A common complaint with Fifth Edition D&D is that death doesn’t seem to matter; you simply pay your death tax (300 gp for a revivify spell, 500 gp for raise dead, and so on) and move along. For many groups, the only time this amount becomes too steep is if the party has to spring 25,000 gp for a true resurrection spell to restore someone who was disintegrated or whose corpse was otherwise rendered inaccessible. This being an infrequent occurrence (few parties make it to a high enough level for this kind of threat to be commonly encountered) only serves to reinforce the frustration among some players and DMs about how death is ‘meaningless’.
For those interested in more punishing rules for character death, we have prepared this article.
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Advanced Death Rules
The following are some variant rules you can introduce to your game to make character death more punishing. At the DM’s discretion, these rules can be suspended when a character is raised with revivify (while the last breath yet lingers on someone’s lips) or true resurrection (which is a 9th-level spell that requires a staggering sacrifice of wealth to achieve).
Applying madness on character death is not a new idea. In the Curse of Strahd adventure, it was one method that was used to reinforce the horror of Ravenloft. But Barovia is not the only place where suffering a violent death might cause you to come back… different. An indefinite madness, as described in chapter 8, “Running the Game”, in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, would certainly make for a troubling complication that would make character death more interesting.
The main problem with this option is that madness can be cured with greater restoration, which essentially means that after a certain point it just becomes 100 gp more expensive to bring someone back to life without penalty. While the DM can determine that this kind of madness can’t be cured, that kind of defeats the purpose of using madness at all, and might become tiresome for a character who gains a flaw that significantly changes their character’s persona.
2. Cumulative Death Penalty
There are various ways that a cumulative penalty could be applied. We have included two options below: Diminished Essence and Limited Rejuvenation. The former applies penalties that have effects outside of the death system, the other is less punishing outside the death system but offers fewer chances to come back.
Using this variant, each time a character is restored to life using magic, they permanently lose 1 Hit Die. When this happens, they roll that Hit Die and reduce their permanent hit points by that amount + their Constitution modifier. A character can’t be restored to life if doing so would leave it with 0 Hit Dice.
Using this variant, each time a character is restored to life using magic, they gain a permanent and cumulative death count. A character can’t be restored to life if doing so would cause its death count to exceed 1 + its Constitution modifier.
3. Dice with Death
Using this variant, when a character dies, the player rolls a d20. If they roll below their Constitution score, the character’s spirit remains strong enough to survive the call back to life, if it ever comes. Each subsequent death after the first adds a permanent and cumulative +1 to this roll.
This is the option with the most variation by character class, as a barbarian or a fighter might be twice as likely to survive death as, say, a wizard. Groups that are disproportionately heavy in high-Constitution characters and may find this more appealing than groups with a larger variation in Constitution scores.
4. Skill Challenge
There are many ways to do this, though we at Dungeon Master’s Workshop really like the approach devised by Critical Role’s Matthew Mercer. In particular, we like how it is designed that the challenge can be repeated if you use another resurrection spell that takes longer to cast, thereby allowing a failed revivify to still keep the door open for an attempt with raise dead.
The downside of this is that it interferes with a character’s use of their abilities. Fighters don’t have to contend with their superiority dice being reinterpreted in such a way, nor does a barbarian have to roll to get mad enough to rage. And even those examples don’t involve the possibility of valuable resources like diamonds being consumed in a failed spell. As usual, you should talk with your players about new rules before implementing them.
5. Lingering Injuries
Chapter 9, “Dungeon Master’s Workshop”, in the Dungeon Master’s Guide contains an Injuries section that presents an injury system that inflicts wounds upon being reduced to 0 hit points. These injuries range from the harmless minor scar to the disfiguring lose an arm or hand. (And if the nine official options are insufficient, we published an expanded list in Arcane Emporium, Vol. 10 that included options based on the type of damage dealt by the effect that caused the injury.)
Normally, most of these injuries are removed when a character receives magical healing, such as what occurs when a resurrection spell brings someone back to life with 1 hit point. At the DM’s discretion, these injuries could be made to last until the character actually regains hit points from magical healing, such as with the cure wounds spell. Or until the character has engaged in a special downtime activity to recuperate from the injury.
While this option does not make coming back to life itself any more difficult, it makes the recovery from death a more significant process, as opposed to letting the character “walk it off”.
Other ways that you can make it harder to raise somebody but which don’t involve adding variant mechanics do exist. Here are a few examples:
- Make the materials harder to obtain. Something that a lot of people don’t realize is that diamonds are rather common and throughout history were valued more for their use as talismans than as precious stones. This began to change in the Middle Ages when lapidaries worked out how to cut diamonds with other diamonds, allowing for the refractory properties of these stones to really shine (but not sparkle, regardless of pop culture wisdom). This is about the time that stones started to be valued more for their clarity and cut, with carat weight (size) being sacrificed in the process of enhancing these qualities. This is why large diamonds like the Hope Diamond and Cullinan Diamond were cut up into smaller pieces. Since spells like raise dead and resurrection require a (singular) diamond of at least a certain (high) value, it won’t be “everyday diamonds” that would suffice for the task. Or maybe it is… if your DM decides that diamonds are actually much more rare in your world. Either way, you most likely won’t find these kinds of stones kicking around in a small town. They possibly won’t even be available for sale in a small city. For especially valuable stones, the DM may determine that obtaining them may be the substance of a quest.
- Reduce resurrection services. Aside from reincarnation, the various spells that restore life to the dead fall are part of the necromancy school. Given the sinister nature of many other spells of this school and a marked proclivity by necromancers for dabbling with undeath, a society in a D&D world may have sanctions against the use of this spell. Without a cleric, the party may not be able to find someone willing to perform the spell. And if the party does have a cleric and word got out that one of the characters had returned from the dead, it may have complications.
There are many other options that can also work, but a full list would more appropriately appear in its own article. Be sure to let us know if you’d like to see an article like that!
Do you use variant resurrection mechanics, or have an opinion on those we have included here? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below!