The recent article about familiars prompted a question about death in Five Moons RPG. Namely, should coming back from the dead have a significant cost to it like it does in 3E/PF (5,000 gp diamond, negative level, and so on)? Does the lack of this sort of cost make death a trivial issue for adventurers?
I was involved in a discussion on the Paizo boards a few years ago about this topic. This article is a summary of my thoughts on the matter.
(And special thanks to all the people involved in the discussion–many of whom I’m paraphrasing in this post–it was fun.)
(In all of this discussion, nobody was able to come up with a game mechanics reason why raise dead should have a 5,000 gp material component cost, but plane shift and teleport–both 5th-level spells–should not. There were plenty of “I don’t like the feel of it” reasons, as well as “it’s always been that way” reasons [even though Gygax-authored 1E didn’t have this gp cost], but no actual game mechanics justification for why raise dead should have this high cost compared to other spells of its level.)
Edit: Just to avoid any confusion about raise dead in the various versions of D&D, let me summarize them here:
- 1E: Range 30 feet/30 yards, Casting Time 1 round, must make a d% resurrection survival check roll (success based on Con) for it to work, lose 1 Con, you’re an invalid (unable to do anything) for 1 day for each day you were dead, no gp or XP cost, your Con score is the max number of times you can be raised, doesn’t work on elves.
- 2E: Range 30 yards, Casting Time 1 round, d% resurrection survival check, lose 1 Con, invalid for 1 day/day dead, Con = max number of raises, doesn’t work on elves.
- 3.5E: Range touch, Casting Time 1 minute, no resurrection survival check, lose 1 level, not an invalid, no Con limit, even works on elves, costs “diamonds” (plural) worth a total of 5,000 gp.
- PF: Range touch, Casting Time 1 minute, no resurrection survival check, gain two permanent negative levels (which can be removed by restoration and such), not an invalid, no Con limit, even works on elves, costs a diamond (singular) worth 5,000 gp.
A) For people who can teleport across the world, literally travel to Hell and back, and conjure deadly fire and stone out of thin air, death is a trivial obstacle.
B) In terms of game math, the 5,000 gp cost for the raise dead spell also encourages metagaming, which is bad. See, if you have a party of 3 live PCs and one dead PC, they have two options:
B1) Scrounge up 5,000 gp (either from the dead PC’s stuff or from a group donation) and have the dead PC raised. Net result: party has 5,000 gp less than before and two more negative levels than before.
B2) Leave the PC dead, divide their stuff among the PCs or sell it, have the dead PC’s player bring in a new character (who has full gear for their level, and no negative levels). Net result: party has X more gp than before (where at worst X is half dead character’s wealth by level value) and no extra negative levels.
In other words, it’s better for the party to bring in a new PC than to resurrect the old one. Which is lame. In a “roleplaying” game that barely encourages roleplaying at all, costly PC death actively discourages roleplaying a character who is compassionate about a fallen ally, and encourages you to be a mercenary metagaming player who’s only interested in the wealth and damage output of the group.
C) It brings up weird metagaming issues about the value of a diamond in a part of the world where they are rare vs. the part of the world where they are common, shining a light on the weirdness of the D&D economy.
D) If the PCs can’t or won’t pay that price, it means the original PCs (who have the most connection to the original campaign plot) are lost, and newer PCs have to join in their place. I’ve heard many stories of people playing through Paizo APs, and by the time they’re halfway through the AP, none of the original characters are in the group because the originals died and raising them was too costly or inconvenient.
E) The question really is, “is this character’s death important to the story, or is it an obstacle to the story?” If it’s an obstacle to the story, find an in-game way to justify the character coming back to life, whether it’s a new quest for the cleric, an obligation of service, whatever.
In this section, I’m listing various pro-diamond-penalty questions and my responses to those questions. I’m numbering the questions just so people can more easily refer to them in the comments section.
Q1: What is the point of a game where dying doesnt mean anything beyond sitting out a few rounds?
Playing the game is fun. Having a “time out” before you can play the game again isn’t fun. Getting a raise dead means you have a negative level for a while (or a long while, if you fail the save) to remind you that death does have a penalty.
Remember, I’m a guy who wrote a campaign setting where if you die, you come back as a solid ghost 10 minutes later, keep adventuring, and worry about coming back to life when you get back to town.
Q2: What’s to stop PCs from attempting suicidal charges at a monster, raising after each one, and repeating until they succeed because the random rolls go in their favor?
