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Death and Not Dying: The Immortal PC

Written by One Die Short - Published on November 30, 2011

Welcome back for another edition of One Die Short! This month I wanted to take a look at something that has plagued me for a long time.  In the panel below from my webcomic we see the classic, and unfortunate, Total Party Kill:

The TPK is the bane of many a player, and for good reason.  It’s one of the few scenarios where resurrection is often impossible (unless they get some help from a friendly NPC).  But this is okay.  This is as things should be.  Death should be something they fear, not a minor inconvenience (Or so it seems to this DM).  When resurrection is a possibility, death doesn’t seem so bad.  Sure, there are penalties associated with the lower level spells.  Sure, staying alive is a lot better, but still… it’s not terribly frightening in the eyes of many players.

Resurrection does a few big things to a campaign:

1) Players stop fearing death
2) Players start making stupid decisions
3) Combat loses any sense of drama or tension

A lot of players fall in love with their PCs.  Most especially when they’ve built a PC from the bottom up.  When you’ve been adventuring with the same character for a year or two, or even longer, you get attached.  You don’t want them to die.  It’s only natural, but when that possibility is so far off that you stop thinking about it, you also stop appreciating how great your PC really is.

The easiest solution (and one I’ve used before), is to just elimnate resurrection.  But I have to admit, resurrection is something near and dear to me.  It’s an integral component to a game I love very much, and D&D without resurrection just seems a bit off, and also very difficult when Death effects start getting involved (unless you’re not playing with them in your system).

My dilemna was this: how do I keep resurrection around, make my players more cautious in combat, more fearful of death, and still make sure everyone has a good time?  This is a question a lot of DMs have asked themselves, and there are quite a few house rules out there that attempt to tackle it (Here’s a nice discussion of the topic).

Many of these house rules impose various penalties, increase monetary costs of resurrection, or simply make it a lot rarer.  Penalties are great, but not a huge motivator.  Making the cost ridiculous just seems unfair to low level PCs.  A level 20 PC can probably come up with 25,000 gold, while a level 2 PC should probably just start begging a few Lawful Good clerics and hope for the best.  Simply making it less common, is one of the better options I’ve come across, but it can cause more problems than it’s worth.

Players generally don’t like it when a spell they used to be able to cast suddenly goes away, or becomes a higher level spell, or the exclusive provence of the Gods.  They seem a lot more accepting of increased penalties than giving something up completely.  And it is a game mechanic.  Taking it away completely means you need to do more to restore balance, otherwise combat can become frustrating, and we don’t want that.  Challenging is good, frustrating is bad.  Maybe these issues haven’t come up for you and your campaign, but I wasn’t overly fond of most of the solutions out there.

So, my solution was this:

Everytime a True Resurrection spell is cast, the resurrected character recieves a -2 penalty to Consitution, as does the Caster.  The caster must transfer a bit of their own soul into the dead person’s body in order to bring them back from the brink.  In addition to this, a True Resurrection spell must always be used within 3 days of character death.  With  Resurrection and Raise Dead I increase these penalties to -3 and -4, and reduce the number of days to 2 and 1 respectively.  And of course, when your Constitution hits 0, you’re dead.

This has the beneficial effect of imposing fairly obnoxious penalties, and also making resurrection less common.  Afterall, only the most altruistic of clerics are going to sacrifice a bit of themselves for someone else.  And even these clerics will use it VERY sparingly, otherwise they’ll end up dead quickly.  This reserves resurrection for only very special occasions and very special people.  It also means when you have a cleric in your own party, they might think twice about resurrecting you (so get with the bribing early).  The biggest problem with this solution is that it still makes the presence of Death effects a bit more troublesome, and additional tweaking might be necessary.

Roleplaying has a lot in common with acting and theater, the biggest of these commanalities being drama.  As DMs we like to add a bit of drama to things.  We enjoy stirring up emotions (even if that emotion is often anger).  We are writers afterall, and every good writer likes to have an impact on their audience.  So why not make yourself a little more Shakespeare by taking away a little more security from your players.  They’ll appreciate it in the long run.

Thanks for reading, and please be sure to check out the rest of One Die Short, as well as my personal advice blog, Ask the Dungeon Master, all about Life, the Universe, and Roleplaying.

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Written by One Die Short

I’m a long-time Dungeon Master and roleplayer and will bring my dice to the grave with me. I write a webcomic entitled One Die Short. It’s a story of love, life, nerds and roleplaying. Both the adventures and “real-life” segements are based on my own roleplaying experiences as a DM of over fifteen years.

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6 Responses to “Death and Not Dying: The Immortal PC”
  1. Repaermirg says:

    I’ve considered having resurrection spells require someone else to willingly sacrifice him/herself for the spell to work. I suppose there could be issues with this, (things like chains of people sacrificing themselves to bring the previous person back) but all in all I think it could work if characters weren’t killed off that often and the various costs remained the same. Certainly makes having followers and whatnot worth more.

  2. Matt says:

    Yeah, I also considered adding a component to the spell where an evil caster could use a sacrifice to bring someone back instead of sacrificing him/herself. It might makes things too imbalanced for the evil folks though.

  3. Olfan says:

    My D&D group ended up putting an aging penalty to resurrections. Before the campaign started all the characters rolled their max ages and various d6s were applied per couple of levels of the spell. Since it was primarily a human group and world, it ended up working out rather well. The players were able to easily resurrect early in the game but as they leveled and died and aged, time caught up with them and suddenly dying became much more of a serious penalty. It’s similar to a CON penalty but worked for our campaign since it was woven into the actual story.

  4. Matt says:

    Another great idea. Age is something that often gets neglected in D&D and it can add another interesting layer to the story, particularly if you use the age bonus/penalties devised back in the day.

  5. Marcus M says:

    The solution I’ve ganked from the excellent Warhammer Roleplay series (specifically Rogue Trader) was Fate Points.

    Fate Points serve as your characters “Lives.” When you face a blow that would kill you, you burn a Fate Point and it doesn’t, you’re merely unconscious and stabilized. Fate Points can be gained by major campaign and character story arc achievements. Take revenge on the man who killed your father? Gain some fate! This forces characters who are low on fate points to play more cautiously – but NOT in situations where their character wouldn’t be cautious because more than their life is at stake. It’s basically the same lives system from so many videogames, but by giving players very few lives and making it very tough to get them back, you can make their deaths matter. I’ve never seen someone have to reroll from being at zero fate points, so the threat of permanent death has a much greater role in the game than actual death. This can make death scary.

  6. Matt says:

    This is an interesting idea. I might try some variation on it. Thanks for sharing!

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