A Few Words About Character Mortality

In many Swords & Sorcery tabletop roleplaying games, the practice of bringing a dead character back to life (especially by resurrection) has undeniably become very … VERY … common. The practice demands closer inspection and further thought. The most striking thing about this phenomenon rests on the fact that, in comparing miraculous events between religions, divine dispensation such as resurrection (among others) is so incredibly huge in magnitude as to provide a basis for forming whole religions.

Securing the resurrection of a dead PC – or even NPC, for that matter – by definition can NOT be a service one goes to the gods to be performed on demand, much less command, not even by a holy avatar anointed by the gods Themselves, and certainly not for any character who has not taken the time during his life to cultivate the STRONGEST ties of faith to a religion whose teachings he has adhered to faithfully and followed after the fashion of a saint.

The gods should never be so easily tapped for favors of ANY kind, much less favors of the magnitude of resurrection, even for characters that pursue one of the Divine Patronage trades. The concerns of the gods should be almost exclusively for the Big Picture. A single servant should never be so valuable that They cannot raise another to step up into his place when one falls.

Familiarity breeds contempt.

Somewhere along the way characters started becoming “too big to fail;” the very notion of having to “start over” with a new character after death somehow became “punishment,” and even “unfair” or – worse yet – “un-fun.” Suddenly someone at the table is stuck with a new character who is “behind” the rest of the party. Oh the horror.

Now, many players expect their characters to be resurrected after they die.

That such an act of deific grace and intervention should have become so common in so many gamers’ medieval fantasy game worlds simply boggles the mind. But making resurrection absolutely commonplace, reducing it even to a simple mercantile transaction – rekindling of life in return for mere coin, no matter how large the sum, or some (brief) side quest – is nothing short of a travesty of the whole concept, the ultimate devaluing and disrespect for such an extraordinary gift.

When death is no deterrent, characters commonly fall prey to arrogance and foolhardiness, losing their ability to solve problems with critical thought. They fall into a favored rut in their approaches, some even coming back to do it again and again the same way when they fail because: resurrection.

IF the GM wants his players to believe in his game world enough to play there for any extended period of time, life must be shown to be too precious a gift to squander foolishly.

The trend in characters in more modern RPG’s towards amped-up dynamos with portfolios of astounding and dangerous powers and abilities, obviously heroes in their own right from the get-go standing head and shoulders above the commoners who surround them has only made the situation worse. This stands in stark contrast to the characters of the older games played by those of us who grew up with the hobby in the 70’s and early 80’s, in which the characters always started out as little more (very little) than average folk with nothing more than a simple desire to make something greater of themselves

In the old-school games, players merely aspired to being heroes and, more importantly, many died valiantly trying along the way. We recognized that the world was a wide and dangerous place we had to explore and get to know. There were many foes far greater than us that we had to walk carefully around, biding our time until we had earned the skill and power necessary to face them. In our fights, when faced with inescapable death, we made our deaths count for something. Our characters were us, the underdogs, the most popular kind of heroes once we finally arrived, for we came from the same place as everyone else in the game world around us. We were their hope, perhaps the hope and inspiration of their children.

In some cases they are practically godlings by comparison, able to do simply awesome things. They never walked in fear into a ruin, cave or dungeon dank knowing they might never come out alive. They are just so powerful right out of the box than the mainstay foes of the old games, the orcs, goblins and kobolds and other fantasy races, and especially such common but deadly Real World beasts as lions, tigers and bears (oh, my!!), are just too weak for them to bother with. By their reputations alone they attract henchmen to deal with such trivial annoyances. The old-school characters played back in the day had a healthy respect for death and had a sense of their own mortality that the newer generation just doesn’t – or just barely has, in any event.

Death must remain on the table as a threat to inspire caution, thought, and prudence in the PCs’ actions, to provide a deterrent to rash foolishness. Death is the ultimate mechanism of accountability. As in Real Life, actions must be shown to have consequences, and death is the final consequence.

IF the characters are dropping like flies so regularly that such a holy and mystical service becomes necessary to save the players from constantly having to dive back into the rules to generate new characters, something is wrong with the way the game is being played. It is clearly out of balance.

When such conditions prevail, either the players are doing incredibly stupid things with their characters, or the GM is killing characters off on purpose, or is completely unable to find the balance point in challenges for the characters, despite the advice contained in the rules, or some combination thereof. There isn’t much the GM can do about foolish characters except hope they learn to act more wisely, but the GM himself has a duty to only test the mettle of the characters in play, and to do so without actually killing them. The PC’s should not ever need such an extreme remedy as resurrection except as a result of their own folly, and foolish and/or arrogant characters shouldn’t even be candidates for such noble dispensation from the gods as resurrection in the first place.

