When Death Isn’t (Always) The End

Posted: September 22, 2015 in Brass Tacks
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In many Dungeons and Dragons campaigns death is merely a hurdle. In fifth edition PCs and NPCs alike can return from death with a diamond and a 3rd-level or higher spell slot. Creatures can return from death as wights, revenants, ghosts, and other more powerful undead.

Now I know in most D&D worlds returning from death isn’t possible for common folks. One must have the money and the means to return. While the masses may not have access to such means, many adventurers at least have access to someone who can cast revivify by 5th level. In a world where such things are possible, I would assume that even if many have no hope of access to such magic, they have heard of these spells. That awareness would certainly change the way the world interacts with the characters.

Here’s a few tips for you to use in your campaign that make death and returning a more layered and complex story in your campaign world.

PCs Coming Back

The fact that there’s a chance PCs can come back to life after dying is probably not a complete shock to your villains. They know the spells are out there and if they’re aware the PCs have access to other higher level spells, they might assume raise dead is also in the mix. Even if that’s not the case, if the villain or a henchman kill a PC and that character returns to face them again, the game is up. They know that magic is out there now and that the PCs have access to it. What might villains do with a vulnerable character in their clutches to assure they stay out of their hair?

The first option is that enemies may go for what I call the super kill. A simple beheading after a PC has died dramatically increase the resources needed to bring the character back to life. Instead of diamonds worth 300 gp and a 3rd level spell slot for revivify, a single diamond worth 1000 gp (a more difficult find) and a 7th level spell slot for resurrection is required. If the villain disintegrates their body and they tosses it in the wind or throws the corpse into lava, suddenly diamonds worth 25,000 gp and a 9th level spell slot are needed for true resurrection. Heck if the villain absconds with the body of the deceased, the PCs have to go on a mission to get it back if they can’t cast true resurrection. If they hang onto the body for longer than 10 days, raise dead isn’t going to work anymore. Something more powerful is needed.

Of course there might be even craftier villains. PCs can choose to knock a target out with a melee attack instead of kill it. Why can’t villains do the same? They could run, fly, or teleport away with an unconscious PC and lock that person away or torture them for secrets. Suddenly an exciting prison break adventure is on the menu. Or perhaps the bad guys kill that PC, steal the character’s head, and cast resurrection on it as soon as they’re back at their stronghold. They party tries to raise the fellow adventurer only to find the spell doesn’t work because that character is already back from the dead and imprisoned.

There are also otherworldly forces that could stop the return of PCs from coming back from the dead. In a fourth edition D&D campaign I had two characters royally anger The Raven Queen, who was the goddess of death. She did not let them return from the dead when their spirits were called by the magic of their companions. Instead she threw them into a demiplane where time passed differently and her servants tortured them for the equivalent of 100 years. Then she gave them a mission to do in her name and returned them to the Material Plane. Their characters and the story were completely changed by this action.

Death and Returning Modules

If you want character death to have a more debilitating impact on PCs in fifth edition D&D, checkout the modules I created. The first module limits the number of times a PC may return from the dead and has some add-on features which make dying more easy and coming back more difficult after each death. The second module features tables of random effects which might occur when a spell such as raise dead is cast.

You can pick up the PDF of these modules over in the Free Game Resources section of this site anytime. If you go there feel free to also explore the backgroundsmagic itemsmonstersD&D fifth edition rules modulesspellsadventures, and more  I have made for fifth edition D&D.

When Villains Return

Of course in a world where the PCs have access to powerful, death-defying magic, why wouldn’t the villains have access to it as well? Any intelligent, high level NPC is going to have a back-up plan. There’s a cleric friend coming by each week to check in on the villain who can cast raise dead or an invisible druid nearby with a rod of resurrection. Many of our villainous NPCs have many resources at their command. If I was someone with a pile of gold, a high-level cleric or bard would probably be the first person on my retainer. When villains like this come back again and again like the Tyrant in Resident Evil 2, your PCs will be searching for a way to destroy them for good.

I’m baaaaaaack!

Some villains might return as undead instead of their former selves. Vampires, liches, mummies, revenants, and more might seek the characters as vengeance for their deaths. In the same fourth edition game I mentioned above, the PCs were taking on a cult of Orcus-worshipping baddies. Since he is the Demon Lord of Undeath many of the high-ranking members of the cult would be killed by the PCs only to return later as more powerful, undead versions of their living selves. This was great fun for me to role play and gave the PCs a preexisting relationship with the villains they were facing.

Be sure to only bring villainous NPCs back from death when it’s going to make the story more interesting and fun for your group. Doing this with every single villain will get tiresome and become a predictable trope! You don’t want the shock of a returned baddy to lose its surprise.

NPCs Want to Live!

