Death on the Tabletop

Death. Chances are, it features heavily in your games – after all, your PCs rack up quite the body count, don’t they? But what happens when PCs are on the receiving end of death? What happens when their saving throws just don’t quite save the day?

Well, they die. And maybe it’s forever. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that – it keeps the stakes high and lets your player roll a new character. But sometimes writing out a PC forever is not the right move. If your players are new or particularly attached, death might not need to be the end.

Like all tasks as gamemaster, this is a balancing act that requires buy-in from the players. Some players might prefer to hang onto their character where others see this as cheapening the game. After all, without consequences there is no drama, no tension.

No matter how you handle death, it is an important part of your campaign. It pays to understand how death works in your world and how you can use it to your advantage.

The Afterlife

Many fantasy and some scifi settings have some sort of afterlife, a place where the mind and soul outlives the body. Well before your first PC death, you need to understand how it works. For me, I like to ask myself the following questions:

  • What is it like to arrive in the afterlife?
  • What’s special about the afterlife?
  • What’s normal about it?
  • What adventures could take place there?

What is it like to arrive in the afterlife?

The first question is arguably the most important. It defines the nature of the afterlife, the feel of it. It also gives the player their first impression of the underworld. Given how dramatic dying is, it pays to get this right.

In my current fantasy campaign, the deceased wakes up on a road of light. They find themselves pulled towards a large citadel by unseen forces, along with thousands of other souls. They notice some of the souls breaking free of this force, fleeing into the grim, shadowy city surrounding this road. Other souls are snatched up by the various creatures lining the path – demons, necromancers, things too horrible to describe.

A scifi setting might involve waking up with a strange sense of disconnection. Their body feels dull and their senses are strange. They begin to make sense of what is happening – their mind has been copied and stored on a server. They are ‘seeing’ through cameras, ambient sensors and security systems. But something has become aware of their presence, an algorithmic creature looking to cannibalise their software…

What is special about the afterlife?

I’ve played campaigns where the afterlife was essentially just a grey version of the material world. It was disappointing. This is a realm of the dead – why should it be the same as the world of the living? Focusing on what makes the afterlife special helps shape how death functions but also adds depth and mystery. The newly-deceased should probably be unfamiliar with their strange new home – anything you can do to reinforce that feeling is good.

For my fantasy setting, the afterlife is populated by the souls of the dead. Memories, thoughts and emotions – once safely bound to a physical brain – are now loose and disembodied. As such, pickpockets can pluck parts of your mind right out of you. In fact, I built a whole economy around this idea – memories and souls are valued commodities, able to be bought and sold willingly or otherwise.

In the scifi example, physical distance is irrelevant. The character and thousands of other digitised minds are floating in the cloud, interacting with the real world through peripheral devices. Privacy is impossible and attacks can come at any time. Peace is kept through complex alliances and truces – the only way to stop another mind editing your software is the threat that your buddies will retaliate.

What is normal about the afterlife?

The afterlife should be different, true. But it is still populated with sentient beings going about their business. If communication is possible, then friendships, societies, even civilisations are inevitable. If there are finite resources, economies will form. If harm can be inflicted, wars will rage. The truths of life don’t stop when it does.

I’ve already mentioned the economy in my fantasy setting’s afterlife. Some people flock to cities for protection, others try their luck in the wilderness. The cities are complex political entities that evolved into empires, jostling with each other over souls and other resources. Schemes and wars are as common here as the material world.

Cloud servers capable of holding minds will have a lot of storage space and processing power, but is it infinite? Shortages of computational resources would lead to these fragile alliances breaking down, as software sought to erase software and claim the resources for itself.

What adventures could take place there?

With resources, creatures and strange features, the afterlife has everything it needs for adventures. Whether the PCs arrive willingly, unwillingly or by good old fashioned dying, it helps to have a world rich with exciting opportunities and adventure.

