This is the fourth of these Ask-The-GMs that I’m tackling without recourse to my usual allies and fellow-GMs.

The notion of resurrection penalties is almost as old as the notion of resurrection in RPGs. It’s fictional antecedents go back even further, into the inspiration sources used by the designers of the game in the first place – everything from Dante’s Inferno to Gandalf’s return in The Lord Of The Rings, and even Sauron’s return from something close to death in the same source, returning from death always exacts a price of some sort.

Certainly, in game balance terms, something of the sort is essential or there is no danger associated with the taking of risks. Being able to hit a ‘reset’ button takes the challenge out of the game for the characters, and hence for the players.

Ask the gamemasters

Derek, a new GM, wrote:

“I want to give a resurrection to a PC who was dead in the game, however I think it will be interesting if the resurrection brings him back to life but with a few losses. For example he might live once more, but miss some willpower. But that idea seems not very funny. Could you give me advice and more interesting ideas? Thanks a lot.” (edited for clarity)

There’s a lot that’s unsaid in this request, so some assumptions are going to have to be made. Certainly, if he were running D&D or Pathfinder, a quick glance at the Resurrection spell would reveal that the resurrected creature loses a level or 2 points of CON if they don’t have a level to lose; and certainly, if a different mechanism is used to resurrect the dead character, there is absolutely no reason why they couldn’t suffer a WISdom loss instead of a CON loss.

The bigger question is why that should be the case, because Derek is quite right: without some sort of context to wrap around it, it’s not very interesting, and there is certainly no fun to be had by the player whose character has been affected.

Death In The Hood by George Hodan

Image Credit: / George Hodan

Eight Prices To Pay – General Advice

There are eight types of price that can be paid, varying in degree of impact on the character. And always, the question that needs to be answered before selecting one or more of them, is “why”; why is that appropriate? How is it an outgrowth of established campaign elements?

Making the price to be paid an extension of the campaign as already experienced by the players has two effects of significance: First, the internal consistency lends that price a plausibility and justifiability that makes players more willing to accept it as “the cost of doing business”; and second, it reinforces those existing campaign elements, making other consequences of the campaign’s premises more believable. Both of those make the situation more entertaining to play, because the difficulties that result are neither whimsical nor capricious, but are challenges to be overcome.

It is possible to choose one of these penalties to occur in undiluted form, or a range of penalties; it is always the GM’s responsibility to be measured in his choices, with so many options available it is easy to go too far. Above all, you must never choose a combination that takes away a characters’ freedom of action without the player’s total cooperation and a way of restoring it.

Players will generally be fine with the GM completely rewriting who they are as a consequence of in-game events provided that it is temporary and they can see a pathway to regaining the freedom of action, personality, etc, that they have lost.

This divides the price(s) to be paid into two parts: the semi-permanent and the transient. In effect, the transient price is not actually the cost of the resurrection; the cost of the resurrection is the additional challenge to be overcome. So long as the player knows this, and knows that the GM recognizes that the best long-term outcome from the point of view of the campaign as a whole is for them to succeed in overcoming that challenge. If you get the player on-side and make suffering the cost of regeneration fun for them, they will accept almost anything you can throw at them. If you don’t, they will fight you every step of the way.

Physical Prices

Loss of stats. A permanent -1 HP per hit die. Loss of a level. These are all either direct physical prices or simulations of indirect physical prices.

Arguably, there is a physical process involved in the reanimation of the dead, especially those who died through violence. The damage has to be undone or they will promptly die again.

In past campaigns, I have established that Resurrection returns a character to life but at zero hit points, meaning they will quickly expire once again unless healing is provided – and even then they are likely to be weak for a while if you limit the number of cure potions and strength of healing spells on the basis that spirit and body need time to bind back together, and the healing potions leave the body healed, preserving the current weak connection between the two.

Resurrection should never be just a magic ‘reset’ button, should never be unlimited, and should never be something that anyone can take for granted – unless that’s exactly what you wanted – something I’ll come back to in a later section.

