Life is a bitch, and then you die. Death is pretty expensive, and then you return to life. Your adventuring party had to part with a diamond, call in a costly favor, or make some sort of unnatural deal in order to bring you back. Unfortunately, you are stuck hearing about your financial burden or cause for being beholden to a nefarious sort for a few sessions as your party ribs you for dying. This death might just be ill-fortune, but it could also be the result of bad decisions. You might also punch your DM in the junk for throwing a bullshit encounter at you that caused your untimely demise, but I hope it does not come to that. If you had no indication or precedent that you should flee an overwhelming encounter, and it was not a tone setting situation, then maybe the junk punch is warranted. I would like to think we live in a junk punch free society, but I am continually disappointed.
Death is a tricky subject in both tabletop roleplaying games and live-action roleplaying games. Death happens, and it should. Death is the easiest and most direct measurement of risk for many games. How tough was this situation? We had three deaths. How risky is entering into this laboratory? If we die, no one will be coming after us. Of course, I have not played every tabletop roleplaying game, and I have not played every live-action roleplaying game, but I have played a wide sample of each. I believe I am safe in saying that the common wisdom has long been that there are two types of death. The first is big, permanent death leaving you without a character, and the second is death that is only a temporary condition. This second state of death might be broken into several sub-states, such as able to be brought back to life with only the expenditure of an ability, such as a Life spell, requiring a meaningful time and resource expenditure, such as a Resurrection spell or ritual, or even bargaining with the personification of Death or a Powerful Being in order to restore your ally to life.
There is nothing in the world wrong with this two-tiered approach to death. It allows players to encounter some risky situations without a single misstep ending their careers, while still keeping permanent death on the table as a true risk. The only real downsides are the burden a death places upon the rest of the adventurers present, and the amount of time in which a player is out of the action due to her untimely demise. It is not as these things are catastrophic failures of a system. The worst condemnations I can heap upon them is that they are safe and well-established. This very safe approach is why one-offs, like the Planescape setting, catch my imagination. Dying is no big deal, because you are an interloping Outsider and your death will just banish you back to your plane of origin and probably impose some sort of condition barring your return for a set amount of time.
At first blush, this doesn’t sound too different than either of the two states of death as outlined above. This is an exceedingly temporary condition, and the party has to find a way to either have the newly deceased join them or traverse the cosmos back to the dead’s plane of origin. Where it starts to differs is the fact that this isn’t burdensome in any sense other than delaying the goals of the party, as it costs nothing other than time or success rate. None of the players are taken out of the action, as even the freshly dead can immediately start doing things back home. This is pretty fantastic for player engagement, obviously. The other obvious difference is that a party wipe isn’t nearly as devastating as it would be otherwise. Sure, that mission failed, but the important thing here is that the party can try again. The party now knows what to expect as a baseline, albeit the failure probably changed the dynamic in meaningful ways, which only adds to the variety and reuse.
This is a great mechanic for death and risk, but it hardly one that is universally applicable. For high magic, or technology functioning as magic, settings, this is great. Players can delve into different worlds, magical objects, planes, servers, digital worlds, etc. while using the success or failure of their goals as their own risk and reward structure. This also has the added bonus in making your base of operations the place of highest danger. Players have to really think about their home and where they set up shop, not to mention the fact that if they make enemies, those enemies might be waiting for them in ambush right after they come back home from a defeat. It’s harsh, but it makes sense. It is a really nice play on the death/base dynamic. Unfortunately, it is not that great of a mechanism for low magic or technology settings.
I have considered this point a lot, as I am currently running a Ravenloft 5e DnD game for a group of people that really appreciate the setting, but have never previously tabletopped in any substantive way. Two of them have played only once before, while one person has only ever played Neverwinter Nights. The other two are more experienced, but they also care a great deal for the setting. When faced with such a new group, I want to give them freedom of exploration and adventure, but I also want to give them as much information as possible while still retaining room for them to make mistakes. One of the key issues I want to avoid is the idea that they need to be embarrassed or ashamed of their decisions. I am perfectly happy to let them make mistakes, but I want to do it in a way that feels more natural than having a rotating cast of characters in a Ravenloft setting. While it can easily make sense that this is the case, it feels strange to me that players would need to constantly find reasons to meet the new players or continually go through the Forming stage of the group dynamic. The level of trust would just stand out as jarring.
One of the most compelling things about Ravenloft is the Dark Powers. The Dark Powers are the forces that control the Mists and punish those who sin. The Dark Powers never attempt to mislead or trick people, only punishing them for their actions, and ostensibly creating circumstances to force the Dark Lords to cyclically relive their greatest agonies and defeats. Thinking on this, it makes sense to me that the Dark Powers might punish players for their failures, while giving them an opportunity to try again. After all, the players are not Dark Lords, but they have something in their past that brought them to Ravenloft. If the players continue to make the same mistakes, lash out at failure, or begin a slippery decent into evil, then they could easily become villains of the campaign. This opportunity couldn’t arise without the players being able to overcome death in some way. In traditional Ravenloft, the players would just resolve death in one of the ways listed above. This is fine, of course, but there is an alternate option here: the Mists and the Dark Powers resurrect the players.
This would not be without penalty, but it would be a more personal penalty rather than a group penalty. It also doesn’t always have to function, if scene and tension dictate otherwise: the Mists and Dark Powers are quite fickle, after all. The result is that the player would become Mist-Touched (or perhaps carry a mark on them known as the Mist Sign). The player would find herself transported to another place where the Mists are heavy, awakening with an altered appearance.
The Mist-Touched would appear stretched and thin, with a hint of glistening moisture upon her skin, and eyes that now appear slightly too large within her face. The Mist-Touched has a higher percentage chance of attracting the attention of the Dark Powers with their actions, placing a larger moral burden on them than might otherwise be present. Something as simple a lying is now a meaningful cause of concern. Additionally, the Mist-Touched is unable to enjoy the benefits of Advantage, while still being able to grant Advantage to other. The Mist-Touched isn’t at Disadvantage, it is just that the weight of the Mists weighs heavily upon them, casting them into a fugue or temporary purgatory-like state. For the purposes of resolving multiple sources of Advantage and Disadvantage, the Mist-Touched would follow the normal negation rules, even though they cannot benefit from Advantage. The Mist-Touched may cast off this state by expending a hit die, but the state returns during a short rest. Medicine checks and expenditures of healing kit charges might also fend off this state. Finally, it is likely that being Mist-Touched does something to the domain or to the Dark Lord itself. This isn’t a license to act freely, and every death should be considered.
I will be enacting this in my Ravenloft game for the forseeable future, and I cannot wait for the players to discover it.