove the ritual altogether from my game and nobody would care because, almost without exception, nobody dies.

And I rather think that’s a good thing. Most good stories don’t include a huge amount of the main characters dying off. They have plenty of setbacks and obstacles to overcome. That’s interesting. Death is often viewed as a consequence of failure in D&D. It is, but it’s absolutely the most boring failure your story can have considering the many, many alternatives. It’s no wonder that Raise Dead is a turnoff for a lot of people. It takes a boring failure and makes it even more irrelevant to the story.

So, if death is boring, then Raise Dead should add complications to the story to make it interesting. Perhaps you come back as a mutated freak (port in some Gamma World cards). Maybe Raise Dead works more like Reincarnate and now you’re a leprechaun. How about only necromancers in your world can raise the dead and everyone who comes back is possessed by demons and turned evil, a practice that is considered absolutely deplorable to all (like Pet Sematary)?

It’s definitely something that should be established before the campaign begins. Expectations are a funny thing.

9 Wolfgrim October 24, 2011 at 7:21 pm

In my campaigns I have always ensured that death is final. There are a few very difficult ways to revive someone, however no one has accomplished it for ages. One player in my home campaign had woven into his story that his character was a run away prince who promised to return and save his country, not to mention sister from the clutches of his possessed father (the king, of course). When their heroic tier ended, the group had managed to invade the castle. In the final battle I had the run away prince’s sister killed by his father. The player instantly felt a pious rage. The thought that he could have saved his sister if he had only run faster, killed quicker, been tougher. The group managed to kill the evil king, however years passed between the heroic and paragon tier. The run away prince became a tavern drunk, obsessed with the events of the past. Once he heard an old legend of a mask that could bring back the dead, he set out to retrieve it. He felt it was his duty, which eventually ended in him getting so mad that he killed another player to retrieve the mask. Everytime that particular player thinks of D&D he is reminded of how much he loved that character. He loved roleplaying the survivor’s guilt and generally going insane. To this day I look back with fondness on how great that character’s story was. When death is final there is a far different tone to the game than those where death is easy to cure. Adding permanent death adds a tensity to every situation, it adds fear.

10 Wolfgrim October 24, 2011 at 7:26 pm

*going so mad*

11 Chlar'r October 24, 2011 at 11:10 pm

I’m not sure I’ve ever been in a campaign where the PCs were close enough friends to mourn a comrade’s death. I don’t think I’ve seen any mourning in towns when NPCs die, either.
Even the emotional impact of taking a life is traditionally overlooked.
(I think it was the recent zombie article that had me contemplating a Cleric that takes the time to offer last rites to all killed NPCs.)

First we’d have to see bonds form among the party beyond just a loose band seeking adventure with no care for their fellows beyond having the combat roles filled. Then the repercussions of the loss of a best friend, lover or relative can set in.

12 Sunyaku October 25, 2011 at 2:30 am

If you really want someone dead, just kill the player with a Wraith, or similar trans-formative creature. Then the character’s soul also becomes a wraith, and cannot be raised via normal means. Problem solved.

To achieve pseudo immortality, I believe it costs several hundred thousand gold to purchase the Lich ritual in the builder (at least the old builder anyways). And yet, resurrection is only 500 gold. Does anyone else see a problem with this? If the cost of raising the dead was variable by level, I think we’d feel the impact a bit more. To scale with the level system, I’d say a raise should cost at least (1000g x character level)… and possibly increase the base rate of 1000 to 3000g for Paragon, and 5000 for Epic. That would mean the cost of raising a level 30 character would be 150,000g. Still affordable, but far from “pocket change”.
Sunyaku´s last blog post ..I have a Plastic Addiction

13 Sentack October 25, 2011 at 9:22 am

The Raise Dead ritual does have a growing scale based on tier. 500gp for Heroic, 5,000gp for Paragon and 50,000gp for Epic. So once the players enters a new tier, the cost for Raise Dead resets back to “really expensive” and by the end of the tier, it’s a “trivial cost”.

14 Philo Pharynx October 25, 2011 at 1:47 pm

One issue is that while a character is dead, the group needs to figure out what to do with the player of the dead character. If it takes a story arc to figure out how to do it, then do you just tell Bob to come back next March? If Bob takes on an interim character, is it an NPC or a full character?

@Sentack, that’s why cruel DM’s plan to kill characters at 11th or 21st level. :) Also, read Brust’s Jhereg series. It’s a great noir-ish, semi-comic fantasy that starts about one of the most personable assassins you’ll ever meet. In this world, resurrection is available unless the person’s brain is destroyed or they use a special soul-sucking type of weapon – a Morganti blade. Their criminal group uses assassination to send a message. In most cases, their friends spend the money to bring them back and it’s a warning. It’s a great series and a different take on raising the dead. It’s also based on a game world of the author’s.

@William. I like the idea of having to intervene for the soul. Though If the deader was particularly religious, they might petition their god. @Sentack, I wouldn’t make it as much about the GM. I’d usually have the diety put a task on the party or the resurrectee to prove that it was worth it. Perhaps the resurrectee is only half-living until the quest is finished. Or have one of the party members make a sacrifice to bring them back. (see the next section)

@Kiel/Sean/iserith. The trick is to have the penalty for dying (or a last minute not-dying) significant enough to make the characters feel it and to make it low enough that everybody doesn’t simply say “screw it” and roll up another character. This is going to be different for each group – sometimes it might be different for players within the same group.

