The Cost of a Life

Recently I’ve started a Patreon to help me justify spending more time on this site. The full Dragonmark/Imperial Dispatch articles take a significant amount of time and there’s a limit on how often I can post one of those, but I want to post more short articles. I’ve asked my Inner Circle of Patrons to pose questions about Eberron, Phoenix: Dawn Command, or game design in general, and I’ll be answering these whenever I have time. So, here’s the first one.

Regarding your Death and Resurrection post, what are some good dark bargains higher powers might want met in exchange for letting you go back?  

In my previous article on Death and Resurrection, I suggested that you could set a personal price on resurrection. This could be a bargain the dead character makes in order to return under their own power… or you could say that even if their allies use resurrection magic, the character’s spirit still has to make a bargain to benefit from the spell. Depending on the cosmology of your game, this could be a bargain with a deity, a demon, an inevitable, or something else entirely.

So… what might a powerful being demand in exchange for helping a mortal spirit return to the world? To me, the critical thing is to make this an interesting decision that drives story. Here’s a few ideas off the top of my head. I’ll note that many of these ideas carry the inherent threat that the character could permanently die if they don’t hold up their end of the bargain. If you aren’t willing to have that threat on the table, you’d need to come up with another consequence to give the threat of failure dramatic significance.

A Life For A Life. The entity will return the victim to life – but the PC must pledge to kill a specific person who has somehow cheated death. The PC has a set amount of time in which to accomplish this task; if they fail or choose not to complete the bargain, they will die for good. It’s up to you how many details the entity reveals about the target. Here’s a few different ways this could play out.

  • The target is a vicious tyrant. They’re a horrible person who deserves to die, but they have an army and a fortress. So morally the PC is on solid ground, but it’s going to be a very difficult task to accomplish.
  • The target is a fiend, a vampire, or something else that clearly IS cheating death or doesn’t belong here. Again, easily justified, but a difficult target to take down. In Eberron, you might have to find and destroy a lich’s phylactery (maybe Erandis Vol?) or even destroy one of the Deathless Councilors of Aerenal.
  • The target is a cult leader who’s sacrificed many innocent victims. This seems like a reasonable quest, but when the PCs track down the cultist they discover that he’s turned on his old faith and is seeking redemption by helping and healing the needy. The entity that resurrected the PC is in fact the cultist’s previous deity – and wants the cult leader killed as vengeance for his betrayal. Does the PC kill the cultist as punishment for his previous actions? Or spare someone trying to do the right thing, even if it means their own death? Together, could they find some other way to keep the PC alive?
  • The target is an adventurer, someone pretty much just like the PCs. Perhaps they have a checkered past, perhaps not; but they’ve certainly cheated death multiple times. Will your PCs execute someone who’s following the same path they are?

These are just a few examples of where you could go with this. The question is whether the challenge is primarily physical or moral, and if there are any long term consequences of fulfilling the bargain. There’s one easy long-term hook: At any point, the resurrected PC can be targeted by another group of adventurers… because one of their members was resurrected by the same entity and pledged to kill someone who cheated death!

Your Days Are Numbered. The entity will return the PC to life, no strings attached… for a set period of time, after which the PC will permanently die. This creates a different sort of tension: what can the PC accomplish in this time? Now their death isn’t a random thing: it’s an absolute, known fact and the question is what they can do to make their last days mean something. You can always introduce a path for them to escape the bargain, but it can be more interesting to hold them to it and make them really think about how they’d face this known death. And, of course, you could always decide that if they face it well the entity might grant them more time… or that they will die, but achieve some form of spiritual evolution or apotheosis after this second death. In some ways, this is the basic premise of Phoenix: Dawn Command; players are reborn after death, but they know they will permanently die after their seventh death.

A Lease On Life. A combination of the two preceding ideas. Every job the PC accomplishes buys them another (month) of life. This works best if the people the PC is being sent to execute are generally bad people… but this is an opportunity, after the PC has killed a bunch of scumbags, to suddenly introduce an apparent innocent. Does the player trust that the Entity would only target people who deserve to die? This bargain doesn’t have to involve killing; it could be that the PC must save a life each week, or something like that.

