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!

9 thoughts on “The Cost of a Life

  1. One of the few 4e additions I like is the idea of the Raven Queen, some enormously powerful entity that resides in Dolurrh and is, as far as anyone can tell, the ruler of the place. All non-shade residents defer to her to some degree, and she has a strict accounting of who enters or leaves her realm… Anyone who’s trying to resurrect a lost person or interfere with the natural process of death is going to have to deal with her on some level.

    A raise dead spell might slip under her notice, but resurrection or true resurrection spells have to include a negotiation or even a favour for her to let such a soul return. Perhaps she’s the entity that the resurrected person has to make a deal with to return. Her requests would probably include destroying undead/deathless or stopping necromancers. Depends on her personality, though.

  2. Hi Keith! Great job!

    I don’t have 4e set, but I think that in Eberron logically the bargain should happen with some entity of Dolurrh. What interest could a spirit of Dolrruh have in the world?

    On the other hand, I’d love to ask you a couple of words on Reincarnation spell

    • What interest could a spirit of Dolrruh have in the world?

      I’ve added thoughts on forces that could make these sorts of bargains in the main post. The divine powers are motivated by their standard motivations. Other powers – like Inevitables – can have whatever motivations you want. A common thread I’ve suggested above is to pursue other beings who have cheated death, which is a standard goal of the Inevitables.

      On the other hand, I’d love to ask you a couple of words on Reincarnation spell

      What do you want to know about it? I talk about it some here.
      http://archive.wizards.com/default.asp?x=dnd/ebds/20051024a

        • I mean: do you see it as a resurrection? Has it a special meaning for you in Eberron? Is the cost of changing the race “enough”?

          I talk about its role in Eberron in the Druid article I linked to before; there’s not a lot of druids who can do it, and those that can don’t use it lightly. With that said, it’s the form of resurrection I have the fewest issues with, because it carries such significant consequences (change of race). The point of the Resurrection article is that I never want resurrection to feel trivial. I want it to add something to your story. The idea of having a bargain to uphold is one thing that could add a story – but changing your race is DEFINITELY going to have an interesting impact on the story, and that’s enough for me. I wouldn’t see a need to add a bargain on top of that.

          • I never allowed reincarnation in my campaigns. It’s my limit: I can’t imagine a dwarf in an elf body or a warforged in a shifter. I don’t understand what it means for a character or what story should start from that. It looks just a bit ridiculous to me, but I’d like to hear your (or somebody else) opinion

  3. Hey, Keith, what is your take on souls taken by the Keeper and the reaction of maruts to that fact that some souls aren’t even reaching Dolurrh?
    Do they care, or as it is not a way of cheating death, it’s not really their business?

    I’m trying to have a marut helping the PCs stop a “boss” after starting to drain the souls of people who are in mid way to Dolurrh, but I would like to hear your opinion on the Keeper and where/how the souls are taken.

    • Interesting question. The first question is DOES THE KEEPER EXIST, and that’s up to the DM. But whether or not the Keeper exists as a god, Keeper’s Fang weapons definitely exist, so one way or another the Keeper can steal souls. In MY Eberron, those souls are trapped in the Lair of the Keeper in the Demon Wastes – which you can find on the map, but which is actually a demiplane in Khyber.

      Regardless of how I feel about the divinity of the Keeper, in MY Eberron the Lair of the Keeper is the domain of the first dracolich – a dragon who worked with the Overlord Katashka in the Age of Demons. So if it’s NOT the Keeper, it’s still an epic-level dracolich with a hoard of stolen souls.

      Generally I’m inclined to say that maruts don’t consider stealing a soul with a Keeper’s Fang to be cheating death, because if you got squashed by a marut every time you used one, no one would ever use them. I see marut interference as generally being more tied to souls that make it to Dolurrh and are then removed (generally through resurrection); if the soul never arrives, it hasn’t been stolen. however, YOUR marut could potentially feel that this is a flawed policy and have been yearning to do something about it… but been unable to break the rules.

      • Thanks for answering!

        Yeah, I keep the souls in the Lair too, but it’s actually a kind of door to a hidden zone in the Astral Plane that is “over” Dolurrh where ancient constructs take some souls from the ones that “go” to Dolurrh. I have another spin in the gods, hehe.

        Aha, that sounds like it really fits with that I wanted to do, as the boss will try to redirect the flux of souls to him using the eldritch machine in that place. A marut as you said it, could perfectly see that even if it’s not direct infringement, and try to do something about it.

        Really thanks again, Keith!

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