My fantasy campaign’s afterlife is divided into territories, each representing aspects of death or destruction. Should they ever explore it, some encounter ideas I have are:

  • Discord – a child screams in terror as a savage wolf attacks them. As the PCs approach, the wolf is revealed to be a child and the child becomes the wolf. If they intervene, both reveal themselves to be children, cowering from the violent PCs as an angry mob forms around them.
  • Disaster – a tavern’s occupants are barricading against a storm. Savage winds tear the building apart. Each occupant taken by the storm adds to the howling to the wind.
  • Dread – The silence over a village is broken by padded footsteps. Out of the shadows, a dog comes running past the PCs, a mad expression of terror on its face. Soon, another dog appears… and another… and another, until the streets are filled with terrified dogs all running away from… nothing…

The scifi setting is a bit trickier. The lack of physical distance or bodies does not prevent social/roleplaying encounters, though:

  • A simple love triangle between a deceased widow and her two husbands is spiralling out of control, as the two husbands belong to different factions.
  • A “murder” of a software mind takes place and all the evidence points at a PC. Thing is, they were still in the material world when it happened…
  • Through cameras or other means, the PCs spot their murderer getting up to mischief. Can they stop them when they can’t even touch them?

Death-focused NPCs

There’s one thing about the afterlife – it better have people. The environment might be hostile and full of wild creatures, but it needs sentient minds to really resonate with your players. People spawn drama – they have goals, dreams, ambitions, fears. An afterlife without these is just a brutal dungeon crawl in a weird setting.

Actually, that sounds awesome…

But still, let’s assume we want to add people and all the drama that comes with them. There are a few obvious contenders – namely, the souls of people who died. But the afterlives outlined above have unique features and rules. What does the afterlife need? Who does well there?

Maidens of Death

Instantly recognisable in their white tunics and otherworldly grace, the Maidens of Death are a secretive cult loyal to the god of death. They move in groups of four or eight, always travelling in unison, their eyes fixed on the ground. When they speak it is a beautiful though haunting sound, as if they are always thinking of joyful places forever lost to them.

The Maidens are generally ignored in the afterlife, except by those insane enough to desire their powers. They have dominion over the powers of death, allowing them to travel between the afterlife and the material world. There, they perform tasks for the god of death, usually tracking souls who managed to escape his grasp.

Though the Maidens do not move quickly, they also never rest, eat or sleep. They can teleport long distances, exploiting the shadowy network of tunnels that bind this world to the afterlife. When they find their quarry, they effortlessly drag his soul back to their world.

Plot hooks: The Maidens’ powers are a way out of the afterlife, but a dangerous one. A young girl is a former Maiden who fled the cult – she is hunted but willing to share what she knows. One of the PCs cheated death and finds herself running from Maidens. Some of the Maidens have been driven insane by eldritch powers.

Lost psychopomp

Psychopomps are spirits – sometimes people, sometimes animals – who guide a soul from the material world to the afterlife. They do not judge. They do not offer sympathy. They cannot be bribed. But they are far from infallible…

They are creatures from between worlds. What happens when something goes wrong and one ends up in the afterlife or material world? Is the stability an affront to a servant of transitions, or is the intensity of the plane enticing to their kind?

Plot hooks: A lost psychopomp believes the PCs are spirits in need of guidance. Psychopomps enjoy the material world and a lost one is calling to its friends. A dark wizard is capturing them for evil purposes.

The Antivirus

Tasked with protecting the digital afterlife from malicious software, the Antivirus scrutinises every thought in every mind. Intelligent but not self-aware, it carries out this task with relentless efficiency. Undesirable code is deleted, often with the mind that thought it. The Antivirus is robust and effective but, like all software, has its share of glitches and vulnerabilities.

Plot hooks: Your murderer doesn’t do things by halves – he is currently hacking the Antivirus’ parameters to attack you. The Antivirus proposes a series of tests to assess a PC’s code. Anomalies are detected in the latest group of intakes, but malicious code is masking the source – can the PCs unmask the Virus?

The Priest of the One and the Zero

Religion doesn’t end when life does. Digital souls need a digital shepherd. The longing of the living mind for spiritual fulfilment is carried over into the cloud.

The Priest, pious in life, began adapting his creed long ago to the new realities of his existence. His words resonated with people, filling a yearning that was neglected in their cold, new unlife.

