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One of my players is going to be playing the homebrew Felis race for the campaign I'm going to be running. In the race description, it states that they have nine lives, and they typically die once every fifteen years.

This is part of that player's backstory, and I'd like to include it. The death isn't permanent however, as they are revived in a way.

But how do I still keep that death narratively interesting so that it feels like it has an impact?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Does the characters homebrew race have a mechanical way to come back from death, or do they die like any other PC, and this is just flavor? \$\endgroup\$ May 27 at 5:20
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    \$\begingroup\$ Is this the homebrew race? It may help Answerers to see the mechanics associated to make sure recommendations fit the (player's) expectations of the race \$\endgroup\$
    – Ifusaso
    May 27 at 6:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ Whatever you decide, it's a good idea to run your idea for how Felis death should work past your player before you implement it in play, to make sure they're fine with it. The homebrew rules' description of Felis' nine deaths are vague about whether the deaths are literal or just a rumour or what-have-you - and so your player may have already formed their own plans for how to interpret that facet of their character's race that conflict with whatever you come up with. \$\endgroup\$
    – GMJoe
    May 27 at 8:39
  • \$\begingroup\$ I believe I've read more general questions about non-permanent death for PCs that would apply to this question (I just can find it/them, right now). This race just gives another option for revival. \$\endgroup\$ May 27 at 14:28
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    \$\begingroup\$ It looks like the link that Ifusaso provided does not have any racial features that would mechanically make death non-permanent. My reading of this race tells me that the nine lives are purely for flavor. \$\endgroup\$
    – Beefster
    May 27 at 19:38

7 Answers 7

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Everyone is focusing on mechanical aspects, but this in a backstory so we don't want to start a game with mechanical downsides and then get more if they die again. I suggest a roleplay downside:

PTSD: The character is now traumatized by dying, they are afraid of dying again or have flashbacks to it.

Losing oneself: The character comes back lesser than before, GoT does this a lot, they come back but something is missing.

It affects others: Maybe the character didn't think it was a big deal but others did, even if you know it still would hurt to see your friend murdered, or maybe they didn't tell anyone and now everyone is mad at them.

But if this is a race known for this then nothing normal would make it a death worthy of mention since dying is a normal situation for them, so my last suggestion is:

Tie it into the campaign: maybe the character was killed by your main villain or one of their right hand men. Maybe they died learning a secret important for the campaign, maybe they died while defecting from the villain's side.

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    \$\begingroup\$ If your life expectancy is 135 years and you're expected to die nine times in that span, deathdays are more special than birthdays. \$\endgroup\$
    – GMJoe
    May 28 at 0:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ @GMJoe I was thinking the same thing. They could have 5th-life crisis and get themselves that cherry red armor they've been eyeing for a few years now. \$\endgroup\$
    – Wazoople
    May 28 at 0:23
  • \$\begingroup\$ I do like the PTSD angle for character development - not just from the angle of being able to accurately describe what it was like getting stabbed, like Christopher Lee did as Saruman, but from the angle of not knowing how many times they have died - if it's not immediately distinguishable from dying in a nightmare,, they themselves might not officially know how many lives they have left - or have some important counter that they always check. \$\endgroup\$ May 28 at 19:01
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Waiting to be revived with Death’s personification.

Let the character talk with The Death, the Grim Reaper, Santa Muerte, or the equivalent in your world while they are waiting to be revived. Even cooler, let them play the trope of a chess game with The Death, but when they are healed and come back to the material world, The Death is cheating on the board, and when they die again, they can see the game is rigged.

Extra points if The Death gives the character insight about the world and important plots.

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    \$\begingroup\$ But they have to beat them at a board game first. \$\endgroup\$
    – Jason_c_o
    May 28 at 0:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ Normally yes, but healing magic interrupts the game and when the character is alive, Death cheats a bit. That's why Death always wins. \$\endgroup\$ May 28 at 12:34
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Lingering injuries

It’s not clear to me if you are asking just about how to make the deaths in the backstory have more weight, or if the race has an actual ability to come back from death. If the latter:

You might want to take a look at the lingering injuries section (DMG p. 272), and have them roll for one every time they die. This can give them a more permanent reminder that dying is not good, one that they might need to spend some effort on to get rid off again.

Overall, even without the homebrew race, after the first few levels death tends to not be permanent anyways in most campaigns -- between healing word against death saves, revivify, raise dead, and later on resurrection and true ressurection (never mind reincarnation), if the rest of the party wants to bring a character back, it's not that hard to do so.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I use my own lingering injury chart with a different chart for each damage type and it works well, helps discourage death yoyo. \$\endgroup\$
    – John
    May 28 at 3:53
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Well I don't really have a long and interesting answer, but in terms of mechanics, the way I might handle it myself is to set them at exhaustion level 4 after revival.

The main benefits of leveraging Exhaustion are that it's a very straightforward mechanic, and narratively it isn't a stretch for a character to be exhausted after dying and coming back to life. Also, since it's a temporary effect, you don't have to worry about permanent changes affecting balance in non-fun ways later.

A tweak to this, if it's not impactful enough, might be to set them at exhaustion 4 then essentially put them in a homebrew condition (let's call it "Recovering" for example), so the custom rule becomes:

  • If the character is revived from their temporary death, set them at exhaustion level 4 and put them in the Recovering condition.
  • If the character is Recovering, then it takes two long rests to reduce the exhaustion level instead of the normal one.
  • If the character hits exhaustion level 0, then Recovering ends.
  • Recovering can't be removed by any other means besides hitting exhaustion level 0.

