Here I am making another video. Crazy talk. I talk about recent projects, new audio gear, and I briefly review the Tal’ Dorei Setting.
Here I am making another video. Crazy talk. I talk about recent projects, new audio gear, and I briefly review the Tal’ Dorei Setting.
Why I am I talking about death on a blog dealing mainly with games?
Well, games handle death differently. In many video games, you simply return to prior save point if you die. In Dungeons & Dragons we have spells which can bring you back from the dead. Death does not have the tight hold on a character it does on people in the real world. How easily a caster can gain access to these Resurrection spells says a lot about the setting. If it is just something you pay some gold for at the local temple, then death is less scary. If it is something that only pc’s can learn, then that puts PC’s in a unique position in your world. Suddenly, they go from just being another adventurer to being some of the most important people in the world. The notion of someone dying and being brought back to life is kind of a central tenant to at least one major real world religion.
The thing is, I am not super satisfied with the treatment of death in most fantasy games. It makes sense with how D&D evolved. Of course bringing someone back from the dead boils down just casting a spell. That is how player controlled magic works in D&D. Having your character die can suck. It is not as traumatic as having a real person die, but you can invest a lot in that character. Often you will spend many hours playing, making and thinking about your character. You get invested, so of course you want to have them brought back. It all makes sense but it also removes something. If death is a guaranteed non permanent thing, if it is a simple fix, then why should you care if someone is under threat of death?
Boffer or Action Larps often bring an even strong sense of attachment to a character. You are spending whole weekends in costumes you either bought for the character, or made for the character. You inhabit that character in a way you cant at a tabletop session. You are physically doing many of the things you might describe in a tabletop game. This means the impact of character death is even stronger here, so having an easy(ish) way to bring people back is essential, but, again, how do you put people at risk if they know they can be brought back? A few games I have played have done that differently, but they all boil down to a couple of strategies.
The first tactic is adding the chance you might not come back. Whether you are drawing a card, or a domino, or a specially marked stone, you take a random chance when bringing people back. The more often they get brought back, the worse their chances become. As you die, the folks running the game would record it in a book. When you died again, they would prepare the pool you are drawing for based on the number of previous deaths. You will likely have no problems coming back for your first few deaths, but as you go along the chances to comeback are reduced. You can add complications to this system. Perhaps you could make a draw result that is not just alive or dead, but different. You could be brought back with a venerability to silver or mind magics. Some spells may have a greater chance to be brought back different, much like the Reincarnate spell of older editions of D&D. Add in a few cards that could change you from a Human to an Elf, for instance.
This adds threat the longer pc’s are played. They may become more powerful, but their death draw becomes more and more likely to be their last. It also allows you to add effects that increase the stakes of an encounter. Say you are fighting bad guy who uses some dark magics. He drops your friend, and you think “well there is a still a good chance that he will come back, lets rush the guy.” Then the bad guy casts a spell that weakens peoples souls, making that draw even more likely to fail. That bad guy becomes an even more of threat. Suddenly the PC’s feel more at risk. You could also have spells that there is no coming back. Rather than just killing you, they obliterate you leaving nothing to be brought back. That sense of threat is put back into dying. Obviously, you want to advertise that and not have a surprise permanent death, but making that known makes an opponent that much more frightening. It marks the clear difference between early campaign and late campaign content, where the stakes should be higher.
Some Larps placed a particularly limit on bringing someone back. For instance, a couple of larps I played required that you get to the body of the person you want to bring back before the sun sets or rises. No body, no coming back. This creates a sense of pressure on the heroes. Not only do you have to get out of the dungeon with your dead friend, but you need to do it quick.
It also presents an interesting set of complications for stopping the bad guy. That ritual the bad guy is going to do to give himself nearly godlike powers? Yeah he is doing that at sunset. Jump too late, he is a god. Jump too soon and your heroes face a real chance of dying permanently.
