How to deal with death at low levels.


After weeks of work, I started a Pathfinder campaign on Sunday. The characters are the young scions of Elven noble houses, who were forced to flee from an undead army.

They were teleported away to an uncharted island, where they were marked by an ancient prophecy (setting up later events) and forced to figure out how to survive.

The session was going well, when, during a fight with a pack of wild dogs, the Paladin decided to stand his ground and was felled by a critical hit.

Now, I usually let the dice fall where they may; being an adventuring type is dangerous, and death should always be a possibility, though I much prefer when it happens because of player decisions, and not random chance.

But here's the problem. I sort of painted myself into a corner here- there's no civilization and no NPC's who can raise a dead character. And I can't really justify a new character showing up on a "deserted" island.

So if I let the death stand, I basically have to tell the player he can't participate in the game for a session or two, which I'm not happy about.

Some of the players stated they'd be OK with a "miraculous" recovery, but I don't want to set precedent here- what happens the next time someone dies? Or the time after that? Where can I draw the line?

I was contemplating a house rule like "everybody gets one", ie, you can cheat death one time...but I'd already been very lenient with this same character earlier in the session, where he'd been paralyzed by a stingray while swimming, and by all rights, should have drowned.

I'm curious how other GM's would handle this problem, and I appreciate any feedback.

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Uncharted =/= uninhabited.

Or, you could always have a lifeboat land on the island with a survivor of a nearby shipwreck.

Alternatively, for the next couple sessions see if the player would be interested in roleplaying a native animal that befriends the party. Then, raise his PC when the story allows.

"...where they were marked by an ancient prophecy"

So something want's them alive at least. That could be a plot relevant reason to make death only temporary on the island. It is only for a session or two the campaign should survive it.

Heck you could even make it part of the prophecy that they have to die before they can leave the island.

Pathfinder Starfinder Maps, Starfinder Roleplaying Game Subscriber

If you want to let the death stand and not force the player to sit out, is there any chance of a late arrival? The original group got dumped on the island fleeing an attack. Is it possible someone else that survived the first wave stumbled on a way to also get teleported? Another possible option would be someone shipwrecked that washes up on shore.

How much of the prophecy gets wrecked by allowing the character to die? Hopefully you've left room in your campaign storyline to handle changes in the characters.

That's sort of a potential flaw of lower level gaming, you have fragile chars without resources to buffer those weaknesses. Its why you can caution players about getting too much of a backstory setup for their level 1 char, because they might die in the first combat :P

and honestly, as GM you can always fudge stuff. If the goal is a story experience and you don't really mind that the PCs are kinda protected, its all good. Rather than the time it'll take to generate a new char, much less figure out why it would be involved in the same campaign.

There could be a Ben Gunn-esque character who's been on the island for years. Or perhaps a small group of refugees shows up on the island, including a new PC. Or perhaps someone emerges from an Underdark-like area beneath the island. Or maybe the leader of the wild dogs is a shapeshifting druid, and he feels bad about the death and decides to help the PCs out.

The latter's probably pretty implausible, but the rest are serious suggestions.

Playing a smart animal sounds fun. Let him have 4 int and two hit die of whatever native animal would be appropriate.

You could also consider adding a native population of intelligent monsters, like the aranea of the Isle of Dread.

There was a campaign setting for 3.5 called Ghostwalk. It let you play a characters spirit withou really being undead.

Or you could steal a page from Shadow of Mordor and have an elven spirit or angel type of some sort possess the paladins body. Dying again could impart a permenent penalty like being dazzled forever and then moving up to sickened during the daylight, but could be removed under the righ conditions.

Your options really are endless.

The idea was to separate them from 'civilization' for a session or two, which is why I decided the island should be more or less devoid of intelligent humanoid types. And yes, I know, it's my story, and I can totally change it, but I guess it's a self-imposed challenge for me to try and stay on script.

That having been said, I never considered a non-humanoid PC. That sounds cool, and I'll definitely have to ask the player his opinion about it. Obviously there could be problems with playing something others would see as a beast (not to mention a potential lack of thumbs), but if he's up to the challenge, why not?

And it can always be temporary.

Yes, as an agency of a prophecy, it stands to reason that something does want the character alive, I just don't want to tip my hand this soon if I can help it. I've played in a lot of other games where a PC would die and is saved by "GM magic"...which is cool if it's justified based on something the characters know about and understand, but it messes with my immersion when it happens because of "reasons"- I can't tell if it's really something that's part of the campaign, or just fiat.

Ultimately, this is on me for not asking the question "but what if they die?" before I started the game. For various reasons, death hasn't been an issue for a long time in games I've been in.

The experience I've had is that it's easy to go down, but hard to actually die. Some of that might be due to luck, better tactics, and GM mercy, I'm not sure which.

My friend has suggested instead of dying, characters at negatives have "defeated" status, where they can't act, but they're just K.O.'d...if they actually would die, say due to a coup de grace, they still revive at the end of the fight, but with a battle scar (and/or captured).

