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Background

I am planning on running a game in a setting (of my own creation) where there are penalties for improperly handling the bodies and possessions of deceased intelligent creatures. Simply, the way it works is:

  • if the body of an intelligent creature is not properly buried, then the body will likely rise as an undead
  • even if the body is properly buried, if any possessions are taken from the body before it is buried or for some (defined) time after it has been buried, then the body will likely rise as an undead; additionally, the person taking the item will be cursed somehow
    • To be clear about this rule, the item must actually be in the possession of the creature before his death
    • There is a provision where the appropriate god may allow particularly important items to be removed from the body (party member died carrying the key to the door which is the only way out of the dungeon?), but such exceptions wouldn't occur very often

The primary purposes of these rules is to:

  • make death more important
    • if you are a good character and you are faced with killing "the bad guy", you're going think twice about it if it means you have to "properly bury" the body afterwards
  • provide additional role-playing challenges
    • if the person you're considering killing has something you want in his possession, you're going to need to get it away from him without (or before) killing him
  • provide an easy and logical reason for items to have "history"
    • you don't just pick up the weapons of your fallen enemies--they would be buried and become part of your characters' and your enemies' legacies, for someone in the future to search for and find when in need

Personally, I can envision a number of interesting role-playing opportunities that could be created as a direct side-effect of this rule. However, this directly challenges the expectations how many D&D games are run. In my experience, people expect to:

  1. Get quest
  2. Run headlong into dungeon
  3. Kill everything
  4. Take all loot
  5. Never look back

Multi-part Question

  • Is there anything about D&D which makes this kind of settings rule too much of a handicap to a campaign?
    • Am I backing myself into a situation where some adventures will simply be impossible to overcome because there is too much of a penalty for "killing"?
  • What types of issues should I be prepared for? (ex: I'm going to have to come up with other ways of handing out "loot", like stashing more of it in treasure chests, or providing clues about the location of useful treasure that was buried by somebody else in the past.)
  • Is this too unbalancing for Good or Evil?
    • Does this handicap Good more than Evil, or vice versa?
  • Would this be not-fun?
    • If yes, is the idea inherently not-fun, or can this be modified in a way to make it fun?

Note

The first campaign that I run will be with an evil party, so, where possible, this question should be viewed from both "Good" and "Evil" standpoints.

I don't believe that good answers will necessarily need to answer all of the points in the multi-part question above, however, I believe the best answers will.

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I think this requires some clarification as far as what "undead" means. If they come back as zombies it's little more than a nuisance. If they come back as spectres and wraiths it's a serious problem. –  Eric B Jan 6 at 20:07
    
@EricB As I have been working on this, I have not considered limiting the type of undead -- at this point, everything would be fair-game. (Perhaps there's a random chance for each type of undead, from some list that I'd have to define?) –  GamerJosh Jan 6 at 20:12
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A tangential suggestion: maybe a RPG system that's less focused on combat and loot than DnD would be a better choice here? –  millimoose Jan 7 at 3:13
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@millimoose Is there a reason you're leaving an answer in a bunch of comments instead of an answer? –  SevenSidedDie Jan 7 at 3:44
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@SevenSidedDie Because they're more observations, workarounds, and alternative suggestions, rather than answers to the questions actually asked by the OP. –  millimoose Jan 7 at 4:02
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6 Answers 6

up vote 9 down vote accepted

No, that sounds fun and flavourful. I'm picturing Vikings at the moment because it fits really well, but it would be a neat detail for all kinds of made-up cultures.

There will be published adventures that will go contrary to these expectations, and you'll either have to not use them or spend time adjusting them to fit into your setting better.

The big caveat is that there are player types that this would bring either no positive to the game or actually be a negative. Players who are there to mostly roll dice, have fun with their friends, and unwind without having to really think hard (a totally valid reason to play RPGs) won't work well with this, since that play style relies on using more standard RPG tropes and not thinking too hard about them or the setting's internal consistency. If you have a group like this, or even one player like this, running a game like that will introduce more or less significant friction that you'll have to deal with somehow. (Usually, friction means changing what you're doing, or changing who you're playing with. Sometimes the players adapt, but players are less likely to invest the energy to adapt and that's especially true of the roll-dice-and-unwind type of player.)

