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The campaign I'm imagining needs the 5 original level 1 PCs to…

  • live for 13 years to the day after the campaign's start date, and…
  • each be at least level 11 by that date.

Over the course of their adventures, I expect PCs will die, but the campaign I'm imagining needs the original PCs to survive until that specific point anyway. There are a pair of very powerful NPCs (one chaotic evil, one lawful good) working behind the scenes to try and bring these events about - both have plans which require the PCs to be alive and sufficiently powerful to assist them when the appropriate moment rolls around, but they are opposed to each other.

Preferably without it seeming like I'm rescuing them when things get nasty, what can I do as the DM (and what can my NPCs do in character) to ensure that all the original PCs survive to the point the plot demands that they survive?

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Flashback

A flashback (sometimes called an analepsis) is an interjected scene that takes the narrative back in time from the current point in the story. Flashbacks are often used to recount events that happened before the story's primary sequence of events to fill in crucial backstory.

from wikipedia

Start your campaign just before the end. Your players are levels 11 and they are talking about the past. "What a journey it was! How long are we together? 12 years? 13? What a blast! Time flies. Do you remember how we meet?" etc.

Now you can start the flashback. Whatever happen, in your storyline your group is alive together and still friendly when you want them to be. Of course you are free to do whatever please all of you during the flashback. When you end the flashback, your true quest can start.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This doesn't really get around the problem of keeping the PCs alive throughout the flashback. Whether you start playing in year X or start playing a flashback in year X, you still need everyone to survive to year X+13. In fact, this strategy seems like it might make PCs behave even more recklessly and attempt things likely to get them killed - if it's a flashback, they know they must have survived whatever crazy stunt they can think of! \$\endgroup\$ – Nuclear Wang Jul 2 '18 at 18:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ @NuclearWang I'd imagine the survive whatever crazy stunt I can imagine would be part of the appeal! However, to a degree, I share your fear: it does mean the PCs can figuratively and literally get away with murder and force the DM to contrive a way for them to escape the ultimate consequence for their actions. (Yet I can also imagine the players and the DM seeing this, too, as a challenge… in a How-stupid-can-I-be? and Not-stupid-enough! sort of way, respectively.) \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Jul 2 '18 at 18:13
  • \$\begingroup\$ Ok players can jam.Remember that you play with them and not against. For the consequence for their actions. How about spending 5 years in a prison? (Can be a awesome side-quest or just you lost 5 years so this shiny sword never existed in fact) How about an offer you cannot refuse. The God or King of whatever can propose something to help you out. Be sure to talk to your players first. \$\endgroup\$ – aloisdg says Reinstate Monica Jul 2 '18 at 18:26
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    \$\begingroup\$ @NuclearWang - On the contrary, I've seen games (mostly computer games in direct experience, though I've read about tabletop games doing the same) which use the flashback itself as justification for PC survival. When a PC dies, you just say "No, no... That's not what happened, this is how it really went..." and re-do as much as is necessary to "fix" things so that the character survives. Since you're "remembering" things which "already happened" rather than going through them as they happen, any unacceptable event can be rationalized as "oh, I guess I remembered it wrong". \$\endgroup\$ – Dave Sherohman Jul 3 '18 at 9:43
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    \$\begingroup\$ @DaveSherohman Not uncommon at all in video games, but I think that style of play defies convention in tabletop RPGs. You don't usually get "unlimited lives", if your character dies, that's pretty much it. I'd find it very weird to lose a boss fight, for example, and then have the DM either tell me to do it again or that I had actually won. \$\endgroup\$ – Nuclear Wang Jul 3 '18 at 12:46
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There are a few ways to approach this which can be used separately or combined.

Option 1. Skip forward

Your question suggests this is not the answer you want without explicitly eliminating it, but it is the fastest and most direct option. You can have 13 years and as much level advancement as you want happen off-screen. You can either work with your characters to compose a brief story of what happens in that time or leave it vague. It gets you exactly where you wish to be, and does so instantly.

Option 2. Make Resurrection Unusually Easy to Get

In DnD, death is not always permanent. Lower level characters may not always have the resources for it, but a patron working behind the scenes could readily arrange for the PCs to find various resurrection options unusually easy to come by. You may want them to notice the strangeness of its availability and they may question why only to learn that it was because of a benefactor later.

Option 3. Ban Character Death Entirely, with or without telling your Players

A. Benefits and Techniques

As the GM, you have control over the entire universe other than the PCs. That is a lot of power to wield to prevent character death, especially in a universe where death is not always permanent.

