One of the issues that every group has to deal with is what happens when a character dies. There are various ways to deal with single character death, that can be handled fairly smoothly. But when the whole party dies, the issue becomes much more complicated.

Is Death Permanent

Obviously, the first question has to be “Is death permanent?” Some DMs do not allow any spells or magical items that restore life. When a character dies, the player rolls up a new character. As long as you are aware of this in advance, have an experienced group, and have a good DM (that gives enough clues for the party to determine encounter difficulty level and allows ample opportunity for the party to run away when necessary), this type of game can make for a challenging evening. However, even with the best DM and the most experienced players, the party is destined for eventual failure. Therefore, I don’t find this sort of game practical for any sort of lengthy campaign.

Resurrection

The next question then becomes, “How do you resurrect a dead character?” Each edition has included spells and magical items capable of raising the dead. If you have a cleric in the party, of sufficiently high level, or access to scrolls of Raise Dead, then resurrecting dead characters becomes a non-issue. Some parties may not have the resources to handle this themselves. But if the local town has a cleric who can offer this service for a fee, it again becomes a non-issue (so long as the party can afford the fee).

But some DMs do not allow easy access to scrolls, do not provide clerics willing to resurrect characters in all cities, raise the level of Raise Dead, or otherwise make resurrection somewhat difficult. The rational is usually to make character death more than a speed bump.

However it is handled, I think it is important for there to be some method by which characters may be resurrected.

Fudging Rolls

A lot of DMs fudge their attack and damage rolls against characters. Clearly, if the monsters don’t kill the characters, the whole issue of death and resurrection can be ignored. Unfortunately, this method can’t be used heavily or it will become apparent. If players realize that the DM is “pulling her punches”, the whole game loses its sense of danger which, for most groups, takes all the fun out of the game. An occasional fudged roll can be rationalized as divine intervention. But for the most part, I think the DM should just let the dice fall as they may.

Another reason not to “protect” your players is to make them better players. If they realize that their characters can and will die if they are not careful, they will learn to gauge situations more carefully and know when to run.

Consequences

It’s up to each group to determine how difficult it is to be resurrected and what other consequences come with dying. In most MMOs, death is but a minor inconvenience with no real consequences at all. A great many groups adopt this view in their games. It works well and keeps the game moving. Personally, I like Raise Dead to be treated as a lengthy ritual, that requires a monetary expense and forces an extended rest, but essentially lets the game continue without any significant delays.

Party Wipes

Here is where the problem really arises. Regardless as to what resources the party may have available to resurrect dead party members, if they all die there is no one to take advantage of those resources. In most groups, this means that all the characters are permanently dead and everyone needs to roll up new characters. This has a number of problems:

  • It’s not fun.
  • It’s very time-consuming.
  • It’s discouraging.
  • It creates bad feelings.
  • Players get attached to their characters and dislike losing them.
  • This can end the game for the night and even drive players away.

Clearly, party wipes are something that all DMs would prefer to avoid. To this end, extraordinary measures are often employed:

  • Extensive fudging of rolls.
  • Poor monster strategy.
  • Letting player attacks kill off monsters that actually have lots of HP left.
  • Last minute “cavalry” showing up to save the day.
  • Monsters surrendering or running off (even when they are winning).
  • Various forms of “Divine Intervention”.
  • Etc.

Players recognize these veiled attempts to spare them. Although most players enjoy not being killed, being saved in this way is demeaning and spoils the game. Even worse, if the players know that the DM will step in to pull their asses out of the fire, if things get too bad, they rely on that. Parties that know they will be saved: never run, aren’t careful, do foolish things, and never become better players.

Alternatives

So what do you do? If the party wipes, it spoils the game. If the DM saves the party, it spoils the game. If there’s no risk, it spoils the game. That doesn’t leave many options.

Honestly, I’ve struggled with this problem for decades and have never come up with a solution that I am entirely happy with.

I always have, and always will, use encounters that are appropriate to the area (not specifically tailored to the party). It is up to the players to determine which situations they can handle and which ones they should avoid. I don’t like fudging rolls or otherwise taking it easy on the characters; every monster should use the best strategy it can (based on its int, wis, etc). I don’t mind killing individual characters if they put themselves in a situation they can’t handle, although I try to always leave avenues of escape available if they so chose.

However, when it looks like a wipe is coming, I am as guilty as anyone of using all the techniques listed above to save them. I just don’t like to tell players to rip up their characters and start over.

As I’ve stated though, saving them is a bad idea. There needs to be something better.

Soul Binding

This is the solution I am currently using. Characters, during their initial training, are given the opportunity to bind their soul to a “bindstone”. Naturally, all characters take advantage of this. If a character is killed, the soul remains with the body for 24 hours, during which time the character may be resurrected normally. At the end of the 24 hour period, the soul returns to the bindstone and is automatically resurrected into a new (identical) body. The remains of the dead body are unaffected.

To avoid having naked people running around town, the character’s new body is wrapped in a death cloak. All possessions carried by the character, when she was killed, remain where they fell (although they could have been looted or otherwise carried off). In addition, the character permanently loses one point of constitution and the associated HPs. There is a portal next to the bindstone that allows a newly resurrected character to return to the location of their demise. A smart adventurer would maintain a backup set (or sets) of gear in town that can be grabbed in an emergency and used while attempting to recover the gear the character was using when she was killed.

Soul binding is available to anyone, not just PCs. However, non-adventurers typically consider soul binding to be unnatural and distrust anyone who has been resurrected in this manner. Some even see soul binding as the first step down the road to lichdom. Therefore, PCs, nobles, wealthy merchants, and anyone else who takes advantage of soul binding, tend to keep the fact to themselves.

I’m the first to admit that this solution is very “gamey”. However, it allows me to run every fight with the ferocity it deserves without having to worry about a party wipe that would end in permanent character death. If an individual character dies during a battle, the consequences are minimal so long as the party has properly prepared themselves. If the entire party wipes, there are significant consequences but the characters aren’t permanently lost. If I need an adventure hook, some or all of the items where the party died could have been carried off, leaving either a trail or clues as to who took them.

Wrap-Up

Is it perfect? Of course not. But it keeps the game moving, avoids permanent death, and doesn’t require me to save the party. This solution won’t work for everyone but hopefully it will provide ideas that lead to something that does work.

Follow-Up

Be sure to check out this follow-up post: Soul Binding.