A lesser caveat is that you will have to think about how this interacts with the D&D spells that can bring people back to life. Is that an offense against the gods too? Or does properly burying the body permanently ensure the spirit's place in the afterlife and you can't bring them back (and those spells don't work)? If this bit of metaphysics interferes with the (somewhat) common trope of D&D being a game where dying is just an inconvenience, then that will require some adjustments too, either to adventures' difficulty or to your players' expectations, as above. On the plus side, if you and your group are sick of death being merely a speed bump (and enough people do dislike that side effect of D&D's standard spells), then that's a feature! It would be for me.

So long as you have a compatible group and you lay this out up-front – which you should do anyway if this is a major part of the players' characters' culture – this should be fine. Adding a reasonable explanation for where ghosts and ghouls come from is the kind of setting design that a lot of players appreciate. In this particular setup, the players may also come to appreciate that it means their enemies will be reluctant to kill them out of hand, too.

As for wealth considerations, in D&D Next you won't have trouble with wealth. Unlike its two predecessors, it doesn't make wealth required for them to meet an expected power level for their character level, because it has mostly done away with the concept of expected power level. (At least, not as part of the "core" D&D Next rules. Stuff similar to 3e's Wealth By Level or 4e's treasure parcels will probably show up in the modular optional rules.) Your suggestions for how to place "adequate" treasure seem eminently reasonable, where "adequate" in a system that doesn't super-care about wealth is defined by how much treasure you think should be coming the PCs' way in a given span of time.

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I think it's a cool idea, but of course it's not fool-proof. If I were an evil murder hobo bent on avoiding the challenge you're adding to the game, then I would always...

  • bring along a shovel and the necessary things to provide a proper burial for every one of my victims; a lot of time will be spent (boringly) digging graves
  • capture any victims first, "convince" them to give over their possessions ... before the inevitable murder

I think that not being allowed to take anything from fallen creatures will be a little bothersome to players, and they may constantly be looking for loopholes. I think it should only relate to personal items - like a family sword - and not mundane things like gold pieces. Rather than preventing looting, why not just make the NPCs have less loot?

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A lot of in game time will be spent digging graves, not real world time, so there's no reason for it to be boring. In the campaign I'm running, one of the characters always buries the dead; the player just says "I bury the bodies" after a fight, and that's that. (Except for the time he convinced the group to stay and bury bodies instead of flee from the reason the bodies were there.) –  Joe Jan 7 at 5:45
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I don't know how this plays out in D&D Next, but then I suppose no one does because D&D Next is still in beta.

In D&D 3.5, the version I am most familiar with, this approach would be highly problematic. The availability of magic items was built into the mechanics of the game. Challenges and experience awards were scaled to the availability of magical equipment of specified value, and lacking the same made difficulty of encounters even harder to realistically gauge. So unless there was a viable alternative for gearing characters to the same degree that didn't involve killing and looting, the game would be increasingly difficult to control the probabilities of as the characters leveled up, leading to imbalances and swingy combat.

Also, in 3.5 the deprivation of magical gear would affect characters unevenly. Very few magic items actually significantly increased the power of spellcasting directly, and then only in relatively small ways at significant price, like metamagic rods; generally, wands and staffs were "modal" and provided additional options, but not inherently superior ones to what your inherent spellcasting could provide at any given level.

Conversely, magic weapons and armor synergizes with the abilities of the user, layering on and multiplying the capabilities their wielders already had. So, generally a spellcaster without magic gear just had a smaller spectrum of similarly-powerful options to draw from, whereas a martial character without gear was severely handicapped in raw power.

A d20 OGL game called Iron Heroes was released that was specifically engineered to make characters without access to magical gear fit within the existing OGL 3.5 mechanics. You may wish to examine this as a starting point for breaking the "kill -and-loot" paradigm.

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D&D Next is very, very different from 3.5e in this regard. It's specifically different in how treasure is related to power (in that it isn't). You can't make any extrapolations of effects that are emergent properties of very specific 3.x rules to a system that doesn't share those exact rules and emergent properties. –  SevenSidedDie Jan 7 at 3:43
    
True 'nuff. But, as I said, D&D Next doesn't actually exist yet, so nobody can speak definitively on the subject. –  Epiphanis Jan 7 at 3:50
    
The beta's been going for a year and is finished now, the rules went in a consistent direction as they developed, design diaries have been getting written for a year, and one of the explicit goals of the game is to remove the PCs' dependency on magic gear. Even if none of that were true, what you describe is a feature of only D&D 3.x and Next would have to be a 3.x system in order for these effects you mention to be relevant to it. –  SevenSidedDie Jan 7 at 3:54
    
I agree. I attempted to caveat to that effect in my response. –  Epiphanis Jan 7 at 4:24
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In and of itself, I find this setting reminiscent of Unhallowed Metropolis, and these modifications to the setting can definitely enrich things (especially for the party thief/rogue). What becomes important is what creatures these constraints take effect for (assuming it's not everything) and whether or not this counts as a curse over the current land or the entire world. It can also bring more relevance to the local religious paragon (paladin/cleric/etc.) that has the ability to deal with the undead. Of course, this gives necromancers such a huge playground whether this is the design or not. In the playtest materials I didn't see anything about controlling the undead though so good luck if that becomes an arc.