15 iserith October 25, 2011 at 2:27 pm

@Philo
So, basically the solution is to essentially penalize someone twice? Once for the ignominy of defeat and then a second time by kicking them when they’re down?

I think the solution is at the extremes. Either you get rid of Raise Dead as a ritual and impose the real threat of permanent death or when someone fails their third death save, they’re out of commission, but not necessarily dead unless the player and DM decide that’s what’s best for the story. We can talk all day long about what kind of pathos death can bring to the table in theory; however, we all know that’s not how it works out in practice. You get raised or you create a new character. Rarely is it ever anything more than that.

Which again, goes to show you that you’re better off threatening the PCs’ goals rather than their lives. Death is a boring failure compared to the many alternatives.

16 Thorynn October 25, 2011 at 3:27 pm

Its definitely something that should be discussed at the beginning of a campaign. You don’t want someone really miffed that they can’t get their character raised if the DM suddenly springs on them that raise dead is not available in their world.

Personally, I always have about half a dozen builds I want to try of various roles. I’ve never raised one of my guys.

17 Kilsek October 25, 2011 at 5:26 pm

Death is the rarest it’s ever been in D&D in 4e. The biggest reason? The game is more forgiving when it comes to burst damage, lethality, and actual death. It’s the way it is – it’s just not much of a lethal experience anymore.

You really have to go out of your way to challenge parties with plenty of “Hard” and “Too Hard” encounters for death to have any real possibility of happening in most fights.

That said, death can be a great opportunity for roleplay, story and character development. It’s just tricky… and well, costs a lot of gold in the very rare event a character actually dies in 4e.

Sort of a sacred cow here – lots of gold for resurrection – but like some folks have said, it’s also a matter of realizing what story lines can and can’t work in a world where the dead can and do come back – especially powerful figures like the heroes or major NPCs.

Can character death be fun or cool though? I say YES!

In fact, I have a 3-part series “Fear of Death” on my D&D site, originally inspired by Heroes of Shadows’ release. Start with: Which Monsters Finish Off Dying Characters? @ http://www.leonineroar.com/?p=1289
Kilsek´s last blog post ..Rest a Moment

18 Philo Pharynx October 25, 2011 at 10:30 pm

@iserth – That’s your suggestion, not mine. My comment is that if you do it, you need to balance it with the group and player to make it a real choice.

19 Gerald October 26, 2011 at 1:29 am

I’ve taken a slightly different approach to this question in my campaign (perhaps not entirely original, but not discussed yet in this thread). In my campaign the goddess of life is Isiril and the god of death is Corfil. They are seen primarily as neutral gods, more a part of the natural life cycle.
Raise Dead is only available to priestesses of Isiril in a cooperative ritual.

The Gift of Life
The Gift of Life is the greatest gift one can bestow upon another. The power of granting life has been given to the Priestesses of Isiril but only in a ritual which requires the participation of a Priest of Corfil. To the clergy of Isiril and Corfil, life and death are both part of the same gift, without one there cannot be the other. This is most clearly demonstrated in the Gift of Life ritual.
While death is an expected part of the life cycle, there are times when the approaching death of a loved one is not easily accepted by their family. The impending death of a child or even a baby can break the hearts of most and is seen by many to be an unfair burden assigned by the gods. It is a result of this type of circumstance that a family or individual may approach a Priestess of Isiril and request that she intervene in the death of their loved one. However the Gift of Life is not Isiril’s alone, and to grant this gift, Corfil must be satisfied. One cannot cheat death or deny Corfil’s rightful task.
For one who has died or is on the verge of certain death it is possible to grant the gift of new life, but the cost remains the same: to grant life this way a willing individual must take the place of he or she who is on the path to Corfil.
The ceremony varies in length, depending on the difficulty of the circumstance and other factors only known to the clergy of Isiril and Corfil, but when it is complete one will have gained new life and another will have taken their place beside Corfil in the world of the dead.

20 Z October 27, 2011 at 11:27 am

I did something similar to Gerald in one of my campaigns – to bring someone back to life another had to willingly take their place in death. Willingly in this case precluded the use of charming/beguiling magics (the gods know when someone is truly willing). While this doesn’t exactly “solve” the problem, it does offer opportunity for great roleplay.

What if, when the PC is returned to life, they find a loved one had sacrificed themselves to bring them back? What do the PC’s do/think about a temple that splits the gold they make from performing the ritual with the family of the person that was sacrificed to restore someone else to life? How do the PC’s prevent a major villain who has hordes of rabid followers willing to give up their own lives to bring their leader back?

This could be tweaked to increase the cost even more. Perhaps one life is needed to restore the deceased’s body and another is needed to restore the soul (thereby requiring a 2-for-1 trade). Or perhaps an evil deity requires ten unwilling sacrifices to bring one person back.

I agree that it’s not original, but I do feel it gives death a little more weight for the players.

Z

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