I have a bit of a problem. Some of my players have begun to look on dying as a minor inconvenience rather than the big deal it should be. You see, my players are seasoned, and know that when their PC dies, there’s always a raise dead or resurrection spell to be cast. For the most part, I’m ok with this. D&D is just a game after all, and as long as my players are having a blast, who cares if they’re coming back from the dead? But this has really begun to go too far…

When a character dies, he or she may spend a session or two playing another character while their original’s corpse spends its time gentle repose-d in a bag of holding, but eventually they find that diamond, or scroll, or rod and they’re able to bring the old character back to life. They have even begun to see the death of major NPCs as, “Oh well, we can just raise them later,” as opposed to the big story moments they should be.

The Current Penalties

Take a look at how the raise dead, resurrection, and true resurrection spells read from the Basic D&D Player PDF.

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There are some good things going on here. There is no experience point loss, Constitution score loss, or level loss, as in first, second, and third editions. While I may be looking for some more serious consequences when it comes to dying, these permanent draining penalties are no fun. They just give you an underpowered character compared to the rest of the party (unless everyone in the party dies and is raised an equal number of times). Always being a level behind everyone else can be embarrassing for many, and having low Constitution makes it even easier and more likely for a character to die again. While a little shame for dying can be fun, having a constant reminder like that is simply not fun for many players (myself included) which makes folks less likely to take risks with their characters. I would rather see my fictional hero die in a blaze of glory than cower in the back because I don’t want to have to feel the shame associated with being second-rate compared to the rest of the party. These old school penalties are a bit of a pain in the butt as well, since backwards math can take some time to figure out and get used to.

So the fifth edition spells do not have some of the bad drawbacks I personally disliked in older editions. They have a few other drawbacks which make sense to me. Let’s break it down spell by spell.

Raise Dead Drawbacks
  • Price and gem rarity. 500 gp is typically in the reach of PCs within the first five levels, perhaps within the first few sessions if the party pools resources and the DM is a handsome and generous person like myself. But a diamond worth 500 gp is more difficult to find than a few (hundred) coins. Only the most successful big city jewelers, nobles, and royalty are likely to have something like that lying around waiting to be sold. Even then they may not wish to part with the item (or have the characters undertake a quest before they consider selling it to them). Making these diamonds hard to find is the first drawback and it goes hand in hand with the next.
  • Time limit. A person may only have died within the last 10 days for the spell to work. Now in most campaigns that’s a time crunch to find a 500 gp diamond if the party does not already have one, so it does put the pressure on a party find a gem more quickly, which is great fun.
  • Gotta have the body. This makes sense for a fifth level spell. You can be raised from the dead provided you haven’t lost your head or turned into a pile of ash. So if this is the only spell available and you just died via red dragon breath, you are SOL. Also lost limbs stay lost and all magical diseases, curses, etc. remain in effect. So it’s not a heal all spell (like resurrection and true resurrection).
  • Fifth level spell. A fifth level spell for bards, clerics, and druids means the caster must have at least nine levels in one of these classes. So if the party does not have a ninth level caster in one of said classes (or a 17th level Paladin), their options are somewhat limited. Either the party must have a magic item such as a scroll which casts the spell and someone capable of activating said item or be able to find a willing NPC to cast the spell. The rarity of both of these is, of course, up to the DM. Not a bad drawback, but at a certain point this isn’t a hurdle once the party has a caster who can cast the spell.
  • Temporary penalties. I like this one. Coming back from the dead and being dead should take more out of you than having the flu, but eventually you get back to your old self.
Resurrection Drawbacks
  • Price and gem rarity. Now you need a 1000 gp gem, so it has all the drawbacks of raise dead at seemingly double the price, right? Nope! This drawback barely matters because you have 100 years to find the thing if you don’t already have it.
  • Time limit. If we’re talking PCs, in most cases this isn’t an issue. Unless you’re playing a game with a party of elves which spans centuries (actually a pretty awesome idea… called it), if a party member dies this is nothing to worry about. It could come up in other ways in your story, but won’t matter much for dead PCs. However, a caster is taxed greatly if a creature dead for more than a year is brought back to life, which is a little more likely to happen to a PC (though still not very in most cases).
  • Caster taxed. If a creature has been dead more than a year, the caster pays a big price… for a day. This isn’t a huge sacrifice, unless the spell is cast in the middle of a dungeon, which it very well may be, but again, in most cases probably not.
  • Seventh level spell. The spell is seventh level which means, a caster must be a 13th or higher level caster to cast the spell, and in most cases a DM will rule it’s even harder to find a scroll or NPC caster than for raise dead.
  • Temporary penalties. I’m still loving it.
True resurrection penalties
  • Price and gem rarity. Dang! 25,000 gp is a pretty penny and it’s even harder to find in gem form. Even with 200 years, you’re going to have to go through heck to get a diamond of that worth.
  • Time limit. 200 years. Really not a worry for a PC. This is barely a drawback (as it should be for a ninth level spell).
  • Ninth level spell. Good luck finding a scroll or NPC caster in many settings. If you do, be prepared to make some big sacrifices or before you get your hands on an item or a favor granted.

