Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: a character dies. Maybe the dice weren’t in their favor, maybe they made a tactical error, maybe they grabbed that glowing skull even though it was so completely obvious it was an evil relic, oh my god, it could not have been more obvious if you’d lit it up with neon signs, but whatever. The character is dead. Your player is crestfallen, but one of the others claps them on the shoulder. “Don’t worry, dude. We have, like, 500,000 in the party bank. We’ll get you back tomorrow.”
And bam, any tension is gone.
If you like this kind of game, great! You’re here to have fun, this is a fine way to keep your players happy, no problemo. But, if you want a game where death means something, where a character kicking the bucket makes an impact, it doesn’t work. Conversely, unless you want a really brutal campaign where dead means DEAD, you might want some way for a player to recover a beloved character. Losing someone who hasn’t finished out their story can be disappointing, even depressing, and not just for the player. If part of your game is structured around your player’s personal stories, changing things up can be a real headache.
So how do you walk the line? How, in worlds where resurrection is a sack of gold away, can you make death feel like something more than a commercial transaction? How do you give players a way to keep their character without removing the consequence?
The Orpheus Solution AKA Let’s Go a’Questin’
If you want something back from the land of the dead, you better be willing to work for it. I am always a fan of story solutions to mechanical problems, and this is the ultimate one, pointing the plot directly at the issue. It stays truest to the spirit of adventuring games: hunt the MacGuffin, enter the unknown, rescue the prince/ss. You can take the direct route, run with the characters making an incursion into the underworld, astral plane, god realm or what-have-you, but there are other ways too. Maybe there’s a ritual that can bring a person back, but it requires three rare jewels held by three dragons. Or the AI network that stores all memory could be convinced to release your friend, but it requires serious political acumen to negotiate as its representative in the galactic council. There’s the traditional game of chess. Or . . . maybe you need to track down someone else, someone of equivalent “value”, to take the character’s place.
This can be flipped. If your players are up for it, you could run this from the perspective of the recently deceased, spending a few sessions following their battle back to the world of the living. In both situations, this is a great place to create temporary characters, running with concepts the players like but would not have played in a longer game. In the previous example, the story of the dead PC, it would be really fun to put together a ghostly entourage, either a crew of helpful underworld denizens, or maybe other souls looking to make a break for it. Just make sure your players don’t get so attached to their temps that you have to run another quest to recover them.
Do they freeze up in combat, remembering the bite of a blade in their heart?
Oh Woe, Woe, Woe Is Them!
Should you and your players desire a solution that doesn’t derail the current plot, you may rely on personal drama. This approach doesn’t change a world’s given rules, but spends time with a PC’s reaction to their own death. Instead of letting them off with a shrug and a “wow, that was bad”, engage them in roleplay about how their character feels about their demise and return, how it affects their worldview going forward, how it changes behavior. If they were religious, did it have any impact on their personal philosophy? Do they freeze up in combat, remembering the bite of a blade in their heart? Or have night terrors featuring things they saw behind the veil? Maybe they didn’t want to come back, either at peace with the way they perished or happy in whatever version of an afterlife awaited them?
If your game isn’t all that heavy on the drama, there are still options for you. In many systems, dying has penalties to stats. Tinkering with these can up the ante, but can lead to awkward situations where characters are no longer on the same page challenge-wise. No one wants to feel like the odd man out, playing catch up, so think of other ways you can use physical consequences. Coming back might entail the character now sworn to serve something from beyond the grave, a plot hook you can deploy at your pleasure. An object or piece of equipment that means a lot to the character could be destroyed or lost.
And there are interpersonal consequences. All the weird feelings a character could have about their expiration could apply to the people around them. From party members who feel awkward to family trying to cash in an inheritance you technically gifted them, or a lover who tried to follow you into the dark, there’s lots of ways to use a PC’s relationships. Twist the knife, they’ll thank you. After crying.
It’s a Mad, Mad World
I’m prepping to run a game in the near future, hence the mulling on this problem. Likely, I’ll use elements of the other approaches, but I’ve settled on applying a little outside pressure to add both challenge and flavor to the game. In this setting, resurrection magic exists, but the culture of the area considers it highly taboo. Not only is it outlawed, it’s a matter of personal and religious morality, an affront against nature, the gods, and civilized ethics. The dead are dead, the living are living, and you do not cross that line. Of course, just because it’s reviled doesn’t mean you can’t find someone willing to do it. It might be difficult, it might mean dealing with some really shady characters, it might mean making deals you’d prefer not to make, but it can be done. The GM help you if people find out, however. Dire consequences await offenders.
This is only one example of the myriad ways one can employ the world at large as your enforcer. Culture, yes, but also technology, religion, biology, even geography are at your disposal. The fabric of space-time itself might start causing problems for your party, or it could be as simple as being trapped in a dungeon so deep that there’s no way you could get a body back in time. The benefits of this approach– and the reason I’ve chosen it for my upcoming game in particular– are how it helps reinforce a sense of place, a sign of a wider existence beyond the party’s whims. They aren’t the center of the universe, even if they’re the center of this story, and the universe doesn’t have to make things easy for them when they buck the system. This can also work really well in conjunction with other approaches, too: for character drama, think about how difficult it’s going to be for lawful characters to seek out such forbidden magic. Even better, what if the resurrected PC is someone from the culture, and is utterly horrified to find out what the PCs have done on their behalf?
You Want How Much?
Run With It
And finally, what if you just . . . don’t?
Think about the consequences of living in a world where resurrection isn’t rare. So many questions spin out of that, so many chances for roleplay and worldbuilding– what does society look like when they know, for sure, what happens to you after you die? What about morality? If there’s an associated cost, is it inherent, or is it a chance to make a little profit? If the world we live in now is screwed up by the deep chasm between the haves and the have-nots, what would happen if those haves could afford immortality? Where does evolution fit in, once the impetus for genetic survival is removed?
So those are the ways I can think to make death meaningful in your game. What about you guys? Do you have any suggestions, or tales from the table to share?