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A player character "died" in battle early on in this current arc I'm DMing, and I had already decided that either this character would be in pursuit by the big bad or would be taken captive. Since they lost all of their HP and failed their death saving throws, this PC was captured without the rest of the party being aware. We're now getting to the point in this arc where the party will soon find out this PC was captured instead of being killed.

It has been a few sessions since this player has rolled up a new character, which leads to the question: Is it appropriate to reveal that this player character was alive the whole time? On one side, I feel it would be a great reveal, but on the other, I don't want the player and the rest of the party to feel completely hoodwinked.

Should I change course and reveal that they were indeed killed, or stick to the plan and reveal that this character was captured and had been alive this entire time?

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    \$\begingroup\$ One thing to consider also is the general tone of the game you're playing. The answer may depend on how "serious" your game and your group are. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 19 at 16:34
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    \$\begingroup\$ If you reach 3 failed death saves, you are dead. (With specific exceptions like Rage Beyond Death.) Do you mean the enemies captured the PC's corpse and used Revivify after the party fled? (Unlike Raise Dead and others, Revivify doesn't require that the soul is "free and willing", it just works if cast within 1 minute). Or do you mean the death saves were a trick, and what actually happened wasn't what the player rolled at the table, if you went with this narrative choice you're asking about? \$\endgroup\$ Sep 20 at 3:28
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    \$\begingroup\$ What is the party level? \$\endgroup\$
    – enkryptor
    Sep 20 at 11:50
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    \$\begingroup\$ Why is the word died in quotes? Did they miss 3 death saves or not. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 20 at 15:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ @PeterCordes i'm really not sure about that, DMG has a paragraph on resurrection magic and it says explicitly that a soul can never be returned to life if it doesn't want to so I'd say that at the very least it must be willing, whether it doesn't have to be free is questionable too \$\endgroup\$
    – AnnaAG
    Sep 21 at 8:35

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In short, my advice would be:

  • ask the player’s permission first, and preferably at the time of “death”;
  • don’t do it if they’re not okay with it;
  • if they are, bring the character more literally back from the dead, rather than retconning events so that they didn’t die at all.

Bringing a PC back from death is fine if the player is okay with it

This kind of thing can be great with villains and other NPCs, thanks to the old “if you don’t see their body…” trope and the various ways D&D worlds allow for interaction between the living and the dead. But for player characters it’s a bit different.

Dungeons & Dragons operates on the principle that player characters are entirely under the control of the player who created them, barring any kind of mind control magic, and even then the player and character have a chance to resist, and in the worst case they constrain how the player plays their character, rather than letting someone else do it for them. There are other games which explicitly hand control of a PC over to the GM (or even another player) under certain circumstances, but D&D (generally) isn’t one of them.

As a result, doing anything with a PC like this - effectively hiding what’s happening from the player, even when their PC would be aware of what’s going on - is likely to cause problems if the player is not given a chance to weigh in. They would probably, at the very least, like a chance to veto the survival of their character (if they are satisfied with the manner of their death in game and story terms), and also to have control over the character’s reaction to being captured, since that’s part of their control over their character.

There’s also the question of what this means in ongoing terms: are you making their PC into an NPC? Are you expecting them to resume playing the original character? And if the latter, what happens to their new PC?

So I would talk to them first, and if they’re not okay with it, don’t do it. These considerations are also why most guides to running a session zero include discussing how players want to handle character death before the campaign begins.

This kind of retcon is best done at the time

If the character has actually died as far as the rules are concerned, then revealing later they were actually alive all along is not in my experience (as both player and DM) a popular or appropriate move. As above, the player of the character can reasonably assume that they control the character’s actions, so if they don’t even know they’re alive, this serves as non-narrative proof that they are dead, on top of the game proof of failing three death saving throws.

If you want to save a character from death, ask the player at the time and do it then. Discuss it openly as a group if you haven’t done so in advance, and make sure everyone’s on the same page, but ideally the character’s player should have final say. If they refuse the offer to avoid death, honour that choice and let the character die. Deciding in secret afterwards that they didn’t die cheapens the player’s acceptance of their character’s death (even if an alternative wasn’t explicitly put to them).

Retroactively changing the outcome for them also puts a question mark over what those death saving throws (and other rules around death and injury) really mean for the rest of your campaign.

You have options other than “they weren’t dead after all”

Many of the above problems are avoided by killing the character and bringing them back from the dead. Luckily, D&D gives you many tools and ways to do that, and I’d advise you use one of those if the player is okay with it.