My Conflicting Feelings

Overall, I’m pretty happy with the way these spells play out and their penalties. The pay off and penalties seem to scale well with spell level, but I do want something more. Here’s what I’m keeping in mind as I come up with some modules for death in Exploration Age.

  • It’s A Game. I want my players to have a shot at bringing their characters back from the dead if they truly love them. Characters returning from the dead is a hallmark of fantasy (Gandalf and Harry Potter did it) as well, so I’m cool with the fact that it doesn’t actually happen in the real world. At the same time, sometimes people lose games, so coming back from the dead shouldn’t be a gimme.
  • Death Should Be Scary. Death needs to have consequences beyond what the spells present, for my players have lost their fear of dying, a subject which should really be the main concern of players in most D&D campaigns.
  • Death Should Not Be A Straight Punishment. I want my players to take risks with their characters. Risks should be rewarded with great story, whether or not they pay off. A sweet, fiery death is a lot better than running around a few levels or Constitution points shy of the rest of the party.

With that in mind, check out these modules for death I’m offering in the Exploration Age Campaign Guide. The first makes PC death permanent… eventually. This seems fair as I have never had a PC die more than twice, but it could happen and would make death more meaningful. The second makes coming back a riskier proposition (though still fairly easy to accomplish), and was inspired by some first edition rules.

In an Exploration Age game, GMs can rule that character death has greater consequences than what is presented in the current Dungeons and Dragons rules. These variant rules are meant to make death a more serious threat.

Module: Three Strikes and You’re Out

Each time creatures are brought back to life via magic, a piece of their soul remains in the afterlife. They may only return from death twice, before their souls are permanently anchored in the afterlife. A third death is the absolute final for any creature, after that they may not be brought back to life by any means. In a sentence – every creature only gets three lives maximum.

Variant Module: Escalation Strikes

In this variant of the Three Strikes and You’re Out module, creatures may be brought back to life three times and a fourth death is the absolute final for any creature. In a sentence – every creature gets four lives. In this module a raise dead spell can no longer bring dead creatures who have died more than once back to life, and after their third death only a true resurrection spell may return a character to life.

Module: The Soul is Fragile

Outside of the body, a soul is fragile and can easily be destroyed. The process of bringing a person back to life is hard on the soul and there’s a chance a returning soul could be destroyed in the process. A caster must make a DC 15 ability check using their spellcasting ability modifier. If the check fails, the GM should roll on the appropriate table below for the result, based on the spell cast.

Raise Dead
d100 Effect
1 – 40 Spell works as normal.
41 – 60 Soul is not returned to the body, spell slot and diamond are expended, but soul is not destroyed.
61 – 99 The soul is destroyed.
100 Soul is not returned to the body, spell slot and diamond are expended, but soul is not destroyed. In addition, an outsider (such as a devil, demon, or angel) instead inhabits the body of the deceased. The inhabitant must be removed from the body before the original creature may be returned to life.
d100 Effect
1 – 50 Spell works as normal.
51 – 70 Soul is not returned to the body, spell slot and diamond are expended, but soul is not destroyed.
71 – 99 The soul is destroyed.
100 Soul is not returned to the body, spell slot and diamond are expended, but soul is not destroyed. In addition, an outsider (such as a devil, demon, or angel) instead inhabits the body of the deceased. The inhabitant must be removed from the body before the original creature may be returned to life.
True Resurrection
d100 Effect
1 – 60 Spell works as normal.
61 – 80 Soul is not returned to the body, spell slot and diamond are expended, but soul is not destroyed.
81 – 99 The soul is destroyed.
100 Soul is not returned to the body, spell slot and diamond are expended, but soul is not destroyed. In addition, an outsider (such as a devil, demon, or angel) instead inhabits the body of the deceased. The inhabitant must be removed from the body before the original creature may be returned to life.

