Managing character death in Dungeons & Dragons presents different challenges at low and high levels. Success lies in balancing narrative ambitions with mechanical costs.
The Problem: at low levels, death feels mundane. A low-level character can easily fall to a critical hit or even just a strong roll by the DM.
Scores of DMs will tell you that’s how it’s supposed to be. The world should be punishing to low-level characters to teach them a healthy respect for their mortality. This respect lends gravity to the story. They’re not wrong.
But, every DM will tell you that they don’t want to discourage new players. And every player will tell you that it sucks to roll up a new character just to get nuked. Especially if you’ve worked up an incredible backstory or waited to explore a particular character concept.
The solution must tread this line. You want to maintain the lethal nature of the world while giving the player a chance to fully explore their character concept. Good solutions offer the opportunity for further character development, which will mark the death as a significant event.
Deus ex Resurrectionis. The ‘Wandering Wizard’ is a trite solution. It just feels like a retcon. You leave the players with the impression that their actions don’t really matter because someone more powerful will show up to do their job anyhow. The price of failure builds the tension necessary for good storytelling.
If you use this in a pinch to bail out a dead character, make sure it comes with strings attached. The high level caster may vaguely suggest that the character is part of a grander plan. A divine intervenor may demand devotion. A fiend may barter with the fallen character’s apparition to return their soul to the material plane for completion of some sinister task. Since the character’s actions will be influenced by the interaction, their death will mark a significant point in their development.
Revenant. The Revenant is a neutral undead from the Monster Manual, which states:
“A revenant forms the soul of a mortal who met a cruel and undeserving fate. It claws its way back into the world to seek revenge against the one who wronged it. The revenant reclaims its mortal body and superficially resembles a zombie.”
The Revenant represents the opportunity for a player to come back with a purpose. This oozes narrative opportunity. Revenge against the “one who wronged it” can extend from the mob that dealt the killing blow, to the boss of that dungeon, to the leader of the whole crime ring, the deity they follow, or however long you want to run your campaign. Narratively, you’re set up to give the character a nice send off at the conclusion of the story arc. Mechanically, you can modify your racial bonuses or play a new class to achieve the concept.
The Problem: at high levels, death feels trivial. Access to high-level spells or a forged friendship with a local healer makes resurrection readily available, with a manageable financial penalty.
The solution is to add mechanical consequences as side effects to the resurrection. Increasing penalties each death keeps the pressure on. The goal at high levels is to ensure that players still fear the adverse consequences of character death.
Ability Point Loss. Ability point loss is a permanent consequence. Allow the player the opportunity to make a mechanical sacrifice to continue the story of their character. This ensures player investment, making the character’s story more important (to them).
Mechanically, it’s an escalating deterrent to dying. A character who continually dies and loses ability scores will eventually wither away to nothing. There’s something appealing about this from a narrative perspective.
Implementation comes in different forms, but all play on the theme that the player leaves something behind when returning from the dead:
- You can focus on one ability score (i.e. constitution), which has the thematic feel of wearing down the character’s vitality. It also may reduce their hit points, representing the fact that they are closer to death than before.
- You can randomize the penalty by rolling a d6 (see table). This instills more suspense, but with only a 17% chance that the character’s main ability score will be reduced.
You can scale the punitive nature of this method by increasing the volume of ability loss. Instead of deducting one point, you could roll a d4 or even a d6.
Failure Chance. Give death some of its nastiness back. Even if there’s a small chance of a resurrection failing (FOR-EV-ER), players will be terrified.
You can easily set a flat percentage and have players roll against it. In keeping with the tradition of escalating consequences, you may want to bump the percentage each time the player is resurrected.
Allow your players to negotiate for bonuses. Characters who are devoted to a higher power gain some assistance. Impose disadvantages for their unscrupulous behavior in life.
You can get some ideas from the chart. You may notice a roundabout discouragement for being chaotic stupid. Well, characters who alter the cosmic plan are more likely to be given a second shot than murderhobos.
If a player makes a convincing argument for why the Save DC should be reduced, do it! There are few roleplaying opportunities more intriguing than bartering with death.
Narrative Intervention. Good mechanics will shift the way a character plays. Reincarnate employs this idea well by changing the player’s race. Unfortunately, with alternatives available, Reincarnate is an unlikely choice. Perhaps your next campaign is set in lands ruled by Druids who only believe in Reincarnation and condemn other forms of resurrection as unnatural.
Alternatively, the Wandering Wizard and Revenant can still be cool story options at high levels. To some extent, they may feel more legitimate when the players have other avenues available.
Employing a blend of these techniques should keep your death dealing fun.