Everyone Loves A Good Host. The Entity can resurrect the PC – but only by imbuing them with part of its own spirit, incidentally making them a vessel for it to act in the physical world. This could be a very specific arrangement: The entity gets to use the PC’s body for one hour out of every day, or for one day out of every week. It could be that the PC becomes an NPC during these times, or if the player’s up for the challenge, you could tell them what the entity is like and have them play the entity-in-the-PC’s-body at those times. Alternately, the Entity could be present in an abstract way; perhaps exercising magical powers around the PC… which could potentially be very useful, but in a way that’s entirely uncontrolled and unpredictable. So when the PC has a conversation with a rude innkeeper, flames suddenly burst from the PC’s eyes and burn the arrogant innkeeper. This would be sort of like becoming a warlock, but the PC doesn’t have any control over the warlock abilities.

Another approach on this path is to have the arrangement initially appear to be benign, but every time some specific trigger occurs – say, any time the PC kills someone – the Entity takes more possession of the host. The PC might even gain new abilities as this process continues, but they also start having blackout periods or personality shifts and know that this will eventually give the Entity full control of their body.

The Orpheus Gambit. The PC is returned to life and will remain alive as long as they DON’T do something… but if they break this rule, they permanently die. This could be a common action: the PC will remain alive as long as they don’t kill anyone else, but if they take a life they’ll die. 5E helps this by stating that a PC can decide the fate of someone reduced below zero HP, so its easy for a player to spare their victims… but what do they do when there’s someone who truly needs to die? The prohibition could be more specific: you can’t ever return to Sharn, you can’t see your one true love ever again, you can’t conceive a child. Needless to say, this should be something that seems reasonable on the surface… but as time goes on, there should be a host of compelling reasons to do that thing.

Start A Movement! The resurrected PC could be called on to start a movement on behalf of the entity. If the entity is a deity, the PC might have to resolve a schism in their church or bring down corrupt leadership. It might be a forgotten deity that wants its faith revised. In either of these cases, the PC could gain some divine benefits – but it could be that the PC doesn’t have to have faith, they just need to inspire it in others. However, this could also involve something mundane. Rally an oppressed population. Revitalize a secret society. Crush a cult or overthrow a government oppressing a region the entity cares about. The main thing is that this will require leadership on the part of the PC.

If You Build It, You Will Live. The PC might have to create something on behalf of the Entity: a monument, a temple, or something else. Rather than spending 5000 GP on a resurrection spell, they need to spend that money acquiring land and labor. Alternately, they could have to cleanse a temple or stronghold overtaken by dark forces – which is to say, go on an epic dungeon crawl!

WHAT ABOUT PHOENIX? 

One of the core elements of Phoenix: Dawn Command is that the PCs can die and return stronger after death, up to seven times. A Phoenix has to earn each new life by enduring a series of trials in a pocket limbo known as The Crucible. By default this isn’t a bargain as such. However, you can certainly add a bargain into the story, if both you and the player like the story. There’s a few ways this could work.

A Mentor’s Demands. A Phoenix has one guide in the Crucible: their Mentor, the spirit of a previous Phoenix who’s been through all seven lives. Normally a mentor helps with no strings… but you could say that the mentor has set a price on their help. The simplest approach is that the mentor has unfinished business they want the PC to complete for them.

  • The mentor wants a message delivered to a loved one or someone else they left behind.
  • The mentor wants the PC to resolve a grudge or vendetta against another Phoenix. This could be one of the Marshals – in which case the PC’s mentor might know a dark secret about the Marshal in question. Is the PC willing to disrupt Dawn Command at this critical time? Are they sure they can trust their own mentor? Alternately, the vendetta come be with a dead Phoenix – the mentor of another member of their wing.
  • A Shrouded mentor could have any number of unfinished schemes left in motion. They need the PC to be their go-between with a network of mortal agents. But does the PC understand exactly what they’re becoming part of?

