Death in D&D is pretty cheap. Literally. The cost of diamonds for a Revivify or Raise Dead spell is nothing to high level adventurers. But there are so many fates a character can suffer that are worse than death, and, I dare say, even worse than having to read and understand the grapple rules…
10: Loss of wealth
Losing cash is bad. Losing magic items can be really bad, especially if they’re artifacts or otherwise hard to find. And since, in D&D, we can literally put a price on death (or, rather, a price on Revivify / Raise Dead / etc), any loss of wealth more than your raise cost is financially worse. Obviously it’s inconvenient, and depending on the system and spell you might lose a level too, but if you’ve got the choice between death and loss of a 500,000 gp artifact, it’s a pretty easy choice.
9: Loss of honour / Social shame and rejection
This is really only applicable to certain kinds of games: a straight dungeon crawl doesn’t really have a society from which to be shunned. But in many games, falling out with the local populace can be a serious blow to the party, if the DM plays it right. In some games, like those based around Japanese-style settings (like Legend of the Five Rings, for example), honour is everything, and losing it is far worse than death, or basically anything else on this list.
8: Magical disease or corruption
Regular disease is fine. Having your skin magically corrupt into fish scales over time is not fine (yes, this happened in a game I was in). This kind of problem often comes with a plot hook (fish hook?) built in, but DMs should be careful: if you’re not in a setting where this kind of thing is expected, your players might not appreciate the tentacles, and would prefer to just be fish food. [ed: I can’t believe we’re STILL talking about this…]
7: Alignment shift
Whilst obviously mechanically problematic for Paladins etc in some editions, if alignment shift is roleplayed right it’s a serious problem for the character, the party, and pretty much everything else. The cliched example is a Helm of Opposite Alignment or some such, but alignment shift can be more interesting (and more devastating) if it’s slow. Potentially lose class powers and then betray the whole party? Yay!
6: Permanent level drain
I would consider it fortunate that this has been removed from 4th and 5th Edition. For all you young whippersnappers: in earlier editions, you could permanently lose experience levels. That’s exactly as bad as it sounds. On the bright side: experience can be earned back.
5: Permanent attribute drain
Unlike experience, if you lose points permanently from your attributes, then you’re pretty much screwed. You can’t earn them back, no matter how hard you try. If you’re lucky enough to be in 3.5 D&D you can stock up on magical enhancements, but you’ll never be quite the same again. Like level drain, this is fortunately something that modern 5E players don’t need to worry about.
4: Lost forever
Fiction is rife with mazes, caves, and all sorts of horrible things that make heroes get horribly lost if and when they run out of string and breadcrumbs. But no DM would be horrible enough to do that to a player character. Right? Right?
This lovely image to the right is from the map of the ruined moathouse in the Temple of Elemental Evil campaign. The only purpose of these 3ft diameter burrows is to screw with the players:
“If the characters follow the tunnels off the mapped portion, allow them to proceed another hundred feet, and then tell them they are hopelessly lost.”
Yeah. Thanks Mr Gygax.
Your soul is trapped, or you’re magically caged, or you’re chucked into everlasting sleep. In 5E all this is neatly covered by a single spell: Imprisonment. Earlier editions will also have Trap the Soul and other variants.
What’s scarier is this is one thing that players actually can get reliable access to, although fortunately only at very high levels.
Not that magical imprisonment has to involve these spells, though. I’m talking any situation that is completely inescapable due to magical protections, and is probably not a very nice place to be, either. Think Azkaban, from Harry Potter. If your character is there, you’ll be begging for death as a preferred option.
2: Angering another party member
The game I’m currently DMing is interesting in that not only is it the most lethal campaign I’ve ever run, but a lot of that has been very much inflicted by the party.
Two player characters teamed up on a third and stole her stuff. She negotiated most of it back, but most definitely held a grudge. She brutally murdered one character and is openly threatening the other one with maiming or worse.
Apart from being hilarious for the DM, this is bad news for your character. The rest of the party is a lot less likely to resurrect you if they killed you, and in general if another player has a grudge against you and is willing to act on it, you might be in big trouble.
1: Dying with unreliable resurrection
And finally, to top it all off: we’re talking the kind of cruelty only found in early D&D, where a good day is one where your bedsheets don’t try to eat you. If you die, and are raised (hopefully not by a Druid’s Reincarnate, or you could be a squirrel or something), then you get hope! It’s not bad! You’ll be fine! You don’t have to tear up your character sheet! Oh, wait, hang on… make a System Shock save. Literally roll to see if you survive the process. We’re now going to watch your facial expression as your roll goes badly and all that hope is shattered into a million, tasty tasty tears.
Hopefully this gives GMs a few ideas on how to
torture create interesting character repercussions for failing saves or combats. If you’re character has suffered some terrible fate, let us know!