On Death and Resurrection in D&D


Every DM with a modest amount of experience knows that characters get raised too easily in D&D.  You just want a certain... feel to your game, players have such a careless attitude about it all and it just grates on you.  You feel like D&D is too much like a video game and as long as the fees for the spells can be paid there simply is no permanent death.  I feel your pain because I've been there - on both sides.  At one time as a player I insisted to my DM that his campaign needed for death to have SOME finality - that there had to be a limit eventually on bringing characters back to life.  It was affecting my ability as a player to appreciate his campaign world.  Of course, my own PC wound up being the first (indeed, only) victim of his new rules.  Most frequently I've seen the attempts to address this problem circulate around changes to the spells and their obtainability.  DM's want to make Raise Dead tougher to get, more expensive, difficult or hazardous to use, and so forth.  I don't blame you for wanting to do it.  Players and their characters have little or no fear or respect for death.  I know I don't when I'm a player.  I just want my PC jump-started so I can get back to playing.  Being able to bring back dead characters with relative ease is naturally going to have that kind of influence.  It seems like an annoyance or highly temporary setback instead of a life-altering, momentous occurrence in the characters life experience (and not just for the dead PC but of the living friends of that PC), and that kind of attitude is a problem.

But, you need to ask yourself what your goal is.  Is it to STOP the players from getting characters resurrected?  If they want their characters raised they WILL get them raised and the only thing that is going to stop them is if you make it SO rare, SO difficult, SO expensive that it becomes UTTERLY impractical from the roleplaying and game rule standpoint.  If so, why don't you just ban it altogether because nobody is going to want to go through the hassle anyway?  All you're going to do with such efforts is make players even more annoyed when their characters die because you've made it such a pain in the ass to recover them.  They certainly won't look at it the way you think they will; the way you want them to.  It's not as if the extra efforts needed are going to make them want their characters revived any less; as if more gold and difficulty in obtaining the spell will counteract the desire to have a character continue his adventures; as if making it more annoying is going to promote roleplaying:

"Oh boy!  My PC just died.  How fortunate I am because now I get to roleplay even more with OTHER PC's as they struggle to help me get my character back up and running.  Yessir all those annoying hoops the DM has put in place are exactly what I wanted at this point in the game - and all the other players feel the same.  Death of my PC is almost something I look forward to thanks to the complex challenges my DM heaps on my already dead character and his PC friends who want him resurrected."

In my experience there is no middle ground with resurrection.  That is, once players have played a character for a few levels, unless the character really isn't working out the way they intended, they WILL pay the raised prices and make the additional efforts needed to get the Raise Dead - which makes the raised prices and greater rarity utterly ineffective in meaningfully adjusting the frequency of Raise Dead being actually obtained or used - which is what you wanted.   It doesn't have the effect you intended.  It has the effect of making players angry, not of making them respectful of death and resurrection as roleplaying issues.

Still I see DM's tacking on drawbacks and debilitations to resurrection magic such as inflicting ailments or quirks on the raised.  Yet the question still remains - what is your goal?  If you don't want the players to be able to raise their characters why do you allow the possibility AT ALL?  If you do want to allow the possibility you have to expect that they are going to almost universally take advantage of it.  However, they will do so for entirely meta-game reasons.  They do it because they like their characters, enjoy playing them and want to continue to do so.  But to punish the character for being raised with additional ailments or quirks is a change which suggests that the player is doing something WRONG by wanting to have his character back, and that you consider it your job to discourage all players from EVER resurrecting a dead PC.  If your players won't roleplay being raised as a solemn, significant event in their characters life are you going to encourage that roleplaying by telling them the character will return with some kind of phobia, or physical affliction?  Will impoverishing the PC with staggering sums to obtain the spell make him any less likely to die in the future?  Oh, I know that the intent is that players will see the high expense and the severe consequences and thus seek to avoid the eventuality in the first place - but has that ever actually WORKED that way?  Not that I've ever heard it hasn't.

