I'm running a D&D 4e campaign where the underlying story arc features Orcus and his followers. It starts with a run-in with a Cult of Orcus, and gradually escalates with the party finding that the reason that sort of thing keeps cropping up is because there's a plot afoot - Orcus, Prince of the Undead, is making a grab for power, and planning to march on the world of the living with an army of once-dead horrors.

I have a few story branches in mind for this, but one idea that I really like the sound of is for the party to repair the mythical macguffin that's supposed to prevent the dead from passing back into life (which is clearly malfunctioning because there's zombies everywhere). Of course, if they succeed in doing this, then they would have made it impossible for people to raise the dead... which includes the usual spells and rituals usually used for resurrecting slain party members.

I'd really like to keep playing in this world (I have way too much material to squeeze into this campaign, and there are some potential tie-ins that I think could really enrich future campaigns too) but I'm not sure how well a game would work with actual permanent death. I can avoid using zombies and the undead (there are plenty of monsters to choose from, after all) but I don't know whether it's a good idea to not let the players resurrect their fallen characters when the rules say they should be able to.

If necessary, I could compromise and say that when a character in combat reaches a state that the rulebook would call "dead" they're actually just mortally wounded, unconscious and beyond the reach of any healing that can be given in a combat situation, and then re-skin the "resurrect dead" spells as "heal mortal wounds and revive from coma" to bring them back when the fight is over, but that makes the characters essentially unkillable, and removing the fear of death from the campaign is something I'd definitely like to avoid. I'd also like to avoid reverting or circumventing the no-necromancy restriction too soon, because I think it would cheapen the party's actions - if they can see the impact their actions have had on the world, it'll feel much more epic for them. (Also, it'll be more terrifying when I pull out zombies for them to fight sometime way in the future, prompting a campaign where they have to find out who's found a way to raise the dead again, and how to stop them.)

Could a game like this be made to work?

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    \$\begingroup\$ My two cents: as a player I would love a game where dead is dead and I have to roll a new character to keep playing. \$\endgroup\$ – called2voyage Jul 2 '13 at 13:43
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    \$\begingroup\$ What is the penalty for death currently out of interest? You say that having them unable to die will "remove the fear of death" but if they are always sure of resurrections then I'm wondering why there is a fear of death currently... For what its worth though I've never played a game with resurrection available and its never been a problem but as others have said its about expectations really. \$\endgroup\$ – Chris Jul 2 '13 at 16:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ Is there any reason you couldn't remove the option of ressurection from everyone in the world other than the party, giving the excuse that "They were there, exposed the the last vestiges of the planar conduit as it closed, and some part of their souls was forever tied to the wrinkle between worlds that was left?" It'd still be a big choice with world-changing repercussions, though not quite as personally relevant. \$\endgroup\$ – GMJoe Jul 3 '13 at 6:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Chris I'm leaning toward keeping a more 3/3.5e-style Raise Dead, as 4e lessens the penalty a bit. Alternatively, I might make it trickier to enact, requiring a quest to a certain place (a crypt, a mountain cave, a necromancer's fortress) where portals to the realm of death can be opened to call the person back through. \$\endgroup\$ – anaximander Jul 3 '13 at 8:16
  • \$\begingroup\$ @anaximander: I'm not actually familiar with D&D particularly which is why I asked the question so I have no idea of what 3/3.5 or 4 do to penalise you if you need it. :) \$\endgroup\$ – Chris Jul 3 '13 at 10:59

10 Answers 10


The thing is, games where resurrection and/or healing are limited are advertised as such. The players know what they're in for, and this sometimes requires designing your character appropriately.

It also depends on their play style up to now. If they die sometimes, forbidding resurrection can cause them to feel as though they are being punished for saving the world. If they haven't died at all, there will probably not be a problem though. You might still have to take more care when designing encounters.

Whatever you decide though, you have to discuss it with the players beforehand. The game is meant to be fun, after all; if they don't like the idea, you shouldn't do it. You should also tell them what you plan for them to do if one of their characters dies. Do they roll up a new character? What level? etc.

Some ideas to 'soften the blow':

  1. Increase the number of negative hit points characters can take before dying.
  2. Grant them a bonus on saving throws vs dying or effects that can kill them.
  3. Possibly add another 'dying' stage where characters cannot regain any hit points, and only a ritual of some sort can save them.
  4. If a character dies, he or she can be resurrected, but only through a quest of some sort.