If the PCs require help from an NPC, the NPC might contractually obligate the party to bring him or her back from the dead if the unthinkable happens in the line of duty. The husband of a soldier who died defending the town from orcs might beg the PCs to bring back his wife. A PC’s best friend and sister dies in a dragon attack that was a response to the party raiding its hoard. If word gets out the PCs have the power to return themselves from death other people will be pressuring them to use that power on themselves or those they love.

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  1. Lorathorn says:

    I very much like the last paragraph. Suddenly, putting the life of one or more NPCs in the hands of the players changes the dynamics of the whole campaign.

    Fortunately, I haven’t dealt much with character death in 5th edition, but my players seem to be more keen on trying new characters, I might actually have to struggle with having them keep their characters if they die, but thankfully it hasn’t been an issue, and even the tough fights have been relatively safe in terms of PC death.

    As for NPC’s, I try to veer away from bringing the villains back, but only to create more impact when it actually happens. I’ve had too many players (not this group… yet) groan at the idea that yet another NPC needs to be defeated yet again. I think it takes a certain mindset to be ok with not accomplishing a “goal”, especially when that goal seems to be putting down an NPC for good.

    This entire post does make me think of a topic I want to broach myself, in that failure should not be a game over, but with luck I’ll soon give more details on my own blog.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Patrick says:

    Got tips for setting builders on how to handle raise dead magic for powerful NPCs? Seems like every setting has to either be written with kings who are revived from assassinations and powerful conquerors who cannot be slain in battle, or else needs to be written to explain why that doesn’t happen. I like to say that raise dead et al. are trade secrets, or even a lost art that typical cleric-types can’t call on anymore. Maybe only a few sects ever knew the spell, and they’re all wiped out by rivals or divine wrath. Depends on the world.

    Adventure-types, both powerful heroes and powerful villains, don’t necessarily follow the rules. Maybe they come across exactly that type of exotic magic, putting raise dead back in its place as the game aid it’s supposed to be, while keeping it from totally altering the relatability of the world.

    But as death is the ultimate doom which vexes all men, and fear of it has shaped world history, I think it’s silly to ignore.

    Liked by 2 people

    • There’s a few ways I handle that in addition to your excellent ideas. The person’s soul is destroyed or imprisoned in the attack or that person is unwilling to return from the dead for some reason. Diamonds (needed to raise a person from the dead in D&D) are very rare and can only be found in the greatest of dragon hoards and the like. You could follow the three strikes module I created (so you don’t get unlimited raises) or use the other one that makes raise dead unreliable.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Kyle Maxwell says:

    I like that last bit. I mean, think about what would happen if suddenly people understood that a sufficiently powerful magic user could bring back their loved ones from the dead. They could be hounded or even possibly held hostage in some way by rulers or magnates…

    Come to think of it, for the relative pittance of 300-500gp, one would think that kings and queens would have an appropriate magic user sitting around for just this purpose. I mean, even bards can do this, for crying out loud.

    Come to think even more of it, I want to remove these spells from my next campaign entirely. Deconstructing this is getting a little out of hand.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This is a fascinating topic of discussion! I always love thinking about how the oddities of Dungeons & Dragons, like raise dead spells, would change the day to day lives and behaviors of the people living in those worlds.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Ray says:

    Damn you, Raven Queen!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. icksy says:

    I always try to include an early game “get-out-of-death-free card” for low level characters (because seriously, who wants their campaign to end before a couple of level ups), but I also like to attach some kind of drawback to make it interesting. My of my favourites was an early quest reward containing a wand of reincarnation with limited charges. This forced very interesting situations where the party elf died and was brougth back as the party orc. They not only gained a bit of self-loathing after this but had to deal with the local townsfolk not wanting to trade with them and forcing skill checks of the stealth/disguise variety just to not be stoned. I remember a few times when they walked through town with an orc covered in random tattered bed sheets and so on. Because reincarnation is a druid spell and the party didn’t have a druid, and because the wand had limited charges, the PCs were highly motivated to spend at least a few skill ranks each level in Use Magic Device, to lower their chances of wasting wand charges when they fizzled attempts to bring characters back from the dead. So it changed gameplay a bit, because the wand wasn’t a sure thing, but it was a thing with odds they could improve by their own choices.

    I’ve thought in more recent times about house ruling my own similar device, with different down-sides maybe. It is difficult to top the bedsheet-wearing orc for amusement factor, though next time I might think about a device that doesn’t have a charge limit, but an attempt cool-down time instead, so they have to wait a day before they can try again (which could be interesting if they’re in hostile territory, or on the run, or are themselves dying of diseases and need the skills of their comrade.


  7. Is it OK to reprint this (duly credited of course) in RPG Review (http://rpgreview.net). We’re doing a special issue on death and the undead & etc. This would be ideal!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Dustin says:

    Reblogged this on Dustin & Dragons and commented:
    Get busy livin’ or get busy dyin’!

    Liked by 1 person

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