Consider this example:  A player has a cleric character that is bold, forthright, never wavers in the face of danger, always acts with honor, and never shirks his duty.  The player enjoys playing him and does a good job roleplaying him.  The other players enjoy having their PC's interact with his.  He is an ASSET to the campaign.  That character dies... fighting a giant spider and the other PC's obtain a Raise Dead.  What, at this point, is your goal as DM?  Is having that character back in your campaign a problem?  If not, why do you want to make the player reconsider whether it's going to be worth the extra annoyances YOU have attached to Raise Dead to bring the character back?  Perhaps you claim to want to reduce the frequency of getting characters raised.  Well, here's your chance to remove that horrible positive asset to your campaign and reduce the number of resurrections you have in your game.  You can simply disallow the character to find the spell, or to be unable to afford it, or to give it so many drawbacks and side effects that the character would be greatly changed, even to the point where the player would no longer enjoy the character.  Are you happier?  Is your player happy now?  No?  Then what the hell are you doing?

The issue of too-frequent use or abuse of Raise Dead and Ressurection is one that is almost entirely meta-game.  Suppose you, the DM, have an NPC fighter you want to keep as a nemesis against the party but he's been killed.  Are you going to be in a twist about how his evil compatriots are going to get him raised?  Why should you be in a twist about a PC fighter?  In my experience it isn't the "ease" or "frequency" of Raise Dead and Resurrection that bothers DM's - it is the cavalier attitude that players (or perhaps more accurately, their characters) have toward it.  One of the reasons they treat it so superficially is because the DM does too!

Yes, I think it's heavily the DM's own damn fault if he's complaining that his players play his campaign as if it were a video game.  It doesn't matter if you require a major quest to obtain the spell, have it cost 100,000 gp and 3 major magic items, and also inflict weird side-effects such as forcing new personality quirks onto characters.  Any cavalier attitudes evidenced by the players is going to be directly traceable to the DM who has failed to establish a proper tone for it in the first place.  All that baggage you've added to Raise Dead also isn't going to stop the dice.  Characters will still die through no particular fault of their players - and they will still want their characters back.  You are treating the symptom and not the disease, and in my opinion only doing additional harm in the process.

The DM doesn't need to make Raise Dead/Resurrection expensive and impossible to get.   He needs to have NPC's treat it with great solemnity and respect.  He needs to have the ceremony of it roleplayed out - every time and not just treat it like a Cure Light Wounds on sterioids.  He needs to have NPC's treat raised characters differently than those who have never returned from the dead - even if there's no game-rule effects beyond what's already written for it in whatever version of the game you're playing.  DM's are failing to lead by example.  It's even worse if there is evident hypocrisy in how the DM thinks differently about resurrection for NPC's as for PC's.

PC's fight big nasty monsters in great hordes.  It's dangerous to do that.  It's also more fun if PC's are out on the edge of their survivability.  PC's that never fear falling under 25% of their HTK are going to have bored players.  PC's that routinely flirt with unconsciousness and death will have players who experience much more exciting and dangerous battles - and they will also have characters who quite probably, through no particular fault of their own, will die.  The DM has hot dice and the players dice are cold.  How badly do you want to punish the player and his PC for wanting to bring the character back from the dead and continue his adventures because of a few random dice rolls?  If the idea of frequently raised characters bothers you that much then the first place to look is NOT in the Raise Dead/Resurrection rules because the cause of frequent resurrections is frequent deaths!  It is not the Raise Dead/Resurrection rules themselves.  The causes of too-frequent deaths are reckless players/characters and DM's who don't recognize their OWN over-aggressiveness or recklessness in challenging the PC's, or who encourage/allow such approaches from players.  As DM it is YOU who controls the degree of challenge that the PC's face.  If you are giving them low level threats and the PC's die too often because of player stupidity then, again, your issue is NOT with Raise Dead or Resurrection.  If you are giving them very high level threats, your players are cautious yet imaginative in meeting the threats, and yet you as DM feel that they still die too often - your issue is not with RD/Res.  If you're giving them a mix of threat levels with a normal average, and your players have a normal average in the frequency of their characters dying (and being routinely resurrected as soon as they can afford and obtain the spells) - what's your problem?