Mental Prices

It’s not unreasonable for there to be confusion in those who have been returned from the dead. Memories may be lost, for example, and things that once seemed clear may be all mixed up.

According to this article, which is reviewing a study of the psychological effects of cardiac arrest and therefore of resuscitation, between 15 and 50% of cardiac arrest survivors suffer serious mental effects as a result. “Months to years after surviving cardiac arrest, about one-third of patients were depressed and nearly two-thirds were experiencing anxiety. Even PTSD symptoms were surprisingly common, afflicting 19 percent to 27 percent of survivors.”

The surprising thing is that anyone might be surprised by this. By definition, a cardiac episode is life-threatening in exactly the same way as a gunshot wound; that there is a similarity in after-effects seems obvious.

Actually dying and being revived is obviously going to be far more traumatic than life simply being threatened. Even seasoned combatants who had assimilated the dangers of their daily lives would almost certainly be affected.

The question that the GM needs to consider is whether or not these psychological effects enhance the gameplay experience for the players; if not, the GM needs to find a way to prevent, undo, ignore, or limit what seems to be the inevitable. I would expect the latter to be the case virtually every time, so I’ll get to a way to do just that in a moment. But first: anyone who has ambitions to take the load less traveled – or who has a player wanting to do so – should make sure that both of you watch the West Wing Season 2 episode “Noël” which puts the symptoms under the spotlight. You can buy the box set of that season from Amazon, or can this Wikipedia page and this page on the West Wing Wiki. Finally, this critical review of the narrative techniques employed may help to make sense of what you are seeing if you find it too deep (I didn’t but some might), and also contains a 5-minute extract that climaxes the episode – though that isn’t as helpful as actually seeing the incidents in flashback that led to the conversation.

But, assuming that most of the time, you want to avoid having the PC come down with PTSD because it’s not much fun for the player, the best solution is to fold that trauma into some still deeper and more meaningful event that will be fun for the player. I talk about those under Spiritual Prices, below.

Material Prices

According to the rulebooks, Resurrection is expensive. That’s to keep the process unavailable to just anyone. When I first started playing D&D it was quite common for PCs to tithe to a “Death Fund” to cover the price of resurrecting any party member killed. What’s more, anyone who drew on the fund to get themselves brought back was required to sell or donate half of their possessions by value back into the fund – which, in some cases, was more than they had taken out of it. Eventually, the fund had enough that a lone survivor could bring back the entire party if the worst happened (unfortunately, that lone survivor turned out to be the party thief, who pocketed the lot and retired, ending the campaign – or so he thought, but that’s another story).

Many years ago, I designed a Traveler campaign (with Stephen Tunicliff in which the über-wealthy could afford infinite ‘youth rejuvenations’ – effectively, resurrections – using a healing process discovered during a failed teleportation experiment. This device rebuilt the political heads of the Old Empire from the ground up every time they came close to death. Of course, it was a state secret! The problem was that copying errors accumulated over time, so that – while they might be young – replacement organs for all sorts of ailments needed to be transplanted from donors, usually involuntary. Inevitably, the leadership became more conservative, more entrenched in its thinking, more inbred (because it was only safe for the few children who were born to marry others who already knew ‘the secret”), and more authoritarian. Inevitably, half-truths leaked out as rumors, and people grew tired of repression and extreme conservatism, and a rebellion arose. Which was where the PCs were to come in… This is the sort of idea that I was making allowance for when I wrote that resurrection should usually be limited in the number of times it could be applied!

The question that automatically arises whenever you consider material costs as a restriction is always “How Expensive? Is this price too much? Is it too little? Should there be more to the price than mere wealth?”

An obvious way to further restrict resurrection is to incorporate the need for some exotic material component, one that money can’t buy because it is so hard to find – or perhaps, one that money can’t buy because most people are unwilling to go to the necessary extent, a topic I’ll come back to in “Moral Prices” a little later!