Module: A Combination

You could combine the Three Strikes and You’re Out module and The Soul is Fragile module, by limiting creatures to only three lives and asking for a spellcasting ability check and rolling on the appropriate table anytime raise dead, resurrection, or true resurrection is cast.

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  1. joelastowski says:

    What a great topic! I had a couple ideas that might work with your current lines of thinking.

    First, if you’ve got a player willing to do it, go with a story penalty. Much like in that Buffy season when Willow forcibly pulled her out of heaven back into her body, have the character come back “not okay” somehow. Maybe disadvantage on checks that involve being connected to life/happiness (mostly social things), or maybe they start to see shadows & spirits wandering the world, disconnected from the realm of the living (not undead, per se, but those that haven’t passed on but also aren’t willful enough to actually manifest).

    You could also have other death-like special effects. Maybe animals are less comfortable around the PC. Maybe he can see Kestrels or similar creatures (a la Harry Potter). Maybe babies cry or milk curdles or the atmosphere occasionally gets colder. Maybe the bard suddenly finds her music style turning darker. For a druid, ranger, or maybe cleric of Life or Nature, this could be a huge deal. For a fighter or wizard, it’s less of a big deal, but still feels significant.

    In your “3 Strikes & You’re Out” model, maybe each time you come back, you permanently have a death save checked off on your sheet… since you’re closer to death, it’s harder to avoid it now. This doesn’t hamper you like a lower Con or level would, but once you do get to fighting off death, it’ll be a shorter fight. After 2 resurrections, two death saves are checked, and after the third time, you’re barely connected to the living world anymore. Add in the Buffy-esque effects, getting worse with each trip back, and it could feel really epic. Maybe as a DM you could allow questing to reconnect with life somehow, but the character may realize along the way that they’re just “going through the motions” (sorry, I’m really in a Buffy mindset right now).

    Great discussion to have with your players, though. Find out what kind of game they want. I think 3.0 or 3.5 had a hardcover that gave options for playing the ghosts of your dead characters in other adventures (not dissimilar to White Wolf’s old game Wraith… which was fantastic, by the way).

    Liked by 2 people

    • qpop says:

      Can I take a moment and just express how much I love the idea of permanently marking off the death saving throws? I was going to come in and talk about how I love the danger of PCs dying and never really liked raise dead and stuff like that but now… woof, I think Three Strikes + marked saves is enough to win me over. I’d be completely okay with permadeath, though.

      But what ever happened to Reincarnation?! I had thought that they brought that back. Where does that fall in your modules?

      Liked by 2 people

    • All great ideas, which I am happy to steal!!!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. PrimeLoki says:

    I’ve always been very conflicted about player character death. I like to run games that focus on story, and I don’t want their characters to die if I’m planning on major plot beats for the future. On the other hand, resurrection spells really cheapen the impact death can have. I remember one of my 3.5 where resurrection spells and items were too easy to come by and the players never even blinked once at a character death. I could see the three strikes rule working to combat that.

    I eventually changed my tune about PC death in another campaign where I let the character’s deaths have a major impact to the world or story, sort of similar to the death moves from Grim World. Eventually once the original party was all dead, we started to run a side campaign of adventures in the underworld. It was a fun way to play around with death in an RPG.

    For my upcoming D&D game, I’ve stated outright that there are zero resurrection spells and items in the setting. My players have taken that well, but a few of them are fretting about it. We’ll see how that goes. I also really like @joelastowski idea of permanently marking off a death save, making it hard to cling to life. I might work that into my game.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. joelastowski says:

    Death works very differently, depending on the system. In a Deadlands LARP I was in for a while, everyone knew that death was going to happen a lot. We all had favorite characters that just met the wrong end of a bullet at times, and that was okay, because that’s the way that world worked.

