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!