You die. A simple statement, but one potentially accompanied by tears, laughter, or rage. A D&D character can die so easily, but the story doesn’t always end there. It shouldn’t always end there. Even without straight resurrection, a death can be just another plot hook, and a powerful one, at that. People rarely expect a character dead and gone to ever have influence on the story again…
Before I even talk about continuing a character’s story after death, let’s make something clear: in most games, death should really matter. Player characters should be desperately trying to avoid death and its consequences. Death is a bad thing, and it’s up to the DM and players to agree on a playstyle where that actually holds true.
First there’s Raise Dead and similar spells. I start by keeping the material components (diamonds) super-rare, so it’s non-trivial to cast the spell in the first place. Beyond that, it’s tricky: I’ve had bad things happen to one of my players who was raised with Revivify, but as a DM if you pull that too often it’s kinda lame. If you need to make a death impactful in a game where this kind of magic flows freely, make sure the body is thoroughly disposed of (you need the level 9 spell True Resurrection to raise without a body).
There are out-of-character problems too. Practices like scrubbing the name off your character sheet and coming back as your conveniently-identical brother are pretty bad for dramatic tension. This isn’t Paranoia, it’s completely ignoring the impact of death. DMs and players together should try to discourage this kind of thing.
Now let’s get on to some specific examples on how to continue the story of a dead character.
Back for vengeance
I had a player in the first session of my latest campaign who said he was going to leave early. We talked about this, and decided on a dramatic death (for his fresh level 1 character) to make things more tense for everyone else. It worked great. But then the player came back a few sessions later… hmm.
So I pulled a bit of divine intervention. His character’s alive again… sort of. He’s back on a quest to hunt down the big bad evil guy who was responsible for his death, but with a few caveats. He’s only sort-of alive, and he doesn’t completely know the details. Both he and the rest of the party are super-suspicious about his revival and his current state, which is a great plot hook itself.
Another character was brutally murdered by another party member. Long story. Anyway, he didn’t want to be dead, he wanted to get back at his killer. Well, I still wanted him to be dead: it wouldn’t be fair to the other player if he mysteriously was alive again after all her hard work murdering him. On the flip side, having consequences are always good, and players shouldn’t be able to ‘just get away’ with killing other PCs. He’s now an undead Revenant hunting the party to take revenge on the player character who killed him.
I am on record as saying coming back as your brother with the same stats is a terrible idea. But that doesn’t mean you can’t create a new character that uses your previous one as motivation. Siblings, parents, children, friends, allies: all good.
Doing this right means a new character that has a serious connection to your previous one, which gives them a reason to be joining the party and can forgive lapses of “your new character doesn’t know that”. It can smooth over issues of why a random person is joining the party suddenly.
You need to make a clear break from the old character. They should be made from scratch, preferably a different class, and should have a name that can’t be confused with your old character. Appearance and personality should likewise be different enough to emphasise that the old character is dead and gone.
I had a player’s character die by getting pushed (…by a another player) through a portal to the Elemental Plane of Fire, whilst being possessed by a Lich’s phylactery. The player rerolled a different character with no connection to the previous one. He was definitely gone forever. Or was he?
The new character didn’t go so well. The player got stuck on an awkward backstory and motivations that were tricky to rework, and he wasn’t enjoying the new class as much as he’d thought. He was talking to me about rerolling into a Wild Sorcerer when I had an idea.
What if his old character didn’t actually die? Some sort of magical phylactery lava explosion could maybe have just changed his character, permanently. And then I remembered Fire Genasi, recently brought to 5E by the Elemental Evil Player’s Companion, a race I previously thought were narratively useless for my campaign. Perfect.
Instead of yet another random character joining the party, we now get a dramatic reappearance of a character who died months ago. The player’s keeping some of the stats and skills from the original character, and he’ll have all the original memories and motivations to keep him anchored to the party. He’s certainly not come through this unscathed, so now there’s extra plot hooks for his transformation and the 3-4 weeks of time (in-game) that he spent on the Elemental Plane of Fire.
Focus on what the player wants
If a player is strongly attached to a character, I want to keep that, and so if they die it’s my priority to make sure they can use that. If they can’t move on from that character, then as DM I try to bring the character back. I don’t want a player moping because their favourite character is dead, I want them interested and engaged. Don’t break that.
With that said, it should never be easy. Which brings me to my final point…
There shall always be consequences
This is my general rule for anything in D&D, but particularly for coming back from the dead: you can’t just come back from the dead with nothing to show for it, even if you’re brought back through conventional means like Raise Dead.
The simplest mark of death is some sort of scar or permanent damage, based on how the were killed. I had a player nearly killed by a serious blow from a Staff of Striking, and for the rest of her career carried a black star-burst scorch make across her chest, and she was damn proud if it. This kind of thing gives a player a permanent reminder of what happened.
You can look for motivation in what happened while they were dead. What happened to their soul? How long were they gone? Did they end up in the right afterlife? Did a devil try to buy their soul? These kinds of questions can lead to interesting story developments, especially if the player is good at keeping secrets from the rest of the party. Maybe the Paladin sold his soul to return, and is now, secretly, super-evil…
In my current game, I planted a magic item on a player which secretly absorbed part of the soul of dying creatures around her, and sure enough a player died. He was raised with Revivify, but then stalked for weeks by increasing numbers of shadowy soul-eating creatures, before they eventually worked out what was responsible. There’s now huge party tension over whether the first player knew this magic item did this, and there’s nothing that makes me smile like “attempted intra-party murder”.
Whatever you do, just don’t let characters die without it meaning something. D&D relies on death being a day-to-day danger for an adventurer, and without that the game can be less exciting. Regardless of whether you’re the DM or a player, if a character dies, ask yourself: is this the end of this character’s story? Or can I make it even better?