d10 Things You Can Do With a Dead Character
By Johnn Four, patreon.com/johnnfour
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1191
It sucks when a character dies.
To avoid discomfort or upset players, many GMs end up supporting Mary Sue PCs.
Or we provide plot armour so thick we earn no drama from combat, traps, and hazards.
I support character death as a result of fair gameplay.
This gives you additional and meaningful stakes in your encounters.
It encourages players to up their game, as well.
It still sucks when a cherished PC perishes.
So here are d10 ways we can deal well when character death happens.
1. Ghostify Them
Bring the character back as an undead or spirit.
Change up their stats and abilities a bit so it’s the same PC the player loves but with interesting new choices and powers.
In a campaign my friend Dan ran, he killed us all in the first encounter on purpose, and we came back as undead.
That was great fun for us as we a) sought revenge and b) quested to return to the land of the living.
2. Spend Their Treasure
Allow a return to life but at a cost.
I’m looking at page 104 of my beloved AD&D DMG right now. It costs 1,000 gp + 500 gp per caster level for a Raise Dead spell from an NPC.
That’s thousands of treasure points to bring back a character.
This world-building detail encourages players to save up wealth as well, depending on the deadliness of your campaign.
3. Spawn a Quest
In Dan’s campaign we quested for a return to life.
In your game you could offer a way to bring a dead character back if the party performs a service, discovers a special magic item, or finds a special NPC.
In my fantasy campaigns, NPCs can often cast a spell that resurrects PCs, but they demand a service (plus gold sometimes) in exchange.
For example, the party lays the body of Roghan at the steps of the Temple of Dis. They beseech the high priests to bring the warrior back to life.
The priests agree, but only if the party returns a religious artefact stolen by an enemy cult.
In D&D, this is where the Geas spell is our friend.
Many times my players have agreed to the quest and be Geased with it.
This way, I can bring back the dead PC immediately so the player is back in the game, and justify the service-in-advance because the priests know the party will carry through with the quest.
4. Make it A Campaign Plot
In my setting, there’s no undead any more, and Raise Dead/Resurrection don’t exist.
Recently, Arawn (the God of Death) has needed a bit of help.
Consequently, when a raver Giant grabbed one of the PCs and used him as a club to almost beat the other PCs to death, that PC died – and came back to life.
The PC feels fine, though, and life goes on.
Although he can’t help shake the feeling that an IOU is due.
Here we can tease out the idea of a campaign plot, ala Piers Anthony, where death is broken and the PCs need to restore the natural order of things.
5. Back But With a Cost
Re-life comes with a cost.
Platinum Wizard of Adventure YeOldeRaven shares this idea in the same Discord chat about dead characters:
Just reading through the posts above about death and resurrection and the idea that death has a say in who gets to come back.
And the idea of death having a reason for collecting the souls of the dead struck me.
The idea was that death is not the final thing that happens in the universe.
Death is involved in some greater event and needs to collect these souls to further an agenda.
Such as the continuation of existence itself.
Death may require these souls at certain times and not others.
So when one of our heroes dies prematurely, it may be that death doesn’t need that peace at that time and is willing to let the soul return back to wherever it was.
Who knows what sort of game death is playing, and it may be beyond what even the gods can comprehend.
Which takes the idea of the thing we call death to a whole new level.
My girlfriend just brought up the idea that this can encourage a negotiation between the newly deceased, death, and perhaps even the gods.
Death doesn’t know what pieces they need to complete their game until that piece is before them.
Another idea that we thought of was being marked when you were brought back.
That mark can be a visible thing or it could be an invisible thing.
And it attracts unwanted attention.
This could be a smell. It could be flies. It could mean that all of your future offspring are going to be demons and devils.
It comes back to the idea that there is a cost and perhaps a grave one at that for being brought back.
6. Side Quest
One time when a character died I ran it like a split party.
The survivors kept on.
The dead character awoke in a strange room with a door.
Thus began a side quest to explore the new area and learn how the character could return to life.
The character could speak to the other PCs via dreams so the player wouldn’t feel too isolated.
Eventually, the character learned what the party needed to do in the land of the living to bring them back.
7. Bring on the Clones
Reincarnation has brought valiant paladins back as goblins and mighty wizards back as pixies in my games.
It’s a fantastic mechanic to foil character death.
You could make this a world-building piece where everyone comes back based on how they behaved in life.
Or restrict it to a special effect via spell, miracle, or service.
Alternatively, you could create a cloning mechanic, perhaps from campaign start.
For example, in my Murder Hobos campaign, the wizard Six turned out to be a clone. The players learned this as events unfolded over the course of the game.
What made things interesting for the player, though, was knowing whether his PC was the original. The player brought me the clone idea as part of their awesome backstory, and I added the uncertainty to keep the plot interesting.
As a side note, if dead PCs can easily boomerang back into play, ensure there’s a cost so players still want to avoid character death.
8. Villain’s Cackle
In another campaign, I had the villain bring a dead PC back to life as the body was left behind by the party.
I then roleplayed a terms of service negotiation with the player and kept this secret from the group.
When the character suddenly showed up, apparently hale but with a few scars, everyone grew suspicious. But the character was welcomed back and play resumed.
The player did an awesome job keeping secrets and roleplaying their service as a spy for the villain.
9. It’s All Relative
Allow players to erase the name off their character sheet and bring in a new copy as the relative.
Perfect for beer and pretzel games.
If you need more gravitas to suit the tone of your campaign, layer in some plot.
Maybe twins in your world are children of a deity supposed to perform some great mission, but an enemy severed those ties and now such people do not know their destiny.
Or perhaps the family sends the character to find out what happened to their kin, and the family plays a bigger role in your plot now as a faction.
10. Characters Don’t Die
The threat of death and having to create a new character might not be to your taste.
Maybe you don’t want to derail your plot. For example, each character might be named in a prophecy.
Or maybe you want to avoid the situation altogether. You don’t see the value in that mechanic or that type of story.
If we think in terms of story Stakes then, we can strike death off the list.
But what are good alternatives to create drama and tension?
- PC is captured instead and must be rescued
- Those who tried to kill the PCs must be brought to justice
- Character(s) face a dilemma based on their beliefs after being attacked (for example, they’re a pacifist)
- Character suffers a loss and needs to restore themselves (for example, reduced powers)
- Can the characters turn their attacker into an ally?
- The loss results in a setback or missed opportunity
It’s Your Turn
Decide how you’ll handle character death before your campaign starts.
Then let your players know so they don’t get caught off-guard with something they might not like.
Build your world to accommodate your approach as another way to make it distinct.
This will also help you roleplay better.
A campaign where the NPCs don’t seem to know priests perform miracles for the rich and powerful would be quite interesting, for example.
Alternatively, NPCs who do not acknowledge 5,000 gp Raise Dead vending machines in the Temple District would break sense of belief.
Use character death to spawn new plots, deepen gameplay, or motivate players to bring their best game to each session.
For more character death tips, check out PC Death And Your Campaign.
How about you? How do you handle character death in your campaigns?
Discuss these game master tips in this thread at the official Roleplaying Tips community forum.