Death is Cheap: Resurrection
A brave band of adventurers is fighting their way through Castle D’Evil, when Fortuitous the Brave, a Paladin of some renown, perishes under the overwhelming attack of the rabid dire badgers! Once the evil badgers have been dispatched, Porcini the Monk, to whom Fortuitous was betrothed, begins weeping openly for the loss of her love. Tankeroneous the Fighter places a comforting hand on Porcini’s should. “Don’t worry, Por. The nearest high-level cleric is only a day’s ride away! Forty will be back on his feet in no time!”
Death is something that everyone must face, especially RPG characters. It’s a fact of life, so to speak. As a group, you may allow for the “character’s twin brother” to appear, claim their stuff, and continue on. Or you might require the player to roll up a new character. But what are the actual effects of character death? Unfortunately, the questions that come from this topic are difficult to answer and, ultimately, the DM has to come up with those answers.
In this week’s Critical Hit to the Blog, I’ll be looking at character death and what it means for you (the DM), your players, your world in general, and what you can do about it. This week’s example character will be poor Fortuitous the Brave. This article was inspired by "Back From the Dead" in Dragon #210 and "Cheating Death" in Dragon #342.
WHO Am I?
So, Fortuitous is dead. Maybe he was eaten by wolves or zapped by a Wizard or they suffered from a terminal case of pointy-metal-stick-to-the-gutsosis. But it just so happens that a wandering (or wondering) Cleric strolls by and by taking 1 minute out of his day (and giving up a diamond worth 5,000 gp), casts raise dead, and Fortuitous is back! Huzzah! More stabbing!
But wait. Is Fortuitous the same person he was before he died? What did Fortuitous experience when they were dead? Heaven? Hell? The Abyss? Celestia? New Jersey? Was he happy where he was, only to be sucked back to earth for another chance to put the beating on the evil archmage? Okay, I know that the character’s soul must be free and willing to return to the body for any of the raise dead chain of spells to work, but the point remains. It’s possible to guilt a soul into coming back, I suppose.
But I’m getting off topic.
Anyway, the description for raise dead in the Pathfinder Core Rulebook says, “Coming back from the dead is an ordeal.” Granted, the description continues with the physical description of the ordeal (2 permanent negative levels or 2 points of Constitution drain, depending on level), but what about the mental ordeal?
If Fortuitous is a melee type and is constantly getting hurt and healed, dying might not be so bad. Physical trauma can be mentally wearying. Death would give Forty a way to not be beat up anymore more. It might be peaceful and welcoming.
Coming back from the dead should have an effect on your character other than what’s listed in the rules. Fortuitous the Brave may develop a phobia regarding what killed him. If Orcs killed him, role-play the fear that comes up the next time Orcs appear! Fortuitous, a Greatsword-focused Paladin, may suddenly switch to a crossbow because he’s afraid of dying again.
More questions arise. If your character dies and is resurrected, who gets his stuff? Fortuitous died, right? That means his property should go to his heirs or family. If there are none, the party usually splits the gear. But he’s alive again, right? Does he still have a claim on his gear, land, and holdings? Is he still betrothed to Porcini?
WHEN Am I?
A Cleric who can cast resurrection is a minimum of 13th level. The rules for resurrection (and true resurrection) state that a Cleric can bring someone back to life as long as they haven’t been dead more than 10 years per caster level!
So, there’s King Filetmignon, happily ruling his country, when his (great x4) grandfather, King Fortuitous (he got a lot of promotions) comes striding through the door, still brushing dirt off of his burial clothes, demanding to have the throne back. Who has the rightful claim to the throne?
If Fortuitous is declared the King, and he didn’t die of natural causes, those that killed him will want to kill him again. If he’s not declared King, he may think he deserves to be King and raise an army to take on the “usurper.” How do the PCs react to the situation? Are they part of the King’s Guard? If so, which King do they follow? Are any of the PCs related to the current King or King Fortuitous? That could be awkward.
Let’s say our pal Forty and Porcini got married, but alas, poor Forty was ambushed by the Rabid Badger Gang and died. Porcini is devastated, but eventually gets over her grief and married Tankeroneous. Then, thirty years later, Fortuitous walks in the door to find his wife in the arms of his friend. Now, most marriages are “’til death do us part’ and Forty died. But he’s back and alive now. Are Forty and Por still married? Would Porcini still want to be married to Fortuitous?
