Sunday, 4 November 2012

Prolonging Death - Houserule

Character death in many combat-heavy RPGs can be inevitable. PC death at lower levels and/or in a world where you lack access to Raise Dead, Resurrection, True Resurrection, and other related spells can mean time bonding with your character is cut short. I wanted to come up with a way to allow characters to continue living and questing, without resorting to the uninspired 'if you reach 0 or less hit points, you just go unconscious until you are healed' (a.k.a your character can't die).

The Reaper comes to collect souls
Time to roll up new characters

I originally came up with this idea for old-school or brutal D&D games where PC death is common and unforgiving, where one cannot avoid death by simply spending some form of resource points to prevent it. (Not that I'm saying that's not how it should be in such games.) I wanted players to have the option for their characters to stave off death, but still be penalized some way for (almost) dying. Thus I came up with this concept for one of my games: a Pact With Death

The gist of this optional rule is that players' characters, generally being exceptional individuals to begin with, have the option to prevent character death by offering whatever comes to collect their soul (further referred to in the remainder of this post as the Emissary of Death) something in exchange for their mortality: cutting their lifespan shorter in return for not dying. Burning the candle that is their life at both ends as it were. Death is still going to collect their soul sooner or later, this option makes it later rather than sooner for the character.

The way the rule functions is both thematically and mechanically:

Pact with Death
With the character's dying breath, an Emissary of Death appears to collect their soul. This psychopomp might take the form of a creature or entity of the PC's faith, perhaps an animal or beast of nature, or a common personification such as the Grim Reaper.

The character strikes a deal with this Emissary of Death. In exchange for staving off the end, they offer their age and youth as means to temporarily prolong their fate. A sample roleplay exchange follows:
"After agreeing with your bargain, Death scrapes the edge of his scythe along the length of the glowing thread representing your life, collecting the cast off fibres in the hourglass of your mortality."
This act advances the PC's age by numerous years, advancing it to at least the middle of its next age category, if your game has specific rules for age categories; or by a fifth of the average lifespan of PC's race/species. (Example: Young Adult to Adult, Adult to Middle Age, Middle Age to Old, or Old to Venerable/Ancient; or [+17] from 19 years old to 36 years from an average lifespan of 85 years.)
This pact may be repeatedly taken upon dying/death but not when Venerable/Ancient age has been reached (or after surpassing the average lifespan for the race/species), or upon dying from natural causes as there is little left they have to offer.
Upon making this pact, the character returns to life conscious at 0 hit points. The whole ordeal is generally very painful and traumatizing. (Option: If you are playing a game with any sort of Taint, Corruption, Sanity, or similar mechanic the character may gain (or lose in the case of Sanity and such) one or more points in that area. GM's discretion.) 
Over a period of several days to a week the character rapidly ages from their current age to the middle of their next age category, receiving appropriate ability increases and decreases from reaching the next age category. (Or if the game lacks age categories and associated rules: the character ages a fifth of the average lifespan of their race/species and decreases one or more of his ability attributes by 1 or more. Again, GM's discretion.)

Let's make a deal...

Other notes:
This rule only applies to a character that is a living creature that naturally ages, and is unconscious and dying or recently deceased with a relatively intact body.

Normally in an alignment-restrictive game world like D&D, most Good-aligned and/or Lawfully-aligned deities wouldn't allow their faithful to barter their souls in such a way, though exceptions could be made:

  • Righteous PC's must fulfil a task on behalf of their deity and thus are permitted to prolong their fate.
  • Perhaps the Emissary of Death that works between all deities is neutral and willing to entertain such deals, although a PC's acceptance to such a deal may cause a shift in alignment.
  • Certain malicious entities might take the place of a PC's usual psychopomp for their own nefarious purposes.

All of this makes for some great potential roleplaying I think. I tried to make the rule option system-neutral and flexible enough to work in a variety of fantasy RPGs.

Comments welcome and appreciated!


  1. If you haven't seen it, there's a killer Steampunk-ish horror setting out there called Unhallowed Metropolis that has something similar to this idea, and i think it works great. basically you have the luck of the Devil. When I would would kill you, you instead go down, and are effectively out of the fight. When you come to though, still heavily wounded in a very unforgiving system, you are corrupted is some way. The more you rely on this, the worse it gets, until the character becomes... untenable. I will eave the details to you to find out, but I have played this a lot, and from experience, I think you're really onto something.

    1. Hey Paul!
      I actually own a copy of Unhallowed Metropolis, though I have yet to actually run or play a game of it. But I am somewhat familiar with those Corruption rules, which I think work great in that bleak setting.

      Funny thing is, I came up with this variant before I believe Unhallowed Metropolis even saw print over two years ago, I just didn't get around to polishing it up and posting it till a few days ago. I wanted something simple that was system-neutral and you could drop into old or new game systems. Great minds think alike?

      Thanks for the comment!