Characters in RoM were specifically designed to give them a very real fighting chance from the get-go. Even the more average specimens among them are relatively doughty. Depending on the latitude granted by the GM in Character Generation, they are likely to have a variety of options between them for tackling challenges. With death as a very real threat, wounding and the point at which death occurs becomes a gray margin of great importance. The effects of healing magicks become twice as critical, and the conditions under which they can beat back death limited. 

Timing becomes everything.

The magick-wielding trades have been deliberately made insufficient by design to provide the party members with the degree of protection for life and limb to which the players may be used. To address those needs, such a character must be versed specifically in the charms necessary to affect wounds and healing, yes, but those are best used in conjunction with one of the mundane healer trades, most notably Barber, Surgeon or Physician. The healer trades and the healing magicks were purposefully designed to work in concert. Healing charms are costly in personal power/energy so they can never completely displace the mundane healing trades, for the sake of a more gritty reality and also for game balance. 

When he is equipped with both, a character can work on the party’s behalf to assess their wounds after battle to identify the most dangerously wounded, lessen the severity of what would otherwise be mortal wounds, or crippling or maiming blows, spreading them among generous, noble-hearted compatriots (or perhaps livestock) so they are more easily borne, and perhaps even to prevent later death from infection and creeping rot by keeping them clean, and also accelerating the rate of healing. All these charms have limits, too, especially time limits in the cases of mortal wounds and/or the more powerful magicks. 

The effects and availability of magickal healing among the practitioners of magick in RoM have purposefully been limited and the charms that can bring a character back to full health and/or provide total physical restorations and regenerations from having been maimed or mortally wounded are removed to the highest Spheres of magick, the most rare and difficult to find, to reinforce the notion of “consequences” and preserve the dangers inherent in battle. Charms that can bring a character back from the brink of death have only a small window of time in which they can be used to revive a character before the spirit moves on and death becomes incontrovertible.

What are the PC’s to do when the one stumbling around Stunned from being hit or  lying on the ground senseless and mortally wounded, or unconscious from a blow to the head, is himself their healer-magician, no help to anyone, and with other party members lying direly wounded, as well? With the nearest reliable, skilled healer or magick-wielder in a village a day away, or in a town a week’s travel beyond that, what can they do? Moving the wounded may worsen their wounds, or even kill them.

This is all a part of the way in which the abilities and capabilities of the characters and the game system itself have been balanced. These facts and conditions are intended to give the PC’s pause, to give them a healthy respect for their characters and their limitations, especially their states of health and eventual mortality. Even the elfs, carrying an inherent invitation to join their immortal kin in Faerie, can still die. With a little caution and prudent judgement on the part of the players, magick shouldn’t be needed to prolong the characters’ lives, but is there to provide something of a safety net to be used on occasion at need, OR to give the character’s an edge in recovery so they can come back at their foes more quickly than is likely to be expected of them.

The various healing magicks generally also have aspects, equal and opposite, that can be used to inflict harm in battle, but their primary purpose in the game is to be a safety net so the PC’s feel safe and confident enough to go ahead and try something a little reckless now and then in the pursuit of adventure, engage in some flamboyant swashbuckling, rush headlong into battle like the heroes they are supposed to be! If the PC’s get carried away with taking needless risks out of hubris acquired from surviving too many rough scrapes, they are likely to find out just what the limits of their own safety nets are. 

When the characters put their health at risk, no matter how worthy the cause, there must be consequences to their actions, and these should be very real and debilitating. The ready possibility of being brought back from the dead or back from death’s doorstep, being instantaneously healed without even a residual scratch from even mortal wounds or maiming on demand, robs the players of any sense of their characters’ mortality, and with it, any sense of the weight of the consequences of their actions, just as badly as hot and cold running resurrections are to the threat of death.

IF a GM must have some PC resurrected, it could perhaps be for a short duration only, but only under the circumstances already described: in acknowledgement of an exemplary life in service to the gods, and only for the purpose of tying up loose ends, perhaps only for as long as needed to finish the adventure (or at most the current storyline of the campaign) in which he met his demise – or the following one, provided it is of the nature of “bringing the Bad Guy to justice who killed me” sort. Afterwards, the character should be gathered up again by a host of spirits of his god(s) and ascend (or descend, as the case may be) to his final reward. 

Resurrection is just too great a power to wield and a gift to be blithe-fully given away. It certainly shouldn’t be something the PC’s do for one another at will. It is an ability that should rightfully remain reserved for the gods’ (GM’s) use alone. Allowing such a service to become commonplace, even if administered by the hands of the gods, destroys the players’ respect for Death as a consequence of their characters’ actions, and compromises the respect for the gods. As if one resurrection were not a grand enough gift of the god(s) the first time, the very concept of having characters being brought back to life over and over again by the gods just doesn’t make sense. Beyond that, it boggles the mind. 

The hubris in asking the gods to send someone back who just can’t seem to keep himself among the living, especially again and again, is just TOO enormous.


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