I’ve just started a Patreon to fund additional content for this website. Thanks to everyone who’s contributed so far! In days ahead I’ll be continuing to post Eberron Q&As, material for Phoenix: Dawn Command, and ideas that apply to any RPG… like this one. I’ll be polling patrons to help determine the subject matter of future articles. And thanks to John Wick and Gwendolyn Kestrel – our recent panel at DragonCon inspired this article.
Whether you’re seeking your fortune in the depths of a dungeon or trying to save the world from a dire threat, many roleplaying games incorporate an inherent threat of death. Whether you run out of hit points or fail a saving throw, any adventure could be your last. As a gamemaster, this raises a host of questions.
- How do you build suspense without resorting to death?
- Should you fudge results to avoid trivial deaths?
- What do you do if access to resurrection makes death itself trivial?
- What is the impact of resurrection on a setting?
- If a character permanently dies, what’s the best way to introduce a new character?
IS DEATH NECESSARY?
One question that’s worth asking from the onset: Is death necessary? Do you actually need player characters to die in your campaign? Roleplaying games are a form of collaborative storytelling. We’re making the novel we’d like to read, or the movie we want to watch. Do you actually need to the threat of permanent death in the game? Removing death doesn’t remove the threat of severe consequences for failure. Even in a system that uses hit points, you could still have something else happen when a character reaches zero hit points. Consider a few alternatives.
- Misfortune. The character doesn’t die – but they lose something that’s important to them. A beloved NPC could be killed or crippled. An ally could lose faith in the group. A precious object could be lost. This could be directly tied to the incident and a way to explain survival; an NPC could leap in the way of the blow, or the paladin’s holy avenger might expend all its divine power to save the paladin’s life; it’s now powerless until he can find a way to restore its energy (thus driving a story). But as long as the players know it’s coming, you could also have the consequence be misfortune that has nothing to do with the fight and it could be a while before this loss is realized; the players simply need to know that their failure will have unfortunate consequences. Another option is to have an immediate consequence tied to the story. If the PCs are repelling a bandit attack on a village, every “death” could mean the loss of an important resource or villager. This is the principle behind the Buddy System in Phoenix: Dawn Command, where it’s up to the players to keep important NPCs alive.
- Scars. A character may not die, but every critical failure has lasting physical or psychological consequences. A character could lose an eye, or have a hand replaced with a hook. A character could come back with aggressive tendencies, translating to a bonus to Intimidation and a penalty to Diplomacy. Someone nearly killed by undead could find that they start seeing ghosts others cannot see – spirits that trouble them or beg for help. Ideally these scars should be interesting and potentially create new challenges for a character, but they shouldn’t flat-out make the character mechanically worse. If a character simply loses a point of strength every time they “die”, it means that they’ll never be as effective as a pristine character, and for a player who’s concerned about mechanics that can be worse than death. So even with something like loss of a hand, I’d primarily make it interesting – the fighter’s found a way to effectively use a shield (or even a two-handed weapon) with his hook with no penalty, and while I might give him a penalty on an action absolutely requiring two hands, I’ll also give him a superior unarmed attack with his hook. And two words to remember: magic hook. Ultimately, this is the Phoenix approach: death changes a character, but it doesn’t necessarily hurt them.
- Group Fate. When a character “dies,” they are out of the scene. If at least some people in the group survive the scene, everyone can recover. If the entire group is defeated there will be consequences. Will they be robbed? Imprisoned? Held for ransom? This could potentially just be the bridge to the next adventure; perhaps they’re taken to the villains’ lair and actually end up closer to their goal, though they’ll have to start by breaking out of prison. Or perhaps – if the players are up for a change – this is a chance to change the direction of a campaign.
The point to me is that these sorts of effects can make defeat feel interesting – MORE interesting than death and resurrection. In one of my favorite D&D campaigns, my party was wiped out by vampires. The DM ultimately decided that a wandering cleric found us and resurrected us, and essentially erased the incident from the record. I hated this, because there was no story; we had this brutal fight, we lost, and then nothing happened. I argued that we should have our characters return as vampire spawn, forced to serve the Emerald Claw until we could find a way to break the curse. It would have COMPLETELY changed the arc of the campaign, to be sure. But it would make our defeat part of the story and make it interesting – giving us a new goal. And when we finally DID break the curse and find a way to return to true life, it would feel like an epic victory.
