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Many D&D 5e players find that death quickly becomes a small, inconsequential aspect of their adventuring. While that might be good if you love your character, it significantly lowers the stakes of the game and can result in a far less intense game. Are there alternative rules for death that make D&D more interesting?
Death in D&D can be made more significant by increasing the cost of dying with lingering injuries, power decreases, and narrative complications, as well as limiting the resurrection magic within the game world.
Want to learn how to make the game more interesting by changing the rules for death in D&D 5e? Keep reading to find out.
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Standard Death Rules for 5e
The standard rules in 5e for death require a character to drop to 0 hit points, then fail three death saving throws before they are healed, stabilized by a DC 10 Wisdom (Medicine) check, or stabilize from three successful death saving throws. When damage reduces a character to 0 HP, and there is remaining damage that exceeds their hit point maximum, they die instantly.
A dead character can be brought back to life by various resurrection spells, such as the 3rd-level spell Revivify. Once a party reaches 5th-level and has access to this, they can shake off death like it were the common cold, discounting a sense of danger in the adventure.
While the Player’s Handbook (PHB) and Dungeon Master’s Guide (DMG) don’t have much more to say about this, there are changes that a Dungeon Master (DM) can make to ensure the stakes are high for every encounter.
Increasing the Cost of Death
Increasing the cost of dying in your game world can raise the stakes for the party and give them a reason to still fear character death. A character that dies has experienced fully losing their life and coming back. What effect does that have on them?
A resurrected character could have disadvantage on all Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma checks until they fully recover. This represents their mind taking time to fully recover.
Death can have significant physical effects on a character after being brought back. Page 272 of the DMG suggests the use of lingering injuries. These injuries are:
- Lose an eye: You have disadvantage on Wisdom (Perception) checks that rely on sight and on ranged attack rolls. Magic such as the Regenerate spell can restore the lost eye. If you have no eyes left after sustaining this injury, you’re blinded.
- Lose an Arm or Hand: You can no longer hold anything with two hands, and you can hold only a single object at a time. Magic such as the Regenerate spell can restore the lost appendage.
- Lose a Foot or Leg: Your speed on foot is halved, and you must use a cane or crutch to move unless you have a peg leg or other prosthesis. You fall prone after using the Dash action. You have disadvantage on Dexterity checks made to balance. Magic such as the Regenerate spell can restore the lost appendage.
- Limp. Your speed on foot is reduced by 5 feet. You must make a DC 10 Dexterity saving throw after using the Dash action. If you fail the save, you fall prone. Magical healing removes the limp.
- Internal Injury: Whenever you attempt an action in combat, you must make a DC 15 Constitution saving throw. On a failed save, you lose your action and can’t use reactions until the start of your next turn. The injury heals if you receive magical healing or if you spend ten days doing nothing but resting.
- Broken Ribs: This has the same effect as Internal Injuries, except that the save DC is 10.
- Minor Scar: The scar doesn’t have any adverse effects. Magical healing of 6th-level or higher, such as Heal or Regenerate, removes the scar.
- Horrible Scar: You are disfigured to the extent that the wound can’t be easily concealed. You have disadvantage on Charisma (Persuasion) checks and advantage on Charisma (Intimidation) checks. Magical healing of 6th-level or higher, such as Heal and Regenerate, removes the scar.
- Festering Wound: Your hit point maximum is reduced by 1 every 24 hours the wound persists. If your hit point maximum drops to 0, you die. The wound heals if you receive magical healing. Alternatively, someone can tend to the wound and make a DC 15 Wisdom (Medicine) check once every 24 hours. After ten successes, the wound heals.
Death could also have a severely damaging effect in the short term. As a DM, you could decide to disable one of the character’s abilities.
For example, a fighter who has died and returned cannot use their Action Surge ability until they recover in a way you deem necessary. Consequences like this mean that your players will prioritize keeping every member of the party alive.
An extreme consequence of death would be that a resurrected character comes back to life at one level lower than they were before they died. Your players will not be so nonchalant about one of their party members dying if the cost is a decrease in power.
Remember that severely disabling a character for any reason can quickly take the fun out of playing. It can also lead to a death spiral, dying over and over, if they get weaker each time they die.
It is important—if you plan on using extreme consequences of death—you talk to your players first and ensure everyone agrees on the consequences.
Narrative Costs of Death
Instead of character death resulting in mechanical disadvantages for the characters, the cost could be narrative.
When a character dies, where does their soul go?
Typically, they go to the Outer Plane with which they are most aligned. What do they see of the Outer Planes when they die? Are there multiple powerful entities fighting over the soul of this character? Does resurrection change how these Planes of Existence interact? Perhaps a portal between these worlds opens as a result.
Every time Frodo wears the One Ring, the Nazgûl are acutely aware of his location. What if a party member’s death notified some malevolent entity of the party’s location?
What if their deaths gave power to their enemy? If there is some lord of undeath in the world, characters messing with resurrection could increase their power. Resurrection mid-battle could also resurrect or heal an enemy as a side-effect.
Increasing the cost of death in this way doesn’t impede the character’s playability but instead creates opportunities to throw new challenges and mysteries at the party that wouldn’t otherwise occur.
Changing the Rules of Resurrection
As stated, resurrection can be achieved by as low as a 3rd-level spell in D&D 5e. As long as you have the spell prepared and the material components on hand (diamonds worth 300gp), the spell just works.
Matt Mercer of Critical Role introduced adjustable resurrection rules for his party. When a character casts a spell that restores someone to life with a casting time of 1 action, they must make a Resurrection check, rolling a d20 and adding their spellcasting modifier.
The DC is 10, increasing by 1 for every successful resurrection the character has undergone. If the check fails, the DC still increases by 1, and a resurrection spell with a casting time longer than 1 action must be attempted next. Though, you may consider resetting this counter after a set number of long rests.
Other limitations on resurrection in your game could include limiting the availability of diamonds in the world to use for resurrection spells.
Finally, you and your players could decide to play in a low-magic world in which only certain spells exist. In this case, you could remove resurrection spells entirely.
There are multiple alternative death rules that a DM can employ in D&D. These alternatives raise the stakes of dying at higher levels instead of shrugging off death with no consequences.
Alternative rules to consider are:
- Short- to mid-term mental and physical penalties, such as lingering injuries as the resurrected character recovers.
- Power decreases—Use these with caution as a weaker character can be less fun to play and can increase the odds of dying again, leading to a death spiral.
- Narrative penalties such as resurrection empowering an enemy or opening a portal to an Outer Plane.
- Limiting the availability of diamonds for resurrection spells.
- Using Resurrection checks (see previous section)
- Limiting the resurrection spells in the world.
Each of these changes impacts the tone of the game that you are playing. Talk with your players about what cost there is to death in the game world.
Using these rules correctly will result in a game that remains thrilling and dangerous for your players at every level and ensures that keeping the characters alive and achieving victory is as satisfying for the players around the table as it is for the heroes themselves.