I don't think you should phase out dying completely though. That sounds a little boring.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Roughly what I was thinking. A game where the players don't die is NOT what I'm after; with no death, the penalties for failure are hugely reduced and you lose the tension and drama. Re 3, like I said, I might replace the "dead" stage of dying in combat with another stage that behaves exactly like being dead, but is called something else. A saving throw gives them a small chance to get out of it, and a Raise-Dead-by-another-name ritual brings them back... but otherwise they die. So, same mechanic, different name, and death is still possible. \$\endgroup\$ – anaximander Jul 2 '13 at 12:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ Also, the way in which resurrection is rendered impossible by the previous campaign also raises the possibility of the players having a friendly presence in the realm of the dead, so for your 4th point, it might be possible to go on a quest to contact that friend and ask for a special exception to be made :P \$\endgroup\$ – anaximander Jul 2 '13 at 12:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ @anaximander If you've read The Princess Bride, the man in black was "mostly dead", and could be revived, but it didn't make it feel as if death was at all non-permanent. \$\endgroup\$ – AJMansfield Jul 2 '13 at 15:31
  • \$\begingroup\$ Or, to generalize 4. a bit, there are still ways to bring back the long dead, or the very, very dead, but they are rare, wildly expensive, time consuming, etc. Examples include: quests, sacrifice of some powerful magic item to empower a rare ritual, BIG fees to uncomfortably shady churches... Keep the pressure of dying on by making it harder or more costly to find a loophole each time. \$\endgroup\$ – Zimul8r Jul 2 '13 at 15:33

I don't see a problem with it, as such.

If it's made sufficiently clear to the players what will happen, it gives an interesting dilemma for them. Stop the unimaginable horror of prince Orcus letting his horde of undead loose, or keep the ability to Raise Dead.

Not every campaign has big (and I do mean BIG) choices like that.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for pointing out the tragedy and "epicness" of the decision. \$\endgroup\$ – sergut Jul 2 '13 at 12:52
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    \$\begingroup\$ Oh yeah, they'll see it coming. This is the culmination of a VERY big arc, so they'll know what choice they have to make. There is an alternative option, which leaves them a crack through which they can return to life, but knowing that necromancers could someday exploit that crack to raise the dead again. Also, they still have to stop the undead horde, so it'd likely involve fighting it and/or Orcus himself. See my other question for some context on why they might want to take the no-more-necromancy option. \$\endgroup\$ – anaximander Jul 2 '13 at 13:17
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    \$\begingroup\$ I’d go a bit further. It would kill my interest in a game if the PCs made a tough choice and then a “workaround” to the consequences were made. If my in-game decisions don’t have proper consequences, I might as well not be playing at all. \$\endgroup\$ – Robert Fisher Jul 2 '13 at 14:16
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    \$\begingroup\$ I agree - as I've said elsewhere, I don't want to cheapen their actions by immediately following all this with "by the way, there's this new thing that behaves like Raise Dead used to, but it's not called Raise Dead because we can't do that now". They'd see that it basically is Raise Dead, and the Big Consequence is gone. If I bring in a mechanic to allow reviving downed characters, I'll do it from the start, before all this, so that they never notice the difference and their choices have proper impact. \$\endgroup\$ – anaximander Jul 2 '13 at 15:14

I would recommend permitting the dead to be raised within a round, or maybe even up to a minute, after death. The in-world explanation is that the soul has not completely left the body, and so the barrier to return does not yet take effect. This will keep your PCs from having to completely alter their play style, but will still be a pretty significant change indicating that they've altered the world.

I am honestly much more familiar with 3.5e than 4e, so I can't speak to the specific spells and rituals available in 4e. In 3.5e, a spell was added in supplemental sources called "Revivify" that allowed a cleric to restore a dead creature without level loss if cast within 1 round of the creature's death. It was the same level (5) as Raise Dead, and cost 1/5 as much. The important point is that the flavor text mentioned that the spell had to be cast before the soul had "completely left the body." I am using that as inspiration and would recommend similar spells be used by the PCs. If 4e doesn't offer such spells ready-made (the key being the short casting time), perhaps alter/modify the existing dead-raising spells to allow fast casting that is only capable of returning those who have only been dead for a round.

If you're going to introduce spells or modify existing ones, I would recommend doing it now, so that the spells don't become any more powerful or versatile after the macguffin event.

