Dungeons & Dragons Game Mastering

An Alternative to Death

His body numb, Rasper could do little as the lacedons dragged him away from his friends. Ren, a changeling sorcerer that had joined the party a short while ago, used one of her spells to pull the halfling out of the undead’s grasp, but within a few seconds the predators were pulling him away again. As a ghoul tore at him with its dirty teeth, the world began to fade away. The last thing he saw was his arm being torn away from his shoulder by one of the monsters.

That scene played out in my Dungeons & Dragons campaign a couple months ago. While exploring the partially submerged ruins of an ancient city, the party stumbled upon a pack of lacedons. Because the monsters had the ability to paralyze the characters, they were able to isolate the party’s rogue from the rest of the group and then drag him away. He was dropped to 0 hp and then killed by a ghoul tearing him apart after the other characters failed to save him.

While the halfling had died according to the rules, his death was pretty inconvenient. His player enjoyed the character and wanted to continue playing him, and the party was in the middle of a remote dungeon so it would be some time before they would be able to get back to a temple for a Raise Dead ritual. The remote location also made it hard to fit a new character into the story in any plausible way.

Instead of accepting death, the player and I chatted a bit and we came up with a solution that has worked out pretty well. The halfling would still be alive, but had suffered a grievous would and would be missing his arm. With this compromise, the player got to kept playing the character he enjoyed, the campaign’s narrative was uninterrupted, and there was still a meaningful penalty for the character’s “death”.

The rogue has suffered without his arm for some time, but at the end of our last session finally recovered from the wound. I think the idea worked great as an alternative to character death by not only keeping a player happy and allowing the campaign’s story to continue uninterrupted, but also by adding depth to the character and offering fun roleplaying opportunities as the poor halfling struggled with his missing limb and eventually recovered from the wound in a way that adds a nice twist to the character.

If you find yourself with an inconvenient character death or if you just don’t like the story implications of Raise Dead, then I suggest you try out the following system.

Taking a Grievous Wound

When a character would die according to the normal rules, instead the player has the choice of either accepting the death or suggesting a grievous wound. The wound should be something appropriate to the attack and something that is a truly serious injury. Good examples of grievous wounds are lost limbs, blindness, deafness, scorched lungs, or a lingering curse.

These wounds are beyond the power of normal healing magic and persist until special conditions are met (see below). While the mechanics of a wound should vary based on its nature, they all should have a meaningful effect on a character’s adventuring abilities. As an example, Rasper’s missing arm prevented him from being able to use items in both hands, made reloading his crossbow take a standard action rather than a minor action, and occassionally gave penalties on skill checks.

Recovering from Grievous Wounds

The most straightforward way to allow recovery from a grievous wound is to repurpose the Raise Dead ritual by allowing it to heal a character’s wound. This approach maintains the mechanical cost of character death while allowing the player to continue playing a weaker character from the point of death until the ritual can be used.

Another option would be to allow a character to recover after finishing the current adventure and having significant time to rest in-game. This is the approach that I used in Rasper’s case, but I flavored it as having the group’s current patron, an ancient lich, craft him a magical metal arm to replace his missing limb.

By Scott Boehmer

A game enthusiast and software engineer.

8 replies on “An Alternative to Death”

I did something different to this recently when a character in a sci-fi game got badly injured away from civilization (they were in the Tomb of Horrors, converted for a sci-fi game). They were on a planet that didn’t have very good hospital facilities and after a period of recovery the character now has a limp, a lower movement speed and a lower endurance. It worked quite well.

No good without player buy in though.

I don’t think the default of death with relatively easy access to Raise Dead is really that much more punishing than this system. The grievous wounds are just meant as a way to let the player stay engaged in the game (albeit in a weakened state) rather than being stuck on the sidelines until the ritual can be used. If you want a game where death is really a meaningful punishment, I think you’d need to make Raise Dead much harder to access or even get rid of it entirely.

I suppose I come from the angle of, its not hard to introduce a new character. If the player has issues letting go of a character, I would suggest that there is more of an issue there than just keeping them engaged.

They can always raise their favorite character, (if they have the body) later on and play him again. But in the mean time, they can come across a “helpful fellow” who join them on their quest.

The point being is, If a missing arm is all that they have to deal with, then a players sense of self preservation is greatly reduced. Especially if the character doesn’t need 2 arms to be effective. I would choose losing an arm to death every single time and be the most risk taking character ever. Whats the worst that could happen? Lose an arm?
or death? One of them is definitely a bigger deterrent.

But again, that is just me, so by no means take this as me telling anyone how to play. DM’s game, DM’s rules.

I think an important difference is that with the system I’m proposing, the character is able to regain consciousness after the current encounter and continue the adventure with penalties which keeps the player involved. It sounds like your rules would still leave the character unconscious until a Raise Dead ritual was used to heal them. I do like your idea of a heroic sacrifice though and could see adding some bonuses like that for when players choose death instead of taking a grievous wound.

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