Saturday, April 25, 2015

Undoing Character Death: Unique Methods of Resurrection in Pathfinder

Before we get started this week, I'd like you all to know that I've bowed to the pressures of the Internet. I am now on Twitter @nlitherl. Come follow me if you'd like to watch me stumble through this quip-based form of social media.

Every experienced player has a story about character death. Whether it's a heroic tale of self-sacrifice like when Blackwood the Mad held the bridge so the party could escape, or a frustrating account of how that level one dwarf fighter who didn't even have a name yet went down from an unlucky critical hit, all of us have felt the reaper's hands on our character sheets.

Some of us handle it better than others.
Death is not the end in games like Pathfinder though, especially with spells like Raise Dead, Reincarnate, and Resurrection just a few high-priced spell components away. The problem is that by reducing death to nothing more than another temporary status condition your game can lose a lot of drama, and as we know from comic books an underworld with a revolving door gets really boring really fast.

Finding the middle ground between death is insurmountable, roll up a new character and what happened last session, I was dead at the time? isn't easy. Here are some suggestions for keeping the mystique around death, without making it so every character at the start of the campaign has been killed and replaced half a dozen time by the end of said campaign.

The Death Quest

This is perhaps the oldest trick in the book when it comes to resurrecting a dead character, but it's one a DM willing to roll up his or her shirtsleeves can really make work. The formula is pretty simple; a party member dies, and the dead man's comrades want to give him another chance at life. The priests in town do not have the power to do this, but there are whispers of a miracle worker in the wilderness. The swamp hag with her queer ways, or the necromancer who lives in the frozen waste. There may even be rumors of powerful spirits or forgotten gods who will offer resurrection... for a price.

Just sign on the dotted line, and we'll get this party started.
This could be something as comedic as a trip to the Miracle Max's hut, or as foreboding as finding MacBeth's witches; it all depends on the tone of your game. The point is that the party has to seek out some entity with power over life and death, and that entity will ask some kind of price from the party. If it's a demon it might demand a sacrifice or (if its sly) ask for a seemingly innocuous cost. If it's an ancient spirit it might set a task that must be completed, or the practitioner might simply demand a favor from the party at some point in the future; the most ominous of prices.

The death quest goes one of two ways, usually. You bring the corpse to the entity, and the entity sets the cost. The party either pays it (perhaps it's a year from the end of each of their lives, or some other symbolic cost), or goes off to complete the quest to resurrect their fallen comrade. For groups that don't want to leave the dead character's player out of the action the entity could resurrect the character, and then place a time limit on their new life; so the party is back together, but if they don't bring the aged crone the Heart of Emperors, the lost ruby in the ancient ruins of Halcion by the next full moon, he will pass on to the other side never to return again.

An Outside Force (For Faster, More Immediate Resurrection)

While the Death Quest is a great option, sometimes it just isn't practical. After all, if you're seven stories into the desecrated Temple of the Hanging Damned then you don't need the barbarian to come back in two weeks; you need her back now.

If you have characters that have been around the block a few times then all you need is a creative solution from the DM to make that happen.

Like a diverting chess-based minigame!
This is a solution that works best with examples. So here's a few to chew over!

- Helmund the Red, a hero of the Order of the Dragon falls in battle while helping his comrades defeat the savage Bugbear King. Assumed dead, Helmund's horse kneels by his side, pressing its forehead to his and breathing heavily. Helmund's eyes open, and his steed's close forever. (Bonded creature such as mount, animal companion, etc. gives its life for the PC, or alternatively the action links them together so that their lives are now one meaning if the mount or familiar dies, the PC dies too.)

- Caprica Vaine, alchemist extraordinaire, has a spear driven through her chest during battle. Dead as dreams, the party has just managed to catch its breath when she starts screaming and batting at the flames on her shirt. Her elixirs, potions, and one of her catalysts were smashed open and mixed in the wound. This chemical accident brought her back from death's courtyard through sheer lucky circumstances. (Some twist of fate allows the character to come back from death, but that instance cannot be repeated no matter how the character tries to figure out what happened.)