Generally speaking, even if I’m using another consequence for death, I will generally keep it that a character falls unconscious when “dead” – it may not be permanent, but they are out of the scene. However, even that could depend on the scene. Taking the idea of the village attack where “death” means an important element of the village is lost, I might say from the outset that any time a player drops to zero hit points something major is lost to the attack… and that the player will immediately regain 10 hit points. This is not a scene where the players can die unless the entire village is wiped out first; the question is how much of the village will be left when the battle is done. But it’s important that the characters understand these consequences from the start of the battle; you can’t build suspense if the players don’t know the consequences.
All of this comes back to that question should I fudge the dice to avoid a player dying a lame death? If death is truly the end of the story, it IS lame to lose your character to a random crappy saving throw or a wandering monster that scored a critical hit. But if you don’t have death in the game, and players know that, you don’t HAVE to avoid that death – you can just scale the consequences of the “death” to fit the circumstances. If it truly is a trivial thing, then have a trivial scar or minor misfortune as the consequence – the character literally has a minor scar to remember it by, and they’re back on their feet. And in my experience, scars and misfortune can actually generate more suspense than simple death. Character death is binary. It’s boring. You’re dead or you’re not. But the potential for loss or a lingering scar – you never know what you might be about to lose when you drop to zero HP, and that’s much more disturbing.
SOMETHING TO LOSE
The critical thing about the idea of misfortune or scars is that the character needs to have something to lose. They need to care about SOMETHING beyond themselves – something that can be threatened by misfortune. If your campaign is based in a single location, it could be about the place: a favorite bar, a beloved NPC. It could be something useful you have given to them, whether it’s a useful object or a powerful ally or patron. It could be something the player has created themselves: family, a loved one, a reputation that’s important to them. Following the principle that this isn’t about punishment but rather about driving an interesting story, misfortune that results in loss of character ability could be temporary. Take the earlier example of the paladin’s holy avenger expending its energy to save him; this isn’t simply punishment, it’s now the drive for a new branch of the story.
In Phoenix: Dawn Command this is actually part of character creation. In making your character you need to answer a number of questions. As a Phoenix, you’re someone who died and returned to life. What gave you the strength to fight your way back from the darkness? Who are you fighting for? What do you still care about? And what are you afraid of? All of these things are hooks that give me as the gamemaster things that I can threaten to generate suspense. But you can ask these sorts of questions in any campaign.
Now, sometimes players will have a negative reaction to this: I’m not giving you something you can use against me! The critical thing to establish here is that it’s not about using things against them. As a GM you and the players aren’t enemies; you’re partners. You’re all making a story together, and you’re asking them if I want to generate suspense, what can I threaten? You’re giving them a chance to shape the story – to decide what’s important to their character and what they’d fight to protect. I don’t want to read a story about a set of numbers; I want to read a story about a character who has ties to the world, who cares about something and who could lose something.
This ties to a second important point: failure can make a compelling story. Take Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark. His defeat within the first ten minutes of the film creates tension that builds to the final resolution. Inigo Montaya’s story in The Princess Bride begins with defeat and is driven by his quest to avenge that loss. This is why I wanted to become a vampire spawn in the example I gave above – because embracing that defeat and following the story it created would be more interesting than simply being resurrected and continuing as though nothing happened.
Which brings us to the next topic…
WHAT ABOUT RESURRECTION?
