I’ve died six times.
Given the amount of time I’ve been playing D&D, it’s a little surprising that I’ve only died six times. One was from a TPK during the first session of a campaign, and I decided that maybe that DM and I weren’t going to be a good fit. One was from a paralyzation spell that allowed no save followed by a coup de grace (if you want to hear this story, check it out at I Podcast Magic Missile when it becomes available). The other four were in campaigns run by the same DM. I’m still in his campaigns, so he must be doing something right.
On the other hand, I’ve killed characters lots* of times during my DMing career. So maybe I owe karmically.
The point is that I’ve seen a lot of character death, and I’ve seen a lot of ways to handle it. One of my favorites from a player standpoint is reincarnate, which brings a character back to life in a new body. New voice, new fingerprints, probably new ability scores, and especially new race. I had a sorcerer die and come back as a bugbear, which is an unambiguous improvement. It convinced the character that he was something special, opened role-play opportunities, and provided numerical bonuses in a way that made the character more fun but didn’t touch his core competency (blowing things up) or threaten the roles and intents of the other characters.
In a campaign I was running, I killed a different sorcerer. He was an ifrit, a fire elemental race, and he used fire spells appropriately. Upon reincarnation he came back as an oread, an earth elemental race. It was a slight penalty because his spells weren’t as damaging, but he took to it with gusto by only learning new spells that he could reskin as earth-based. The character’s power level changed laterally, but it gave flavor to the character and made him more than just the explosion sidekick.
On the other side, one of my characters rose from the dead spontaneously after a few days. She was a fledgling god, so death was just an inconvenience while she waited for a new body to be built from nature stuff. The party waited for her by a tree for a little while, and she popped up with her equipment and went on her merry way. Favorful? Very. Convenient? Somewhat. Interesting? Not terribly.
Even reincarnate isn’t perfect here. A Strength-based fighter who comes back as a bugbear has a huge benefit over one that comes back as a halfing. A cat burglar who changes into a centaur is in serious trouble. In both cases, being a monster can have long-term repercussions that make for interesting role-play, but not when it comes at the expense of the character concept.
(Note to self: play the hard-drinking, surly, axe-shield-and-full-plate elf with a backstory that includes being reincarnated from a dwarf and shunned from his or her community. Bonus points if they’re a cleric of a dwarf god who has no idea when to do with the character. Alternately, the curious trickster orc alchemist who used to be a gnome. Take that, ethnonormativity!)
But on the other hand, I feel that there needs to be some penalty at all. 4E’s raise dead allows you to revive a character with a ritual and sufficient payment, and the only result is that they take a −1 penalty to d20 roles for three milestones. Depending on the campaign, this could take years (unlikely) or one day (also unlikely, but less so). The rules recommend two milestones per day, so on average a player is right as rain two days after dying. The cost does increase by a factor of ten at each tier, but income increases by a factor of twenty-five. Pathfinder’s raise dead is only slightly better, giving you a −1 or -2 penalty that lasts for at least a week, more if you can’t afford to fix it, but the cost is trivial for high-level players. At least 3E docked you a level.
If some of this sounds familiar, it’s because I discussed character death exactly one year ago, but I think it’s a topic that deserves extra mention. It’s the sort of make-or-break event that can determine whether a player enjoys the game and how the campaign will continue. An expensive, automatic revival says something different about a campaign than a free revival that requires an extensive quest. Given how my campaigns lately have been running, I’m starting to lean more and more away from the quest solution, since that requires that the campaign itself take an immediate backseat so a new quest can happen before everybody gets to play again. Instead, I’m liking the fast revival with permanent or semipermanent side effects.
One of the neater ideas I’ve found came up recently in a guest article on Gnome Stew, What Damage Means. It suggests that players come back from the dead without any fancy magic, but with some sort of permanent mental or physical flaw based on the manner of their death. The character didn’t really die, you see. They were beaten to within an inch of their life and survived, though not undamaged. For example, a player killed by a fireball develops a fear of fire, or a hatred toward evokers, or full-body scarring, or a vulnerability to future fire damage. It means the players gets back in the game quickly and without a huge expenditure, but they’re changed somehow and get the chance to play somebody who’s had a brush with death.
I tried this once a few years ago. I had a player who died to a cold spell, so I offered them a change to come back with (what amounted to) vulnerable 5 cold. Since this was in a nicer era of my DMing style, I also gave them resist 5 fire to compensate. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that the player had a hissy fit at the very concept of dealing with the long-term penalty, and we ended up scrapping the whole idea. I think a lot of players would be fine with the idea of taking the flaw, especially if they can go on some quest to remove it, but there are some people who will reject the entire notion, especially if it’s not made very clear beforehand that this is how death will work.
Which makes for an interesting point. It’s generally proper to inform the players that the rules of death are different from rules-as-written, but it’s not always appropriate for the characters to know. Not everybody has had a near-death experience, and if the rules are applied inconsistently (or appear to be inconsistent: “My father and the campaign villain were in the same train crash. How come the gods only helped the evil one?”) it creates uncertainly in the character’s minds. It makes the world a bit more mysterious, and as long as it’s not overused (Hello, X-Men!) it gives you an out to bring back players and NPCs when it’s good for the campaign or story.
This is as good a place as any to mention out that the Eight Arms setting (now) has a three-death limit. Die once, you can come back. Die twice, you owe Death a favor or come back wrong somehow. Die thrice, clearly fate has an opinion about you. There will be a interesting and logical reason for this as soon as I come up with one.
* — Two in Hyrule, three in the Monster Campaign, two in Wrath of the Cosmic Accountant, one in the Tower Campaign, and six across all Eight Arms campaigns. Add five if you count the planned TPK in the Monster Campaign, subtract one if you think almost-killing the robot doesn’t count as a death. I’m not counting Delve Night because I couldn’t even guess how many players I’ve killed there. Probably millions.