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Breath of New Life: Resurrection in Tabletop Games

Alchemist from the Paizo Blog

When Fire Emblem was released for the Game Boy Advance in 2003, I was absolutely enamored with the characters – Rath, Dart, and Hawkeye will always hold a special place in my heart thanks to the massive weight they pulled over the course of the campaign. Each of the characters in the game is ripe with a touch of humanity, making it even more difficult to wish them farewell when they suddenly fall in battle at the hands of a Black Fang agent.

Initially, I had no idea that Fire Emblem was a permadeath game, and I was primordially jolted when I realized that my actions had consequences. No Phoenix Downs. No Revives. No Resurrections. The stakes were real, and no amount of bovine alchemy was going to allow a deceased character to return to the party after they deliver their heart-exploding last words.

Seriously – the lines that the characters give when they reach zero hit points are gut-wrenching and impactful, making the player feel even worse about the decisions they made to put the character in that situation.

Of course, like a lot of other people out there, I was determined to finish the game with a complete party lacking any voids caused by my lack of strategy or coordination. As such, if a character died on my watch I would simply hit that power button, do my best Emmett Brown impression, and start over until all my children were present for the end-of-mission accolades.

I’m a big, dirty cheater!

Flash forward to the present where I don’t play GBA anymore (shocking, I know), but I’ve replaced a chunk of my video gaming pastime with tabletop RPGs. One significant difference between these two hobbies is that in tabletop all sales are FINAL. There aren’t any save points or game-state freezes that we can fall back on when things turn sour all around us.

Nope, we are forced to drink the lemonade that we’ve made whether it’s sweet or not. A past version of me would have recoiled at such a thought, but these days I’m singing a different tune: permadeath (or at least the threat of it) is necessary to fully and emotionally invest in a tabletop experience.

Fire Emblem for GBA, Lyn fighting Jerme.

The Tabletop Triumvirate

Before I continue, let me help suppress the pitchforks for a second. I’m not advocating for a meatgrinder-style campaign where PCs are dropping left and right, where the other players can’t be bothered to learn character names because they’ll be cast to the wayside within a week or two.

Now, if you’re into that sort of thing, then please keep playing that way! My ramblings are just one side of a many-faced die. However, in the context of this post, the idea is that the threat of permadeath brings actual stakes to the table in a way that is hard to replicate and convey when the heroes are invincible to attempts to permanently slow them down.

This is actually the first bullet point in my list of three things that I need in a campaign to keep me invested (aptly named my Tabletop Triumvirate):

  • Stakes – Failure spawns Consequences
  • Connections – Emotion through Experiences
  • Boundaries – Limitations breed Creativity

At some point I’ll address all of these in more detail, but right now I’m going to dive into the semi-controversial topic of resurrection in tabletop gaming. I ran a poll in the community and found that there was a fairly even split between people that would prefer to bring their character back to life, given the means, and people that would rather roll up a new character.

The old me would love to bring a character back and continue play with them, but today I am in the other camp; if the dice decide to let a character die, then I’m happy to run with something completely new. When weighing the two sides of the issue, my internal justification against resurrection checks a couple more boxes than the other side.

Reasons for Resurrection

Don’t get me wrong, it’s very tempting for me to resurrect a character, especially one that’s been with a lengthy campaign since its inception. That’s a substantial amount of time investment that’s gone into that character. Plus, what if that character’s story isn’t over? Maybe their backstory is really starting to come to light, or shades of their past are creeping into the campaign in a big way.

Here’s my short list on bringing characters back:

High Level Play

Bringing in a completely new character at higher levels can be mind-boggling, especially if it’s a new class that you’ve never played before. Exponentially increase the difficulty if it’s a spellcaster and you’re not as well-versed in the spell list. The number of feats, traits, talents, spells, etc. that you can select is enough to leave anyone grasping for a lifeline.

Personal Investment

Over time we become attached to our characters. We understand who they are on a primal level and tossing them to the wayside can be emotionally draining. Hours and hours and days of time spent, cast away in a single instant when the dice roll a certain way. That’s heartbreaking.