That concept is from the static-scenario-MMO perspective, where the monster is still waiting there even if you fail 20 times. In a tabletop RPG, the GM gets to decide what happens while you’re away. Maybe a day after your second failed attempt, the monster eats the prisoner you’re trying to rescue, and the PCs have failed. Maybe after three failed attempts, the monster is getting famous among monsterkind and it now has a bunch of followers in its lair, which makes it even harder for the PCs. “Keep trying until the dice fall in our favor” is the fallacy that built Las Vegas. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. If the TPK’d characters think they can just charge back in with the same strategy and win, they’re dumb, and the treasure in a monster’s lair comes from inexperienced hasty adventurers.
Also, PCs who don’t have a 9th-level cleric in the party will have to keep paying 450 gp each death to the town cleric for raise dead, and that cuts into your adventuring profits. It doesn’t really become a “free” return from the dead until you have a cleric9 in the party, and even then it’s only as “free” as a plane shift or teleport spell (i.e., a 5th-level spell slot).
Q3: What if you really dislike how little death means once you have access to raise-dead magic (even with the cost penalty)? What if I want to run a campaign where there is no resurrection magic?
Not everybody likes the same kind of campaign, it’s true. You don’t have to play the way that I play.
When I was working at Interplay, the lead designer explained to me that American fantasy videogames are very different from, say, German fantasy videogames. In Germany, if your character has to cross a frozen mountain pass to get to the next quest area, your character may get frostbite and lose fingers and toes, and may even die, and the German fan base likes it that way.
You can play a game where every pound of encumbrance is important, or female characters have limited roles (like Earth history) and worse ability score mods than males, or where creating real effects with magic is difficult and most magic is just illusion, or where raising people from the dead is very rare or even impossible. It’s not my style, but I’m not trying to tell you how to run your campaign.
I’m just saying the 3E rules have an inherent bias toward “it’s really hard and/or costly to bring someone back from the dead,” when it has many other game-changing features (like teleportation and planar travel) at the same spell level that don’t have those extra associated costs.
To put a different spin on this, lemme alter the above quote slightly:
Q: What if you really dislike how little distance means once you have access to teleportation magic? What if I want a campaign where there is no teleportation magic?
Q: What if you really dislike how little planar boundaries mean once you have access to dimension-hopping magic? What if I want a campaign where there is no dimensional-travel magic?
So let’s compare some spells.
Teleport: 5th-level spell, no costly material component.
Plane shift: 5th-level spell, no costly material component.
Raise dead: 5th-level spell, 5,000 gp material component.
These are all 5th-level spells because you want these spells out of the hands of PCs until about level 7 (on scrolls) or level 9 (as castable spells).
Either raise dead is on par with other 5th-level spells, or it isn’t. If it is, it doesn’t need a costly material component. If it isn’t, then it shouldn’t be a 5th-level spell. Costly material components are in the game to prevent you from casting a spell willy-nilly as soon as you get that level of spells… but when you hit level 9, you’re only able to cast it once per day, so you’re not casting it willy-nilly. And by the time you’re level 12 and you can afford to set aside one 5th-level slot for a just-in-case raise dead, you’re dealing with NPCs who can cast 6th-level spells like harm (120 points of damage) and disintegrate (24d6 damage) which can insta-kill an unlucky PC who rolls poorly. If you have mechanics in the game that can insta-kill a higher-level PC, it’s pretty crappy to hamstring your access to magic that reverses those insta-kills.
It is literally easier and less expensive to use plane shift to instantly transport eight people to the outer plane where your dead friend’s soul is than to use raise dead to call that one dead friend’s willing soul back into its natural body. That doesn’t make sense to me from a game mechanics standpoint. From a campaign standpoint, sure, if you want raising the dead to be difficult, go ahead, but the mechanics shouldn’t support that sort of restriction.
The rules should be setting-neutral, but currently they have a “raising the dead should be harder than any other 5th-level spell” setting bias built into them. You’d complain if the setting-neutral rules had a “playing an elf should be harder than any other standard race, so you have 5,000 gp less than any other character of the same level” setting bias built into them.
Q4: If you take away the 5,000 gp diamond cost, then doesn’t that mean that a 9th-level cleric in town can eventually raise everyone who dies (say, from an orc attack on the town), and death is just a revolving door?
In 3.5, using the quick “build a community” rules, the highest-level cleric in a community was level 1d6 + the community modifier, which meant that you couldn’t have a level 9 cleric until a large town (community modifier +3, 2,000-5,000 people). So at best, one in 2,000 people in a large town might be a 9th-level cleric capable of casting raise dead.