I can never consider this topic without calling to mind part of the story one of the most famous tycoons of modern Australian history, Kerry Packer:

“Packer reportedly suffered as many as four heart attacks. In 1990, while playing polo at Warwick Farm, Sydney, he suffered from a heart attack that left him clinically dead for six minutes. Packer was revived by paramedics” [using a defibrillator] “…and then airlifted to St Vincent’s Private Hospital, Sydney” where he “received bypass surgery from Dr Victor Chang (a pioneering Australian cardiac surgeon).

“It was not common for an ambulance to have a defibrillator at the time — it was purely by chance that the ambulance which responded to the call had one fitted. After recovering, Packer donated a large sum to the Ambulance Service of New South Wales to pay for equipping all NSW ambulances with a portable defibrillator” (colloquially known for a time afterwards as ‘Packer Whackers’). “He told [State Premier] Nick Greiner, ‘I’ll go you 50/50’, and the NSW State government paid the other half of the cost.”

The only reason Packer survived to undergo heart surgery was because chance made available a piece of then-exotic (and, at the time, reasonably expensive – I have vague memories of Packer’s share being AU$24,900 per ambulance) technology. Had it not been present, all his wealth would not have sufficed. It follows that it might not be some rare material that is required but a rare process or facility – and that if it is not nearby, ready, and waiting, all the wealth and expertise (in the form of clerical levels) that one can find will not be enough.

But that’s more the sort of tactic that a GM should employ if he wants to make it impossible (in practical terms) for anyone to be resurrected (aside perhaps from a very coddled branch of those über-wealthy who had prepared in advance. Still, it’s a relatively simple limitation to emplace in order to achieve that effect.

Spiritual Prices

Another phenomenon that goes hand-in-hand with being brought back from the dead is the spiritual experience. In any universe in which an afterlife is real, questions immediately arise – how long does it take for a soul to make the journey? What does it see and experience? What happens when the soul is brought back, what are the sensations?

And what if the afterlife that is experienced is something different to what the character is expecting? Or the character doesn’t experience any afterlife at all, for whatever reason? How could your faith not be shaken?

That of course, is only the beginning. Adding to all of this you have potential manipulation by known deceivers with vested interests throwing their own manipulations into the mix, and the scrambling of memories discussed earlier thrown on top of that. Fragments of experiences only dimly understood at best – can anyone fail to be transformed, transfigured, transmuted into something else? Not necessarily for the better, of course.

Regardless, such transformations always come with a price tag attached. The price is social and personal; the people who the character once trusted and believed may now be seen as charlatans and frauds. People who were once reviled may now be seen as allies. Public positions both popular and unpopular that would once have been anathema to the character may now be very vocally supported.

All this is grist for the GM to employ. He can present revelations, undermine and radicalize stale campaign elements, turn the entire game world on its head – and then, if it isn’t working, expose the entire transformation as a manipulation by supernatural agents for their own purposes. As always, whenever you do something that radical, make sure that you have an exit strategy!

The key is to have these changes emerge naturally as a consequence of the “experience” that the character has during the death/ afterlife/ return sequence of events. Convince the player and he will do the rest.

Moral Prices

For one to live again, another must die. Or ten lives must be shortened by a tenth. Or perhaps one can only be returned to life if both Heaven and Hell grant permission – and Hell will only do so if their price is paid. For this to work, the character must be reasonably moral in their outlook, or the price exacted by Hell must be something that the character will feel personally. Some NPC that the character cares about might die or be ruined, for example. Wives and Children work well. Or it could be more subtle – estrangements and corruptions.

Or perhaps, for one person to be returned to life, a soul that was destined to be born at that time will be lost.

This sort of price may not be revealed until after the fact, causing the character to have to live with the knowledge of what his return cost. Or it may be known in advance and be something that the character’s friends have to share in.

Social Prices

Not enough GMs give enough thought to the social consequences of being returned from the dead. Inheritances have always been a motive for crime, especially fraud and murder. What happens when it becomes possible for people to spend that inheritance in order to come back from the dead? Or even if there is no financial cost, people have just barely come to terms with having received a windfall when it is snatched away from them.