This sort of change, coupled with some advance-planning by the PCs, will permit a relatively normal D&D game. I would expect the PCs to be a bit more cautious and will probably set themselves up to have multiple dead-raisers ready to go to raise any party member within a round. Remaining at full health and stocked with healing ability will probably become a top priority.

With all of that said, also bear in mind that as long as the players can have fun after a PC is permanently dead, you're in the clear. Make sure your players can handle a game with more permanent death (my players, for example, have asked for making PC death a bigger deal).

A final thought: if a beloved PC cannot be raised, consider a plane-shifting quest to the PC's soul's final resting place.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for the great idea in the last sentence—I'm stealing that for the next time a PC dies while I'm GMing! \$\endgroup\$ – dodgethesteamroller Jul 2 '13 at 17:57

An idea taken from a different RPG (Dark Eye):

  • If the player's health goes to zero, the player can be "resurrected" by normal means within a certain time (for example, one round for each point of Constitution). The healing has to have an effect within that time for healing methods that are not instantanious. If the health does not go above zero within that time, the player dies for good
  • If the player's health goes below zero (more hit points than remaining health), the amount is substracted from the time (10-point hit, 7 HP, 8 CON -> 8 - 3 = 5 rounds before final death). This also means that death can be instantaneous when the hit was sufficiently strong and health sufficienctly bad.

The in-game explanation is that the player is not actually dead, but mortally wounded, and will die if not receiving care in time.


I like @Vatine 's answer: if they must choose between darkness and resurrection, it is a big choice. This is what epic stories are all about: should I keep the One Ring and use its power for the good or destroy it forever? should I keep magic for my people or destroy it and win the war? should I sacrifice my power or even my life for the victory of my people? what if nobody ever knows about my sacrifice and they think they won all by themselves?

These tragic choices make some of the best moments in the stories by Tolkien, LeGuin, Weiss & Hickman, and others. I think your players will like it and talk about for years. I would.

That said, I can offer you a house rule (adapted from Savage Worlds) to soften the "no resurrection" blow without making characters effectively immortal.

House Rule: if a character "dies" in battle, they cannot be healed, etc (as you suggest); after the battle has ended, they must pass a Constitution check at difficulty 10 + 1 per round they have been "dead". If they pass it, they can be healed back to a comma or "resurrected" back to normal but only during the first sixty minutes ("the golden hour"), otherwise they are gone forever.

This imposes two restrictions on healing and "resurrection" spells (they must be applied quickly, and cannot be applied to characters that failed the Constitution check) which adds enough drama but leaves the door open to surviving the battle. If you want to make it even softer / less mortal you can allow "resurrection" spells to be cast in the middle of combat too (but only if they pass the Constitution check).

  • \$\begingroup\$ A house rule like that is pretty much exactly what I'm looking for - it still allows for characters to go "down and out" in battle, it still allows for them to be picked back up after battle, and it makes death less harsh without softening it to the point where it's not a penalty or a threat. In fact... the game is barely started, and nobody's died yet, so I might introduce this immediately so that it doesn't feel like a weird switch or retcon later, after the big finale. The first time someone goes down, I can pull this out and act like it was the plan all along :P \$\endgroup\$ – anaximander Jul 2 '13 at 13:32

There is already an official rules supplement/option for changing how going unconscious and negative bloodied work...

Using the More Danger, Less Death rules supplement you can remove magical revival/resurrection from your game world, keep things fair for the players, and still have combat have the impact and risk vs. reward that you want it to.

As part of Dungeon Magazine issue 204, an alternate rules set was presented for handling PCs hitting zero HP and negative bloodied value HP. Rather then penalizing players with the untimely death of their PCs, the Injury deck and the article explaining its use (Less Death, More Danger) are meant to keep games moving while avoiding random PC death. The author even goes on to state that the intent is that PCs die when its plot relevant or in the case of something like a TPK, but a single PC won't simply die mid combat because of a single unlucky die roll.

When a PC hits 0 HP and is knocked unconscious they draw a card from an injury deck (provided in the article for printing) and take the minor wound side of the card. Wounds have penalties or debilitating effects on characters. A PC takes a major wound when they hit negative bloodied. Wounds applied to them for the rest of the encounter, after the encounter is over and into any other encounters for the rest of the day. Any PC that receives a wound must go through another encounter before attempting to heal the wound during a rest period. A PC can have multiple simultaneous wounds and their performance will likely reflect their barely held together status.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Now that's useful. I'll definitely take a look at that; it might be just what I need. \$\endgroup\$ – anaximander Jul 3 '13 at 12:36
  • \$\begingroup\$ @anaximander Upvote then, please. I've used it in a standalone session and also while I DM our normal campaign. I feel it both emboldens PCs, but has the right about of punishment as having a -3 to all roll due to a major head injury tends to keep people mindful, but you avoid the horrible feeling of the DM just crit and and killed my PC who wasn't even unconscious yet. \$\endgroup\$ – Joshua Aslan Smith Jul 3 '13 at 12:54

If you want death to be permanent in a system that allows it not to be, you need to get buy-in from your players. It's that simple.


