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?