I have never GMed a 3.5 campaign, but in many other settings (including other editions of DnD), I have outright banned character death up front (with the exception of intentional heroic sacrifices) and it works remarkably well. At least with the groups I deal with, they are much more inclined to get invested in the story of their characters if they know the characters will not die. It is not hard to find in character reasons for why they are kept alive, though the reason does need to depend on the situation.

Remember, sentient opponents often have good reason to prefer a hostage over a corpse so will often refrain from dealing the killing blow if the character can be captured. Many animals that do not plan to eat the thing they are fighting are also content to stop fighting once they achieved their objective (protect their young, drive away the foreign predator, etc.). In other words, there is often good reason the characters will survive a fight even if they lose. That survival may not be without consequences. If they are captured they have to deal with that, but there is good reason.

Also, remember that you are the GM, you can often adjust the difficulty of combat on the fly. If the fight is not going the direction you want, you can often adjust hit points and any un-displayed powers behind the scenes without the players even noticing. If they do notice, it is rarely hard to come up with a good reason for it in story. Perhaps the dragon has old injuries that are hobbling it. Perhaps the lich prepared most of their spells with something other than combat in mind.

As a last resort, there is always Deus Ex Machina. The Cavalry may come riding in. In DnD a deity may literally intervene on a characters behalf. That does not mean that Deus Ex would come without some consequences though. The Cavalry may want a share of the loot. An intervening deity may expect a favor very soon. Done right, it can lead to a new and interesting plot instead of detracting from it. Done very carefully, with the villain escaping instead of being defeated due to the Deus Ex, it can even make the later victory better. Try-fail cycles are a common trope, and Batman in particular routinely faces opponents twice, losing the first time but getting away, then preparing specifically for that opponent and winning the second time. This can seem like you are rescuing them, but if done carefully it will still fit in the plot, and that is why it is the last resort.

In my experience, banning character death works best when you tell the players (but remind them that failure will still have other consequences). It helps them invest in the story. But you can use all of these techniques without informing them.

B. Potential Drawbacks

There are some potential drawbacks to banning character death, particularly when the players know you are doing it. The biggest and most obvious is that it can encourage players to take risks they otherwise wouldn't take. If you are going for a gritty campaign that can be a major problem. However, this is less of an issue if you want your characters to be swashbuckling and going for daring feats.

Even in a gritty campaign, you can mitigate this problem by making sure there are still penalties for losses. Things that might lead to death, but for GM mitigation, might readily lead to loss of equipment instead. Depending on the circumstances this may be thoroughly realistic. If the character is knocked unconscious, one of the enemy might just grab their awesome sword in the process and that particular enemy might get away or the sword might be lost in the scuffle. If the GM gives the players an opportunity to flee, they may drop shields or other equipment in the process (The famous quote from Sparta of "Come back with your shield or on it" originates from the fact that a fleeing army would almost always abandon at least their shields. The dead were also often carried on their own shields). Etc.

Another major problem is that you might find yourself forced to invoke deus ex machina. That can make the game feel less realistic and force you to come up with sometimes extreme events on the fly. The best way to mitigate that is use Deus Ex only as a last resort. You can also make it feel a bit less like Deus Ex if you foreshadow ways a powerful entity might step in on your player's side. If the players know a deity or archmage wants them to succeed it will at least make plot sense for something nearly miracluous to happen that helps them out if needed. And remember that Deus Ex does not need to be free from consequences. A deity may expect a favor or sacrafice in return, a patron may reduce rewards, etc.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I'd upvote skip forward on its own—that was my thinking exactly. My experience has been that PCs can, in a few campaign months of constant adventuring, reach level 11… and, when they do, then the DM can offer a montage until the plot kicks in again. However, I can't support banning character death—that's too radical for me in a game wherein a failed saving throw is supposed to kill a PC… only to have, when the fight's over, the dead PC's buddies bring him back from the dead. (Not my downvote, by the way.) \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Jul 2 '18 at 18:02
  • \$\begingroup\$ @HeyICanChan I completely understand that many (most?) groups would not approve of banning character death. With that said, it has worked well for me in many DnD campaigns and even better in other systems that do not have easy resurrection. I will add a mention of resurrection as an option and be clearer that these are separate options that can be used separately or combined. \$\endgroup\$ – TimothyAWiseman Jul 2 '18 at 18:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ This answer would be improved by adding a list of the potential pitfalls of banning character death and ways to avoid them. \$\endgroup\$ – GMJoe Jul 2 '18 at 21:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ @GMJoe I think you may be right. \$\endgroup\$ – TimothyAWiseman Jul 3 '18 at 16:54

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