It sounds reasonable, but I didn't like the penalty- it reminded me of when I played older systems with hit locations, where in a short amount of time, the PC's were the sorriest bunch of losers you'd ever seen, missing eyes, legs, hands, and suffering from brain damage...

Realistic, but not very fun.

Someone provided the teleport I would guess. That presumes someone else could be teleported in as well. Additionally, such a person could provide spells to return the character to life if you wanted.

One interesting possibility, especially if this island isn't going to be featured in later adventures is have the island have a magical life-restoring property. The Isle of Avalon if you will. Reincarnation might be a fun twist on this as well.

Honestly though, I'm pretty surprised that you had someone die from a crit at level 1 (that wasn't from a x3 crit anyway). I've found level on to be one of the safest levels to avoid actual death, since you have such a huge negative pool compared to your positive pool. Going unconscious at 1 isn't unlikely, but death is in my experience rare unless the whole party gets wiped.

Sovereign Court

Of note - if the party was teleported to the island due to an ancient phrophecy - is there anything to prevent someone else arriving in a similar fashion? Perhaps they have a different face of what is essentially the same phrophecy, but with a few different pieces.

Perhaps you could even weave it into your story. For example - if the new character is a dwarf who was teleported there -

"Go thee to the Isle of Sorrow
A champion of the fair folk didst just fall
Take thine axe and then go borrow
His place amongst his former friends."

It could even lead to some cool RP - as the new character says that his part of the phrophecy is the "true" phrophecy, and theirs is a mistranslation or some such.

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Just make him not die, he is gravely wounded, and after some intensive care from his partners, he finally get stable and survives... with some kind of lesion, like becoming lame (like the oracle curse) or having unable to move one arm (if board and sword), something like that.
And once they arrive to a town, for the price of the resurrection he owes, he can get his lesion away.

The Exchange

Get the party to find collapsed ruins that was forged by an ancient civilization that was destroyed by an earthquake with a containment cell holding (insert deceased paladin's new character here), having being held in stasis via magical means for the last 500 years.

I believe each death has a place, and you shouldn't take the value or lesson from it from the players. Sounds too deus ex machina to me, devaluing the story.

Dead's dead. Have a good cry, take the sheet outside, light it on fire, and do a few shots while it burns. Next character is an island inhabitant, be it a native humanoid or an unusually smart pheasant, or maybe a rescue from a uncannily-timed shipwreck.

Edit: I like the way you think, RumpinRufus.

Maybe a deranged bearded man who talks to a blood-smeared leather ball. (The ball is his spell poppet/eidolon/arcane bond or something.)

I vote for a deactivaTed android buried in sand up to his neck anxious to be rescued.

Dying from a critical hit:

what happened was that the characters decided to split up and explore the island. The Paladin rolled badly enough on his Survival check that I told him he got lost.

The rest of the characters eventually made their way to a river, where they encountered a pack of wild dogs. I thought it would be fun and amusing to have the Paladin show up at the beginning of round 2, being chased by the enemy reinforcements (I really like using waves of enemies), a pair of "beta" dogs.

He could easily run to the other characters on his turn before he was attacked, but instead, he ran to a large tree (one the dogs had suspiciously avoided previously), thinking to put his back to it.

He failed his Perception check, and got bit by a Jaculi (a snake that lurks in the branches of a tree, and leaps down to ambush you). At this point, he declared "that snake will die!" and focused his efforts on it.

The other dogs were wary of the snake, so didn't engage him at first (I don't tend to have different types of enemies be "allies"), so the next two rounds were Paladin vs. Snake (it only had 7 h.p., but the Paladin kept missing).

When the pack Alpha showed up, I wanted to highlight how dangerous it was, so it ran up and bit the snake in half on it's first turn.

The other dogs started to withdraw and move to the Alpha to regroup. Instead of getting the heck out of there, the Paladin decided to challenge the Alpha (his archetype gives him an ability that lets him do this, and the enemy doesn't need to be least, that's what he told me, I probably should check on that).

So he hits the Alpha, which causes it to enrage, giving it a boost to attack and damage rolls, and giving it the Ferocity ability. I tell him to make a Sense Motive to realize this, he rolls a 3. Sigh.

So now the Paladin is surrounded by a pack of wild dogs. They start attacking him, but most of them miss. Then it's the Alpha's turn.

20. 17 on the die to confirm. 2d6+8 damage, I roll 19. Brings the Pally down past -Con.

I should probably explain the campaign so far:


The characters are the children and wards of the leaders of the Elven High Council, who gathered in the capitol city to discuss what they were going to do about the undead, who had recently destroyed a Human kingdom.

The characters were mostly their to observe, not really being part of the action. The Elven nations united under one banner centuries ago, during a war against the evil Dragons. The war ended when a group of Elven heroes managed to defeat one of the Dragon Generals, severing it's claw.

The claw is currently mounted on a staff, which the leader of the Council carries during meetings. The Dragon Wars never ended, the Gods of the Dragons and the Elves negotiated an armistice while both sides recovered. The staff is the symbol of the peace; if it's lost, the war starts anew.

