Resurrection in D&D: Don’t Fear the Reaper?

2008 March 12
by Vanir

I’ve been having some discussions recently with my cohorts about the concept of resurrection in D&D. Two of the guys in our gaming group, Sirgeekelot and Kanati, have vehemently argued that it is incredibly broken as it works now. Why?

Why resurrection Sucks

The primary complaint I hear on why resurrection sucks in D&D is that the players no longer fear death. This poses two problems. First, a player is far more apt to do things that may result in their death if they’re pretty sure they’re just going to get brought back to life after it’s all over. They might just charge recklessly into battle, they may intentionally sacrifice their lives heroically, or they may just be more prone to taking big risks. In gameplay terms, no fear of death means players won’t think so hard about smarter ways to fight something — which means it’s much more appealing to (as Kanati puts it) “swing your sword over your head and re-enact a scene from Braveheart”.

The other problem with no fear of death is that it greatly sucks the drama out of a situation. You’re going to be very, very interested in what’s going on if your 18th level character you’ve raised from a puppy is near death and there’s no bringing him back. Happy? Probably not — unless, of course, he wins and continues to live! Drama is exciting. Fear of character death gives players a vested interest in not doing stupid things, and when the party does overcome the big baddie at the end of the dungeon against incredible odds it’s like winning the Super Bowl. (Only better, and the rings give +2 to all saves.)

Why resurrection Might Not Be So Bad

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’ve played a lot of videogame RPGs in my day. In most of those games, if a PC dies, you can get them ressurected somewhere for a steep fee, or carry magic items to do it, or use magic. Just like in D&D. The only way the game ends is if the whole party croaks. But in videogames, you can typically restart at the last save point.

When you start getting into higher levels in both genres, they commonly start throwing enemies at you with abilities that can kill a character in one shot. The counter to that is to ressurect the dead PC. It’s a gameplay mechanic, the antidote to the poison of death. Sure, this kind of approach to individual character death is about as dramatic as an oatmeal breakfast WITH EXCITING PEACH SLICES. I get that. To a player, the thought of their PC dying is more frustrating than it is sad or traumatic.

However, if the whole party bites it in D&D, there’s no save. If the battle is close or going poorly for the group, it’s dramatic. The players are all worried about dying then. They’re all engaged. They all want to find some way to defeat the enemy and rise to victory. They could even engage in (gasp) team play in order to keep everybody alive.

Does It Blend?

In the end, I personally think resurrection fits the way D&D works currently simply because it’s a needed gameplay element. I don’t think it’s necessarily bad, just different than the real world. It does take away from the drama of combat in some ways and it prevents certain story plots from occurring, but in my tiny little simulationist brain it fits the world around it. (I tend to think of it as fantasy healthcare for the rich and powerful.)

As I said before, even in our gaming group there’s greatly differing opinions on this topic, so I’d love to hear yours. Please commence gentlemanly melee combat in our comments section if you so desire.

No matter how you feel on the topic — as roleplayers, I would heartily suggest that you do not simply take your PC’s lives for granted. Remember, you may not stay dead, but dying HURTS REALLY BAD!

9 Responses leave one →
  1. Sam permalink
    March 13, 2008

    Some has to say it…. Resurrection! (single ‘s’, double ‘r’)

    Nice article though, and I think I agree. It will be interesting to see what effect the new editions healing rules have on death and resurrection in the long run.

  2. DNAphil permalink
    March 13, 2008

    I am not a fan of Resurrection either, but you touched on part of the problem, that is Save vs Death effects. At higher levels, you rely more on Resurrection in part because of Save vs Death, and because the ability falls within your scope.

    If Resurrection was difficult to obtain for all levels, but not impossible I think it would be more sparingly used. What if it cost a proportional amount based on the level of the character? Or the spell cost a significant XP amount, paid by anyone who wanted to donate.

    For less mechanical solutions, you can have Resurrection come at the price of allegiance to a deity, and a quest in payment for being returned to the living.

    I am also a fan of the Iron Heroes Glory Point system, where if a character dies in battle, and have amassed enough Glory Points, that they can come back from the dead, once, during a critical time. That way, they can help in the climax of a story arc, but ultimately they are not coming back.

  3. Vanir permalink
    March 13, 2008

    Well, that’s the last time I trust the Blogger spellchecker. Or post tired. I blame the establishment. 🙂

    I’ve heard several people recently say they’d like to see a higher penalty for casting resurrection/being resurrected. There are already penalties, but they’re all gold-based. And I dunno about your parties, but ours can’t afford a terribly large amount of 25,000gp diamonds to make sure everybody gets True Rezzed. The cheaper ones already have a level penalty.

