There’s been a lot of talk of death in D&D lately, what with my recent blog about lethality and Mike’s columns about save or die mechanics. According to the feedback you’ve given us, most of you want there to be at least some measure of actual threat of death in the game.
But should death be permanent? There has always been some kind of raise dead mechanic in the game, but this brings up a lot of issues that affect both the story of the D&D world and gameplay itself.
The story aspects become obvious after just a moment of thought. If it’s possible to bring the dead back to life, why would the wealthy and the nobility ever die in such a world? If it’s just a matter of forking over the right amount of gold, surely the king can afford it. (And if the answer to that is, no, then adventurers can regularly afford things that kings cannot, and that probably says something just as bad about the economics of the world.) So the issue becomes this: if magic that can bring back the dead exists, how accessible is it? What keeps everyone from using it? Cost? Rarity? Repercussions?
The other story-based issue is that raise dead effects make us ask this question: what’s the afterlife like in the D&D world? Can resurrected characters tell their friends what they saw while they were dead? How do the gods feel about mortals going back and forth through the realms of the dead like that?
Gameplay is affected by raise dead because if even death isn’t final, does it have meaning? To feel the thrill of victory, there needs to be some possibility of defeat. This concept has led previous versions of the game to include serious penalties for a character if he or she dies and comes back—anything from ability score drain to a loss of a level. Many players found this too harsh, and this led to people wanting to make a new character instead. In the very early days of the game, character death led to a different choice than creating a new character, because players always created 1st-level characters. So having your 10th-level fighter come back as a 9th-level fighter was still preferable to bringing a 1st-level fighter into the game. But as soon as DMs started allowing creation of characters above 1st level, the choice became “bring in a new 10th-level fighter or play your now-9th-level character.” This isn’t much of a choice at all. How should the game make death sting without it stinging too much?
One way would be to separate raising the dead into two different things. One, I’ll call “revivification.” This is magic that the mid- to high-level PC cleric likely has access to, and basically if the caster can get to a fallen friend very quickly and use the magic, the character comes back immediately and without muss, because the character was never really dead. It’s more resuscitation than resurrection. The “dead” character’s soul hadn’t quite left the body. He or she was merely on “death’s door,” but so close that only that powerful burst of magic could bring the character back. This avoids both the story and the gameplay issues because the character is not really dead.
The other type of raising the dead in this scenario is actually bringing characters back to life after they’ve been dead for a while. This kind of thing has been common in D&D games in the past—toting your dead pal’s corpse out of the dungeon and back to town to get brought back so you can go back in to finish the adventure. With revivification of some sort in the game, this type of magic could be very high level, with some extraordinarily expensive and rare components. Even the king doesn’t get access to it reliably because the process might involve taking six petals of a certain flower, which blooms only every six years and is found only at the top of Mount Deathfall, and soaking them in the blood of an ancient red dragon, which is then made into a brew by a 20th-level high priest. That sort of process just isn’t that easy for everyone to carry out.
Further, and perhaps most importantly, this latter type of magic could be purely optional. Rather than putting it right on the spell list or whatever, we could put the whole matter in a discussion for the DM only, who could decide whether he or she would even want to deal with it. We could even provide the means for a whole continuum of effects, because some DMs will want to have campaigns where bringing back the dead is relatively trivial. And that’s fine too, particularly if the DM is armed with advice on what that would logically do to the setting at hand and gameplay.