Behind the Screen: Memento Mori…

2008 September 25
by Dante

Memento Mori is a Latin phrase that means “Remember that you must die.” It has been used since ancient times to remind people of their own mortality, and I recently ran across this discussed by the always beautful Cory Doctorow in reference to a pinhole camera made from a human skull featured on BoingBoing earlier in the week.

Mortality is an important part of your campaign.

As a Dungeon Master, I really don’t like killing my players that much. It is, however, a required aspect of a good campaign… mortality should be a very dramatic thing. This could spiral off into a discussion about how balanced or unbalanced raising the dead is in D&D, but that’s not what I’m after today.

Today, I want to talk about various ways to remind your players that they are mortal.

The trick is simply to kill, poison, or otherwise terrorize them.

You can use disease, curses, or even temporary death (he’s only MOSTLY dead!) to reinforce that your Level 3 players are not immortal gods among men. Gravely injure them from time to time. Make them walk around with their arm off looking for someone that can restore the damage. Give them a particularly nasty poisonous creature to deal with. Kill them once in awhile, preferably in a way that they would be somewhat satisfied with (for example, no fighter wants to die by getting hit in the head with a rock after winning a battle.)

The beauty of the D&D rules is that most of these things are not permanent, unless you wish to make some special rules to make them so. Restorations and resurrections are only as common as the characters that have the skills to cast them. If used sparingly while the player characters are too young to resolve these issues themselves, you can get all of the drama from a system designed to make these devastating events temporary.

Why is this important again?

Because, quite simply, drama is what makes good campaigns. If you are dead set against giving your player characters setbacks, you can apply these rules to some NPC that becomes close to the players in some way, but they must be VERY invested roleplayers in order for this to make much of a difference.

If you spare the pain and suffering, your campaign will quickly be like playing a video game cutscene. Even if the building blows up, you know the next level hasn’t loaded yet and the game isn’t over, so something will happen to make the player characters be ok. If you bail them out every single time, they will start taking ridiculous risks (sometimes subconsciously) because they know you’ll bail them out of it.

This takes skill and guts to pull off correctly, so best of luck to you all. Memento mori!

5 Responses leave one →
  1. Micah permalink
    September 25, 2008

    I would add to this by saying that death should always be cool for the player in some way. In my game (where resurrection is allowed and strongly encouraged) this takes the place of permanent scarring.

    Regular bumps and bruises from combat are ignored, but if a PC is killed, I describe it in great detail. Then, when they are brought back, they have definite scarring from the event. They can use magical means to remove the scars if they wish, but most players enjoy them.

    NPCs will ask them about the puckered scar on their neck where their head was severed, or the black handprint on their chest where the Slay Living was delivered. It serves as an excellent reminder that they are not invincible, plus gives them a gritty aspect that most players enjoy.

  2. Dante permalink
    September 25, 2008

    Now that right there is a cool idea. Thanks for the comment!!

  3. mikeulem permalink
    September 26, 2008

    I played a character with scars like that.

    “What’s that line around your neck?”
    “Oh, that’s where I got decapitated. That was one helluva fight…”

    Then he would list them off one-by-one, with a short summary of how he got them.

    Scars = Respect

  4. gourmet popcorn permalink
    September 28, 2008

    This phrase is perfect for games.

  5. sadrx permalink
    October 13, 2008

    Memento mori is also an artistic technical term. In that respect, I have also gleamed great inspiration for my games from the phrase. Even the Catholic church richly decorates its tombs with skulls and motifs of death. The display of death’s image was to remind viewers that they were mortal and could only seek immortality through god. Looking up some of their memento mori decor is a good resource for making your crypt decor creepy without being cliche.

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