- Caldon Baile, cleric of Pharasma, falls to the grasping claws of an undead horde. While his compatriots fight them off, Caldon lies dead. Moments later a chill fills the air, and a weak gurgle hisses from his lips as breath finds its way back into his body. He awakens, and the ragged hole in the hollow of his throat has healed in the shape of a spiral scar. He has one phrase running through his head like a mantra; "It is not this day." (Servants of the gods like clerics, paladins, oracles, and warpriests can be presumed to have some sort of special pull with the divine. Similarly, characters like sorcerers from the Destined bloodline may have fate let them cheat death.)

In order for this get-out-of-dead free card to work you need to have a few elements in place. Firstly, it needs to really fit the character and the scenario. While it makes sense for the pious warrior to be given a little more life to fight the enemies of her god, it doesn't make sense for a character who eschews the divine or actively blasphemes it to be given the same deal. Generally the more roleplay heavy a player has been the more opportunities will present themselves. And secondly the Outside Force should be at the storyteller's discretion. Maybe it worked once, but what makes it special is that the player has no guarantee it will work a second time.

Boons, Gifts, and Strings Attached

This method of resurrection is the least common in most games, but it can be the best for both immediacy, as well as for making players feel like their actions really matter (both for good and for ill).

Just take a sip... what could it hurt?
These are the subtle methods which are driven entirely by a character's own actions. For example, say that the barbarian finds an old woman being hassled in an alleyway, and drives the thugs off with a snarl and some busted heads because where he comes from you respect elders for their wisdom. The old woman gives him an ancient medallion to keep him safe, pressing it into his hands and saying that she would be safe as long as men like him existed. If he takes it and keeps it, instead of hocking it at a junk shop or giving it up, then he might find when he should be killed that he's instead brought back from the brink because of the life he saved.

This could take all sorts of forms. Perhaps the fighter defeats a fae prince, but stays his hand instead of delivering a death blow. Maybe the bard was given a tattoo by a tribal shaman as a protection from death after the bard's songs gave strength to the tribe's swords in battle. It's just possible there was something to that old story about the heirloom ring the wizard bonded with, and about how no spellcaster of his line had ever died while he or she wore it.

These methods reflect on story, and on the rewards characters might earn for doing good deeds. There are also less beneficial options.

A dying witch might spit a curse at a bloodthirsty assassin, but rather than dying the curse is to live until he's washed the blood from his hands. The greedy warrior, eager to make use of his plunder, draws the sword of the immortal warrior without pausing to contemplate that all those who have wielded it have died by their own hands according to legend. A soldier who dies with vows unfinished might rise and keep fighting, unable to rest until he's kept his word.

There are a lot of different ways to keep PCs in the game. As long as the player wants to keep playing the character, the method involved is appropriate to the situation, and it feels like a reward instead of DM pity (or the DM fixing a screw up on his or her part) resurrection can be something cool and unique to add into a character's growth. As a final note though, it is also important to ask what happened to your character in-between that moment where they died and where they came back. Being in hell, even for a few minutes, can be enough to make you change your ways when you open your eyes again.

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1 comment:

  1. The "Death Quest" made me think of a sort of reverse: The dead character has to work to get back to life. If he makes it back, it's because the blow missed his vitals, or a wandering shaman showed up just in time to bring him back from the brink. I think the idea has potential. If it's the end of the game session, you can set up a solo adventure for the dead player. If not, you can provide a deus ex machina that gets the character breathing again (if not combat ready), and do a solo session where the character "remembers" his harrowing brush with the reaper and the dark depths of his soul.

    I'm reminded of an old NES game with a superhero named Nightshade. Instead of dying at zero health, he'd get tied to a deathtrap, and the player had to help him escape. With each defeat, the trap would get more and more difficult, and if they failed to escape, Game Over.