Players aren't going to complain all that much about frequent deaths if there IS relatively easy access to resurrection magic and the longer-term consequences of it are light.  But if the DM is saying to himself "there's too much easy resurrection going on in my campaign" then the most likely problem is the DM!  Possibly it's the players themselves or their characters - but it's not the rules for Raise Dead/Resurrection.

Be proactive about the issue.  First, discuss it with the players rather than silently brood and fume.  Don't just demand that they roleplay death and resurrection with seriousness and solemnity - explain to them how various cultures in your campaign world (which their PC's will know) handle death and resurrection issues.  Talk about how those cultures view the afterlife.  Explain what the exact process is when a PC dies in your game world - what happens to the soul, how it can/cannot be brought back to the body, etc.  Second, accept the fact that RD/Res is not in the game for its campaign setting construction benefits.  It's not in the game for the NPC's at all (even though it is taken as such).  It's in the game for the PC's, or even more precisely for the benefit of the players.

I mean, think about it.  Casually destroying the finality of death is a LOUSY thing to institute in a roleplaying game - except where it makes it more fun for players to be able to resume play with a favorite character rather than constantly rolling up new ones.  There is no rule that says that because Raise Dead is a spell available for PC use that it MUST be UNIVERSALLY approved of and applied as widely as possible across your game setting and damn the consequences.  If you want players to roleplay the entire topic appropriately then lead by example.  Do not EVER have an NPC simply quote a price and cast the spell.  NPC's that knew the PC should grieve at the loss - even if the other PC's do not.  Indeed, they should react appropriately when they see that even closer friends and associates of the PC ARE NOT grieving over the loss.  NPC's casting the spell should do so with lengthy and solemn preparation, and with great rites and ritual.  When PC's are disrespectful of the dead or cavalier about the process of resurrection have the NPC's react appropriately with NEGATIVE perceptions of that character and his attitudes.  After a character IS raised, even if there is no game rule reason for the PC to be thought of differently there is every roleplaying reason for it.  Have the NPC's react appropriately when they become aware that the character has died and been raised.  This is an individual who has CHEATED DEATH and yet is not a zombie, ghoul, vampire, or lich.  This is a SPECIAL individual even if no game rule makes that specific indication.

Remember that in D&D the assumption is that upon the death of a character, PC or NPC, of any race, class, etc that their soul begins a journey to one of the outer planes to assume its place in whatever the characters religion indicates as an afterlife.  When you die you're generally on your way to paradise. Now your society, religion or personal idea of paradise may be frolicking in meadows, or seeing old friends and family long gone, or mere freedom from pain and worry of life's long struggle as you serve a deity as a now-supernatural entity, or maybe it's and afterlife of ruling over subjects who serve you willingly, etc.  Whatever paradise or the afterlife IS, that's where you're headed - or even where you already ARE when the call comes to you from some priest back among the living asking you  to choose between resuming the drudgery of mortality, or continuation of your afterlife's journey of bliss and reward.  Now ask yourself - is the mere existence of resurrection magic really your problem, or is the problem that the game (and YOU) has failed to assign appropriate attitudes to NPC's?  Now remind yourself - it is not your decision to make as to what attitudes and opinions a PLAYER character will have on life, death and the afterlife.  It is not your choice to make FOR the player that his character (unsurprisingly) will yet again choose life instead of a blissful afterlife.  What IS your concern is to have NPC's react to those attitudes and decisions appropriately.  All it takes to solve resurrection problems in an ongoing campaign is to adjust your own thinking.

I all but guarantee you that if you provide that kind of roleplaying lead you will have no need or desire to fiddle with making Raise Dead cost a kings ransom, require a major quest, inflict character-destroying changes, or so rare and difficult to obtain that it's simply impractical.  Death and resurrection - even if it's frequent - will assume the place in your campaign that you really want it to have and everyone will be happy.

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