The PCs enter the dungeon of Castle D’Evil and they fight their way through the monstrous guardians and make off with the loot. What happens a couple of months later when Fauntleroy D’Evil (he gets around), resurrected by a cohort, has lawyers that appear and want all of their (now re-living) client’s stuff back? They have a list of what was taken and want every single gold piece back. What then? If they can’t return everything, having spent the gold and traded away magical item, does it go to court?
WHAT Am I?
So, Fortuitous has been killed and brought back to life. Is he alive or undead? The use of Necromancy might lead some people to say that Forty is now some type of intelligent undead. This could lead to some Cleric orders refusing to deal with “his type” or anybody who associates with him. This could be difficult for the party to get healing or magical assistance.
But wait. I hear you saying “All undead are evil!” Forty was a good guy in life, so he couldn’t possibly be evil in undeath could he? Actually, yes he can. Every undead listed in the three Pathfinder Bestiaries has Evil in their alignment.
Let’s say that Forty, who was Lawful Good in life, was turned into a vampire, and became Chaotic Evil. As he’s contemplating his now immortal life, he decides to go through some of the loot he meant to deal with, but never had time. He puts on this nifty looking helmet that happens to be a helm of opposite alignment. With the helm, both axes of alignment change to the opposite, so Forty the Vampire is now (again) Forty the Lawful Good Vampire. He goes to the King and explains the situation and is believed, so he pledges to protect the King as long as he is able.
Sixty years down the line, a group of adventurers is hired to destroy a vampire that haunts the castle. Guess who? That’s right, a rival of the King hired the adventurers to take out Fortuitous so that the rival could get a shot at the throne. The group manages to kill Forty! Hooray! No more vampire!
But another twist! The King had decided (and wrote down) that Forty counted as a citizen, so killing him is murder and whoever killed him would be brought to justice, just as if they had killed the dockworker or the apple cart salesman. Does the King resurrect Fortuitous again, in hopes for another semi-immortal protector or reward him by letting him rest in peace?
The easiest way to avoid these problems is to simply say to your players, before play begins, “There is no coming back from death. If you die, you roll up a new character.” Personally, though, I hate using the “Because I said so” reason and prefer an in-game reason. That’s what this section is about.
Ways and Means
First off, you can limit who has access to resurrection magic. Maybe only certain (evil) religions (or cults) that worship the God or Goddess of Death have access to resurrection. Maybe there is a special rite all petitioners must go through for the church. If the party contains a Paladin, or especially if the Paladin is the one who died, the Paladin probably won’t want to come back, if he’s being raised by an evil organization. Deeper still, if the party gets a member resurrected by this evil church/cult, then the party might owe the organization a favor on top of the price for the spell.
Even deeper yet, the political power of such a cult increases dramatically as the rich and powerful are indebted to the cult, especially if this church is the only one with access to that magic.
Make each raise dead, resurrection, or true resurrection unique to each dead person, so the party’s Cleric can’t prepare those spells “just in case.” If a party member dies, then the Cleric must prepare one of those spells the next time they prepare all of their spells.
Require a feat at 9th level (the lowest level needed to cast raise dead) to cast resurrection spells. This makes the Cleric have to decide if resurrection magic is important enough to take a feat to cast it.
Make resurrection spells rare by placing them on scrolls that need to be adventured for or that are exorbitantly priced. Place a specific church’s seal on the scroll, so that only a specific church or member of that church can use the scroll.
The Deity of Death does not give up souls without getting something in return. A life for a life. Potentially, the Deity may tell the party that, in addition to the normal spell components for resurrection, that the Cleric must sacrifice a creature of the same time. This might raise a few objections among the party, especially if Forty isn’t the one who is actually dead (for once).
Places and Times
Another way to limit resurrection magic is to limit when or where it can be used.
Many cultures believe that there is an actual realm where the spirits of the dead rest after death. Make the party venture to the Land of the Dead to find the soul they need and convince the soul to return to the body when the spell is cast.