That cleric (1) has important goals for her deity, (2) Is probably going to limit who she casts it on to members of her faith, (3) is probably on retainer by a noble just for that purpose, (4) is still going to charge the caster level x spell level x 10 gp for spellcasting, which is 450 gp, well beyond what any peasant killed by an orc can afford, in the same way that the farmer who wants to get his carrots to the capitol city can’t afford 450 gp to buy a teleport to get them there, and (5) can only do it once a day, so there’s probably a waiting list of important people ahead of you, which (6) means you may run up against the max-days-dead-equal-to-caster-level limitation, which means you can’t just raise everyone after an orc attack, at most you can bring back 9 people before the remaining dead are out of luck.
And that’s if you’re lucky and rolled a 6 on the 1d6+3 to find the example cleric’s caster level. If you rolled anything less than a 6, you wouldn’t have a 9th-level cleric in the town at all.
The game’s (wacky, PC-focused) economics and suppy/demand already make raise dead scarce, you don’t need to add an expensive diamond to the mix.
Q5: If there’s no cost, then why wouldn’t the government try to train as many clerics as possible to get to level 9 so they can cast raise dead and save people?
Sure they would, kind of like how in the modern day we train doctors, who literally have the ability to resuscitate dead people. Given, they’re only doing it 10–60 minutes after death (depending on circumstances) instead of 1–9 days after death, but they are most definitely dealing with people who are clinically dead, and who according to 3E rules are irrevocably dead without high-order magic (–10 hit points = dead for your typical 10 Con person).
Also note that 3E rules say a typical person dies 60 seconds after being brought below 0 hp by normal damage (1 hp per round, 9 or 10 rounds to get from dying at –1 to dead at –10), and the only way to reverse that is with magic, whereas modern emergency medical professionals often don’t arrive on-scene until minutes after the person is already unconscious, yet we have a remarkably high rate of success at helping these “dead” (according to the 3E rules) people. The game world is an odd mix of “you’re perfectly healthy until 0 hp,” “you’re dying in 1 minute at negative hit points,” and “you’re irrevocably dead at –10 unless we can find a powerful cleric.”
Also, considering that level advancement in the game world assumes you are (A) adventuring to gain levels, or (B) slowly gaining levels over time because you’re not adventuring, and (C) doesn’t have the “go to school, gain levels in your chosen field” progression that we have in the real world, the only way you’re going to get a 9th-level cleric is to (A) send her out adventuring, or (B) wait until she’s old. (A) is risky and has a high death rate, (B) takes a long time. Either way, you’re not going to end up with a lot of high-level clerics who can raise the dead, in the same way that the USA doesn’t have a lot of doctors who can perform heart transplants or brain surgery.
Q6: Isn’t raising the dead supposed to be difficult? The PCs aren’t expected to succeed, and easy access to raise dead messes with that.
Except in 3E, the PCs are expected to succeed; an average CR fight isn’t a fair fight, it’s an easy fight stacked in the PCs’ favor. So saying “they’re not expected to succeed” is contrary to the actual math of the game.
Q7: Why can’t we just say that these 9th-level NPC clerics reached that level by studying rather than adventuring?
The game mechanics don’t allow you to “train up” a 9th-level cleric except through adventuring. Or perhaps with story award XP, which are much slower, which is why high-level non-adventuring clerics are old. So yes, if you want a bunch of clr9’s available for raise dead, you either need to (A) send them off to risk their lives adventuring, or (B) wait a long, long time.
And although the GM could say, “well, NPC clerics can just study to level up, they don’t need to adventure.” But “My NPCs can do this simple thing, but your PCs can’t” is pretty lame. I’m all in favor of stuff like “This NPC has a special ability that you haven’t seen before, and you don’t know how he got it” is fine, but “you know all that hard adventuring work you have to do to level up, well, I don’t, ha ha” is lame and reeks of GM-NPC favoritism.
In other words, why does Bob the NPC cleric get to level up while praying in church, and Kyra the PC cleric has to kill monsters and complete quests?
Q8: If the only cost is the 450 gp for spell level x caster level x 10 gp, is a cleric9 NPC really going to demand 450 GP from the grieving mother whose only child was just crushed by a runaway turnip cart? Or is that cleric going to raise the child for free because they can, since there’s actually no cost to the cleric to cast it?
You could ask the same question about the 10 gp for a cure light wounds to bring Barkeeper Bob from his –5 hp stab wound back up to full. Churches take care of their congregation through donations for services. People who can pay, do, and those payments cover the expenses of the on-site priests and for charity work like curing Barkeeper Bob and raising Little Tommy Turnip Cart.
Q9: But doesn’t raise dead trivialize death?
Does remove disease trivialize disease attacks?
Does remove curse trivialize curses?
Does neutralize poison trivialize poison attacks?
Does restoration trivialize ability damage and negative levels?