The Fallen. The Crucibles exist in the Dusk, a realm between life and death. But the Dusk isn’t empty; it’s inhabited by the Fallen Folk. It’s possible that one of the Fallen could appear in the PC’s Crucible and offer a bargain. This can mirror any of the ideas presented in the first part of this post. If you take the Vessel approach, you could represent this by adding an Affliction card to the player’s deck. Every time the Affliction card comes up, the Entity takes an action or takes over briefly. As described above, it could the that the PC actually gains new powers – that the Entity can do something useful or powerful when it acts – but it’s something that the PC can’t predict or control. Given that Phoenixes normally don’t HAVE to make bargains to return, if this is an inconvenience you’d need to balance it with an obvious benefit. This could be something that benefits the PC directly – a new trait or lesson, for example – or it could be story driven. If the PC will act as a host for the spirit, they will send their minions to protect the player’s family.

In Eberron, what sort of powers exist that could make these sorts of deals? 

Well, if the character is being raised by divine magic, the answer is easy – whatever force is raising them. If you’re being raised by a cleric of the Undying Court, your spirit might be called before the Court for judgment and negotiation. If you’re being raised by the power of the Silver Flame, a couatl might speak for the Flame… or perhaps Tira Miron. A manifestation of the Sovereign Host will depend on your view of the Sovereigns, but if you don’t want an actual encounter with a Sovereign, you could use an angel acting on behalf of a Sovereign. With the Blood of Vol, you might be dealing with the priest’s divine spark – which could be a separate consciousness from the mortal awareness of the priest. Essentially, the cleric’s raise dead spell invokes the divine power and requests that you be restored… but there’s nothing stopping that power from demanding a personal price.

Another option is The Keeper. Mythologically, the Keeper snatches souls on their way to Dolurrh. Most stories say that the Keeper hoards these stolen souls, but there are those – notably the Watchful Rest – who maintain that the Keeper takes these souls to preserve them from Dolurrh so they won’t fade and be lost… and so that they can be returned when they are needed. THIS interpretation of the Keeper would be exactly what you’re looking for – something that could choose to spare a soul and negotiate for its return. In MY Eberron, BOTH of these Keepers – the greedy hoarder and the noble preserver – would exist, but neither one is actually a Sovereign. Instead, both would be mighty inevitables, among the most powerful spirits of Dolurrh. The preserving Keeper could fill much the same role as the Raven Queen in 4E… while the hoarding Keeper is a darker and more selfish force. Beyond this, you can always assert that there are other entities with the power. There are certainly spirits of Irian and Mabar that can restore life, though they’d usually do this through the medium of undeath.

Anyhow, this ended up being longer than planned, so I’m going to stop here. If you’ve got ideas for life-or-death bargains, share them below!

Gameplay: Death and Resurrection

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 necessaryDo 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!

Gameplay: Adding Drama to the Divine

“Knowledge has made you powerful, but there’s still so much you don’t know. Do you remember what you heard that night when the sorcerer tossed your parts in the fire? You heard a voice call out from the flames, do you remember? Should I tell you what the voice said? Should I tell you the name of the one who spoke?”

-Kinvara to Varys, Game of Thrones episode 6.5

So I’ve been watching the TV adaptation of Game of Thrones and if there’s one thing I like, it’s the presentation of the servants of the Lord of Light. Kinvara and Melisandre feel powerful and enigmatic. Even when she makes mistakes, Melisandre is driven by her mission and clearly has an interesting story yet to be revealed (on the show). And yet, watching the show, one thought occurred to me…  Clerics don’t feel this cool. Back when I started playing D&D, cleric was the class no one wanted to play; everyone else does cool stuff, and then the cleric fixes them up so they can do more cool stuff. The cleric felt like a box of band-aids, not a mysterious and dangerous vessel for cosmic forces.

