18
\$\begingroup\$

Magical resurrection is a theme in many RPGs, and also in 5e Dungeons and Dragons. However, whatever means of magical resurrection players can access, in most cases nonplayer characters can access too.

How do I allow magical resurrection as part of the game world without removing the dramatic tension that accompanies death? If any major character who dies has the potential to return, won’t death lose significance? How do I avoid this?

Ideally, the solution won’t be to just tax the party money; that’s unpleasant, but it’s not emotionally significant. A long, extensive quest isn’t always possible. What means are available to me to keep death scary without combat devolving into a torch-the-bodies-afterwards affair on both sides?

Any effective solutions you've implemented in your own game would be highly appreciated.

\$\endgroup\$
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ [Related] How do I not cheapen death, while also respecting my players' time?Techniques for allowing character defeat without character deathAlternatives to death in a character and narrative-driven campaign?What about character death should be included in a social contract? (That first link seemed at first to be a duplicate of this, but the goals are quite different upon closer reading.) \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Jan 29 '16 at 22:02
  • 6
    \$\begingroup\$ Selekate, can you explain what you mean when you tag this with the system tag [dnd-5e] and also [system-agnostic]? Those are generally considered mutually exclusive. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Jan 29 '16 at 22:04
  • \$\begingroup\$ This is a very good and important question I feel that most 5E DM's aren't even aware they are going to face later on in their campaign once Revivify and, later, even farther reaching Resurrection spells become available to higher level casters. My current DM has banned the higher tier Res spells as he's not sure how to deal with a campaign where a character that has died in the last month/year/decade can just be conjured back to life again. \$\endgroup\$ – Airatome Jan 29 '16 at 23:15
  • \$\begingroup\$ @SevenSidedDie Yup, I'm asking specifically in the context of fifth edition since I don't know how resurrection works in other systems, but in 5e it's enough to spend gold and a spell slot. However, upon reflection it seemed that the answers could probably be general enough to be applicable to other systems. \$\endgroup\$ – Selekate Jan 30 '16 at 2:57
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @Selekate That might be, but it will be up to readers to see that. Since your question is looking for answers that will work specifically for someone using D&D 5e, that more specific tags is the right one and I'll remove [system-agnostic]. Thanks for clearing that up! \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Jan 30 '16 at 2:59
3
\$\begingroup\$

It really depends on what your goals are.

Death is as significant as its effects are in the game. For games where real permanent death almost never happens to PCs, and has no consequences, death can be quite insignificant. This can also reduce the difficulty and consequences of failure to the point where the players don't really need to fear much of anything, and can expect most or all defeats to be merely temporary setbacks or mere delays on their inevitable path to success and glory. This can undermine the "glory" too, if players notice there's no real question of actual defeat. Many computer games are like that ("Oh I died, better respawn or restore my last saved position, guess I just wasted three minutes..."), and even some tabletop games.)

You asked, "If any major character who dies has the potential to return, won’t death lose significance?" Yes, it loses significance equal to the difference in the consequences between actual death, and whatever death means in the game. However, having "the potential to return" can be very different from easy returning, in a number of ways, depending on the game being played, and what exists in the Game Master's world and the specific scenario. For examples:

  • Returning may require special skills which the players don't have easy (or perhaps any) access to.

  • Returning may involve a loss of abilities, in terms of experience/levels, attribute scores, or other added disadvantaging side-effects (aging, afflictions, etc).

  • Returning may require ingredients which are scarce or challenging to obtain, and/or cost a lot of money, or which could be used for other things if not used for resurrections.

  • Returning may involve the challenge of bringing the mostly-intact corpse to a particular location, perhaps within a certain time period.

  • Returning may have other risks or limits, such as a maximum number of times per person, or within a period of time, and/or chances of failure and/or side-effects.

  • Returning may have religious and/or social stigmas, such as being considered evil necromancy and/or mortal sin. Some people with religious attunement might even be able to tell that someone has been resurrected.