In many D&D settings, resurrection is a reliable service available to anyone who can pay a price. This also becomes the case once the party has a caster who can perform the ritual. I hate resurrection without consequence. I’d rather have a character not die at all than have them just casually return to life with no story attached to it. The original Eberron Campaign Setting includes the Altar of Resurrection, a focus item that lets a Jorasco heir raise the dead (and it’s specifically resurrection, not just the more limited raise dead). Confession time: I hate that altar. I didn’t create it, and in many subsequent sourcebooks (Sharn, Stormreach) I pushed explanations for why it wasn’t a reliable service. Essentially, resurrection is a useful tool for player characters if you’re running a system where death can easily and casually happen. But not only is it a boring way to resolve a loss, it’s something that should have a tremendous impact on a society – and Eberron as it stands doesn’t account for that impact. If Jorasco can reliably resurrect, then they hold the keys to life and death. They’d presumably offer insurance policies, where nobles and the wealthy (criminal masterminds, members of the Aurum) can be assured of resurrection should they unexpectedly die. And someone else holds those keys as well… because resurrection, even via altar, specifically requires diamonds. So whichever nation is sitting on the largest diamond reserves suddenly has a new source of power and influence. Beyond this, casual resurrection kills a lot of stories. Murder mysteries aren’t as compelling if it’s just a matter of shelling out 10K GP to get the victim back on their feet. It’s hard to explain the death of a noble by any means other than old age. The Last War began when King Jarot was assassinated – so, why wasn’t he resurrected?
There’s lots of ways to explain this without removing resurrection.
- The Keeper’s Fang weapon quality specifically exists as a way to counter resurrection. Jarot could have been killed with a Keeper’s Fang.
- A victim has to WANT to be resurrected. Perhaps the paranoid Jarot didn’t want to come back.
- Dolurrh itself quickly wipes out memories. Once the victim can’t remember who they were, it’s easy to say they don’t want to come back. So you have a limited window for resurrection.
But even with all that, I don’t like casual, reliable resurrection. I don’t feel a need to remove the spell from the game, but I always establish that resurrection only works if the character has an unfulfilled destiny. Essentially, resurrection generally only works for player characters or recurring villains. In the sourcebooks I mentioned, I emphasized that most religions don’t encourage use of the spell: the Sovereigns have called you to their bosom or your soul is joining the Flame, and that’s what’s supposed to happen. I also presented the idea that Jorasco resurrection can have unexpected consequences – Marut inevitables trashing the Jorasco enclave, ghosts coming back with (or instead of) the intended spirit – and that Jorasco adepts will perform an augury ahead of time to determine if resurrection is in fact possible. So I didn’t REMOVE it from Eberron – but I’ve suggested a lot of ways to limit it. With that said…
Making Resurrection More Interesting
If you’re dead-set (get it?) on using death and resurrection, one option is to make it interesting. Resurrection is never free – and I’m not just talking about a pile of diamonds. Consider the following:
- In the first stages of the afterlife, the spirit of the slain character meets with something. If your setting has incarnate gods, this could be a god. If not, it could be a powerful outsider – an Inevitable, perhaps, or a fiend or celestial. This entity offers the opportunity to return… for a price. This could be a task the character has to fulfil, and if you want to make it interesting set a time limit; they have one month to kill (insert challenging foe here) or they will die again, and this time it’s personal. Or it could be a price – a misfortune as described above, but the player gets to choose if that cost is worth their life. If you want to keep it interesting, make it a price someone else will pay. The fiend will return the player to life, but every month someone from their home town will die in their place. Can the player find a way to break this deal without dying for good?
- There’s no bargaining, but as the player returns to life they have a clear vision of the future – of them performing a difficult task (killing the Dark Lord!) or doing something they don’t want to do (killing a beloved NPC!). This feels incredibly real. Is it just a prediction, or is this the price of the character’s resurrection? If they turn from this path, will they die again?
A critical point here: you could use either of these options with or without a resurrection spell. Taking the first option, you can say that a cleric casting a resurrection spell doesn’t AUTOMATICALLY return the character to life; rather it’s the casting of that spell that has allowed the bargain to occur. If the player turns down the bargain, the spell will simply fail. Alternately, you can say that this bargain is offered independently of any magic, which is a good option for low-level characters. Everyone THINKS the character is dead… and then suddenly they pop back up, with a new mission!