Or perhaps, it isn’t. The voting living will always outnumbered the resurrected, and it’s in the best interests of the living to disenfranchise those who have returned from the dead.

Many social institutions are affected by death. In addition to inheritances, marriages are dissolved, and widows free to remarry, for example. Parental rights are another social issue. Death is like an instant divorce with no opportunity to negotiate. Things become even more intense if divorce is not socially acceptable in the game society.

There should always be a social consequence to resurrection.

But this category doesn’t end there. Layered on top of all of that is the public and religious attitude to death and to the resurrected, especially if they sometimes come back with “strange” ideas and attitudes. I have visions of mobs with pitchforks and torches storming an inn because there’s a rumor that there’s a “walking dead” staying there…

Metaphysical Prices

This is one of the most unusual concepts for GMs to consider. It draws on some of the concepts from Gandalf’s return in The Lord Of The Rings and suggests that metagame concepts like class and race are rendered temporarily malleable during the transition from life to death and back again.

Absolutely nothing is beyond the scope of this concept. It functions because of the assumption that these metagame changes that apply to this character only, a legacy of his unique experience, are reflections of a metaphysical change in the character. Balance should be preserved, of course; the character needs to still be recognizable as having been who they were.

Survivor Guilt

The final price to consider is something that should be obvious in reflection but, once again, is not all that commonly considered: Survivor Guilt. Technically, this is considered a common symptom of PTSD, which of course was referenced under “Mental Prices” earlier, but in this case it needs to be called out because under this circumstance, it can and should go beyond that.

This one character has been brought back from the dead, an extraordinarily rare event. Why was he the one who was lucky enough? Why was this beloved husband, this best friend, this wise man, this spiritual leader, this brilliant thinker, why were they not good enough? Is fate so capricious?

The character might or might not feel it – that’s up to the player. But everyone in the game world who has ever lost anyone will be asking the character these questions. Some will be sad, some angry, but all will be accusing. Anywhere that the character is both known and the fact of his or her resurrection recognized, they will face these questions.

This consequence is amplified if there is some means of detecting or identifying those who have been subject to the process of resurrection. This can be a physical or spiritual mark or taint or residue.

The Price You Pay

Players often think of resurrection as being the equivalent of a saved position in a video-game. The character gets to come back and pick up their involvement in the game from where they left off. Any minor penalties or consequences are written off, ignored as simply the price of needing this intervention. It shouldn’t be that way; resurrection should be a big deal, and an important decision. It should have consequences. It should matter.

Resurrection without penalty?

There is only one argument that I can think of that is both valid and supports an opposing perspective. That may be my personal limitation, I don’t know.

That argument is that there are things that the GM still wants the character to do within the campaign. There may be all sorts of plotlines underway that focus on the character, plotlines that will simply collapse and end with the lasting death of the character. I’ve had this happen myself, when the character who was the principle focus of the Shards Of Divinity campaign was killed. And again, when that character was killed a second time. And once more when it happened for a third time.

It’s perfectly within the GM’s prerogative to waive the price of resurrection when the character is considered essential, or simply to defer the character’s death until a more convenient time. It must be understood by all at the table that this is an exceptional response to an unusual circumstance.

While I pulled pre-prepared strings to being the character in question back from the dead, it was always in such a way that neither the player nor the character could take it for granted, and there was always a price attached, sometimes subtle and sometimes overt.

The game exists for everyone to have fun. If you – or the player – are convinced that they can’t have fun with a replacement character, then reality has to stretch a little out of shape in order to maintain that fun. Everything else is less important than that.

And that’s an important lesson for GMs to take on board; it’s not about what might be fun for them (though that’s important, too); it’s what will be most fun for the whole group. Before you make any decisions about resurrection of a character, talk to the player. Discuss the options and alternatives with them. If the price of resurrection is to be radically different to that in the rulebooks, players need to know that up-front. So many of the things discussed in this article are only possible with the permission, approval, and cooperation of the player – and you don’t want to make the other players feel like you’re playing favorites, so they need to be consulted as well.

Next in this series: GMing large groups revisited – which games work best?

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