Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Labors for the Dead (or how to make a character death a thing)

Basis for this train of thought is that a character death will in most cases bring the game to a halt. In extreme cases it might even threaten the continuation of a quest, as the characters carrying a quest might not have made it. The others (including the players now having new characters) might not care and the group dynamics change in any case. So what can we do to have the dead characters echo into the game after their demise?

The Graveyard

This is something I do in my games. When a character dies, I ask players to write a short obituary about that dead character. The name, accomplishments and something about the way he died. Players being players, this is usually a quite funny affair. It's then printed and put into a folder we call the graveyard. this is nothing special and I know other DMs doing the same. And it does the trick.

But is it enough? Well, no, I don't think so. It's a good think to be able to go back to the graveyard every now and then. People will have a laugh and if you are lucky, they'll reminisce about the campaign. It builds a bit of consistency. And yet it will have no impact on the in-game narrative or the stories a dead character left untold. It's a good start, but I think it needs more.

The Welfare of the Dead

And here is the thing: what happens when a character is killed? Depending on circumstances not that much, in my experience. I had other characters swear revenge, characters got proper burials (if possible), but most of the time you'll need a new character fast and at best in a way that allows the player without a character to rejoin the game the very session his old character died in.

This is a necessity, of course. the game needs to take the back seat for a moment and re-calibration is done. New characters need an entry point and a back story while time is of the essence, bringing it's very own set of limitations. Even if done right, it also needs time for adjustment. The new character needs to find a new place within the group and the story they share. Same goes very much for the player.

And the dead? Forgotten, a shallow grave later. The show must go on and all that.

At least he got a stone, right? [source]
I'd make a strong case here to keep them relevant for some time, though, and there are games out there (some D&D variants, too) that support some sort of consequences if the dead are neglected. HackMaster 4e, for instance, has rules that might bring a character back from the dead to haunt the characters if there wasn't a proper burial (even coming with the skill "Dig shallow grave"!). And it has merit.

D&D is really a very good example here, actually, as the dead really don't rest easy in a D&D world. I think it's not only very likely, it's outright impossible to avoid getting haunted by lost characters at some point during a campaign. The opposition might use it against a group, the gods might allow (or even enforce) a powerful soul to return from the dead and avenge some felt wrong doing (even if it isn't done on purpose, the danger should be real).

Furthermore, taking care of the dead by giving them a proper farewell to avoid dire consequences seems only logical. Especially since it is something we know examples of from many, many cultures (Halloween, having fireworks on new years eve, having mourning periods or ritualized mourning to begin with, the Aborigines believe to stop using a dead person's name ...  and so on and so forth).

But why so serious?

One could argue now that something like that barely has a place in a role playing game. Maybe in passing (wordplay! sorry ...), but it's a way to serious topic for the more lighthearted variants of the elf games we normally like to play. I'm aware of that. There is another dimension to this, though. I just had the situation where one character died and another one at least lost his body, which leaves one character to keep the group going. But the quest is derailed, as time was a factor and two thirds of the group changed the dynamics significantly.

That's exactly the point where this whole aspect gets relevant. If I manage to keep the dead having an echo into the ongoing narrative, I should be able to safe the ongoing quest over this hiccup. At least that's my thinking. It's about consistency. Or better yet, it's about allowing in-game consistency so that necessary off-game adjustments, like making new characters and getting them into the game, don't threaten what's already established.

It all makes sense now ... [source]
To be clear here, players (and characters) should always be free to decide the course of action, I'm a firm believer of that. But momentum is a very important tool and I think it's a mistake to dismiss everything that happened in a campaign just because that momentum got lost. So a DM needs tools to compensate complications like this. And if character death is the problem, it should be part of the solution, too.

Labors for the Dead

In the end it's about the tools we use to keep the game flowing. Punishing players/characters for something they didn't do isn't really a proper response, though (most of the time, anyway). It's rather the other end of a spectrum where benefits should be the driving force and consequences the result of not even trying. In a way just like combat, you hit stuff and stuff might hit back and in the end it's not (that) important how much damage you got, but only that the opponent got more of the same.