There’s a lot of reasons for this. One of the things that drives these scenes is that they’re filled with mystery. WHAT exactly does Kinvara know? HOW does she know it? IS the Lord of Light what she says it is… or is she serving a darker power, knowingly or unwittingly? But that’s not how things work in most editions of D&D. Instead, the cleric is an armored spellcaster who heals and casts support spells, while the wizard is a glass canon with powerful offensive magic. Mechanically their magic serves different purposes – but aside from a few twists in how you select and memorize spells, it performs the same. Divine magic is just as reliable and predictable as arcane magic. Which is important if you’re playing a wargame and want to ensure that every character is balanced. But it doesn’t do a great job of modeling the theoretical differences between arcane and divine. A wizard approaches magic in a rational way. They learn formulas and rituals that allow them to manipulate magical energy. A wizard is like a scientist. By contrast, a cleric is a person who asks the universe to do something for them… and it does. Which raises all sorts of questions.

  • Can a cleric use divine magic to do something that’s against the principles of their faith? If so, why?
  • If the cleric’s deity will perform miracles on their behalf, why will they only do it two times a day (or whatever)? Why do they withhold the GOOD magic until the cleric goes up in level?
  • If the cleric is truly in need, shouldn’t their deity just, y’know, help them out?
  • If the deity has awesome power and can alter reality, why don’t they just smite bad things on their own, before the cleric even gets to them?

There’s lots of ways to deal with these questions. The simplest is to say that deities may maintain reality as we know it, but they can only directly affect things on a small scale through the medium of divine casters. There’s lots of possible explanations for this…

  • Cosmic Entities. The deity is so cosmic and vast that humans are like fleas to it; the cleric serves as a lens that allows the deity to focus on a specific situation.
  • Bound by Duty. The gods are occupied maintaining reality as we know it and if they stopped what they were doing to mess with things directly there would be consequences – Atlas can’t just stop holding up the sky. Perhaps, like the Silver Flame of Eberron, the deities are holding primordial fiends or aberrations at bay, and if they turn their power away from the struggle the world could be destroyed.
  • Bound by Rules. There is a strict balance of power between deities that prevents them from interfering in mortal affairs. Perhaps there was a cosmic conflict in the past that almost destroyed reality, and the gods agreed to abide by terms of a truce – should one intervene, all the others could as well. Or perhaps there’s a literal barrier erected that shields the mortal world from direct divine action. Whatever the nature, this divine armistice allows for mortal agents of the deities to act on their behalf. If you like the idea of gods that have stats, that you could find in the planes and potentially even beat up, this is the path to take. Because the gods COULD directly act on the world and many might WANT to directly act on the world, but there are cosmic rules that are preventing them from doing it – and so they need divine characters.
  • Abstract Entities. The gods don’t literally exist. They are concepts in the collective unconscious, and people’s belief in them generates power. So they can’t act on their own because they have no actual volition or consciousness; but the intense faith of a divine caster allows them to draw on this power. If you’re an atheist in Eberron, this is what you believe.

The point of these examples is to have divine powers that exist but that can’t directly intervene and that need mortals to work their will. They have vast knowledge and can channel power through their mortal vessels. As for the limitations of level, you can easily say that channeling divine power is dangerous for mortals, and that the amount of power a caster can safely channel grows with experience. It’s not that a god can’t grant a low-level cleric a powerful spell, it’s that casting that powerful spell would kill the cleric.

Note that none of these ideas prevent a deity from affecting the world in a PASSIVE way. In Eberron, followers of the Sovereign Host say that the Sovereigns are omnipresent – that every time a smith holds a hammer Onatar is there with them, and every time a soldier draws a sword Dol Dorn is there. But Dol Dorn doesn’t DECIDE the outcome of the battle; he just guides the soldiers, if they listen to his voice. This is part of the idea of the god “maintaining reality” – that things we take for granted ARE the result of divine actions.

Now: all of these ideas play off the foundation of gods that don’t directly incarnate or intervene – deities that can only affect the world through their clerics. This is how prefer to use them… but I’ll add a section about active gods to the end of this post.

So: what follows is a jumble of ideas for making divine character feel different from other spellcasters. Bear in mind: these are about making the story more interesting, not about maintaining perfect mechanical balance. I wouldn’t impose any of these on a player without discussing them first; ideally I’d have the player decide things like divine origin.