Other games I played did not have this complication and the body of heroes dissolved and appeared in a magic circle. This presented a different complication. All their gear is wherever they died. People familiar with MMO’s will be familiar with the corpse run. That is unpleasant, but it is even more unpleasant in a circumstance where you are not a ghost, where all your nice weapons, armor, spell books and the like are in a dungeon that was bad enough it killed you once already. Many an adventure would have a point where someone would die and resurrect in the circle and hope their buddies grabbed all their gear on their way out of the evil temple.
Another big part of this process was the description. You died and it is not a binary proposition bringing you back. Narratively, there is struggle. There would often be a description of the spirit reentering the body, or the sensation of resistance on resurrection that was not going well. A pc’s ghost might meet other ghosts while dead, or Death herself. The point is it was rarely a simple spell cast and poof you were fine. That isn’t interesting. There is little chance for story in binary death interactions.
That is a good question, and why are you suddenly English. This relates because you can bring a lot of this over to D&D (or Fantasy AGE or insert your game system here). MAking death a more interesting and role play heavy experience can change how session goes. A nearly Total Party Kill can have a more interesting aftermath. Here are some options.
There are Magic Circles scattered through out the world. The art for making them has been lost, but their power remains. A person of sufficient power and ability(like a hero) can attune to one. Normal attunement rules apply. If they do, they can use the circle to bring people back from the dead. To use it, they must bring at least most of the body back to circle. Once there, they must make an Arcana or Religion check to begin the resurrection. The person being brought back rolls a d20. For the first death, anything above a 1 succeeds.
However, each time they use the circle to come back (or any other method) they also add a d4 to the roll. If they roll lower on the d20 than what they roll on the d4’s the resurrection fails. If it fails three times, they can never try again. That person is beyond the veil permanently.
Example: Charley the Bard has died 3 times before. This is his 4th death and his cleric buddy is trying to bring him back in a circle. Charley roles and 11 on his d4’s, to represent the damage his soul has taken in the past. He roles the D20 and gets a 6. He fails his first attempt. He can try to role under 11 on two more tries. If he succeeds he comes back. If he fails, the party is going to need a new Bard.
Note: You could replace that with a card pull. Have 10 hearts cards. With each death add a spades card. A spade means failure. You could add other suites for more exotic results liek raise changes or developing flaws.
There is a ritual, which anyone with ritual casting can cast. It costs 100 gold in certain herbs burnt over the body of a fallen person. This summons a being. The type of being summoned is decided at the casting. This can be a spirit of death, a demon, or a fae. The summoned being will bring the person back from the dead, but all magic of this sort has a cost. To bring your friend back from the dead, you must make a sacrifice something. The first time can be relatively minor, but as someone becomes more powerful, it cost more. The GM should work out the cost but a good rule of thumb is if the dead person is less than level 5, a material object of some rarity or power(example: minor magic item, the sheets from the kings bed, a work of art) is sufficient. If they are between 5th and 10th levels, it costs the equivalent of a difficult service or curse. Above that, get creative. A soul is not out of the question.
Note: This is very much on the GM to come up with something, often on the fly, and with little mechanical guidance. That said, it also adds a lot of story to the process. It is not going to be for everyone, but it can be a fun addition.
You could also make it so the PC’s by nature of being PC’s are immortal unless killed in a particular way. This is decided at the beginning of the game and can vary per person. One Fighter can only be killed by decapitation, while the Cleric can only be killed by a blade of mistletoe wood, or the Bard can only die by being burned to death. Be creative but the way should not be overly specific. A vulnerability to only spears forged by gods from star metal on a Tuesday is not really a good choice. If they are brought unconscious, they will wake up in 30 minutes no matter how badly damaged, assuming death condition is not met. This does not increase their healing rate, so being beat down to 0 hit points still takes a bit to recover from. To make this work it needs two extra bits. First, there need to be villains also so endowed. This is a touch of divinity or destiny and the bad guys get that too. Second, there has to be a way for the bad guys to learn what the heroes can die from. Maybe it is a prophesy, or book, but there has a to be a way for the villains to learn it. Dying to random orcs becomes a lot less likely. It also hammers home that the PC’s are special, but the moment that Cleric notices a bad guy with wooden knives, he begins to sweat. When that Bard hears that you have to stop a dragon, he will have reason to feel extra concerned.