Why not? Most games don't allow resurrection.

You can be more generous and allow PCs be recovered with healing rolls, if treated in few time.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I'd like to see the "recovered with healing rolls" idea expanded on. The first bit seems flippant and irrelevant, though: take ANY mechanic a particular game uses, and many other games will not allow it. I'm not sure what that has to do with removing a mechanic from this game. \$\endgroup\$ – BESW Jul 2 '13 at 12:10
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    \$\begingroup\$ In D&D, resurrection is not challenging, and in fact the level 8 Raise Dead ritual can be performed by anyone for a cost of only a few hundred gp (or a few thousand in paragon). I don't know what you mean by "Most games" - if you mean other games that's not very relevant, and if you mean other game groups that's in [citation needed] territory. \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Jul 2 '13 at 12:20
  • \$\begingroup\$ I fail to see how 4e or the questioner’s game are so different than other RPGs that this point is irrelevant. \$\endgroup\$ – Robert Fisher Jul 2 '13 at 14:13
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Robert 4e is quite different in this regard. It is "Combat as Sport" (google it), so its design goals, and the purpose of the resurrection options, are very different than in most other RPGs. (I don't personally like that about 4e, but I recognise it, and accept that 4e is its own beast.) Removing easy resurrection from 4e (as this answer suggests) would be as much a change as removing helmets and pads from American football. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Jul 3 '13 at 5:50
  • \$\begingroup\$ @SevenSidedDie Yeah, I am familiar with “combat as sport” and “combat as war” and 4e’s design goals. I don’t see either making this response irrelevant. But let’s put that aside. If the point that 4e without resurrection is as different from by-the-book 4e as flag/touch football is from standard American football, then perhaps that is a decent answer (or partial answer) to this question. \$\endgroup\$ – Robert Fisher Jul 3 '13 at 20:13

I'd like to focus on the little part of the question where you say

that makes the characters essentially unkillable, and removing the fear of death from the campaign is something I'd definitely like to avoid

While playing D&D, and D&D 4e especially so, the game design has already removed the fear of death from the campaign. Well, most of it.
The fluff that allows the character to be dead or in a coma is different but the fear is always the same. You need to spend resources to bring them back to life. You can't resurrect the "dead" character before combat ends. If it's TPK, someone else makes the ritual or you're dead and gone as a group.

Now it's called going into a coma - and maybe this status is related to your mcGuffin - but it's as bad as death, roll penalties and costs included.
Now they don't fear death, they fear coma instead.

So, I'd be perfectly fine to use the method you suggested yourself as a perfectly fine solution.

Otherwise, maybe the mcGuffin is preventing resurrection as undead by blocking negative energies, while the resurrection ritual works just fine.

By the way, 4e has no mechanical advantage in resurrecting people. You spend some money and you get some roll malus when creating a new PC would have none of these problems. Not allowing people to resurrect is just forcing people to roll new characters when they must - with all the common consequences of not being able to tell the PC's story anymore and the loss of relationships with people. Maybe your players are just ok with it.

Planeshifting quests, a friend in the otherworld or just the sheer awesomeness of your heroes could all be good excuses to have resurrection spells work on them - and on their new friends.


Personally, I think "softening the blow" would cheapen the large impact the players have made on the world.

Instead of houseruling to make death less likely or less lethal, factor the permanence of death into your encounter design. The big thing here is to make sure the characters generally have an out. If they realize they're outmatched - let them run away. Make sure they have alternatives to combat - without resurrection they may be apprehensive about charging in to every combat - which can be a really good thing.

And also keep in mind that this goes both ways - intelligent NPCs, especially if they would have had the resources for resurrection, will also know that death is one-way, and should be less likely to fight to the death.

Also, losing a battle doesn't have to mean the characters are all killed. You already have to pretty much go out of your way to kill a 4E PC (negative bloodied hp...), even a TPK could turn into a capture instead.


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