When Theory Meets Practice – Character Death

There are a lot of interesting ideas for running D&D or making tweaks to the rules that sound really cool when you first think of them but that sadly don’t work out in actual play. I will explore many such ideas in this series: going over what makes the ideas attractive in the first place, explaining why they don’t work, and suggesting compromise solutions.

Major Consequences for Character Death: This sort of thing can range from requiring a quest to resurrect a fallen comrade, making resurrection more expensive, having greater penalties for coming back to life, or outright banning resurrection from your game world.

The Attraction: The way resurrection is handled in 4th Edition D&D feels a little too easy. You die, your friends pay 500 GP for a short ceremony (at heroic tier), you spring back to life with a -1 to hit for a few encounters, and then you are good as new. Shouldn’t dying be, I don’t know, a little more important than that?

The Hard Truth: It may feel a little cheesy to bring someone back from the dead with very few consequences, but the alternatives have a ton of downsides:

  • A Quest to resurrect: In other words, the rest of the party gets sidetracked for a session or two while the player with the dead PC sits around bored waiting to be brought back to life.
  • Characters can’t be raised from the dead: This has a couple of problems. Firstly, people are still going to die. D&D is a heavily combat focused game. If you want to challenge your players in fights, then character death is a real possibility. Secondly, the loss of a PC can really hurt a campaign, since characters tend to work themselves into the game world the longer they stick around, forming alliances, making enemies, and building a reputation, never mind the multitude of character based plot the DM might have planned. Losing several PCs at once can really derail a campaign, straining the sense of continuity as the DM tries to introduce new characters and keep things vaguely on track.
  • Resurrection is very expensive or has serious consequences: Really, these costs just tend to be high enough that the player is going to want to roll up a new character instead of paying them. Or, if they suck it up and get resurrected anyway, it will probably hurt their play experience in the long-term, since most people don’t like playing a sub-par character. Plus, it puts a lot of pressure on the DM to keep things balanced. If I run a tougher than normal encounter that kills Bingo, your beloved halfling rogue, you won’t take it too hard if you can jump back into the game with him relatively quickly without serious consequences, but if the party has to pay all their gold and Bingo has a limp the rest of his life and moves at half speed, suddenly the fight starts to look a lot less fair.

The Compromise: When a PC dies, I like to focus on the psychological consequences of the death (and resurrection), rather than the mechanical ones. Perhaps they feel like they don’t belong on this earth anymore (for a while at least), perhaps they vaguely recall the afterlife, or maybe they feel a renewed sense of purpose now that they have defeated death itself in pursuit of their goals. Or their death could bring on some wacky new plot twist, like a whispering spirit that somehow followed them from the underworld and tempts them to evil. The goal is to underscore the severity and awesomeness of rising from the dead without slowing the game down or making it less fun for one or more players.

Next week I will discuss what happens when you try to require quests to get powerful magic items or do away with magic items altogether!

3 Responses to “When Theory Meets Practice – Character Death”

  1. cwhite says:

    I don’t know… I’ve always been one who loves rolling up a new character, so have never minded rolling up new characters, or coming up with the backstory of how they got integrated.

    I’ve also simply stopped a campaign after a TPK. My players didn’t have the energy for new characters, so I just told them the rest of the story, and then we laughed at the TPK.

    We started a new campaign the next week. I guess it’s just about what works for your group.

  2. Rory Rory says:

    I think ultimately it comes down to knowing the consequences of running your game a certain way. For example, if you want a really plot heavy campaign where the characters are on an epic quest or if you simply want a campaign where the characters really establish themselves and have a place in the game world, you are probably going to want to allow raise dead in your world. Otherwise, in a typical challenging campaign, there will be too much turn around as players lose PCs and make new ones to convincingly establish either, at least in terms of a traditional narrative.

    If my party sets out to kill the God King and NO ONE from the original adventuring survives, being replaced one by one by other adventurers, that’s a little depressing and not really in keeping with most of the epic tales in literature that are often fun to emulate or at least make a nod to. Even Conan the Barbarian sticks around long enough to make it to old age and become a king; that sort of thing could never happen in any of the campaigns I run or have been in, since at some point the DM or the players screw up and someone dies.

    On the other hand, if you are going for kind of lovecraftian world view, then sure, it’s fine for characters to die or go insane or otherwise be replaced. It fits with the view of the world as a cruel uncaring place. In a similar regard, if you just don’t happened to be bothered by the fact that the average lifespan of any adventurer is a few adventures, say a year of game time or so, and aren’t looking for that same sense of continuity that you often see in fiction, then character death doesn’t matter so much.

    As a player, I tend to care less about death than as a DM. I enjoy making new characters. But as a DM, I sometimes get a little bothered if in the course of a campaign I see EVERYONE replaced. That’s why I like it if at least a couple of players keep their characters and raise them from the dead if they die. It allows me to bring back old villains to taunt the party and allows the party to call on alliances established earlier in the campaign. Furthermore, I can introduce plot points and quests that span many many sessions without worrying that the PC will die and be gone for good.

    TPKs are sometimes the exception for me, the ultimate in character death and the sign that it is time to make a new campaign. However, if you are careful, you can usually avoid a TPK with some proper planning. It is often possible for a group of players to foresee that a fight is going badly and allow one PC to escape to bring people back to life, which can sometimes be a fun challenge unto itself in a combat. So I guess those have a little more sense of fair play to me, where fights with one or more PC deaths often seem inevitable in a tough campaign.

  3. Michael (Gronan) Mornard says:

    Interesting note; playing with Gary, there was always a 3-4 level disparity among the group. The idea of “sub par” because you had been raised, or had been level drained, didn’t really exist… everybody was always different levels. There was always somebody above you, always somebody below you.

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