DIVINE ORIGIN

How common is divine magic in your world? Is it miraculous, or is it mundane? In our world, we don’t expect priests to perform miracles; the purpose of a priest is to provide spiritual guidance. In Eberron, most priests aren’t clerics; they’re experts trained in Diplomacy, Medicine, Insight, History – people who have practical skills for helping and guiding a community, but who can’t make light by snapping their fingers. The same is true in Game of Thrones – we don’t see priests throwing magic around left and right, which means that when one DOES perform magic they feel mysterious and powerful. Why can THIS person perform miracles? What are their full capabilities? In such a world, the question arises: how does the character perform divine magic? Is it something they studied and harnessed, or is it a gift? Consider the following ideas.

  • Faith Alone. The character has never had direct contact with the deity, but their faith is so absolute and deep that it allows them to connect with the divine power. This is the default concept in Eberron. It’s a good path if you want to use divine magic exactly as written, because there’s no outside power granting it; ultimately it’s all about the caster and their indomitable faith. They can do whatever they want with their magic, even if it violates the precepts of their religion, as long as they BELIEVE they are doing the right thing.
  • Divine Gift. The character had some form of direct contact with the deity – whether in an incarnate form or divine vision – in which the deity granted the character the ability to channel divine power. So the deity isn’t personally granting or sanctioning each individual spell the character uses; but the character’s ability to cast spells is a divine gift and proof of their role as an agent of the deity. Like faith, this is an easy way to allow the character to use magic even if a specific action doesn’t directly support their faith. If they go way out of line the deity could rescind the gift… but again, the gods don’t sanction each and every spell as they’re cast.
  • Patron Spirit. The divine caster is attended by a lesser intermediary of the deity. This being – angel, demon, saint, call it what you will – can’t directly interact with the physical world, but it can advise the caster and empowers them to cast spells. What’s nice about this is that it’s a way to give the player a direct connection to the divine, something they can talk to — without making the deity feel small. Aureon is busy monitoring the entire world, but his angel Caskelon is your personal spiritual guide. In the case of a Patron Spirit, you have a number of additional questions to ask. Can the character communicate with the spirit just as if talking to a person? Or is it that the character feels the presence of the spirit and knows it will respond to their prayers, but can’t speak with it directly unless using magic like commune? The idea here is that the Patron Spirit DOES personally perform the divine magic the caster calls upon (albeit acting through the vessel of the caster) – which means that it may refuse to perform spells that don’t support the goals of the faith, and that it could potentially take actions uninvited… more on this later.
  • Eyes of the Divine. Another option is that the character is literally a focus within the world for the attention of the deity. The deity uses the caster as both eyes and hands. To make this feel grander than the patron spirit, I’d clarify that the deity is simultaneously connected to all their divine casters and that the PC rarely has their full attention… and that when they do, it’s a transcendental experience. This is a good path if the player wants to have clear guidance as to what they should be doing; the god is literally looking over their shoulder and will judge their actions. In this path you can definitely have spells rejected if they don’t serve the divine purpose – or empowered or cast unexpectedly when it does serve the divine purpose. The goal of this path is to make divine magic absolutely different from arcane. The cleric isn’t casting a spell from a book; they are a vessel for a vast alien entity who is using them to enact its will on reality.

DIVINE PURPOSE AND COMMUNICATION

If you want to make divine characters feel distinctly different from other characters, emphasize that they have a purpose. As a divine caster, you didn’t just learn magic; you were given magic to help you accomplish the goals of your deity in the world.This purpose can easily be tied to the main story of a campaign; If the campaign is about defeating the Dark Lord, great: cleric, your deity has given you a vision, and it’s your job to make sure this group of adventurers defeats the Dark Lord. This isn’t just “I live in the world, so I might as well save it” – you’ve personally been given this assignment by the universe.