You can also find a path between the two, and the best example of this is Thoros of Myr and Beric Dondarion in Game of Thrones. When Beric dies, Thoros can resurrect him. But generally speaking, Thoros doesn’t have the powers of a high-level priest; nor is it implied that he can resurrect just anyone. But he can resurrect Beric, which seems to be evidence that Beric has some sort of destiny to fulfill. You can easily say that the party’s first-level cleric discovers that he can resurrect the party fighter. But again, the question now becomes why he can resurrect the fighter. Will this work forever? Can he resurrect other members of the party? Or is it only temporary until the fighter achieves some specific goal, and then he’ll die once and for all? And is there another price being paid – every time the cleric performs a resurrection, is someone innocent dying to take their place? There’s a lot of ways to make this a compelling part of your story, and not just consequence-free failure.
INTRODUCING NEW CHARACTERS
You don’t want to try any of this crazy stuff. You want old-fashioned, classic death. And you’ve had a PC die. How do you bring a new character in without it feeling utterly bizarre that the group just gels around this stranger? Here’s a few quick thoughts.
- Try to build a few NPCs into the story that can easily become temporary PCs. If the players are all hobbits and Frodo dies on the way to Weathertop, that player can immediately assume the role of Strider – a capable NPC who’s already on the scene. This gives you and the player time to come up with a new character and a good story… and that character can be introduced at the next logical point, such as when they reach Rivendell and he’s assigned to help them destroy the Ring.
- Is the character supposed to be an old friend? Take a break and run a one-shot in the past. Drop all the PCs back to 1st level and run a session during their old war days when they held the game with their old buddy Sir Character-About-To-Be-Introduced. This doesn’t even have to involve all the current PCs; you could say that the cleric used to be friends with this incoming paladin, and run a short session where the other three players take on the roles of OTHER characters in that story… which means that THEY can die without consequence, but also that if they survive, they could show up in the present day as important NPCs, whether as allies or traitors.
WHAT ABOUT PHOENIX: DAWN COMMAND?
I’ve recently released a new fantasy RPG called Phoenix: Dawn Command – and in Phoenix, death is how your character grows stronger. Part of the point was to marry one of the worst things that can happen in an RPG (death) with one of the best things (leveling up). How’s that work with everything I’ve said about casual resurrection?
- In Phoenix, resurrection isn’t casual. You don’t come back right away and you don’t come back where you died. A great example of how this works is Gandalf in the Mines of Moria. He sacrifices himself to stop a threat that would otherwise have destroyed his entire party. But he’s out for the rest of the adventure. He doesn’t come back for a few chapters – and when he does return, he’s stronger.
- A point here is that Phoenix is typically driven by high stakes and time pressure. Bedfordshire is dealing with a zombie outbreak. If you can contain the outbreak within two hours, it doesn’t matter how many of you die in the process. But if you fail – either due to a TPK or simply a failure of containment – within two hours it will have spread too far to be contained, and whether you lived or died, you’ll have to deal with the fallout. Bedfordshire is lost, and aside from the innocent deaths, it was the primary source of grain in the region – now we’re going to start to see famines.
- Beyond this, each time you die we look at the nature of that death and what your character learns from it – and that is what determines the powers you gain in your next life, essentially the class you level up in. So as I suggested with scars, your character abilities directly relate to your deaths – you don’t need to fear death, but you need to make sure that you die in a way you can live with. Each death concretely builds your story.
- Finally, you can only come back seven times… and there’s no way around that final death. Which means that players can be reckless initially, but eventually they have to start being more conservative. And I won’t pull punches to avoid that final death, because even that is part of the story. Once their character truly dies, it’s time to make a new Phoenix just starting off on their first life… and because of the nature of Phoenix, it’s possible for that first-life Phoenix to adventure with others on their last lives and still have something to contribute (even if that’s the ability to die!).
All of this also comes back to the fact that in Phoenix, players have more narrative control then in many other systems. Phoenix uses cards instead of dice, so a player knows what they are capable of at any time. They also have a pool of energy they can burn to push beyond their limits – but when those sparks run out, they die. Nine times out of ten, a Phoenix doesn’t die because of some random chance; they die because they’re making a choice. It’s not that you failed a saving throw, it’s that you threw yourself on a bomb or used every last spark to get the strength you need to bring down the villain. In Phoenix deaths are often one of the most awesome and triumphant moments of a session, not a disappointment.
That’s all I have for now, but post your thoughts on death and resurrection and what you’ve done in your games!