Does remove blindness/deafness trivialize blindness and deafness attacks?
More specifically, does breath of life trivialize death? It brings a character back from the dead, permanently without any negative levels, so long as you get there within 1 round. And it’s the same level as raise dead, and it doesn’t have an expensive material component. So… does it trivialize death?
And if breath of life doesn’t trivialize death, why does raise dead trivialize death? Why is it okay to instantly raise a fallen ally in combat at no gp cost and no negative levels, but not okay to do so after a combat or the next day? Is it because it’s “in combat”? If so, then you need to decide at what post-death threshold the trivialization occurs. One minute? Ten minutes? An hour? 10 hours? A day? (The casting time for raise dead is 1 minute, btw.)
Q10: Without the threat of death, what’s the point in playing at all?
There are thousands of incredibly fun games where it is impossible for your character to die. Many of them are fantasy games.
Q11: Don’t you think the costs and penalties of character death make it worthwhile as a roleplayer?
You can have an incredible roleplaying experience even if your character dies.
You can also have an incredible roleplaying experience if your character dies and comes back and has to deal with having died.
Q12: What if I don’t want to play in a game or world where raising the dead is easy?
Then if your character dies, don’t accept the raise dead spell. I’ve had a character do that—he died, the party cleric (of his god) tried to raise him, and he refused because was happy in the afterlife in the house of his god, Thor.
But here’s the thing: just because you don’t want to play that way doesn’t every player should have to play it your way. Don’t force us to play the way you want to play.
Q13: Do you allow NPCs to use the same methods as your players? After all, if raise dead is free what stops the big bad from being resurrected by his lower level minions?
Yes I do. One game in college, we did a teleport-raid on a temple of Set and killed several powerful priests. But we didn’t get all of them… so one of the survivors cast raise dead on the others, and it was just a minor setback for the temple.
That’s why you take the heads or burn the bodies, that forces them to use resurrection or better spells.
Q14: If recovery from death has little to no risk, doesn’t that fundamentally effect how players value death as a penalty?
“I am not able to play” is a penalty, whether it’s because you’re hit by hold person, you’re paralyzed because your Dex is 0 from poison, or you’re dead. So why is there such a huge penalty (above and beyond “it’s a 5th-level spell and out of the reach of lowbies”) for death, but not for hold person or Dex poison?
Death has a cost. It isn’t trivial. It costs the player time they’re not able to play. It costs the other characters time and a magical resource. It costs the GM effort to incorporate an unexpected death into the campaign storyline and either provide a way for the PC to return or an avenue to smoothly insert a new PC. And it costs at least a 5th-level spell.
Q15: If the penalty for death is made trivial, doesn’t self-sacrifice become a logical move for PCs, and raise dead becomes no different than healing someone who is unconscious?
Let me turn that question around:
If the penalty for travel is made trivial, doesn’t instantaneous transportation of goods and information become a logical move for PCs, and using teleport to travel across the world becomes no different than walking across the street?
Or, perhaps raise dead and teleport both just change the sort of campaign you’re allowed to play, and gives PCs options they couldn’t at lower levels. A key part of the Indiana Jones movies is the ability to hop on a plane and travel to another part of the world to continue the adventure (so easy they represent it as drawing a red line on a map)… does fast transportation by plane ruin the idea of a pulp adventure? Does coming back from the dead ruin the idea of a comic book adventure? Does “PCs are able to cast spells” ruin the idea of a fantasy adventure?
Q16: Don’t you think this is really a “player vs. dice” issue rather than a “player vs. GM” issue?
The swinginess of dice means that sometimes PCs die for accidental, stupid, or inglorious reasons, and there should be a way to fix that which isn’t (1) harsh for the unlucky PC, and (2) doesn’t require the GM to say “oops, you only take 50 points, you’re not actually dead.”
Q17: If players don’t have consequences for death, don’t you think you’re rewarding greater risk and reckless play?
Rewarding PCs for taking greater risks doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Being an adventurer is a risky line of work. Maybe players should aim higher and try harder, and not be satisfied with 14 CR-appropriate (i.e., easy) encounters per character level.
Q18: Aren’t videogames a different experience than tabletop RPGs? Just because videogames do it doesn’t mean tabletop games should do it.
The fact is that the gaming audience isn’t just the 40-year-old graybeards who grew up on tactical historical miniatures games. The people learning D&D and Pathfinder today were born when D&D was already 20 years old. They’ve been playing video games with swords and fireballs since they were 7, and their idea of a typical play experience is far, far different than someone who grew up playing D&D in the 80s. And if tabletop RPGs as a game genre doesn’t try to learn from other, more successful game genres, is destined to remain a niche hobby forever. I don’t want to turn D&D or PF into World of Warcraft any more than I want to turn them into football, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore what we can learn from playing WOW and football when we think about our game.
