RPG Rants: Raising the Dead

This is much harder than it seems.There is a lot to criticize about Dungeons & Dragons and its offspring, but one frequent critique that always bugs me involves raising the dead. The game has a reputation of being one where death is cheap and where there are resurrection-o-matics sitting on every street corner in a major city. In reality, I don’t think this has ever really been the case. Resurrection in fantasy RPGs as a whole has always been much harder than many people choose to believe.

Is Raising the Dead Really that Bad?

Before going on, it’s worth noting that easy resurrection isn’t necessarily a flaw to everybody. If a PC drops dead in game, you can either roll up a new character, have the player take control of an NPC, or have the party cleric cast resurrection. The first two cases are generally not terribly desirable to a player and can slow down the game. The last one at least keeps the game going, so it’s often most desirable from a gameplay standpoint.

From a story standpoint, however, most GMs seem to take issue with the idea that high-level healing magic can bring the dead back to life. The Rules Cyclopedia for basic D&D handled this most directly by just including an optional rule that removes resurrection magic from the spell lists. But for those who feel a need to use the spell lists as written, this is apparently a less than ideal solution.

Raising the Dead in AD&D

If you played AD&D, there were two hurdles to coming back from the dead. First, you needed to find a high-level priest. If you had one in the party, good for you. If you didn’t, it was off to a nearby city to find a priest for hire. Raise dead was a 5th level priest spell that only worked if the corpse was dead for less than a week and not an elf (because elves didn’t have souls – true fact). For anything longer than that, you needed a resurrection spell. Resurrection was a 7th-level spell. If you didn’t mind taking a chance, there was always reincarnation, a 6th-level wizard spell, or reincarnate, a 7th level priest spell, but those gave you a chance to come back as anything from a goblin to a badger.

So if you’re a PC in an AD&D world, you need to find at minimum a 9th-level cleric (because you needed to be 9th level to cast 5th-level spells – some D&D-isms are confusing) or a 14th-level cleric with a Wisdom of 18, because 7th-level spells were off-limits to characters without an 18 Wisdom. Keep in mind that stats didn’t improve in AD&D like they did in later editions and the default rolling method was a straight 3d6 roll for each attribute. Even with one of the optional rolling methods, the odds of a cleric having an actual 18 Wisdom were about 10% or less. Sure, you could raise stats by using multiple wish spells, but a wish was a 9th level spell that could only be cast by mages with – you guessed it – an 18 Intelligence. Oh yeah…and every time you used a wish spell, you aged five years and had to make a system shock check (20-25% chance of failure to anybody with an average Constitution score) or drop dead.

The average AD&D campaign setting was about 99% composed of 0-level commoners. Using the default demographics, finding a 9th-level cleric who would willingly bring a complete stranger back from the dead was fairly slim. Finding a 14th-level cleric with an 18 Wisdom to do the same was next to impossible.

Those stats did admittedly get skewed due to the existence of published campaign settings that didn’t pay any attention to demographics. Settings like Greyhawk had plenty of high-level spellcasters whose stats were unrealistically high because they were set by the DM rather than by random rolls. The Forgotten Realms setting was probably the worst offender, with virtually every city having a spellcaster in levels that ranged from the high teens to the 20s – not to mention custom spells that made it crazy not to play a spellcaster. But even if you did get such a high-end spellcaster to help you out, you still had one last hurdle – the resurrection survival roll. Fail that, and you were dead for good.

Oh yeah – getting brought back from the dead also reduced your Constitution by one point permanently. Resurrection survival was tied to Constitution, meaning that it became harder to come back from the dead each time. And if your Constitution hit 0, then you were dead forever.

Raising the Dead in 3e and Beyond

3rd edition D&D made access to high-level magic much easier than it ever had been before. This was partly due to the design principles of the game. Designers wanted a game that could support play from level 1 through 20. By comparison, earlier editions had support for higher levels but generally assumed that adventurers retired around 9th or 10th level. With 3rd edition explicitly designed for the full 20 level spread, the designers presumably didn’t want characters to be unable to access those higher-level abilities. You still needed a high ability score to cast the top-end spells, but characters got ability score boosts every four levels, and ability-boosting magic items became more common.

Your 3rd edition character in need of a raise dead spell still needed to find a 9th-level cleric, but there wasn’t any resurrection survival roll to make. You didn’t lose Constitution, either, unless you were 1st level. You did, however, lose an experience level from the process. To avoid losing a level, you needed a resurrection spell, which could only be cast by a 13th-level or higher cleric.

Resurrection magic also had a gold piece cost associated with it. This was originally in the hundreds of gold in 3rd edition, but the 3.5 revision boosted that cost higher, so raise dead required a 5,000 gp diamond and resurrection required a 10,000 gp diamond. If you got disintegrated or otherwise wound up in a situation where your body was destroyed, you needed a 17th-level cleric and a 25,000 gp diamond to fix things.

Demographics-wise, the Dungeon Master’s Guide laid out the default assumptions as to level based on community size. A large town (2,001 to 5,000 people) only had a 17% chance of having a 9th-level cleric. You didn’t get to a point where there was definitely a cleric capable of casting raise dead until the community population hit 12,001 people. So if you died a long way from civilization, you were probably screwed for a while.

Free and Willing to Return

3rd edition added another important clause, which I think is the key to running resurrections in modern D&D and its derivatives:

The subject’s soul must be free and willing to return.

This is a pretty big one, and one that I think should be considered by anybody who, like me, wants to make resurrections possible but difficult in a game. This phrase is used in all resurrection magic in 3rd edition, 3.5, and Pathfinder. It’s even used in the less difficult to obtain reincarnation spell. If a character doesn’t want to come back to life, then it just can’t be done.

If you’re a good guy and you die, your soul is probably bound for an afterlife specifically catered to your desires. That means that, unless you’ve got a pretty significant reason to return, you probably aren’t going to want to be dragged out of your personal heaven. In narration terms, the paladin who dies during a quest to slay an evil dragon can probably be resurrected if the job isn’t done, but if that same paladin dies after the task is complete, the hero will probably head off to his rightful reward.

The folks who are most likely to be willing to return after death are the baddies who certainly don’t want to spend an eternity in Hell. But even then, there are limits. If a wicked king gets assassinated, is Asmodeus really going to let that soul escape from the Nine Hells just because some cleric cast resurrection? Remember that the soul has to be free – if they’re chained up and prepped for an eternity of torment at the hands of the infernal hordes, that certainly isn’t free.

The “free and willing to return” clause is one that gets overlooked often by people who complain about how easy it is to come back to life in D&D. As far as I know, 4th edition D&D doesn’t have that exact language but does require a character to have a destiny that needs to be fulfilled before coming back. Both of those options provide for a way to allow PCs a chance to overcome death while also giving the GM an easy way to restrict such situations in any way desired.

In other words, even if you play exactly rules-as-written with no house rules, coming back from the dead in D&D and its derivative games isn’t nearly as easy as some people make it out to be.

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One Response to “RPG Rants: Raising the Dead”

  1. I’m writing a series where death is as easy to come back from as it was in 3.0 (i.e. plenty of moderate-level spell casters and cheap). You’d think that would make narrative tension difficult… but since everybody knows you can be raised, they tend to burn your corpse.

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