  • Returning may also not just be a simple convenient state change. Depending on the game world's spiritual setup, it may be more involved than that, possibly consorting with and striking deals with fae or djinn or spirits or demons, or maybe the PC's own spirit needs to be convinced to return, and so the returned PC becomes focused on whatever that convincing reason was, like a revenant (q.v.).

  • Returning may require a long time for the returned PC to be able to be very effective again, during which time they are weak or fragile and need to rest or at least wait to recover their former strengths and abilities.

So I would consider carefully what you and your players think you want death to be like in your games, check out all the options in the rules you mean to play with, and discuss with your players. Then decide what rules to use, what game world situation to set up, and possibly what house rules to use.

For what it sounds like you want, I think you could pick and choose from ideas such as above to get a game where death can be returned from, but only with major costs and effort involved, and as much or as little impact as you want.

Staying system-agnostic, I find that the choice of combat system also has a major effect on the death situation. That is, in games with abstract combat systems, especially games with dangerous abstract combat systems, it may be fairly difficult to avoid death sometimes, and in this case, it may be more tempting to have actual permanent death be unlikely. On the other hand, in games with more detailed tactical combat systems, or games where players have lots of ways they can (and are expected to) be careful to greatly reduce risks of death, and risk management is an important element of play, then it may work well to have deaths and crippling injuries be more or less permanent unless avoided in the first place. Or, player tastes may even enjoy fairly common and unpredictable risks of permanent loss or death, and enjoy that not dying is a significant achievement (that's how many early RPGs played out, any some players still enjoy that experience). (Personally, I mostly run games with little magical healing, but plenty of choices and tactical battles that let the players choose what risks to take. Usually there are very few PC deaths, because they tend to make choices that avoid getting them killed.)

\$\endgroup\$
  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ Selected for the idea of there being a spiritual authority dictating whether or not individuals may return; if individuals are judged by virtue of their actions and impact, then not every rich merchant or sovereign is being revived, and it's not certain that every player will be either. Uncertainty is a factor I was searching for. Thank you! (also selected for the advice that this is something I should discuss with my players) \$\endgroup\$ – Selekate Jan 30 '16 at 15:35
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Selekate Some games have what happens when players get in severe trouble (or die) have to do with the player's relationship with the gods, generally the ones they've honored or offended. That's fairly consistent with several real-world religions and mythologies, and some games as well (e.g. Roguelikes such as Dungeon Crawl, where if you choose and cultivate relationships with certain gods (following their codes of behavior and/or making sacrifices), there's a better chance they'll help you when you're about to die and you pray/beg them for help.) \$\endgroup\$ – Dronz Jan 30 '16 at 17:53
  • \$\begingroup\$ Historical note: Before 3e, resurrection was much less certain; Players had to make a roll to see if they survived coming back from the dead, could only come back a certain number of times, or both. This meant that death carried the risk, at least, of being fatal. I guess that's been rolled into GM interpretation and decision-making, in 5e. \$\endgroup\$ – GMJoe Feb 1 '16 at 0:36
  • \$\begingroup\$ I also think that the point about the spiritual rules of one’s world bears careful consideration. I seem to recall reading some 3.5 fluff back in the day about most souls being comfortable in their afterlife (if you could find that, it might enhance the answer!), absorbed into the godhead or the plane itself, or turned into servitors like angels or lemures. From a worldbuilding point of view, one should consider whether anyone with the resources will return until they die of old age, and if not, then why. \$\endgroup\$ – Obie 2.0 Nov 4 '17 at 9:33
  • \$\begingroup\$ In other words, the general desire of souls to stay in their afterlife could provide potential dramatic tension (as you basically mentioned). You may have to make a very good argument, either to the gods or to the player’s soul itself, why they should return. This could provide some dramatic tension, too - there’s always the chance that a player’s resurrection could fail because of story or worldbuilding reasons, and they’d have to create a new character. \$\endgroup\$ – Obie 2.0 Nov 4 '17 at 9:39
5
\$\begingroup\$

Overcoming Death

Let's start with what the RAW options and costs are for resurrection and when they become a factor:

  • Revivify, 3rd level spell (5th level caster), Cleric & Paladin, 300gp, must be cast within 1 minute of death. In practice, you must have this spellcaster with you when you die and they must have the spell prepared.