Note: This radically changes the nature of a campaign, obviously. This probably doesn’t fit into every campaign world. Also, there is a significant chance of having the odd problem prop up due to the seeming immortality of characters. A character falls into a nearly bottomless ravine with no chance of ever making it out. Do you count that as dead and make a new character? Eternal toture also becomes an issue.
There are a range of ways to make death more interesting in D&D and other games. Death is a compelling driver of stories because it is something we all deal with in the real world. It has a profound effect on those left behind. It should have weight and power in a game, as well. Hopefully these ideas will help do that at your table.
This is inspired by a thread on the Brigade over on Facebook. I thought it was worth talking about.
As is often the case, I was inspired by a friend’s work. My pal Greg over on his blog wrote up a barbarian build for the Urban Arcana Unearthed Arcana article….. Wow, that a repetitive sounding sentence. That phrase almost counts as alliteration. That should totally be a comic book phrase. I should find that as the title of a book in Dr. Strange’s library.
Anyway, where was I?
Anyway, his build was for a city tied barbarian pulling on the spirit of a neighborhood. It felt very Luke Cage adjacent. When I commented such, he admitted he was inspired by that Netflix show. I hardily approve of that inspiration. I am a huge comic book nerd and I am contractually obligated to at least try out all comic book shows. Luke Cage is excellent and talks not only about his being a superhero but how he is connected to Harlem. If you have not watched that show, you should go do that now. I am willing to wait. While you are at it, watch the rest of the Netflix Marvel shows, even Iron Fist.
We will check back here in about a week.
Oh good, you came back. It was good, right?
Anyway, given that inspiration I decided I would do my own modern-day character build inspired by those shows. With that in mind, I present you the Vigilante. While not precisely any one superhero, you can see a few different ones inspiring it.
The vigilante is someone who can no longer stand by and let the powerful make victims of us all. Perhaps it was a tragedy in the Vigilante’s past, the loss of a parent or lover, that made them step beyond what the law can do? Maybe they are people who have the power and feel the responsibility to do more? Whatever the cause, the Vigilante patrols the night using their skills bringing justice to those who believe themselves beyond its reach.
You gain proficiency with the disguise kit and the tinkerers’ kit.
Starting at 3rd level, you can declare you are taking down a target. If they have not taken an action or you are hidden, you have advantage on your first attack. If you succeed, the target makes a constitution save (DC is 8+ your proficiency bonus + your Intelligence modifier) or be rendered unconscious for 1 minute. This effect can only be used on humanoid or human like targets. It does not work on the undead. You still get the advantage on rolls, however.
Starting at 9th level, you gain advantage on all stealth checks made in the dark. You also make perception checks without penalty in even total darkness.
At the 13th level, you begin making your own devices to fight crime. These devices use charges, and you have 8+ your proficiency bonus + your Intelligence modifier charges per long rest.
Flashbang: This takes a standard action and produces single blast of light and sound within 60ft of you. The people in a 20 ft radius must make a wisdom save (DC is 8+ your proficiency bonus + your Intelligence modifier) or be subject to the blinded condition for one turn. Does not affect constructs. Charges Cost: 3
Grapnel: You fire a line which is used to move you across the city. Takes a standard move action but moves you up to 60ft, including vertically. You must have a stable stop point at the end, though it can be used as a reaction to falling. Charges Cost: 1
Door Opener: Standard action to use. You can place on any door or wall and it does 10d6 to the target, and will usually cause the door to open even if it survives the blast. It does not do so quietly, and makes a loud boom that could heard by anyone near. It cannot be used on moving or living targets. Charges: 2
Stunners: You can hit a target up to 30ft away with a successful ranged attack role. If you do, that target is stunned for one round. Charges Cost: 1
Tracers: You make a ranged attack. If you succeed, the target is tagged without their knowledge, with a tracer you can follow up to ten miles away. Charges Cost: 1
Smoke: You can generate an area obscured by black smoke within 60ft and fills the area of a 20ft radius. This obscures line of sight for anyone except you. Charges Cost: 2
Starting at the 17th level, your movement is your weapon. In a fight, you are able to pick a point on the battlefield within 60ft of you and, as long as there is a clear line of sight to it, you can reach it without tests or incurring opportunity attacks. As a free action per move, you may make a stealth check to hide, even if it is in plane sight.
