Making Death Interesting

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.

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6 Responses to Making Death Interesting

  1. Dave says:

    I think making “death” – whatever that means in the system/setting – significant in that it changes the character permanently is a great idea. I’m sorry that some of your players were too defensive about their characters to see its awesomeness.

    By the way, the “you don’t die but suffer a [near-]permanent phobia/weakness/change” approach is also an option in Dresden Files – you can take a “severe consequence”, which is basically a permanent, new aspect, like “cripped hand” or “deathly afraid of fire” which the GM or other characters can compel. The neat thing about that is that it’s still another way to earn Fate points, so it’s not entirely a negative.

  2. Blake says:

    Didn’t I kill you once? I think you left that one out.

  3. Newb says:

    A similar, but better option than reincarnate that I’ve found is the Fate Worse than Death rule. If a character dies, tell the player that he/she can choose to let the character die, or survive while suffering a fate worse than death.
    Examples of a fate worse than death are: a warrior type character is blinded, and can only continue adventuring by becoming an apprentice to the Sightless magicians of Ioah or becoming an unseeing priest of the Shadowhound.
    A paladin starts to suffer violent psychotic episodes. She is excommunicated for her depraved actions and must find some new way of life more in harmony with her new self – such as becoming a berserker or assassin.
    The character is captured by the villain and after a long period of close contact, he comes to understand and sympathize with the former nemesis. He finds that his whole life until then has been a terrible failure and must atone by defeating all his former allies and undoing all his prior accomplishments.
    Like reincarnation, death carries a penalty and has meaning, but it is a little more interesting than being having to change your race to parakeet or whatever. The fate worse than death rule, also tends to have a positive effect on gameplay. Players who are really into their characters will choose the FWTD option and use the story hook potential to make characters even more interesting, while players who aren’t will choose to let their characters die, giving them the opportunity to restart with a new character more suited to their tastes.

    • MssngrDeath says:

      Er, sort of. I feel like a player who’s really into a character can resent having that character completely scrapped and rearranged in a manner the DM thinks will cause the most heartache. For example, a paladin lives their life according to the ideals of good and law. If the DM tells them that they instead cleave to chaos and/or evil and must change to something like barbarian or assassin, that’s a significant change, enough that the character may not feel like the character any more. That’s like being “really into” vanilla ice cream even when it becomes chocolate.

      If you and your players like it, great. But if a DM told me I can only play my character by making it the opposite of the character I signed up to play, I’d be disenfranchised.

      • Newb says:

        I think it depends on how you view character. If you view character as subordinate to character stats, then the Fate Worse than Death mechanic is not going to work. If on the other hand, you view character as greater than just a single stat on the character sheet like class or alignment or whatever, then I think this mechanic can work really well.
        After all, you are not actually forcing the player to play a different character. The paladin will still remain a paladin. You aren’t level draining and completely memory-wiping the character. All the character’s past accomplishments and ideals and beliefs will still remain. The character will still remain the same character at his/her core. All you’re doing is forcing the character to confront a different sort of challenge, and challenges are after all what the game is all about. If the character’s identity as a paladin is really important to the player, the character can throw him/herself into mastering the berserking skills, and in so doing master his/her uncontrollable rage, and once the inner demons have been placated, set out to redeem him/herself as a paladin. Or on the other hand, the character might find the whole barbarian life more spiritually fulfilling, and continue life as a berserker. Either way, you’re bound to have a more interesting character at the end of the day.
        It all comes down to how you define roleplaying. If you are a roll-player, the FWTD mechanic will just be a nuissance. If you are more interested in telling a story, the mechanic should work really well. After all, if you look at all the great stories, adversity is the grist than fuels them. Think of the Count of Monte Cristo or the popular Game of Thrones series. These stories are great because of the monolithic challenges the characters face, and the best (or worst) this brings out in them. Obviously adversity has to be balanced and carefully managed so that it is fun rather than demoralizing, but throwing the gauntlet at your players and watching them rise to the occasion is what the game is all about.

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