However, not every campaign has a goal that fits the sphere of a deity. Perhaps you’re just dungeon crawling for gold. Perhaps you’re playing a one-shot. But as a GM, you can still play with the idea that divine characters have a purpose… and that this can be updated at any time. At any point, you could hit a paladin or cleric with a new goal. For example…

  • Is your war cleric on a dungeon crawl? You have a vision of the tormented souls of soldiers bound to their bones and unable to find rest. Which is to say, there’s undead in this dungeon – but as a war cleric, it’s your duty to lay these warriors to rest.
  • Oath of Vengeance paladin who’s found the remains of a caravan struck by bandits? It’s your duty to hunt down the brigands and punish them for what they’ve done.
  • Life cleric passing through a village? Perhaps you know that you need to help the crying child on the corner. Or you can feel a darkness rising that is going to threaten this village… you don’t know what it is, but you need to protect these people.

In many cases, these might be things the players would choose to do anyway. The point is that the divine character has clear purpose: this is what you should do. With that said, a second question is how is this information provided? If your divine origin gives you a direct connection to your spirit or deity, you could have a booming voice in your mind giving you instructions. A patron spirit could be an entertaining partner – not unlike a familiar – who you can converse with an ask for casual advice. On the other hand, divine visions could be very abstract and open to interpretation. Arriving in the village, for a moment the cleric sees the crying child covered in blood. Does this mean you must save this child from a coming threat or you should kill this evil child? This sort of abstract vision can be very interesting from a roleplaying perspective. When you walk into the bar, for a moment you see a golden crown floating above the head of the innkeeper. Is he the forgotten heir of a noble line? Is he a tyrant in his tiny domestic kingdom? Should you do what he says? Note that this is exactly what happens with the Red Priests in Game of Thrones – they see visions in the flames, but these visions aren’t explicitly spelled out and we’ve already seen instances where the priest misinterprets the vision with terrible results.

If I was using this sort of communication, I’d probably let a divine character make a Religion check to get some hints about the vision, because part of the point of religious lore would be knowing about past visions, the meanings of specific icons in your faith, etc. With that said, in that innkeeper-crown scenario, I wouldn’t just respond to a good die roll by saying “It means he’s a secret heir to the throne” – I’d say “There are a number of accounts where servants of the Light have written about seeing a crown above the head of the true heir to the Golden Throne; Helekan the Wise said that the Light runs through the blood of the true kings, and described a crown almost exactly like this one.”

So again, you could just have a booming voice tell the paladin what to do… but it can be a more interesting story if visions are mysterious and have to be interpreted.

UNPREDICTABLE MAGIC, CAUSE AND EFFECT

Arcane magic is a science. It make sense that it only works when called upon and that its effects are predictable. Divine magic is a gift, not something a caster can ever entirely master or control. Again, if you’re primarily concerned about balance and strategic reliability, you probably want to keep things as they are. But if you WANT divine characters to feel different, here’s a few things to consider.