    There’s a certain point at which you can accrue penalties like this and you might as well stamp “LIABILITY” on the now-diminished PC’s forehead. Kanati recently suggested to me a 5 level penalty for being brought back from the dead. Which is great because the PC would still be alive, but the rest of the party would have to work harder to keep him alive.

    It makes a little sense, I guess, but I think it falls firmly in the category of Not Fun. And that’s how I feel about a lot of the resurrection penalties I’ve heard about. I’m not saying they’re wrong, but I do think if you want to impose such things you should think about this.


    Vanir learn.

  4. thanuir permalink
    March 13, 2008

    D&D assumes that fighting is common and further assumes that the thrill of playing comes from the risk of death or defeat that often enough implies death. This, when combines with character creation that takes time and an assumption that some people may even identify with their characters leads to problems. There are two forces pushing to opposite directions.

    This leads to all kinds of problems, such as fudging.

    I don’t believe there can be perfect solutions until some of the assumptions are changed.

  5. Role play permalink
    March 13, 2008

    Ultimately, I’ve always supported death being an opportunity for one to improve upon your next character.

  6. kanati permalink
    March 13, 2008

    The vanir has already stated most of my reasons for disliking resurrection AS IT STANDS. I think if it were reworked it would be fine.

    I think multi-level loss for res is a partial solution. But there would also have to be a bonus to XP afterwards to offset that. That way the character could eventually catch back up to the rest of the party. Like… 20% XP bonus until they reach the level they were when killed.

    But likewise I also think there should be a cut off point. Three resurrections and that’s it. Like there used to be in AD&D. There was the possibility that the res wouldn’t take due to system shock and the player couldn’t be resurrected at all. I think that needs to come back. Resurrection 1 results in 25% system shock penalty for the next time it happens. If they make the check, they are resurrected the second time and it goes to 50%… Then 75%… If they make it that time then it goes to 99% (gotta leave that one percent chance) and it’s most likely they won’t survive the fourth resurrection.

    There HAS to be a penalty for death. And 25,000gp to epic level characters should be trivial. You shouldnt’ be able to run to the local clerical vending machine and get a resurrection for a few gold.

  7. John permalink
    March 13, 2008

    In my current campaign…

    500 gp
    take 6 damage to each stat, cannot be cured with magic. You get one point back per day, you choose which stat to heal.

    4 damage to each stat..

    50,000 gp
    2 damage to each stat.

    500,000 no damage.

  8. DMPeter permalink
    May 26, 2011

    3.5e resurrection seems pretty balanced to me. They take 1 level damage when resurrected. If they’ve died twice they’re two levels behind the party. I’ve never seen a player keep a character if they’re 3 levels behind – by that point they’d rather just make a new one at same level. It helps that I’m not generous with gold or loot though – it makes mat costs harder. Also, my campaigns usually reset around level 12 but in my experience it’s balanced.

  9. Elliander permalink
    November 12, 2012

    I once played in a Campaign where my True Neutral Shadow Nymph (a template I designed myself) who happened to have Sun Weakness was resurrected by the Good Cleric who happened to worship the God of Sunlight. The cleric was allowed to impose conditions on my resurrection, and I was bound to it. It was horrible, and totally messed with the level progression I planned out because the alignment was changed to Good.

    In other words, Resurrection actually has a very real consequence when you consider that all Clerics want to convert everyone to their cause. Even Ur-Priests who don’t worship Gods have an agenda. If you die in a party the Cleric is within it’s rights to mess with your alignment.

    Of course, the way around that is to pay clerics in a temple in advanced to Resurrect you in the event of your death and to pay to have your body Teleported to them with a magic item in such an event, but that combination would be very expensive.

    In another scenario, playing as an undead anything carries a unique kind of risk. If you are destroyed you can be resurrected, but you loose the undead template when you are resurrected. Using the rules from Libris Mortis a player can easily create, say, a level 1 Wight and then progress in some other profession. It’s simply assumed that you don’t have the memories of before you were a Wight. Suddenly though, on resurrection, you stop being a Wight and the DM can create a little back story. You can’t just become a Wight again because you would loose all your memories again and essentially start over as a character.

    Or in the case of the Vampire let’s assume you are free-willed. Once you are recurrected you stop being a vampire. Being turned again won’t result in loss of memories in life and won’t result in restarting levels, but you would cease to be free willed. If you were dead set on being a Vampire again you would have to create an elaborate plan to have your party kill the vampire that turns you right away and if they fail, well, you will probably want to roll another character sheet as your player character pretty much belongs to the DM until the vampire that turned you is destroyed.

    As you can see, there are many scenarios where resurrection can actually be a bad thing for a character in and of itself making death something to be avoided.

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