Q19: Then why wouldn’t we get rid of all costly material components in the game?
Some costly material components are in the game to offset creating countless permanent effects. For example, without a gp cost, there’s no reason why a temple wouldn’t have glyph of warding plastered all over every available surface, keyed to that temple’s god, so that anyone not of the faith would be constantly setting off glyph explosions. That would (1) be cheesy, (2) make adventures against clerics really annoying and deadly because there would be an explosion every 10 feet and you could never run an infiltration adventure.
3E is a game where mid-to-high-level heroes can teleport across the world in an instant, permanently give an animal or plant human-level intelligence, travel to Hell and back, enslave a person’s will for days at a time, swap bodies and souls with an unwilling creature, bind demons against their will, summon angels, make temporary magic permanent, and demand answers from deities. But to many people, bringing back a willing creature from death should still be very costly compared to other spells of its level.
I don’t like the expensive material component for a spell that is critical and necessary to the typical game experience, and I don’t use it in my 3E gaming. I don’t use the gp cost, and I don’t make the negative level permanent. It sucks to die, it sucks that one of the PCs has to use a high-level spell to fix the problem. I grew up playing video games where you die, hit Continue, and keep playing. These costs are among the last “GM vs. players” mentality of the old style of gaming, and I don’t play that way.
You can play that way if you want to, but I’m not going to run a game that way. And I don’t think the default setting for the game should be that way.
FYI, in Five Moons RPG, a spell like raise dead doesn’t have an arbitrary gp cost (specifically, it’s no more costly than other spells of its level).
 This discussion as a whole reminded me of Steven Brusts’s Jhereg books. The main character is a human assassin/crime boss living in a highly magical fantasy society run by elves. Reviving the dead is relatively easy (and cheap, on par with about 300 gp) within 3 days of death as long as the person’s brain and spine aren’t damaged; after three days, the soul has departed and it can’t be done. Sometimes he gets paid to kill someone, sometimes he’s paid to kill someone and destroy the brain (a dagger in the eye is sufficient), and rarely he’s paid to kill someone with a soul-eating weapon. It just depends on what the client can afford and what kind of message the client wants to send to the target. Sometimes, he gets paid to kill the target in a non-permanent way and then take the body and pay for a healer to revive the target, because that way the target knows the client doesn’t care if he lives or dies. You can’t really do that with the current structure of raise dead because the M cost is way too expensive… and that cost is a campaign setting justification for keeping the spell rare, rather than a game mechanics justification.
 Note also that the 5,000 gp cost becomes irrelevant after a while. Not because characters can afford it, but because the WBL system means that if you spend X gp and drop below your WBL, the GM is supposed to award extra treasure in later encounters so that when you hit the next character level, your WBL is about where it should be. So even if everyone coughs up a share of the 5,000 gp to raise the dead paladin, the GM will award them extra treasure to compensate for being under WBL. Which means the 5,000 gp cost is just a temporary obstacle—basically an interest-free loan that you’re borrowing from your future self.
 Jonathan Tweet taught me, “don’t model the same thing twice.” His example is the 2E halfling race: they had a Strength penalty (because they’re small) and a penalty on their climb rolls (because they’re small). In 3E, the Climb skill is a Strength skill, so by giving halflings a Str penalty (because they’re small), you’ve already given them a penalty on Climb rolls, so you don’t need to hit them again (with a racial Climb skill penalty). By comparison, raise dead has three penalties associated with it: it’s level 9 (meaning it’s out of the hands of most spellcasters in the game), it has a 5,000 gp gem material component (meaning it’s expensive to cast), and it gives the target a negative level or two points of Con drain (meaning they’re debilitated and not as effective as they were before death). Why model a penalty in three different ways for the same spell? (And that doesn’t even count the other limitations to the raise dead spell: the body must be mostly whole, 1 day/caster level limitation as to how long the body can be dead, can’t raise someone dead of old age, can’t raise someone turned into an undead or killed by a death effect.)
 Level 12 NPC wizard in NPC Codex has a DC 22 disintegrate; level 12 Seoni (Paizo’s iconic sorcerer in that book) has a Fort save of +8, which means there’s a 65% chance she’ll take an average of 84 damage, which drops her from full hp to –4. Level 12 cleric has a DC 21 harm; level 12 Seoni’s Will save is +13, which means there’s a 35% chance she takes 120 points of damage (bringing her to 1, because harm can’t reduce you below 1, but if it weren’t for that rule she’d be instantly dead at –36).