My experience with 3.5e definitely steers my mind that way if you tell your players that's what the world will be like. All it takes in that edition is a Neutral (on the E-G scale) cleric if it's a good party to pick the evil benefits to control/rebuke undead and suddenly it's kill city as long as you can just hold the animated body and even command it to hand the goods over. I also recommend allowing anyone capable to cast Speak With Dead to ask a given corpse if there is a person they would bequeath any worldly possessions to, and thus the animated spirit could ignore them for the grave robbing clause. Granted, there's almost no need to have spells like Animate Dead if you just need new fresh meat.

Additionally, good-aligned characters might be conflicted with mugging someone, leaving them half beaten and contemplating execution depending on the target. Thus I recommend that the party know they will be rewarded by NPCs with magic items and such. Reason being that they won't need to kill and re-kill the enemy to get what they want.

Lastly, there's inspiration from a certain tv series where traps such as undead-filled pits, dumping un-risen bodies strategically as a method of sabotage/mass chaos/murder, and tourture/interrogation. Your party's propensity for such evil acts, or even your NPCs can really cause progressive havoc so don't ignore the possibility. In a setting like D&D, killing the opposing army, then launching their flaming corpses over the castle wall is a great way to spread panic, disease, and harm.

Edit: Please also consider how long it takes to reanimate. In some dungeons it may not be worth a proper burial if the thing is gonna rise before they can dig the hole.

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The bit about deliberately despoiling bodies so they rise and using them as weapons assumes that they're just plain run-of-the-mill D&D undead. If they rise because you despoiled them, and they're coming for you, then that tactic doesn't materialise. Once you change the "why" of undead existing, you have to consider that it could easily change how they behave. –  SevenSidedDie Jan 6 at 22:16
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  • No, you are not introducing a handicap at all. You are not preventing taking enemy loot, you are introducing interesting consequences (over which you have full control) for doing so.
    • No, because again you have full control over the amount of time it takes and the type of undead created.
  • Be prepared for the party attempting to handle this in ways you won't expect. They may start dismembering or burning all corpses, looking for magical solutions, or ignore the issue entirely. Be sure to very clearly define what loot can be taken and what can't. Any inconsistency will likely irritate the players.
  • This depends on how your setting defines undead. Are undead inherently evil? If so, I would expect your setting to have a chaotic evil leaning since literally anyone can create an army of undead by going on a killing spree.
  • I think it could be a lot of fun if done properly.

So how do you implement something like this? It depends very much on how long it takes for the slain to rise, and what they rise as. Zombies and other weak mindless undead pose little to no threat at all to even low level parties. You also can't leave it up to random chance because if any random peasant could rise as a dread wraith there's hardly any hope for civilization at all.

My suggestion is to homebrew an undead template. From what you've described, the template should probably switch the creature's type to undead, but leave its intelligence, alignment, and most of its abilities intact. You may also want to add the incorporeal subtype to get around dismemberment and cremation. Finally add any abilities you think are appropriate, such as a supernatural curse ability of some kind. The vampire template is probably a good starting point, but you should tweak it with whatever properties will represent your vision best. The advantages of this approach are

  • Risen dead are directly proportional in strength to their living counterparts
  • Risen dead do not require their physical body to be intact
  • You are not bound to the abilities and powers of any existing undead, nor do you have to choose between them on a case-by-case basis for every single orc and goblin that dies. Simply apply your template (which you should keep as simple as possible) and you're done.
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A peasant risen as a dread wraith is only a problem if undead are played as marauders who use their maximum capacities for maximum damage to civilisation. If they instead have a very specific motive/goal or are bound to a specific place, they only become super-nasty to those who get near or in its way. "Respect the dead or holy crap they'll rise and suck the life out of your sleeping first-born so that they can rest in peace" is a pretty good foundation upon which a civilisation would create specific burial rituals and taboos. –  SevenSidedDie Jan 6 at 22:08
    
