The High Cost of Dying


As any D&D player with a few levels under his belt knows, getting killed is an expensive proposition. But despite the outlay of gold required to return from the land of the dead, it's not the monetary cost that chafes the most--it's the experience cost.


Losing an entire level is like the DM telling you that the last dozen encounters were just a dream. Thousands of hard-earned experience points, down the drain. And while gold may come and go, experience points are more than just the "score" that represents your character's achievements to date. They're a measure of hours and hours of gaming as your character crawled through dank dungeons and cavernous castles. But one unlucky roll and poof! All gone.


Now I'm not going to claim that the death of a character shouldn't suck. It should be as bad as or worse than any other catastrophe that can commonly befall a character. Heck, that's one of the reasons why I lobbied so hard to increase the gp cost for the various spells that'll bring you back to life--I thought that characters were getting off too cheaply in returning from death.


But I do think that level loss is an outdated game mechanic, one that feels grossly punitive and serves only to make the game less fun for the unlucky player whose character is suddenly looking at the lawn from the wrong side. On top of that, it's confusing, hard to apply and adjudicate, and slows the game down when the number one priority on everyone's mind is, "Let's get back on the horse and get some old-fashioned vengeance for that death!"


Here, then, is a variant rule I've been using lately in my Bloodlines campaign. It's based largely on a concept originally written by JD Wiker, and published on his website. It does away with the concept of "level loss" for death, replacing it with a simple, easy-to-use rule that you're already familiar with: the negative level.


Put simply, any time a character is raised from the dead (by any effect that would normally cause a level loss), instead of losing a level, he picks up a special negative level. Unlike a normal negative level, this one can't be eliminated with restoration or any other kind of magic short of a miracle or wish. The character suffers all the normal penalties for a negative level--a -1 penalty on attacks, saves, and ability and skill checks; -5 hp; -1 to effective level for determining the effect of special abilities; and 1 spell or spell slot from the highest level castable.


In effect, the character is roughly one level weaker than he'd normally be, mimicking the effect that level loss normally produces. But instead of having to recalculate dozens of numbers, remember where you spent your skill points, roll the hit points you'd lose, and all that rigamarole, you're back playing in seconds. (In fact, that's why the negative level mechanic was invented in the first place: so that encounters with energy-draining undead didn't turn into marathon character-regression sessions.)


This negative level remains until the next time the character gains a level. Each time you gain a level, you remove one of your special negative levels. (It's kind of like going up two levels at the same time.) If you're carrying around more than one of these special negative levels, you only lose one of them this time; you'll have to wait until your next level to lose another one.


True resurrection (and similar effects that restore life without causing level loss) bring a character back without this special negative level, making the choice to spend the extra money a more interesting decision.


You can also use this same mechanic for energy drain: If the saving throw caused by an energy draining attack fails, the negative level simply becomes "permanent" until the character gains another level. In this case, you'll have to decide whether restoration or similar magics still work to remove the permanent negative level created by energy drain; if you say yes, players must keep track of the origin of each of their special negative levels (since restoration can fix those from energy drain, but not from resurrection).


Particularly at higher levels--where death can surprise even a wary character--this variant reduces the turnaround time between a character's death and his return to the game. Compare the time you'd need to reduce a 12th-level rogue to 11th level, or a 14th-level sorcerer to 13th level, versus the time required to apply a negative level. Over the course of a few games, you'll save enough time for at least an extra encounter or three.


All material copyright Andy Collins 2001-2008.