  • Raise Dead, 5th level spell (9th level caster), Bard & Cleric, 500gp, must be cast within 10 days of death; you suffer penalties for 4 days.

  • Reincarnate, 5th level spell (9th level caster), Druid, 1000gp, must be cast within 10 days of death; you are unlikely to be the same race (which is fun).

  • Resurrection, 7th level spell (13th level caster), Bard & Cleric, 1000gp, must be cast within a century (for PCs this is practically indefinitely); you are fully restored. Some negative effects on the spellcaster.

  • True Resurrection, 9th level spell (17th level caster), Cleric & Druid, 25000gp, must be cast within 2 centuries (for PCs this is practically indefinitely); you are fully restored, this is the only one that works in the absence of a body.

  • Wish, 9th level spell (17th level caster), Sorcerer & Wizard, Free, you would use this to duplicate Resurrection.

Except for Wish each of these options has an per use cost and that these costs are significant; the cheapest would keep you in a modest lifestyle for almost a year. If you go by the Starting Equipment table on p.38; PCs of levels 1-4 cannot afford any of these, 5-10 have enough wealth for 1 death, 11-16 for 10 and 17+ for 20.

In addition, having the cash isn’t enough - you have to have a diamond worth at least that much. Not a group of diamond - one increasingly valuable (and rare) one.

Except for True Resurrection they all require a body; as you mention, burning the corpse is a pretty effective, if ghoulish, way of preventing a return for all but those with links to the most powerful divine spellcasters.

In addition, they all require somebody to care enough about the dead creature to go to the effort and pay the cost. Evil villains generally do not inspire that level of devotion.

As an aside, there are some ways of causing death that specifically exclude some methods of returning.

What you could do

AD&D had a Resurrection Survival chance based on your constitution score: if you rolled less than this you were raised and permanently lost a point of constitution, if you failed you were dead forever. This put an unknown limit on the number of times a person could be raised.

Adopting and simplifying this you could have the dead creature make a saving throw in order to come back from the dead. This could simply use the mechanism for the death saving throw (a 59.3% chance of success) or you could tie it to an ability score; Constitution, Charisma and Wisdom could all be argued for, you could choose one or allow the creature to choose their best. You can also decide if proficiency is included. Further options, involve a better chance for higher level spells. The possibilities are endless.

In general, having a small but non-trivial chance that death is permanent may serve to concentrate the mind.

Of course, if you want something to really scare your PCs, D&D 3.x mechanism of losing a level is an extremely high price to pay.

\$\endgroup\$
  • \$\begingroup\$ Wish isn't free if you do not have it yourself... \$\endgroup\$ – Alexis Wilke Jan 30 '16 at 3:40
3
\$\begingroup\$

The tension is a product of high stakes involved. If you want an event of death to be dramatic, you need to introduce stakes that are lost by dying. Of course, these stakes may include losing a character, but that's not the solution you were looking for probably.

13th Age recommends limiting the number of resurrections or inducing a campaign loss. The first is simply a hard cap of the times one can return from the dead, and it is usually once per level. The second is a technical term for handing significant narrative advantage to the opposition - maybe the enemies get more time to fortify themselves, maybe a calamity strikes forcing the players to use up their resources, or maybe the cause the heroes support suffers a significant setback.

Other possibilities:

  • returning character suffers from debilitating affliction that renders them handicapped for significant time (depression, weakness, temporary loss of level, etc).
  • returning character must name an important bond, feature or resource they lose. This can be losing ability to love, disfigurement or an important item.
  • returning a character to life takes time. During that time the player must use an inferior substitute character.
\$\endgroup\$
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Upvoted for various helpful points, and especially for the idea of imposing penalties that aren't mechanical to let the player know that they aren't completely hale and healthy upon returning from death. Losing the ability to love-wow, that's nasty, as well as a great plot hook. \$\endgroup\$ – Selekate Jan 30 '16 at 15:15
1
\$\begingroup\$

From all what I've read about in 5e so far, it is indeed pretty easy to bring people back from the dead. Although even True Resurrection has limits: someone who died of old age, someone whose soul is not available, and the person has to be willing (which I guess PC generally are...).

