“The thief, Black Leaf, did not find the poison trap, and I declare her dead.”
“NO! NOT BLACK LEAF! NO, NO! Iâ€™M GOING TO DIE! Donâ€™t make me quit the game. Please donâ€™t! Somebody save me! You canâ€™t do this!”
“Marcie, get out of here. YOUâ€™RE DEAD! You donâ€™t exist any more.”
It happens to every party sooner or later. Maybe that last fight was a little bit too rough, or maybe the dice just werenâ€™t on the partyâ€™s sideâ€”whatever the reason, someoneâ€™s kicked the bucket and now itâ€™s time to decide what to do about the dead character. Obviously the death has to have some effect on the gameâ€”if dead player characters just wandered back in after the fight ended none the worse for wear, death wouldnâ€™t mean very much at all. (Unless youâ€™re playing Paranoia, in which case thatâ€™s half the fun.) On the other hand, if the penalty for dying is too harsh, it can lead to death really being the endâ€”players will not want to continue with the game with characters who have been heavily penalized if it means theyâ€™re going to be at a disadvantage from then on. It may seem ludicrous to consider a player being forced out of the game simply because their character has died, but itâ€™s entirely possible for excessive penalties for character death to cause a player to become frustrated enough to quit.
Back in the days of AD&D Second Edition, dying was pretty harsh. You were out of the game till someone could raise you, which was an expense to the party. You couldnâ€™t be raised at all if you were an elf, and even if you could be raised, you lost a point of constitution permanently, with all that entailed. If you died and were raised enough, this would eventually become essentially a hard cap on the number of times you could be brought back, but in practice most people abandoned their characters long before that particular limit set in, for obvious reasons.
Third edition removed the stat loss in most cases and the restriction against raising elves (though non-native outsiders couldnâ€™t be raised) but you still had to find someone to raise you, pay the associated costs, and until then you were out of the game. Problems could arise in situations where people decided that it was easier to simply roll up a new character any time they died. Weâ€™ll examine that in a bit more detail later.
Fourth Edition is pretty much the easiest to come back from the dead in. There is no long-term lossâ€”a temporary penalty to rolls for about half a level, a loss of gold equal to the cost of a low-tier magical item, and being out of the game until your buddies can get your remains to a safe place, either to pay someone for the ritual or perform it themselves without fear of interruption. Of course, if that proves untenable, itâ€™s easy enough to return with a new character, as before.
The issue becomes whether these penalties are sufficient detriment. Once upon a time, the argument goes, dying in D&D really meant somethingâ€”it was a harsh situation and it wasnâ€™t easy to come back from. Thatâ€™s the way it should be, right? You shouldnâ€™t just be able to shrug it off and come back as if nothing happened, right? And if you want to bring in a new character, well it should be at a lower level than everyone else, right? Death is supposed to be a big deal, and it should have real consequences to it, right?
Wrong. The problem with that thinking is that it doesnâ€™t take into account the full consequences of what harsh penalties to dying do to the game. Loss of a level means that that character is now more likely to die again in the future because of the discrepancy between their characterâ€™s level and the rest of the party. Of course, the next time they die, they lose another levelâ€¦Admittedly this can be mitigated by a skillful DM, but itâ€™s a frustrating thing for the player to deal with in any case. As far as it goes, being removed from the game until your character is raised can potentially lead to the player sitting out a fight or two while the rest of the party tries to get to safety.
The financial loss is not insignificant, either. Given that there is a very real expectation that characters will use their adventuring gains to purchase whatever magic equipment they require that isnâ€™t obtained through looting the bodies, the loss of a chunk of those funds towards bringing back a dead friend can be a major setback in the acquisition of much-needed gear. If more than one person in the party dies at the same time, itâ€™s even harder to recover.
As for bringing in a new character, the same note about character levels applies. Ideally when a player brings in a new character to replace the old one, there should be some agreement that the party canâ€™t just have at the magical gear carried by the old characterâ€”with the exception of any plot-essential MacGuffins he may have been carrying. If your players question that, point out that whatever kept his spirit from coming back with a raise dead spell also leeched the power out of all his toys. Thereâ€™s enough â€œa wizard did itâ€ to go around when you have a setting where people can come back from the dead that it shouldnâ€™t be too much of a stretch for them to believe that.
A further note is that in 4th Edition, even should your players want to bring in a new character to avoid having to pay for raise dead, itâ€™s worth observing that at any level beyond level 3 or so the new character may well be at a significant detriment in terms of gear anyway. The parcel system suggests giving out four magic items each level, at level +4, +3, +2, and +1. By level 5, your character may well have items at level 9, level 7, and two at level 6, for exampleâ€”plus whatever items youâ€™ve spent your share of the gold on to that point. In contrast, a character started at level 5 by the rules presented in the DMG for creating characters above level 1 will have one item at level 6, one at level 5, and one at level 4, plus enough gold to buy a level 4 item. The gap only gets higher as the party level increases. It definitely makes it more desirable to stick with the character youâ€™ve already gotâ€”and the penalties are not so harsh that it becomes too frustrating to keep playing in the long run just because the dice let you down.
Ultimately, keeping players satisfied and wanting to keep playing should take a higher priority than applying â€œrealisticâ€ or harsh penalties for dying. The ability to come back from the dead at all should be inherently unrealistic enough to undercut any arguments to the contrary. In the end it all boils down to the question of â€œwhat is the most fun?â€ If your players all agree that the game is more fun with harsher penalties for dying, by all means impose themâ€”but be aware of the broader implications of that decision on your game, as with any house rule.