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Q&A

How do I ensure that character death is impactful at higher levels?

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In Fifth Edition Dungeons & Dragons, there are several spells available to Player Characters that allow them to resurrect dead PCs or NPCs. These include Revivify, Resurrection, True Resurrection, and Reincarnate, available to different classes at different levels.

Once the party has access to these spells at higher levels, death almost becomes an inconvenience instead of something major - they can just cast Resurrection for some monetary amount.

Given that, what can I, as a Dungeon Master, do to make sure that character death is taken seriously? If a player dies, it should be a serious matter, so what can I do to reinforce that at higher levels?

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Make the resources required rare

Resurrection doesn't cost 1,000gp - it requires a diamond worth at least 1,000 gp. That's really valuable, especially for a commoner, so you probably wouldn't find many of these lying around town. Even people who sell diamonds might be unlikely to have such a valuable diamond lying around - perhaps they are not trusted to sell it, or they don't trust themselves to sell it, or they don't trust you to buy it, etc...

(You could also just limit gold. As a small aside, I feel like DnD 5e gives way too much gold and has not enough to do with the gold, so maybe it would be possible to scale the gold amounts down by like, 100x, and still feel ok.)

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I've seen two approaches work (in the same campaign):

  1. Discuss game philosophy with your players early (before this becomes an issue, but even earlier than that).

  2. Make it leave a mark.

Discuss game philosophy

A longer campaign (and I imagine you're planning a longer one if resurrection is on the table) works best if everyone's goals align. If some players are there to beat up monsters and take their stuff, while others are there to tell a story together, you're going to run into conflicts eventually. We had this problem, with one player unhappy that we "didn't get much done" in some sessions (= didn't have lots of combats), while most of us were enjoying the greater plot that was unfolding. That player ended up leaving the game, far-enough into the arc that we had to do some ret-conning to not break the story.

We didn't have this conversation early enough. We did in the weeks leading up to, and after, this player's departure. We could have alleviated a lot of frustration if we'd done so earlier.

A conversation like this brings out things that matter to the participants. You, as GM, want death to be rare, meaningful, and not trivially defeated. You and your players want other things too, some specific and some more general and philosophical. You're all there because you're trying to do something together, and you're going to be spending a lot of time on it, so have a "game philosophy" discussion early on so y'all can adjust expectations, and don't be afraid to check in from time to time. (Our campaign story had three "acts" contributing to the overall arc, though only the GM knew that in advance. The ends of these acts were check-in times for us, among others.)

As part of this discussion, you can work with your players to achieve your goal (meaningful, rare death) and their goals (don't want to lose a character you've invested in because of an unlucky roll). Talk about what you're all able to do to meet those goals. Maybe you develop some house rules; maybe you all decide that certain remedies won't be available despite what's in the spell list; maybe you'll lean into the fact that most of these spells are cleric spells and depend on the favor of the gods (who can be unpredictable). I suspect our GM fudged rolls occasionally, and that was fine with us players because it was in support of the story. But when a player took ridiculous risks and a character actually died, that happened (and that leads into point 2).

Make it leave a mark

One of our player characters died well into the campaign. Unbeknownst to us players, the GM had some important plot hooks keyed to that character; "just roll up a new character" wasn't going to work. But the player had been behaving recklessly during a combat and the GM didn't fudge to avoid death (which would have felt wrong to all of us, had it happened and had we learned of it). We didn't have resurrection magic within the party, but there were plausible paths.

We all made some mis-steps during the rest of the game session where that character died; the GM told us in retrospect that we should have stopped there and had an out-of-game conversation. We didn't have it that night, but we had it over the course of the following two weeks, between individual conversations and our email list. The GM and player agreed that our druid knew someone who knew someone (this was actually plausible), and the result was a reincarnation spell, not resurrection.

The thing about reincarnation is that you might come back as something different. I don't recall what the tables say about odds, but they didn't roll on that table. The GM told the player what was going to happen, and the player agreed. The (previously human) character came back as a half-dragon, which fit in well with the the character being a fighter and also fit into a dragon-themed story. There were probably some stats-based damages for having died; I don't remember, but probably the character lost a level. The player played the character as having to relearn and adjust to this new form, and it made good story. It was a milestone event in the overall story.

It also instilled some more caution and gravitas in all the players. Combat had consequences -- not just dice and character sheets, but things that mattered to the story, things we would have to role-play and live with. Much later, we were fighting something that could inflict (permanent) blindness, and I was playing very cautiously because that's something that would especially bother me. (Apparently this frustrated the GM, who had a magical cure planned that would give the affected character an additional ability -- and we didn't bite. But it was a natural consequence and the GM accepted that.)

You, as the GM, ultimately control what is or isn't available in the game world, regardless of what the rules say. But imposing your will isn't going to be fun; instead, work with the players to work out what kind of game you're going to have and where adjustments might be needed. You don't have to work out all the details in advance; if everyone agrees on a philosophy, you can make the adjustments you need to make when situations arise.

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+3
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Enforce a deal with the devil

If your game lore is a fantasy one or similar, it likely has a God of death and a place where you go when you die. You can arrange it so that in order to get resurrected, it isn't sufficient to just pay x amount of resources - the dead person must also make a personal deal with the guardian of this realm of the dead. The character must do some task for them when they return to life, possibly in a timely manner, or they will die again.

Maybe this task is a moral dilemma. "You must defile the temple of Fluffy in the Land of the Unicorns before the next full moon" and the dead character (or another character in the party) is a Unicorn Priest of Fluffy - you get the idea.

This can be a story/quest hook in itself and it can also give some RP opportunities for the player who's character is now dead - have them play their dead character in the afterlife.

Perhaps the resurrected character isn't truly alive until the task has been completed? Make they come back as a ghost or undead with various (lack of) abilities until they have finished the deal they made.

Die again? Now the stakes for getting ressurected are even higher!

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+2
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  1. Keep it easy and trust the players

The game is about playing your dream hero, and it is inconvenient for everyone if they die before it is dramatically appropriate. Hence, resurrection. So let it be.

If the death was dramatically appropriate, the player is probably happy with the character having died and not willing to bring them back. So, supposing you communicate clearly that is the point of the rule, it should only be used when it is good for the game.

  1. Put it under GM control

Easiest to say that it is NPC only magic. Why jump through hoops to make it difficult when you, as a group, can simply decide to reserve it for the game master via NPC's? And they, of course, demands quests and adventures and other such interesting content before they do it, or if it is more appropriate to the story the game master wants to tell.

This approach is all about that GM control and some groups do want it.

  1. Want a game where death is actually on the table, as an emergent and uncontrollable outcome?

The general gaming culture of D&D 5 does not point to this direction, but sure, why not. You might want to make healing slower, too. In any case, making resurrection more expensive or conditional on divine favour or otherwise either interesting or costly is a good option. Maybe make it cost a level, too? D&D 5 works fine with level differences, it is not brittle in that way.

But you might also consider using another iteration of D&D or another roleplayin game entirely. The problem here is quite peculiar to the modern iterations of D&D.

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