@SevenSidedDie That's a good point, but what about weak mindless undead? Especially when they are the product of a highly powerful creature that relies on its intelligence? I doubt the intent of this system is ever that a level 20 wizard could rise as an almost harmless zombie. But if taking that gamble adds to the fun of the setting, go for it. For a low level party though? I assume it would not. –  Eric B Jan 6 at 22:45
    
For a low-level party? Why's the low-level party gambling with breaking burial taboos? But for the rest: I think you may be taking D&D undead behaviours as somehow already canonically defined, when they aren't actually very much. –  SevenSidedDie Jan 6 at 23:41
    
@SevenSidedDie They probably wouldn't, and if I understand the question correctly, that's exactly what the asker wants to avoid. And true, but I think mindless (usually) precludes any sort of complex goals/motivations –  Eric B Jan 7 at 0:06
    
They don't have to be complex to be different than just "wander around and kill things that come near." In a setting where improper burial can cause something as complex as a dead body rising and walking around, there's room for that same otherwordly force to propel that risen thing toward a specific end. That's all I mean. Not like, "Okay, I will get complex revenge, starting with infiltrating the legislature of the nation across the sea...", but something more like "Braaains" or "Youuu kiiilled meeeee... diiie..." –  SevenSidedDie Jan 7 at 0:15
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I have made the experience that house rules which change basic assumptions are usually way more of a burden that an advantage. And this one seems especially dangerous in this regard, because how many 'proper burials' are fun? How many times is it a role-playing challenge before it gets an annoying waste of time? (I assume the answer is between 1 and 3).

You say you run this for an evil party - but for many people, the fun as evil party is exactly that you can be a marauding horde of murder hobos. Your rule seems to want to remove that. Why don't you try to run a first game for the evil party with normal rules?

I should probably mention that my five last campaigns were all for what people would generally describe as 'evil parties'. I didn't use any specific house rules against 'killing everything' except for common sense. That is, if you want to make a penalty for killing, it might be better to have the world react accordingly:

  • a bunch of murder hobos will likely meet resistance of the town guard of any reasonably civilised settlement where they are known.
  • people will be very hesitant to get involved with the party, except for equally evil and more powerful people.

Then to the 'return as undead rule': It also depends on what undead will be created out of the looted corpses. If it's a 'level-appropriate' undead, it seems to me that it's an easy xp multiplier: kill the guy, take his stuff, kill the undead.

To summarise, I think it's a bad idea that will make the game un-fun and will only add tedium.

But one way to salvage the basic idea might be to just apply this rule within certain sacred places, e.g. a temple of $DEITY. That would limit the bad effects while still allowing you to use the idea.

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Thank you for your insight. I completely agree with the last part of your first paragraph (re: roleplaying the proper burial), and I don't want to bog down the game with tedium. Re: "the fun as evil party is exactly that you can be a marauding horde of murder hobos", (not discounting your concern) technically you can still do that; and doing so could actually be considered a viable "evil" tactic--find village, slaughter everyone, don't bury them, wait for them to rise, lead them to the next town, repeat. XP multiplier is something that I need to look out for. –  GamerJosh Jan 6 at 20:00
    
You say "but for many people", and then you go on to treat those many as "all". What about for other people who like playing evil but not to be murder hobos? The rest of the answer kinda ignores that possibility as non-existent. –  SevenSidedDie Jan 6 at 22:12
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Well, the question is tagged D&D Next; and as of now, rule support for non-combat related things is lacking, and D&D in general places pretty heavy emphasis on combat. Sure, stuff like stealth assassinations, political intrigue or maybe a slaver merchant business could all be done; but it would be dependent on dm pity. So yeah... –  Mala Jan 6 at 22:24
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@Mala I usually really object to how the Stormwind fallacy is invoked, but I'ma invoke it now: just because most of the rules are for combat, in absolutely no way, shape, or form does that mean you can validly say that all players of D&D Next universally want to murderhobo with it. –  SevenSidedDie Jan 7 at 3:36
    
@SevenSidedDie Haha. Of course. On the other hand, I think it's a safe assumption that a large percentage of people who play an evil campaign with the current, unfinished D&D Next rules are in fact out for murder-hoboing. Which is why I wrote 'many' in my answer. Your impression that I treat those many as 'all' is exactly that - your impression. :) –  Mala Jan 7 at 18:09
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