Notes: This was written to be compatible with a modern Urban Arcana setting but there is no reason it can’t work in other settings. This would work in Eberron and even Forgotten Realms or Tal Dorei with a touch of flavor tweaking.
I have a long history with the concept of playing a gravedigger. I played one for over a decade at a larp in the Atlanta area. I rather think he may have been the most interesting character I have ever played. For all his sneaky abilities (he was a rogue) he was also noble in thought and action. He was tremendously creepy and people expected him to be evil, but he wasn’t. He was just not socially adjusted. That lead to some amazing role play sessions and I kind of miss playing the guy.
Anyway, I always liked the vision of champions of death that are not evil. With that in mind, here is my take on Gravediggers as a rogue archetype in 5th edition. In keeping with their semi-divine devotion to caring for the dead, I set them up with paladin spells. I am interested in some feedback on this. It is not too unlike the Avenger class in 4th edition. I don’t think it is over powered, but others might disagree. Tell me what you think.
So…magic weapons are a thing in D&D. They have been since the early days of the game. Certainly the most often remembered ones are magic swords. A sword is a good weapon. It is versatile, with chopping, slashing, and stabbing elements throughout its various iterations. It was the go-to weapon for professional soldiers through a lot of history.
However…. There are other contenders. Let me tell you about spears. The spear is also a weapon with a long history. Spears are useful for a number of reasons. First, they are cheap to make. You find a straight piece of wood. Forge about a daggers worth of metal to add to the point, or don’t. You can stab people from long sword distance with a lot less cost. Spears, like swords, can be more involved affairs in the hands of a true craftsman. Materials can be rare and exotic as mithril or adamantine. It is often the weapon of a stalwart footman, or a barbarian on the fringes who can’t afford much more, or even the martial arts master. There are a number of magic spears in real world myths around the world. It is especially prevalent in Irish Legends.
Sadly, there are not many famous magical spears in D&D, though. My friend Brandes did his part to add some to the pool. It is the least I could do to continue that trend. I also borrowed some of his formatting. I hope they are useful additions to your magical arsenal.
You can get your own magic helmet.
So, this is my core system for researching spells. To say this could use some feedback is an understatement. Researching spells is something I want rules for, and sometimes you just have to write them yourself. It also forced me to look at the structure of Wizard spells in 5th Edition more closely. These rules are assuming there are more restrictions on learning new spells than are currently in place in D&D, but they should work fine with the current system, as well. With all that preamble out of the way…
The thieves’ guild is an odd artifact of fantasy games. Once you accept that a hero can be a thief, you begin finding ways for the thief to belong to the world. Wizards have colleges and councils. Fighters become knights, become lords, and even become kings, ruling by this ax. Clerics have their religious hierarchies. The choirs of angels have nothing on the politics of churches. Thieves, though, are inherently outsiders. They prey upon the world. Yes, Hobbits get led astray by dirty road dwarves into being burglars, but that is not quite the same thing. A thief is more than just someone who sneaks around. Thieves’ have their own subculture. In fantasy games, it is called a guild.
Here is my review of Unknown Armies 3rd edition, which should be coming out in digital in March, and in print later this year. Do you like subjective reality, emotional trauma, and secret masters of the universe in your horror? Have I got a game for you!
Sorry for the delay on this. I had a death in the family, and that took a lot of the steam out of me. I hope to get back to writing more regularly. Ironically, I attended the panel which inspired this with the family member who died. He was on my mind a lot while writing it.
In my series about spell books, it occurred to me I had not addressed books in general. It is easy to assume everyone is on the same page with regards the subject of books. That said, not everyone really looks into the history of the book as an object and a technology.