Those options include things the villains can be planning to do to the player’s character, which can happen at the right time to make a great story moment. This could be simple resurrection - an act that, as Molot pointed out, has built-in veto power because the character’s soul has to be willing to return. The villains could also plan to turn them into an intelligent undead with access to their memories (something that a cult once did to a PC of mine who died at level 1 as part of an evil prophecy, leading to a campaign long plot thread in which my replacement PC helped the party try and stop this). Or perhaps they’ve already made a magical copy of the character using various NPC magics… There are loads of possibilities.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Resurrection to gather intel, or to have a hostage, seems especially fitting alternative for this particular situation. And because resurrection only works on willing souls, it gives the player a natural way to veto. \$\endgroup\$
    – Mołot
    Sep 19 at 8:41
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    \$\begingroup\$ Bringing them back as some sort of undead horror is likely an even better step. Then there’s a clear distinction between the PC character and this new NPC. \$\endgroup\$
    – fectin
    Sep 19 at 12:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Mołot: Fun fact: Revivify does not require a "free and willing" soul. It just works, with no similar language. So if the party fled, and the bad guys used that or Gentle Repose on the corpse within 1 minute of the death, they could bring back an unwilling captive. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 20 at 4:16
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    \$\begingroup\$ @PeterCordes - that’s a good point, though given the time limitation it’s no good for bringing someone back after spending some time dead, which is the intended use here \$\endgroup\$ Sep 20 at 4:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ @PeterCordes Revivify does not say it needs a free and willing soul, but the DMG has some language on it. Its airtight for willing, and you can at least make a case for free \$\endgroup\$ Sep 20 at 5:15
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Its not appropriate to stage a fake death without the player's prior OK or knowledge

I'm sorry but the issue with the situation here is that you'd steal your player's agency by secretly having their character not die so they can be capured to support your preconceived narrative. That is not OK.

The character is the only thing the player gets to control, and they should know if the character did or did not die. If they died fair and square, and you then have some way for the bad guys to bring them back as an evil undead, that is fine. If they however let him survive or use raise dead on him, it is his character, that is brought back to live, and they would need to know about this and have the right to play the character from that point on, as they see fit.

Guybrush McKenzie's answer has a good, practial advise how to get you out of this situation. How can you avoid having such problems in future? You write "I had already decided that either this character would be in pursuit by the big bad or would be taken captive". The option where the the big bad will go after them is fine. Deciding up front that they will be captured however is not. It means that the players have no say in the outcome of the story. This then is not collaborative storytelling any more. At that point, it is you telling your story to the players who have the questionable pleasure of acting as your stage puppets. Please, do yourself and your players a favor, and read up a bit on the concept of railroading.

I would strongly advise that you go with your second option, in which the player character was indeed killed.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I absolutely agree regarding railroading, but I do want to add some context: This character was very head-strong and would always charge head-first into combat (and had been for the entire campaign). We had ended a session with the BBEG having been introduced, and I knew going into the next session the player was either: 1) going to back down, 2) head straight into battle. I had stated outright (through an NPC) that doing so would be suicide, but the player stayed true to their character and went straight into battle. In this case, the player had already made their choice. \$\endgroup\$
    – Opelious
    Sep 21 at 19:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Opelious I think if you gave them warning that it is going to be a suicidal fight and they still did it and died, that's fair and no objections about it. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 21 at 20:06
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I'm with Guybrush, in the general case. When they're in the negatives and about to roll the Death Save, just don't have them roll unless you're ready to have the character die. Create some sort of countdown, then tell the table they weren't able to get to the character in time, let them draw their own conclusions.

Afterward, before resuming the action, pull the player aside to "discuss their next character" and present your idea of the character having survived. See if they want to do it as a "big reveal", if they want the whole table listening in on what happens or if they just want to retire the character and make it an NPC, and be surprised themselves.

Unless the character becomes an NPC, the new/temporary character rolled should be created with the idea of being abandoned - dying or becoming an NPC - so shouldn't be too fleshed out. Making a player have to choose between two characters can cause some friction. Let the player invest in the character they want to continue playing.


In the specific case, since we're talking about a done deal, a failed Death Save and a new character rolled, I'd argue for bringing the character back as an Undead, if at all possible in the setting. A chained, gagged zombie version of the character, used by the BBEG as a bluff to gain leverage against the party. The party can Detect Thoughts or Evil to see through the ruse, and they get a chance to reclaim the body, if the player wants to return to that role.

The players might intially, when they see the gagged character, cry foul - the character died, after all - but once they realize they're dealing with a zombie, it should make sense, and possibly hint at necromancer involvement, or perhaps something even worse...?