    Then you look at the old 7 seas system, and at character gen you decide (out of game) the circumstances for your character’s death. That accomplishes 2 things: 1. you are more likely to do daring swashbuckler things, because you know as a player that as long as you’re not experiencing circumstances of your pre-determined death, your character won’t die in that scene; and 2. whenever you go to a location where your death scenario could happen, it ratchets up the tension immensely. “I’m supposed to die of electrocution, and that treasure I really want is in the middle of the Deadly Moat of Electric Eels.”

    White Wolf’s recent LARPing rules also have a great mechanic: mediation. This allows many situations that might result in player death to instead be handled in “dramatically appropriate ways.” So if two vampire PCs have a dispute, and one reasonably “could” kill the other, instead they can go to mediation, an out of character discussion where the two players can say “hey, I know you could kill my character, but I’ve put a lot of time into him. What is your character looking for, and is there a way your character can feel like she’s beaten me without utterly killing me?” So maybe the attacked character gets badly beaten, maybe getting a permanent scar, and now agrees never to publicly challenge the attacker in front of underlings. The same thing can happen with interactions between players & game masters, so long as it’s reasonable. I always liked that way of letting the story overpower the rules of life & death.

    I also used to have characters who were known to have epic deaths in our old West End Star Wars game back in college. Created more than a few force ghosts that way, sacrificing myself to save the rest of the group. I think the key is to be up-front with your players about the way death (and resurrection) works in your game.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Beardly says:

    (Reading this after the year-end summary post)

    PC death is not fun. One of the ways I like to mitigate the pain is by using a feature that I ripped off from AD&D: the Henchman. At fifth level (and every two levels after that) each character is entitled to roll up a 1st level fanatical henchman (secondary character for the player). These henchmen are controlled by the player, and once the main group has a whole set, they can assist with big projects, or be sent off on secondary missions. Thus, when a PC dies, the player can continue running immediately with their Henchman as their new primary character. (Note: Henchmen also get their own henchmen at 5th level and above). By the time the PC dies (and with resurrection magic relatively rare in my world) the Henchman should be a pretty good level from running with a higher-level group.

    It works remarkably well. And with resurrection magic being rare and unreliable (I like the 50% chance of total success you suggested), PCs tend to not throw away their lives needlessly. But if something happens, you’ve got backup right there (most of the time, anyway).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah the henchmen idea is a great one! It’s also in the new DMG. I also have characters step into a famous NPC role sometimes, especially if the rest of the party already likes and respects that person.


  5. Dustin says:

    Reblogged this on Dustin & Dragons and commented:
    An excellent blog post about life & death in 5e.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Josh Lewis says:

    I actually built a whole world around this. The world has reached a place where any time anyone reasonably rich or an adventurer dies they can just be revived. If you went to hell and can’t get back, well just hire some PC’s to go find you. The Ancient Greater Master Wizards frequently travel the outer planes and meddle with the boundaries of mortality. The Gods are all afraid that the wizards will cast them down if they try to stop them. Finally, the Great Council of Angels decide to do something about this. They band together and cast the Gods out of the outer planes. The Gods, having no home now, tear apart the Prime Material Plane and make their own domains out of it. Some of them retreat into the elemental planes as well. While this is happening, the evil gods of the netherhells came and made dark reflections of the new material spheres that now lurk underneath the upperspheres. The outer planes are sealed, and all soul transit is strictly kept track of by the Angels, and the fiends are also sealed in their homes. Many the wizards are trapped on Sigil in a deep slumber, which has now become a floating, almost spaceship like city which passes near the spheres at one point of another, along with being covered in portals to all the different material spheres. The old factions are gone, replaced by some which haven’t all been fleshed out. The spheres rotate around the elemental planes. The plane of shadow connects the spheres to their counterparts and the ethereal plane connects the upper spheres in a ring. There are 3 primarily elf, 3 primarily dwarf, and 3 primarily human, upper spheres with other races interspersed. One of them is Firestorm Peak, Look out! There are also some orbiting spheres, like one with dragons, and one where angels and fiends fight. There are also Angelica, the angels new home, and the Blood Fields, a fiendish plane. These are the only (new) outer planes that people can get too. whew, I think I’m done now.

    Liked by 1 person

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