The Priest spends most of his time working on his holy .txt. Commandments like ‘feed the hungry’ and ‘don’t lust after another man’s wife’ do not translate well. He is making steady progress but is wracked with doubt, concern that his efforts will miss some key divine insight.

Plot hooks: the Priest has information the PCs need, but will not share with unbelievers. The Priest publishes a new chapter that polarises the community. The Priest is growing slowly insane, convinced that he is in some version of Hell.

Returning to the Material World

There’s a problem at the heart of all this. If your PCs have reached the afterlife, either by dying or travelling there, then there needs to be a way back to the material world. Probably. I assume you are not ending your campaign there or trapping them for eternity. So returning needs to be possible… but it can’t be easy or scalable. If it were easy, everyone would do it; if it were scalable, someone clever and enterprising would solve the hard parts and charge a fortune for re-entry.

On the other hand, hard and unusual is what the PCs do best. Still, turning death into a revolving door could ruin the tension of any brutal fight from then on, and leave you open to annoying but reasonable questions like ‘if we got out so easily, why doesn’t everyone?’

It seems to me the best way is to treat death the way you treat high-powered items and spells. At high levels, yeah, maybe your PCs should be able to waltz in and out of the afterlife. I mean, why not? It’s been done before: a big part of the epic tier in D&D 4e was that dying was often little more than a hassle. Being that powerful raised the stakes beyond concerns of mortality: failure doesn’t end in your death, merely the destruction of the cosmos.

Low-level adventurers do not get +8 Swords of Awesome Supermurder; similarly, they do not get easy ways to cheat death. Usually. But if the story demands it, this rule can and must change. Say the PCs need to teleport themselves and a small army across the continent, but are way too low-level to have that ability. What would you do? Simply drop a one-time use Scroll of Sublime and Lovely Teleportation in their laps and hope they don’t squander it. If they do, well, they didn’t care enough about the princess or whatever and you only have yourself to blame.

Getting out of the afterlife could be exactly that – Sublime and Lovely Teleportation just happens to take them back to the material world. Or it could be a fleeting planar alignment they stumble upon. Or the son of the CEO of the cloud storage company charms his way in with an illegal 3D printer powered by the super rare and expensive Exoticium and prints the PCs new bodies, then downloads their minds using an alien AI that burns out after one use.

Whatever it takes.

The Aftermath

After the afterlife is the aftermath. If a PC died but, through shared consent, you brought them back, there needs to be some penalty for them. Getting off scot-free from dying removes any and all tension from future fights. It has to be gruelling and painful. They have to not want to die again under any circumstances.

Even if no one died and they happened to visit the afterlife for whatever reason, there needs to be consequences for returning. The PCs did something incredible by coming back from the dead. People are going to notice. Not everyone is going to be pleased. Those that are will want to know their secrets and probably won’t feel too bad about killing them – after all, they cheated death once.

The first time I killed a PC in my group, I brought him back. This was with relatively new players, he was attached to his PC and I had discussed this possibility beforehand with everyone, repeatedly. So I brought him back, using a combination of powerful magic and equally powerful political alliances that were able to reverse death, but only because they acted quickly. But I didn’t make it so easy. His beloved PC had what I cleverly termed ‘death sickness’ – he was miserable, weakened, prone to vomiting and hallucinations. Also, he felt like he hadn’t fully escaped the afterlife, that death was still clawing at his soul.

I took an opportunity here. I told the player that every time he roleplayed his death sickness well, he earned a point. I never explained what the points did, but it was obviously good – when he got six, he had recovered. Naturally he tried to spam out “oh, I feel death’s icy fingers” in a few minutes, but human judgement played a part. The result was some of the best roleplaying I’ve seen from him. It was also a handy reminder that the character had died and was feeling pretty miserable about it.

Reaching the End

If death is more than just an event that ends characters, it’s worth having a think about it every now and then. How does it work? What goes on afterwards? Can it drive the story forward? Can it increase tension? Because these are questions that will come up. Unless you are as brilliant as my first gamemaster who resolved a PC’s death on the fly in what would have made an excellent twist in a goddamn movie, it pays to be prepared.

Because death is always just some bad rolls away…

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