  • A divine caster normally selects their spells from their class list. However, as divine magic is a gift you could choose to start the day off by replacing one or two spells on the character’s list with specific spells – essentially, these are what your deity wants you to have today. If these spells are going to be especially useful in the adventure, there’s no need for further modification. If not, you might empower the spells – when you cast this spell, it’s as if you used a higher-level spell slot – as a way of saying this is the power your deity wants you to use. It’s a simple way to push the idea that as a divine caster you don’t have full and rational control of your powers – while also compensating for that either with a slight boost in power or assured utility.
  • Likewise, it’s a relatively simple matter to empower spells used in direct service of a divine purpose or cause… and to minimize the effects of spells that don’t support that cause. This is something I’d avoid unless you have an absolute understanding with the player, and that they are prepared for the idea that their magic may not always perform at peak efficiency – but it is a concrete way to differentiate between a cleric and wizard. This could extend to a cleric being unable to heal or bless a party member whose actions are strongly opposed to principles of the faith. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that party members have to follow a cleric’s faith to receive healing… but a cleric of a god of Law might find that their deity won’t give aid to the chaotic evil rogue who’s always stealing from innocent villagers. With that in mind…
  • You could allow sacrifices, oaths and vows to have a direct impact on divine magic, or simply on the actions of the faithful. Perhaps that rogue can receive healing provided she swears not to steal from the innocent for the next three days. Perhaps the paladin can his smite empowered if he swears to give this bandit’s treasure to the local temple. The question is what consequences there are for swearing an oath and then breaking it.
  • Another possibility – tied to the idea that a divine caster is the deity’s tool in the mortal world – is that divine magic may trigger spontaneously when it serves the deity’s purposes. Someone who blasphemes against a cleric’s god might find themselves struck by sacred flame – even though the cleric didn’t cast it. A paladin hoarding their lay on hands pool could find some of that energy diverted to heal a sickly innocent. As a DM you don’t want to overuse this or take too much control away from a player… but it can be a way to clearly remind a caster of their deity’s will.
  • A less intrusive form of this is to have a divine character occasionally gain insights tied to their deity’s sphere. This is sort of like divine communication, but it doesn’t have to have a purpose attached to it. A favored soul of the goddess of Love might simply know when two people are in love. When the cleric of the Death God meets an old man, you might say By the way, he’s going to die tomorrow. Ideally, this is like the Kinvara quote that starts off this article: the PC suddenly has a piece of knowledge that they couldn’t possibly have. But again, the point here would be to say that they don’t know why they’ve been given this knowledge, and they can’t ask for clarification; they just suddenly know a thing.
  • A final twist on spontaneous divine magic would be death curses. Perhaps when a divine caster dies, the deity might take vengeance on the killer. The simplest way to implement this is to trigger one of the caster’s uncast spells; if the caster is out of spells, then their power is spent and there is no curse. Alternately, you could make a death curse a more abstract thing – but something that could linger until the deity is appeased. While this would occasionally help out divine PCs, it’s more likely that it would be something PCs would have to worry about when they end up fighting divine casters; it might be a reason that you want to subdue an enemy cleric instead of killing them, so as not to incur the wrath of their god.

Like I said: I wouldn’t institute any of these ideas unless you’ve discussed them with your players and everyone’s on board. But these are a few ways to make the divine feel a little more unpredictable. If you’ve got questions or ideas, add them in the comments below!

BUT WHAT ABOUT DIVINE INTERVENTION?

What I’ve suggested above is really focused on settings in which a deity can only affect the world through the medium of a divine caster. But what about settings where the gods DO manifest in the world, realms where you can meet – or  fight – a deity?

I generally don’t like these for the same reason I don’t like having powerful benevolent NPCs in the world. If the godess of justice can manifest in the world and take direct action, why doesn’t she? By making the paladin her hand in the world, you give a player character a vital role in the story; if she can show up and personally solve a problem, the paladin is suddenly the rookie cop who only gets to be special when the boss takes a day off.

Likewise, once you start getting into the idea that deities can arbitrarily affect the world – whether by smiting bad guys or giving advantage to their servants – you run into the question of so why aren’t they doing it all the time? If the paladin is serving their cause, why don’t they automatically heal him? By saying that the caster is the hand of the deity, and the magic they possess is the extent of the deity’s ability to alter reality in their vicinity, you clearly establish what is and isn’t possible… even if you decide to say that their magic could be empowered or could trigger spontaneously. This is what I like about the idea of saying that if the enemy cleric has cast all of her spells, you don’t have to worry about a death curse… because her deity has no power left to affect the area.

With that said, you could certainly say that the gods have the ability to manifest in the world and have the power to personally change events, but choose not to. Perhaps they are trying to teach or elevate mortals. Giving clerics divine magic is like an alien giving fire to a neanderthal. They are providing a tool, and offering guidance, and occasionally they may even show up in person… but they want mortals to solve their own problems, even if that means that they may suffer or die in the process.

The main thing is that in many myths where gods walk the Earth, the gods end up being the main characters of the story… and that’s a situation I always want to avoid.

A key point to all of this: My goal here is not to make divine characters more powerful than other characters – it is to BALANCE certain benefits with greater responsibility and unpredictability. You don’t always get to choose the spells you want – but your deity may give you the spell you need, or empower the gift they want you to use. They will have expectations of you that the simple fighter doesn’t have to worry about.

Anyhow, that’s all I have time for. Here’s a list of my upcoming events, including DragonCon – I hope to see some of you there! Share your thoughts and twists on divine magic below.