I killed two people last night. The end of the second module in this adventure path is a raid on the temple of the cult of Urgathoa that has been spreading the plague Blood Veil in the city of Korvosa. It is a dungeon crawl that follows many of the normal rules of dungeon crawls, which are stupid. I changed those stupid rules and it resulted in character deaths.
The first stupid rule is that bad guys wait patiently in the next room despite the sounds of pitched battle echoing through the whole dungeon. They do not come join other battles, organize, strategize, utilize choke points or any of that stuff. I changed this rule. When the party began raiding the temple and set off the alarm, the inhabitants grouped up, prepared by casting buffs, developed a plan and… well the PC’s nearly got killed in the first encounter.
The second stupid rule, is a subset of the first, which is that you can take as much time as you want getting through a dungeon, including stopping to rest and recover spells. I changed this rule. I made sure it was clear there was a deadline. Lives needed saving. Bad guys were plotting and delays would mean heavy costs. I simply can’t stand the idea that the villain is sitting in the last room of the dungeon with their evil plan nearly complete just waiting for the heroes to walk in before they go through with it. The result was that a string of encounters that would have been manageable one by one with breaks in between became an unbearable combination of mayhem.
Two player characters died.
The first was obliterated by a Leukodaemon’s breath of flies – riddled with holes and eaten by maggots before their eyes. The second was crushed by the deformed claw of a Daughter of Urgathoa, already crippled by a stew of noxious diseases.
Neither death was planned or intended, though I’m always prepared for the possibility of character death. Since D&D characters are in pitched battle on a daily basis it can be a challenge to make a death memorable, but I think these worked out well, occurring as they did at the very end of a story arc and in appropriately gruesome ways. It was made more memorable by the fact that the party emerged victorious (barely), saving the city from certain doom.
Normally in D&D character death is a minor obstacle. You just need a diamond and a sufficiently high-level Cleric and voila! Respawn. But I think that is a stupid rule too. I don’t think an epic adventure story should feel like Halo. So I changed that rule. Resurrection is still possible, but it is costly. Something significant and permanent changes about your character when you die and choose to be revived with magic. This change is both aesthetic and mechanical and should provoke an attendant response in roleplaying.
For each character it is different. Both characters chose last night to be resurrected. It was dramatic for both of them, but one of the characters who died last night was reborn in fire, her skin now glassy and black like a hunk of obsidian. Always an Oracle of Flame, her ordeal has deepened her relationship to the element. Now she hears voices in the fire, speaking. She lost some experience, and will have to readjust to her new circumstances, but she is back. Alive and able to continue the story. That kind of stuff makes character death, and resurrection, satisfying.