However, the type of play you get at a higher level (starting around level 5, actually) is not so much whether the party will survive all battles but rather whether they accomplish their task. Say they have to kill those lycanthropes (or better: remove the curse on each one of them, which means keeping them alive and casting a spell on them to remove the lycanthropy...) before all in a village get infected. Success is not just being alive and getting rid of the lycanthropy. It is also that no more villagers get caught by the time you're done. It is getting things back to normal for that village. Maybe this village has no money or any kind of good to offer to the players but the players still have to help... because if they don't something much worse could happen.

When at level 10+, you are expected to deal with politics at a greater scale too. So your younger self protected a village, now you have to protect the whole Sword Coast by gathering information, finding specific items and avoiding the collapse of the order of giants of the North... Not succeeding would mean a very destructive war with the giants. So your players may never die, but they may end up seeing death in front of their eyes that should not have happened had they succeeded in their task!


  • Dying of old age

When attacked by ghosts, you may lose 1d4 x 10 years of your life. This will kill you of old age and I have not seen something that reversed such damages (there is the Potion of Longevity that can help a bit, but after you drank one, chances are you will age instead!) If you're an Elf, you're probably good. If you're an Aarakocra (Element Evil Players Handbook—their age limit is around 30 years!) then you can die by one Ghost touch...

  • Soul is imprisoned

When transformed to an undead (shadow, revenant...), you have a problem because then your soul is imprisoned within the undead creature. Obviously, destroying the undead will be enough to free the soul, assuming you know which undead we are talking about (if transformed to a lich or mummy lord it is a bit more complicated, you have to destroy the actual heart, although such transformations generally do not happen without a lot of prior preparation so it is not likely to happen unless a bad guy captured your player character...)

The Soul could also be imprisoned in a magical item or on a plane.

And in most of these cases, they cannot be found with a simple divination. So a bad guy captures one of your players, kills him, transforms him in a zombie and releases the zombie in a grave filled with such...

  • Soul gets destroyed?

A god can be destroyed when killed on his plane of existence. To my point of view that means its essence (soul) gets destroyed. This would mean that the soul of a player character could also be destroyed. Yet a rather complicated task... Also there is nothing about the possibility of destroying a soul in any D&D that I've heard of.


There is one other, rather terrible solution: all party members die. When that happens, it is really unlikely that anyone will bother bringing these heroes back.

From what someone else mentioned, having enough burden in bringing someone back from the dead (i.e. it takes 1 hour to cast Resurrection and the cleric may not have any more spell slots available to cast the spell today) could mean that the resurrection cannot be cast right away and by the time it could, maybe the cleric is dead too... the rest of the party runs away and gets in front of other monsters and gets killed one by one that way. If one person makes it back, he may have lost all his gold and diamonds by then... What if he's not the cleric? After some years, when he has the money again, will he still be thinking of his friends and pay to bring them back to life?

I've also heard of really unlucky parties all jumping in a portal of annihilation at the same time or entering a room that will freeze them all to death.

In other words, they should still keep on their guards, but a direct death, when well prepared, can be absolutely acceptable since it can relatively easily be reverted.

Really, in most of the cases I've seen where people died it has been a total destruction of the party. In all other cases, they get healed at some point and go back to adventuring...

\$\endgroup\$
0
\$\begingroup\$

One answer is found in the 5e DMG. It states that the soul of the target of the bring-back-to-life spell must be willing and able to return to life.

Souls might be unwilling if their afterlife is better than their life was. They might be unable if their soul belongs to a devil.

\$\endgroup\$

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.