If the party needs a rift or gateway to get to the Land of the Dead, they will have to find one and it may be guarded. The PCs would have to negotiate with whomever hold the rift, owing favors (as above), money, or even loyalty. Even if there is no one currently guarding such a portal, there’s nothing to say that ghouls, ghasts, or other undead might have gathered, drawn in by the link to the Land of the Dead. At that point, the party has to decide whether it’s worth trying to fight through the opposition, possibly losing more members, to get to the portal or spend more time looking for another location. Not to mention a potential chance of another, possibly malevolent, spirit coming through the portal as well. If that happens, the rest of the party must defend the Cleric while the Cleric is casting the spell. This would be made extra difficult because the party is already down one member (the dead one) and are now down another (the Cleric), especially since the Cleric wouldn’t be able to use any of their abilities to help damage or turn the undead.
Next is the Eve of Spirits. Halloween is considered by some to be the day that the fabric between the realms of the living and the dead are the thinnest, allowing spirits to cross from one to the other. This can happen once a year (a specific holiday), four times a year (solstices and equinoxes or the day the seasons change), or once a month (three days of the full moon). You could also place this Eve once per week, such as on the Deity’s holy day in the hour of noon or midnight.
The positive side to this is that it limits the use of resurrection magic because of the short time window the party has to bring the character back to life. The negative side is, you guessed it, that it limits the use of resurrection magic because of the short time window the party has to bring the character back to life.
Another positive to this is that the DM can reinforce the importance of the day by having festivals or processions to remember certain events or people. The DM can also introduce spiritual phenomena, such as faint wailing or moaning being heard, small objects being moved, ghostly writing appearing in the dust or dirt, or someone feeling a chill when moving through a certain place (feel free to add your own).
Missed it By That Much
But what happens if someone is brought back to life without it being the Deity's holy day or the spirit hasn't been spoken to? Does the spell still work? Or does the PC come back...different? Here are a couple of options for the time-crunched PC who doesn't want to wait until next Thursday before coming back to life.
The spell works and the PC comes back to life. Mostly. Until the PC can get to a priest of the Deity of the Dead on the Deity's holy day, the PC doesn't progress. They don't gain XP or new levels, so now more hp, skills, or feats until they complete the necessary steps to finish the rite to bring them back to life. It's hard for the character to learn anything new and they have a hard time remembering anything that has happened since the day they died.
If you use this idea, I would suggest only doing this for a short time, as you don't want the stunted character to fall too far behind, especially if raise dead was used, as that causes a loss of 2 levels.
Foot in the Grave
The character is brought back to life, but not completely. Their soul is stuck part way between the Land of the Living and the Land of the Dead.
Ways to portray this may be to make the character constantly fatigued, the character has a lower number of hit points (say, -1 per Hit Die), only receives 1/2 the number of hit points from cure spells or a Cleric's Healing Burst, or takes a -4 on saving throws against enchantment effects.
So, you don’t want to actually limit the use of resurrection magic, but you feel like there should be something that comes out of it. What options do you have?
First, there’s a Mark of Passing or a Mark of Resurrection. This is a non-removable mark on the character’s hand or face (somewhere obviously seen by others) and it tells other people that the character has died and come back to life. This can lead to that character being ostracized, refused service, and some members of superstitious societies might consider the character to be as evil as the undead.
Another variant is to have the resurrected character have a chance to bring another spirit back with them. The spirit would be someone connected to the character in some way, whether that’s a friend, loved one, or enemy. The haunting would last until the raised character can find someone to exorcise the spirit.
Until the spirit is exorcised, this is a great role-playing opportunity for the character. The spirit can talk to the character, but none of the other party members can hear it. Maybe the spirit is actually a poltergeist and moves the raised character’s things around.
So, there you have an entry on the difficulties of character death. I wish I had more answers, but there really aren’t any “correct” answers for me to give. These questions will need to be answered by your group, especially the DM.
Time to Grow Up
You can also use these variations for NPCs and start leaning your campaign toward something more "adult" by turning these options into something horrible.
"Please! You have to help me! My wife was killed by bandits and when I went to the church to bring her back, she turned into...something else! Something evil!
Maybe it was just done on the wrong day. Maybe the wife's spirit wasn't contacted. Or maybe the wife's spirit didn't want to return (for whatever reason) and instead, a malevolent spirit came back and inhabited her body.
This can be used to give your campaign a little nudge toward something more serious, especially if this is used to give the PCs their first glimpse into what can happen when someone dies. This can show the PCs (and the players) that death is serious business and it isn't always resting in peace. If something goes wrong, it can have consequences.
So, there you go. A discussion about character death, what it can mean, and how to handle resurrection magic.
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