I'd probably leave it at that, i.e. everything else behaves normally -- so for example Trance (for elves) still does its thing, Greater Restoration still recovers one exhaustion level, Bodily Efficiency from the homebrew Nomad class still applies, etc.

Also note -- if it wasn't clear -- that, "Recovering" condition tweak or not, anything that increases exhaustion still applies as normal as well; so e.g. if a character revives and then fails the constitution save after skipping long rests, they'd end up at 5. And if they die from exhaustion, that's another one of their nine lives.


PS I mean, Recovering as I defined it above may or may not be too challenging (it basically means 8-ish game days to recover). There's certainly room for tweaking. Perhaps e.g. requiring easy constitution saves to allow one long rest to recover a level instead of two (or letting them have fractional exhaustion points when Recovering or something, one rest recovers 0.5 but maybe they get lucky and recover 1.0, round up to determine effective level, you get the idea), etc. Lots of options.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Btw, if anybody ever does end up doing something like what I suggested, I'd be super curious to know what rules you eventually settled if you found something with a good balance. \$\endgroup\$
    – Jason C
    May 29 at 18:12
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Character death is typically interesting because it has a really strong downside (losing said character). So the easiest way to make the non-permanent death interesting is to introduce an interesting downside to it, that replaces the downside of perma-death.

  1. Give the death a narrative downside. For example the PC could lose all memory of a fellow PC, so he has to rebuild his friendship. That can result in interesting roleplaying scenarios between players.

  2. Give the death a mechanical downside. The mechanical downside can result in interesting narrative consequences. For example the PC could lose some important piece of equipment, maybe literally lost in the realm of death. It could be either important for himself (e.g. his cool sword of ogre decapitation) or imporant for the group (e.g. a quest item). Then give him a possibility to gain the equipment back. That could be a mini adventure where the PCs have to go into the realm of death to find the item there. If it is a personal item, that adventure can even be really difficult because it is optional. With this method you can create situations for interesing narrative choices. Also the group dynamic can change because now the feline PC is in debt to the rest of the group, because they helped him.

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Death by curse is not death by sword

Assuming the link in the comments is the correct version of the homebrew, the death is supposed to be some forgotten curse. But the details of the curse are up to the DM. So build out the curse!

First off, the description states:

"Felis live up to 135 years of age. It is whispered that they possess nine lives and, by some forgotten curse, they burn through each life every 15 years..."

So quick math, 9 lives times 15 years, equal their lifespan of 135 years. So the curse also prevents them from living past 135 years.

They live a normal life for 15 years, then the curse takes affect and they die. For the first eight times, they come back. On the ninth death, it is forever.

So the curse may not be they can automatically come back eight times, but that they can only live in 15 year spurts.

If that is the case, then dying early does not mean they can come back. It just means they didn't reach the 15 year span to allow the curse to take hold. So death still means death, unless they die via the curse.

Given that, if they can only resurrect if killed by the curse, then death still has an impact on a day-to-day basis.

Next, since it's part of the curse, the Felis would know ahead of time that their time is up. You can incorporate that into the story.

When it is their time, they need to make preparations.

They don't want to just die in the middle of the forest where they can be eaten. Remember, they "travel alone" and "rarely forming strong attachments to non-Felis", so they can't depend on someone else to watch over the body until the next life kicks in.

Add some rituals to be perform so that they come back "safely". There isn't a time-line for how long it takes, it might be an hour, it might be a day. It would suck to rent a room at an inn, die, and have the cleaning staff find you dead. No telling what would happen with the body.

Also incorporate a sense of dread when the time approaches. It doesn't have to be "just like falling asleep." There could be discomfort as the first sign, that gets worse as the time grows near. Leading up to weakness, fatigue, and/or exhaustion.

5e already makes it pretty easy to survive death, don't make it easier

Having a race that gets 8 free self-revivify spells is a little OP. This doesn't even kick in until after any "if brought to 0 you have 1 hp instead" feature, and after best-3-out-of-5 death saving throws.

You say it's part of the character backstory, but don't give specifics, so I really can't speak to that. But I would recommend editing the backstory to incorporating the every-15-year curse, and not the die-8-times version if at all possible.

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Consequences of absence and the process of rebirth

Death and rebirth can take time and have lingering effects. Liches might be immortal but if you kill one before their son's baseball game they are not going to be able to show up the next day as they wait to re-grow their limbs.

Think about how death and rebirth actually happen (also talk to your player about their own understanding of how it works and be on the same page before doing anything) then think about how you can use dramatic timing to throw in a wrench.

Is it a moment of vulnerability? Can it be interrupted? What happens if.. say a ghost's Horrifying Visage effect ages the character 30 years or so? How long does it take? Will it have a specific date and can be used by an enemy, is it random/stochastic and can hit at the worst possible time?

A good example was the re-incarnation process of Misty Moore in the Unsleeping City (whole session linked here, specific setup of the reincarnation ritual starts here) campaign, where the characters had to prevent interruption of the character's reincarnation ritual. Details don't matter but it's important that every party member including the one that's being reborn had an opportunity to participate as the group fought for the new life of the character.

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