Monday, 25 January 2010

Stealing Back the Dead

This latest mental eruction is in response to SuperNecro's recent post that argued the case for raise dead (and other such tamperings with life and death) being the exclusive preserve of decidedly dodgy necromancers. Although not entirely converted to the SuperNecro way I have to agree that raise read/resurrection as written in pretty much all iterations of D&D is, well, dull.

Raising the dead as written in the holy books of our hobby:

  1. PC goes "blarg! I's ded!"
  2. Mates drag body to nearest non-Evil temple (or cross the party scroll of de-deadification off the inventory list).
  3. Bright lights and choirs,
  4. *Ding* back to life,
  5. Our ersatz Lazarus - maybe a little woozy and a level short, but otherwise no worse for wear - is quickly back to the adventuring grind.

OK so far as it goes, but where's the fun in that? Ever since Save vs. Poison's post on Eldritch Weirdness reminded me that even low-horsepower magic can (should?) be freakish and uncanny I've been gnawed by the thought that raising the dead should mean more than an expended spell slot. Call me old-fashioned, but returning a soul from death is something noteworthy that marks everyone involved. Even in a world of magic and dragons breaching the bounds between the realms of life and death should be an adventure in itself.

Questing through the underworld to steal back a departed soul from the chthonic gods is one of the archetypal myths. If you're a top-notch mythic figure you travel through the underworld and rescue the dead. Isis and Kali did it; Orpheus tried and failed; Hercules succeeded (IIRC); Demeter hunted for Persephone; the Norse gods sent Hermod to try and redeem Baldur from Hel; Jesus raised Lazarus and harrowed Hell. The quest for the departed soul of the beloved is a cliché in itself.

Nearer to home, even the sometimes cheesy (oh yes it is!) Conan the Barbarian movie managed to make the ritual of returning a soul to the realm of the living exciting and a bit spooky. The lands beyond do not return new arrivals easily or willingly, even if they're tied down and swathed in more black cloth and weird facepaint than a goth.

So, what's the point of these latest wemblings?

Simple enough: IMG, as of now, no res spells. No raise dead. No resurrection. No 'dead, but playable' Ghostwalk antics. None of that. Heroic escapes and supervillain immortality, fine. But the old king gets to rest in peace; the death of the young is tragic; the death of a hero is a fitting end to their saga. Dead is dead, lest the final journey becomes a daily commute, and the bourn from which no man returns becomes just another poxy "save negates" status effect.

If, instead of just building a pyre, chanting elegies over the corpse and then squabbling over the loot of your departed swordbrother, if the players actually want bring them back, then they're going to have to work for it. As in 'turn the rightful order of the world on its head' work for it. That's a big ask, but that's exactly what heroes are for. They're going to have to do at least one of the following:

The Dreamquest
Looks like he's got himself lost in the bizarre shamanism afterlife. It's time for the the weird liminal stuff: spirit pacts with the otherworld, vision quests, lotus overdoses, induced comas, and suchlike heavy mojo.

Rescue Mission
The god of the dead holding your buddy against his will. Time to wander down to the underworld and get him back. Quixotic hunt through mystic underworlds full of hostile guardians, vengeful godlings, strange sights and death around every corner? Sounds a lot like the day job.

Favours Owed
Given sufficient incentive those weird formaldehyde-smelling priests of the gods of death may be able to help. Their especial position as the mediators between two worlds might allow them to beg the return of a soul from their masters' halls in extrordinary circumstances. At best this will be for a temporary purpose that benefits the temple (think quest spell), not a permanent arrangement.

Too Badass to Stay Dead
Unfinished business is a good excuse for allowing a well-loved but departed character to be in at the climax. Whether it be "Use the force Luke", or the shade of Druss at the Eltabar(?) Wall in Gemmel's Legend, or Conan's sunstroke-induced "Huh? Valeria?" moment in Conan the Barbarian, there's definite precedent for an unexplained 'one last encore' scene in the right circumstances. The character isn't back in the game permanently (no hero undead, thank you), but at least the player gets to sling dice with an old character one last time.

Clarkian Hoodoo
There might be odd thaumobiological cloning pods somewhere deep in the dungeons. These can function as resurrection lite, in that they're effectively save points for a character as he was at point X in his career. Getting to them in time to rescue the revived clone is another matter entirely. And don't ask what else the weird dungeontech is doing with their DNA, that information is proprietory and part of your NDA agreement. ;)

Pact with Strings
So you did a deal with some serious people. They did what you asked, but they haven't called to collect. Yet. And the more you think about it, the less cut-and-dried the deal you cut seems...

Put Back Together Wrong
The DM shouldn't necessarily monkey's paw everyone who makes a deal (Faustian, or otherwise) to come back from the dead, but having something come back with/instead of the expected returnee has a lot of precedent and can be fun. The newly revived might be a repository of mystic knowledge, suffer a peculiar yearning or strange dreams, be a focus of hostile/hungry spirits, or they might now be an unwitting open conduit to something other. hack/'s Raise Dead Too Boring? table is a gleefully vicious start here.

A quest to restore to life a departed comrade might seem to suddenly derail the current direction (or "arc", in buzzwordese) of our heroes' adventures, but that's fine in my book. Having someone who was a much-loved fixture in your life taken from you untimely causes massive changes in outlook and direction. What better reason to put the search for gold, glory, fame, booze, chicks and more gold on hold for a while than getting the gang back together?

"Let down the curtain, the farce is over." -- last words of Rabelais


  1. A quest to find the Well of Souls, anyone?

    Tie a beloved item of the dead person to the end of a rope, throw that end of the rope into the Well of Souls, call the persons name, and pull them out, accompanied by the deafening howls of the demons that abide within the Well.

    Just watch out for the (insert name of guardian) that protects Well of Souls. The (insert name of guardian) cannot be defeated, but it can be held at bay by (insert object of earlier quest).

    Just don't look into the well of souls, or you will be driven mad (permanent loss of 1 point of Wisdom). Oh, did I mention you will lose one point of Consitution as payment for retrieving your dead companion? I'm sure I mentioned that...

  2. Nice list.

    I'm partial to "Rescue Mission." Hell, you could spin a whole campaign setting out of it, really playing up the analogy between the underworld and dungeoneering. When friends die, you have to go down there and take them back. But even if you're not going down for such heroic reasons, graves might be entryways to the underworld. And as all good adventurers know, a lot of cultures have a longstanding tradition of burying treasures with their dead. Many adventurers spend a lot of their time robbing graves already. Why not take the next step and go in to rob the underworld itself?


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