Some people say you’re gonna die someday. I got news, you never got to go. – Ted Nugent.
Burgess really didn’t feel any pain as the githyanki’s silver blade sliced through him. Looking down at the gash in his abdomen, his insides pushing against the opening and spilling out, he realized he had met his end. Collapsing, Burgess waited for the sweet release of death.
After a few moments, he realized there were no trumpets welcoming him to his final reward. Instead, he became immediately aware of hovering over his still body. Everything was colored in varying shades of silver-grey, but he could see what was going on in the cavern where he fell. His companions were searching the dead, including himself. He could tell they were discussing things, but the sounds were faint, barely audible echoes. Looking up, he noticed a broad silvery stream. The stream was inviting, calling to him. As he looked closer though, he could see the stream was made up of thousands of individual souls, each one calling him to join them.
It took a sheer act of will, but he ignored the voices. As he made the conscious choice to do so, the world around him came into slightly sharper focus. He could see and hear his companions now, although he could not interact with them. He could move about as well. He shouted protests as Grener, the party’s thief, took possession of this treasure pouch. The group’s cleric spoke a few words over the body, but there wasn’t much of a ceremony. Instead, his former companions moved the body into the corner of the cave, and piled some rocks on it. He quietly hoped he wouldn’t get consumed by some hideous mold or fungus.
The river of souls gone now, Burgess followed his companions more out of boredom, than anything else. During a particularly tense moment, he shouted in alarm; and was taken by surprise when Quinton the elf said, “Did you hear that?” As the days progressed, Burgess made additional attempts to contact his former companions. Eventually, all of them were aware of his presence, and Grener even apologized for stealing his stuff. Together, the rest promised that if they could scrape together the funds, they would return for Burgess’ body and restore him to life. The promise was some comfort and Burgess did what he could to aid his companions in his ghostly state – at least until he could once again be brought back to life.
For most heroes, death is inevitable. It can come unexpectedly, but often the hero knows when she’s at the end of her rope. Sometimes dying can be an escape — escape from torture, or freedom from fates worse than death. Lately, there’s been a lot of talk about what role death should play in Dungeons and Dragons. Saving throws and hit points are part of that equation, but another part is how easy it should be to bring back a character from death. Virtually every edition of the game has Raise Dead, Resurrection and Reincarnation spells (or some equivalent). However, the ease at which those spells should be deployed is hotly debated.
Instead of re-hashing all the various ideas about how death in Dungeons and Dragons should be handled, I’m simply going to add my voice to the choir, and let you know how I manage character death in my campaigns. My thoughts are largely based on a 3rd Edition Dungeons & Dragon mini campaign setting book called, Ghostwalk. It’s one of my favorite books, and if you can find it somewhere, I encourage you to pick it up. It’s been my template for character death for awhile now.
I’ll get straight to it. If I was designing DnDNext, here’s what death would like in my game:
- When a hero dies, roll a Saving Throw on a d20. 1-10 – You join the River of Souls and go to the Great Beyond. You can still be Raised or Resurrected. 11-20 – You can opt to become a Ghost. For each level above the 1st you have when you died, you can add +1 to this Saving Throw. Characters 10th level and above can always opt to become a Ghost.
- As a Ghost you can only interact with the world in a limited way. It takes 24 hours (1 full day) to be able to attract the attention of your companions and communicate with them. This is a great opportunity for role-playing. Imagine your character haunting your former companions!
- In 72 hours (3 days), your Ghost can make a basic attack. I won’t crunch numbers, but it should probably scale alongside a basic attack like a single sword hit, or Magic Missile, or something like that. This power allows the Ghost to aid the party and participate in the adventure.
- In 1 week (7 days), your Ghost can attempt to possess one foe once per day. The possession lasts for 1 hour or the duration of the encounter (which ever comes first). The enemy has a chance to repel you (the possessing ghost) which should probably be based on an opposed Will or Wisdom check. Thus, it should be difficult for a low level Ghost to possess a powerful creature such as a Vampire or Demon, etc.
- Your Ghost can be damaged and has the same number of hit points as your character had when he or she was alive. You cannot be healed, although you repair some damage with each rest. A Ghost reduced to 0 hit points is banished back to the place where the Ghost’s corpse lies. A banished Ghost stays tethered to the site of its death for 24 hours (1 day). After that the Ghost can roam freely or join her companions if she so desires. If the corpse is completely destroyed, the Ghost must join the River of Souls and join the Great Beyond until such time that it can be Resurrected (if the dead hero’s companions decided to do that).
While the Ghostwalk campaign book added a number of other powers for Ghosts and even allowed them to level, I’d say keep it simple. A player can always decide to “give up the ghost” and join the River of Souls. Joining the Great Beyond essentially means the character is permanently dead, unless a powerful spell of some kind (like Resurrection) is used to bring the character back.
Death of a cherished character does not mean that you have to immediately tear up your character sheet and create a new one. Instead, hang around for awhile and see if your companions have what it takes to see the adventure through and perhaps even bring you back to life. Make sure the thief doesn’t steal your stuff, and be haunting spirit you’ve always wanted to be.
My name is Randall Walker and This Is My Game
Part idiot. Part old man. All geek. R.M. Walker, who can be found in numerous places on the internet as “DeadOrcs”, is a long time gamer with some 30 years experience playing RPGs. Despite occasional forays into the bizarre, Randall has always come back to Dungeons & Dragons.