Here is the idea, then. after a character's death and as the process to get a new character into the game, the group as a whole has to formulate a number of labors they have to fulfill to honor them properly. A simple burial is the ritual necessary to allow the formulation of the labors, going the extra mile with, let's say, a burial mount or burning a ship with the corpse on it, should be considered a labor. The effort makes the labor, the ritual makes it possible.

As a guideline I'd say a dead character is done justice if at least a number of labors as high as the character's level* are fulfilled (so: level 3 character = 3 labors). The upper limit of labors is given by the highest level character that's still alive (highest level character is 5, so that's the maximum of labors a group could do), anything beyond that will give no further benefit and might even be considered as improper.

The labors a group decides on, are noted and give an xp award when fulfilled within a 2 seasons (basically a year). Effort is more important here than success and players should be encouraged to seek divine council to find out where they are**. The labors themselves could be as profane as telling a character's family about his fate, writing and performing a poem, song or play about a character or swearing and enforcing revenge or as elaborate as giving a feast to honor the character, building him a monument or taking care of his or her children, for instance.

I'm sure that every character played for any amount of time in a campaign, will bring enough baggage to allow some very individual labors, especially if the player of the deceased has a say in the matter ("My character always wanted ... , so maybe you guys could ... ?"). Those personalized obligations should help bridging that gap a death left in the game.

It's the thought that counts ... [source]
While fulfilling the labors will give the group xp awards (similar to quest xp), trying and failing should have no big consequences other than not getting those xp (in most cases). Neglecting those obligations or not even burying the character, should have consequences, though. In that case the DM writes a number of labors down (number as established above) and how not fulfilling them would affect the group within the next 2 seasons (still basically a year).

All is fair game in that case: ghost appearances, angry family members, villains using the corpse for a variety of bad things, from bragging with pieces of it, to bringing them back as evil agents. A DM will have it easy to find enough nice opportunities to make this as individual and dramatic as needed, but should start early to make that impact felt. The corpse could be missing the next morning, for instance, or wild animals had a go at it ... Bad things foreshadowing worse.

Labors as tool in open world games

So while writing this, I realized I want this to go further in Lost Songs of the Nibelungs. Sometimes we don't the the forest for all the trees. I already have another character with an obligation to come and help an NPC later in the year and that is a labor. Especially in open world games it's kind of important to allow formulating quest in a more individualized manor and labors could be a way to make that happen.

Brienne of Tarth: finishing her labors one at a time [source]
Question is how much of that is enforced by a DM (oath binding, geas, visions and so forth) and how much player creativity. Need to think about that one more. It could be supported by some sort of skill advancement system or something like that ...

Anyway, that's it for now. I hope this gave you guys a  new idea or two. I will test this in our next game and maybe I should come back to it at some point. Comments, opinions and ideas about this are, as always, welcome. And if ou get to use it, please feel free to tell me about it somewhere down the road.

* It's a bit more difficult for games that don't use classes, of course. Maybe the number of hours a character was used in a game could be a guideline here or his accomplishments. A DM might have to decide individually here, depending on the game.

** Kriemhild in the Nibelungenlied had to wait 13 years before an opportunity arose to take revenge, but she kept grieving the whole time, went to church and made contacts, so although she took way longer than a year, it's a great example how effort is more important than success .. until it leads to success :) And this is very important for Lost Songs of the Nibelungs for obvious reasons.


  1. I like this. I've been giving a lot of thought on how to make death more important in a game and this seems to be a good idea.

    1. Thanks, Edward! I sure hope it does work as I'm exactly in this kind of bind right now :)

  2. I insisted on having a funeral for a PC that died a while back... which led to our having a sort of memorial in our tavern with relics and whatnot for our lost companions. The GM ran with it and it's become a 'thing' that has definite resonance now. I'm really liking it as a way of having an ongoing sense of campaign history.

    1. Yes! Thanks, Knobgobbler! That's exactly what I was talking about. It should matter :) The dead echoing forth ...


Recent developments made it necessary to moderate posts again. Sorry about that, folks.