Earth, dust and ashes

RPGBlogCarnivalLogoSmallWe’ll make a short pause in our “10 Weeks of Ravnica” because the official home for the RPG Blog Carnival, Of Dice and Dragons, has launched the challenge for Halloween: “Character death, resurrection, and the undead” is the theme for the month of October, and we can’t help ourselves but give an eberronian twist to the way player characters are kept in the game even after succumbing to death. We’ll divide this article in three short sections, each one about the stages of these dire circumstances for an adventuring party: death, resurrection, and after-death.

Is there a New Hope?

As a DM, and with your group, it may be a good idea to settle how do you want to treat a PC’s death. Is it a serious catastrophe for his companions, or is it an accident that can be solved? How definitive is it? Obviuosly, a middle ground is the best way to go in this aspect: if there is no way to defeat death, the game may become grim and frustrating (Ravenloft, I’m talking to you!) and if it’s nothing but a cash flow to the nearest temple, it may become a videogame with unlimited continue‘s. The balance is found where players must face the consequences of failing, but well beyond the hindrances imposed by the very spell that brings them back one time after another.

It’s also very useful to have a standard about what the player with a dead character will do: should he create a new character? Should he just wait until the party is able to restore the life of their comrade?

What if Death Strikes Back?

The main way to bring a character back from the dead is the obvious Raise Dead (5th), Resurrection (7th) and True Resurrection (9th). Each one has its own set of limitations over the previous. Playing and tweaking these factors can led to more suspenseful situations for the players. Let me introduce to my all-time favorites:

  • Coming from Keith Baker himself, the life brought back has a cost that surpasses the material component. From taking a life in order to restore balance, all the way up to build a monument in homage of the deity that interceded, there are many ideas in his article to twist the willingness to be resurrected to begin with!
  • Coming from Matthew Mercer in Critical Role, a sort of “Death Counter” gets raised every time a character is resurrected, a straightforward metaphor about how the soul’s connection to the Material Place is deteriorating and pushing for its final release.
  • Coming from Supernatural’s Gadreel, I have the resurrected character coming back from the Death as a temporary vessel for whatever God the cleric casting the life-restoring spell worships. The ordeal imposed on such characters (−4 penalty to all attack rolls, saving throws, and ability checks) only gets reduced by 1 every time they fulfill an action that corresponds to that god’s ethos or portfolio. I invite the players to roleplay their characters as if they were directly influenced (even possessed) by those gods.
  • And coming from myself, I actually don’t use the material component in the spell description. Instead, it is a complex ritual that requires the acceptance of a quest. Only after this is accomplished, the penalty goes away.

I also make it extra difficult for the party trying to resurrect someone: In the world of Eberron, the plane of Dolurrh (also known as the Realm of the Dead) is a hopeless gray waste where mortal souls go after death. It is far from a reward, but it isn’t a punishment either: it simply is. Dolurrh is timeless, and people who visit Dolurrh are slowly overcome with apathy and eventually fade, turning into a shade as the plane quickly wipes out memories of the souls arriving there. The first factor to increase difficulty is local precision: the party has to find a manifest zone where to perform the ritual, and such knowledge is well hidden. The second factor is time, since once newly-arrived and recently-dead souls can’t remember who they were, they can’t be brought back without divine intervention. The best part of this suspense-inducing technique is that there are different theories about how long a soul can stay in the Realm of the Dead before having his identity absorbed by it.

When the Return of the Heroes happens

We said in our first part that “the balance is found where players must face the consequences of failing”. Next time you run (accidentally or on purpose) a TPK encounter, have a Plan B to give your campaign a detour full of intrigue and a change of pace and/or tone. I think that “The Hangover” is a D&D adventure waiting to happen. Your heroes are in a dungeon without recollection of what happened before they wake up. What if the last thing they can remember is being killed by the villain they were about to defeat?

There is also the chance that your player doesn’t want to be resurrected. While he creates his new character, you can add an extra leyer of mystery as the adventuring party tries to understand why their companion didn’t want to come back. Talk to your player and give his new character a trait that is the actual reason (for example, maybe the new one has a grudge on the old one, or they are related in a way that the old one prefers to prevent a face-off or any interaction whatsoever).

Well, time to finish this short article with a final piece of advice: set your limits. Even if death is not as definitive in your game as it is in the real world, there must be a point where you have to draw a line. Back in 4E, epic destinies defined the end of each character place in the world, like the ending of a story. This was achieved usually by transcending the realms of mortal life and/or becoming a legend of eternity in some way. You don’t need the rules to talk to your players about the final goal for their characters. This can allow you to incorporate what they want to achieve in your own storyline for everyone’s enjoyment.

Until next time, I hope the Circle of Life dosn’t get interrupted in your campaign. Feel free to drop your own ideas about death and resurrection in the comments below!

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