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The PC and the party have little to no direct knowledge of the PCs death. The player has little to no knowledge about what happened after the PC went down. The only witness was, as mentioned, an NPC; and that NPC may not have double checked, or could have fled, and the hostile forces could have stabalized and captured the PC.

This looks like full-on fair game that the PC wasn't killed, but was captured.

In the future, I would suggest making death saves for PCs yourself. This adds to the stress of a PC being down, as nobody knows how fast they die, or even if they are already dead or stable. Getting a downed PC up is a lot more stressful if they have anywhere from 0 to 3/3 death save failures already, and there is another roll on the next turn.

Now, what I'd do before the big reveal would be to talk to the player as an aside. Let them know their PC actually survived, was captured, and will be showing up. Ask them how they want to handle the reintroduction.

This reduces the risk that the reveal moment will go sour. It also reduces the one player's surprise, but by bringing them in on the conspiracy you can have a different kind of fun with them; meanwhile, surprising all of the other players.

That kind of cooperative drama - where you recruit a player to surprise everyone else - has worked well many, many times at D&D tables I've played at. It also lets you ask the player what the PC would do in a capture scenario, including conspiring against the DM's plans. Lean towards letting the captured PC pull a fast one on the NPCs; or, if the player prefers, the PC could turn and join the other side. Both are fun for the player.

Losing your PC to the DM's control, however, can feel like a violation. By bringing the Player onside, you avoid that.

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Reincarnate/resurrect spells/devices can certainly exist in the game for plot reasons. They're also generally rare/expensive, and may have side effects (known or unknown to the character, the player, and/or the other characters and players), for game balance reasons.

One of my characters got killed and found himself talking to a deity, who offered to let him survive in exchange for future service -- and on condition that he not share this information with others until it was unavoidable. Thereafter, he would sometimes be unfindable when the GM felt the party's goals needed more complication... and eventually, when we got to the climactic battle of the storyline, they saw him fighting on their side but as part of a separate group that seemed to have appeared from nowhere and may have had something slightly odd about their appearance. After that he was finally able to admit what had been going on... and, that task completed, had to decide whether to transfer to the Valhalla equivalent (effectively, drop that character out of the game) or stay with his friends but at the risk of continuing to be absent at inconvenient times.

RPGs -- except in tournament play where it's essential to be able to reproduce the same challenges at multiple tables -- are all about joint improv storytelling. The GM can do just about anything they wish if they can make it play as a good story that everyone will have fun with, just as characters can get away with just about anything if it sufficiently amuses the gamemaster and other players. You really want to be able to to "read the room" and creatively see what will make the game most fun for that group... and it's OK if higher powers meddle occasionally to make that happen.

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You should really let the players and the dice tell the story.

You presented a deadly challenge and because of the player's actions and dice rolls his PC is now dead(which is OK). Because of this, in the story you as a group are telling, the character is dead.

Be the referee, but tell the story together as a group. The PC's death should have been impactful enough for the story. Like others suggested, if you feel like the story needs a resurrected version of a PC to act as an NPC, or a second character for that player. Ask that player and even the group. I would advice against it, unless the BBEG (Big Bad Evil Guy) is a known necromancer and is known for resurrecting other slain adversaries.

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It is OK for a PC to die, and this one did

Failed three death saves, dead PC, sad faces. So it goes.
The player rolls roll up a new PC. (Which this player did).
Play continues.

Example from one of our games

Korvin Starmast was a life domain cleric who died, in game, 3 failed death saves, in our first 5e campaign (which started in 2014). Ogres ate him and eventually fully digested him.
I rolled up a new PC, and play continued for our group.

Should I change course and reveal that they were indeed killed

Yes. They already created and began playing the new PC.

Return as a zombie or a revenant may fit your purpose better

If you wish to bring the PC back from the dead as an NPC under your control there are a variety of ways to do that. A couple of examples:

  1. The BBEG uses necromancy to raise the PC as a zombie. Party has to kill or turn the zombie whom they recognize as their old comrade.

  2. An approach which may fit your idea better is to bring the PC back as a Revenant (see the Monster Manual) who either wants revenge on the party for leaving him for dead, or, who is looking for whomever it was that killed him (minions of the BBEG, for example).

The surprise and horror as their former companion comes after them as a revenant can provide the kind of impact you seek without disrupting the development of the new PC that your player has already created and is now playing.

Bottom line

The player's new Character is their new PC. The dead PC is dead. Simpler, cleaner, and less complicated.

And, if it fits the narrative, an undead NPC under the DM's control can make for an enemy who has ties to the players.

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