Story Considerations

The campaign might really revolve around a ‘chosen one’ or the current arc might be driven by your character’s motivations. Would the other party members continue along their current path if your character passed away, or would the story be abandoned?

For the Backstory

You’ve crafted this elaborate, beautiful, tragic, inspiring, and heartfelt backstory, but there just hasn’t been ample opportunity to get it out there in the open!

You Just Plain LOVE Them

Your character was perfect in every way. Personality? Nailed it. Accent? Absolutely crushing! Roleplay? Oodles and oodles! When you understand your character at the molecular level, it’s so much more fun to continue playing with them.

Roleplay Reasons

The party has gold dripping from their pockets with nothing to spend it on. Why WOULDN’T they spend it to bring back such a likable character? If they have the means, it’s perfectly reasonable to expect and assume that they would try to do everything in their power to bring them back to life.

Reasons against Resurrection

They’re all valid points. Any one of them, or a combination, gives a person enough justification to bring their character back. And as a GM, of course I’m going to allow them to do that every time.

I feel like a broken record sometimes, continuously playing Smash Mouth’s “All-Star” on repeat, when I say that it’s important to play the game in the way that is most fun for you and your table. If you disagree with me on this particular topic, that’s great! There’s no singular ‘right’ way to play the game (except when you NEVER resurrect your characters /s).

That being said, these are the reasons why I prefer to bring a new character into the game:

The Dice Have Spoken

The dice are constantly shaping the story that you’re telling at the table; sometimes they go in your favor and other times they just don’t. I like to let the dice tell me when it’s time for a character to exit stage right, because if they have the power to take down the evil Goblin King, then they should have an equal and ample opportunity to eliminate the PCs as well. I’m not about to toy with Fate!

Fresh Blood

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I tend to think up way more character concepts than I actually get to play with; the majority of them gather dust in my mind and won’t ever see a session of use. When my character falls, I get excited because I get to blow that dust away and try out something completely novel and new! It’s a rare opportunity (especially for a perennial GM), so I relish the chance to flex my creative muscles in that sense.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

If most of my character’s backstory is still a mystery to the rest of the table, there’s no shame in mixing up some hot copypasta and reusing portions of that with a new character. This way, you don’t lose your material AND get to try out a new class/archetype. That’s some quality double-dipping!

High Stakes

Probably the most important reason to roll a new character (for me) is because I feel that the game gets cheapened when I can just bring back a character after they die. If the consequence of being foolhardy with my character is death, but I can completely negate that consequence, then I have every reason to play recklessly.

I want to be able to say, “If I don’t make this saving throw, Alysi is gone forever. Come on dice!” That’s much more exciting to me than, “If I don’t make this saving throw, Alysi is gone until you get back to town. No big deal.” Of course, I’m exaggerating a little bit, but I want that RAW EMOTION! I want my heart to pound in momentous situations! Risk-Reward all the way!

Fill a Need

Not a super-important reason, as I prefer to prioritize story and characterization over optimization with my new PCs, but being able to fill a gap in the party can be HUGE. Whether the group needs more potent healing, damage dealers, or diplomatic aficionados, your table will be very grateful when you ‘fix’ that void. Or you could just have a party comprised entirely of wizards, which is also a BLAST.

GM’s Feelings

Despite the fact that there really isn’t a ‘GM vs the Players’ vibe at my tables, I would be lying if I said that I didn’t get at least a sliver of pleasure when one of my monsters overwhelms a PC in battle. But when they just bounce right back and get resurrected, it does tend to sting a tiny bit. The GM should be having just as much fun as the players are! Taking the death on the cheek can be a nice, seemingly-insignificant way to give back to your GM and say, “I got you.”

In Memoriam

That’s it; two sides, one coin. Take them both with a grain of salt! My days of Fire Emblem are long over, but I can appreciate the opportunities provided by character death, and the positive effects that it can have on the table.

At the same time, I never want to make it seem insignificant when a character falls victim to the clutches of the Void. Reminisce, roleplay out the party’s emotions, and give that character some final attention before moving towards the next big thing. Or just resurrect them and skip the emotional heartache!

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