Death Is Not The End
This week I’m taking a break from the Campaign Trail, but the good news is that guest author Rabbit Stoddard is taking my place (and I think she did a great job). Rabbit provides a ton of ideas to avoid having the death of your party be the end of your campaign.
Back in the early days of the internet, there used to be these websites for collaborative writing. It was basically a text box, where you typed in the next piece of the story based on what was already displayed on the page. Aside from not having update detection, formatting, or anything like that, these long, rambling tales most often devolved into porn and dickery. Eventually, there would always be some joker who would add something like, “…And then the whole universe exploded! (write your way out of that, lol.)”
Of course, the next addition would inevitably be something like, “and then popular (insert 90’s celebrity) said, ‘let there be light,’ and pulled a new universe out of their ass.”
I was reminded of this recently during my 5e D&D game, where I had my poor, second level PCs come up against a mildly depowered Grey Slaad, a Green Slaad, and a couple of poor, sad Slaad-egg hosts. The PCs escaped un-murdered, through considerable dice luck and some NPC motivations, but I got to thinking during the adventure of what I’d do if the party had wiped. I think we (we being GMs in a broad sense) too often fall into the trap of believing that everyone dying means no game, and so no fun, which also leads us to pull back on encounters, never truly giving the PCs a right proper Threat. (insert a lot of swagger from people who Totally Always Give Brutal Encounters here. Yes. I am proud of you. Go forth and murderfy.) This does leave, however, the question of what to do (that doesn’t feel cheap or forced) if you’re faced with a party full of corpses and no 5th-level divine caster or better in sight. That’s what I want to talk about today, ladies and gentlemen, so here’s some very loose thoughts on the matter.
Ex Machina Resurrection
My least favorite path, so the first to get out of the way. This one is pretty obvious– use some means, whether divine, random (oh look, here comes a wandering cleric!), or otherwise esoteric to get the party back on their feet and adventuring as normal. This can feel very cheap and forced (not to mention diminishing future threat), so while I’m not going to flat out say don’t do this, I will suggest some ways to do this well. Specifically, make sure that the salvation Costs Something. If helpful NPCs rescue them, the PCs should be indebted to them and need to do something major to repay their generosity. If the cleric/paladin/warlock’s patron decides to step in, this should exact some story consequence or adventure diversion to cover it up. Harbinger has certainly done the “Otherworldly Entity that the PCs REALLY don’t want to be in debt to demands a task of dead party member and occasionally sends ‘helpful reminders’ so he doesn’t welch on the deal” method, and it turned out pretty cool, as well as getting the party into some different hot water than the hot water we were used to being in.
The main advantage of this is buying time. The PCs get to finish what they were doing, and the GM gets more time to consider what the Consequence Adventure, if any, ought to be. Oh sure, one could do a thing where the PC has to sacrifice something major or can only speak in the verses of their Deity’s prayer litanies or some other thing like that, but a consequential adventure is generally pretty satisfying, and can lead to all sorts of interesting directions.
Speaking of adventures…
Party in the Afterlife
This has the spontaneous adventure part of the story down, but is a lot more on-the-spot creativity, unless you’re at a good stopping point for your session anyway. The dead party finds themselves in whatever the afterlife is for your setting, and now have to fight/adventure/finagle their way out and back into the land of the living, so they can continue their normal adventures. Assuming you’re comfortable switching streams like that, and assuming you have a neat vision for what the afterlife actually is, this could be an awful lot of fun… who doesn’t want to be a badass hellfarer if they have the chance? Turning play into a Planes game might happen early in this version, but well, it does mean people get to keep doing cool stuff!
Similar related idea: Ghostly Adventure! The party is now ghosts (with all the Incorporeality that conveys), and have to deal with Ghost Problems while trying to either find some way to get back in their bodies, or find new bodies to inhabit. Maybe. There’s always a possibility the PCs love being ghostly so much they decide to get a manor to haunt and now it’s a Wraith campaign all of a sudden. Personally, I have less of a problem with that than I could, but your mileage may vary.
Anyway, if you do decide to have a Ghost party, here’s some ideas on how to modify the PCs, based mostly on the Monster Manual Ghost:
- PC gains Incorporeal Movement as per MM p. 147
- PC gains Etherealness as per MM p.147. This can be limited per your setting constraints, but the gist is that the PC is either incorporeal (can’t be affected by non-magical weapons, or weapons that specifically affect incorporeal creatures), or fully invisible. While fully invisible, they cannot affect or be affected by anything on the material plane. Possibly, they broadcast their emotional state if they are not actively attempting to prevent it. Having this take up Concentration seems like an okay potential disad.
