Resurrection Revisited

April 6, 2015

Avalynethelifegiver1988The Easter season is a time that rebirth is on our minds, with the backdrop of the story of the Resurrection prominent for many, and the revitalization Spring brings.

It made me think about the role of resurrection and ‘raise dead‘ in fantasy role playing. Most systems have something of this sort at some level of play, and conquering death is one of the big fantasies we have in reality and fiction. That said, as an element of a gaming setting, it’s a complete game changer.  And here’s the thing: It is horrible.

Resurrection ruins games.  It ruins good story-telling. It cheapens heroism, belittles triumphs, and obliterates drama. It destroys the impact and gravity of the greatest story telling device there is: Death.  Without death, there is no finality, no consequences to any event that can’t be unmade or recycled.  Heroes need not live up to a higher standard where they might just prevail by way of a Holy Mulligan. It’s a softening of the game world that detracts from the story, and thereby detracts from the game itself.

We finished up Paizo’s Reign of Winter adventure path this past year. After we hit the midway point of the series,  it became apparent that the presence of raise dead and resurrection was quickly arrived at as the easy remedy for character death. A shoulder shrug followed by a quick calculation of how many diamonds it would deplete from the party stores was all the drama that such an event as character death added.  It was a failure of the system if not myself, the storyteller.  Death had lost its finality, and the threat of death was greatly offset by the players calling my bluff of a TPK, which I theoretically wouldn’t let happen (though I would, with some caveats that I went into last year in my article “The Art of Fail“) . That is a problem.

Outside of a softening of the consequences, it is problematic from a general story telling perspective.  How can the loss of life of villagers in a goblin raid remain poignant when someone can walk up and raise the victims?  Why stop there?  Why not raise random people of historical note?  The King murdered?  Bring ’em back?  It only takes 10 minutes in some of these systems, so he might not even be missed!   It cheapens the value of life and the story telling dynamic, and creates numerous plot holes that are hard to work around without clumsy artifice on the part of the GM.

And you shouldn’t do that!  Resurrection and Raise Dead should be rare, almost wish-like events that are costly.  Costly, painful rituals for a loved friend and companion, like we see in Conan the Barbarian.  Some of these costs are built in, but if it’s just money, it’s a pittance (get a character to sacrifice their most powerful magic item and you’ll see them weep openly).  Promises should be required to raise the dead.  Oaths. Blood sacrifice.

Some of you might have played under old rules in OD&D that indicated that an elf could not be resurrected.  We did, back in 1997, and when a elven ranger died at the hands of a certain Troll  in the Temple of Elemental Evil, we all realized that he was DEAD DEAD, and it sobered the players that evening.  When not long after, a paladin of St. Cuthbert was mostly devoured by rats, the drama of her resurrection was a story in itself; an epic race to the nearest city that had a priest of sufficient level to raise her, a debt undertaken, oaths sworn, and a battle with a cult of Iuzian priests fighting to interrupt the ritual.  The resurrection became a story in itself, and carried weight.

It’s a hard choice to ditch resurrection or deny its availability to players.  They will hate you for it, so you had better telegraph those decisions early on before it becomes a resource they anticipate. When the playing field is clear before hand, few have reason to complain (especially where the challenges are freely taken and understood).  Games that let you know that they plan on killing you can be strangely refreshing, like Paranoia (giving you six clones is a good indicator of the cheapness of human life) or Dungeon Crawl Classics, where the 0-level funnel has you generate 3 to 4 peasants who try to try to survive a normal first level adventure (protip: your most unworthy character will always be the sole survivor).  While seemingly depressing, the result is a certain lack of attachment for more lighthearted games, which is surprisingly welcome.  Alternately, for more serious games, a grim determination and earnest concern for other characters becomes more pressing.

Perhaps the biggest downside to this approach is when it takes effect, and a favorite character is gone without the realistic possibility of a remedy.  Sometimes, this can be a game-ending or campaign-ending event, especially if more than one character bites the bullet.  My advice is to play through it and see if you can’t come out on the other side.  That said, you know your players.  The point, is to have fun (Commandment #10) so as long as folks are having a good time, it’s worth it, but remember you may have missed an opportunity for players and characters to grow a little, which could lead to even better results.

Try it on, or say you’re going to, and see how it changes your player’s play-style.  You might just be surprised what the fear of death will do for your next game.

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