- PC is vulnerable to radiant damage and has resistance to necrotic; damage done by another non-corporeal source that would otherwise be necrotic is instead untyped. No other resistances/immunities are conferred, except for that granted by being incorporeal at all.
Apparently, Monte Cook and Sean K Reynolds totally did this for in a supplement back in 3.x; so y’know, hack away if you’re so inclined, because why not?
The PCs, if they are low enough level, have to go find someone to rez their buddy. Hopefully this is at all possible. Or rez themselves, if possible. This one, naturally, only works if there’s anyone left alive to do it, and if you either a) don’t mind one player cooling their heels while they wait, or b) you come up with something for the dead player to do. Being a wisecracking ghost or floating skull for a while is entertaining as hell, at least to me, but I can’t guarantee that the other party members won’t decide that their dead comrade needs a more permanent end- nothing a good reroll won’t cure.
Oh, We Don’t Want To Kill You…
Giving the NPCs goals other than straight-up killing the PCs is always a good idea, just like giving the PCs goals that don’t involve killing – or involve not killing- NPCs. So in this scenario, the PCs can lose, but that doesn’t mean that they all die, necessarily.
This, incidentally, was what was going on in the Slaad adventure above — two of the NPCs survived the encounter because a) they were willing to run, b) the Grey Slaad didn’t want to drop a fireball where it would potentially kill the Red (breeder) Slaad, and… well, you see where this is going.
Yep. If the PCs had lost, they would have woken up in another location, infected with little incubating slaad eggs. Fortunately, the Monster Manual gives you a pretty good overview of what that hideous fate is like, so the adventure now becomes an escape from the slaad lair and getting rid of the eggs before you explode in a messy burst of infant slaad. Eeeew. This at least buys the PCs some time before it becomes necessary to seek out resurrection, and is much less likely (we hope) to end in a full party wipe. Other potential ideas for things the bad guys to do with unconscious, mostly not-dead characters…
If your party has connections, a patron, or anything like that, offering them for ransom could at least be a good idea in the minds of the ne’er-do-wells that caught them. And then you can have a jailbreak! Good times. Typically includes the semi-optional recover all your awesome magic items from the NPCs, either now or when you come back with reinforcements.
2) Subjects for nefarious magical doings
‘A wizard did it’ is always a pretty good time. This allows for any number of curses, magical diseases, or whatnot, which the players have to contend with in addition to their escape. Also potentially re-growing body parts, if you’re into that kind of horror.
3) Will you join our crusade?
The bad guys are impressed by your skillz, even though you lost, and want to convince the party to join their cause. Yay role play encounter! Also a good chance to have the party decide that they didn’t necessarily want to kill these guys anyway, if they’re not actually all that bad of guys.
You’ve been saved to fight in the monster pits of some nefarious crime lord who definitely isn’t Jabba the Hutt. This works especially well if you’re playing Dark Sun, and might just be a default setting. Alternately, it could be a Predator/Most Dangerous Game scenario. May the odds be ever in your favor.
5) Where’s the Diamonds!?
The NPCs are trying to obtain some information or item they think the PCs can provide. I am not a huge fan of torture, so I’m not super inclined to make this a torture scene, but interrogation in general. More roleplay, and hey, maybe it’s all just a misunderstanding, and you can make a deal?
6) Undead Army
For this one, the PCs might actually be dead, but they’re raised, encased in stone golems, or through some other means are forced to work for the ones who have captured them. This version is mostly fun if there’s some way to combat the control that the NPC overlord has over them and regain their freedom.
7) The Midnight Snack
The monster(s) who defeated you have carried you back live, to their nest, to feed their young. Good luck, 007.
Of course, there’s tons more you can do with this idea. The difficulty with it is that the NPCs need to have had the motivations, in most cases, before they engaged with the PCs, so it lends itself less well to an adventure on the fly in many cases. If absolutely nothing else, these options buy the players some time, and generally cost them something in terms of unexpected goals, resources, or memories before they’re okay again. I am a big fan of opportunity cost, myself.
Hopefully these will spark some inspiration on how to keep the fun going, while allowing the players to suffer, and maybe enjoy, a little defeat every once in awhile.
About the Author
Rabbit Stoddard intermittently writes the Deck of Many Things gaming Blog, and works on a lot of projects that might actually get finished one day. She spends a great deal of time grousing about how she should be working on her 5e campaign or her twine game, and bugging Harbinger of Doom about when he’s going to run more Over the Edge.