Despite how well-protected the capitol was, the undead faction was able to use catacombs under the city to invade (there had been a previous city on the same site, destroyed during the dragon wars; the Elves built a new city on top of the old one, but the existence of the old tunnels was mostly forgotten).

Being heirs to their noble houses, the players were brought to the Tower of Secrets (basically a wizard tower), fighting undead every step of the way, until they were ushered into an ancient portal. They were supposed to be sent someplace safe, but as they were entering the gate, the Tower was attacked by Nightshades, powerful extraplanar undead. The players appeared in mid-air, and fell into the ocean near an island.

After fighting stingrays, they swam to shore and collapsed on the beach. During the night they had a dream, where they saw the fight between the Elven heroes (their ancestors) and the Dragon General. They woke up with a sharp pain on the backs of their hands- a black mark, shaped like a dragon's claw, had appeared there.

Much later in the game, it will be revealed that the Staff was stolen, but there is a prophecy, that says the PC's will be the ones to reclaim it, and prevent a new age of war.

Grand Lodge

Uncharted = Littered with fey. Have a benign fey creature come up with a resurrection, and they're honored to do so because they had a prophecy that they would need to help a group of elves who in turn would help the island fey return to the First World. Have the quest be to restore a portal to the First World, after which it can be repurposed to teleport them back to civilization.

If they're marked by fate why don't you just treat it as if he's been reincarnated into a lesser body. Allow him to keep his paladin abilities but the fates have decided to give him a racial body that is less "paladiny," like an orc or something. Part of the quest could then be to reverse the reincarnation.

The island "could" have someone there because ______. I would go with that.

With the perfect 20-20 hindsight of an outside observer the first thing I'd note was if death was going to be a major story issue the time to fudge things was when the crit landed/before death was dealt ... for me you strongly risk cheapening death/bad stuff happening if you have to handwave stuff to bring the same character back to life. (And I'd want to keep any such fudging secretly behind my screen and unknown to my players)

But once its happened its happened and I'd be more liable to use something along the lines of RumpusRufus suggests, a previously unknown primitive humanoid race living on the island or even just a lone survivor from a previous shipwreck to allow the player to participate in the next session because a forced sitting out sucks and then some as a player.

I would let the death stand and have the player help me run combats until the party gets them raised. You already put yourself in a corner, don't undermine your own authority by taking back the kill. The point of this adventure seems to be that life is hard, start taking it seriously. If you make recovering from death by bad tactics easy the tactics will never improve.

You could just play with kid gloves for a couple of sessions until they get off the island. Use sub-par tactics with the enemies, fudge die rolls so nobody gets critted, or throw low CR enemies at them. Then you don't have to deal with it.

Normally I hate doing that stuff, but you kinda wrote yourself into a corner.

Alternatively: Scroll of Resurrection/Reincarnate/etc in a bottle washes up on shore!

I like the idea of the mark of fate automatically reincarnating them. Eventually more characters will die, so unless this 'fate' only requires one of them to make it, you'll eventually run into this problem again.

At this point, if you don't explain why, they'll have to wonder if it's them or the island. Especially if the bodies of their kills disappear, and they meet things that could be imagined to be next lives of them. Coincedence or functional immortality, die again to find out?

Sure, there's ways to exploit it, but are those worse than the disruption of your plot of char death and replacements? Especially if you make it harrowing, giving the rez'd nightmares or flashbacks.. Instead of just walking out of the morning mist, they wake up to him screaming and bleeding from the eyes, and not knowing why he's alive again..

Liberty's Edge

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This is one of the reasons why I don't like having the PCs being the main focus of a prophecy, it's makes it so that you can't have PC death, and without PC death, the whole game feels cheapened. Personally, I wouldn't have the character resurrected. I'd make it so that if all of the original PCs die, the prophecy will go unfulfilled, so that there's a sense of urgency to survival, even if it means at the end of the game only one character can complete the prophecy, or that they can possibly fail the campaign. But if you're not willing to do that, here are a few suggestions.

- Have a human drop in out of nowhere, make him from the human civilization and give him a similar backstory where he's told if he can find a way to help these elves that he may find a way to save his own civilization from destruction. Also make him a man out of time so that the last thing he remembers is the destruction of his civilization, and so that time travel is implied to make saving his civilization seem plausible. And give him the mark of the dragon fang

- Go with the animal PC thing, where his soul will have, instead of moving on to the afterlife, moved on to share a body of a nearby living creature. Make a focus on the next few sessions on working out how to transfer his soul back before his body decays and is stuck in an animals body forever.

- Have there be local tribes people, or fey, who could raise your players PC, but demanding a task in trade. Can be combined with the animal thing.

- Have the mark spread across the dead body, and have it animate on it's own. Preferably give him a template like zombie or other non CR improving templates. Then at level up give him monster levels instead of PC levels until you can have the PC raised. You probably want to come up with a few other downsides so that it feels necessary and urgent to have his soul returned to his body. Probably take away the Paladin powers like a fallen Paladin for now, maybe have it implied that he's slowly turning undead or into a monster, or maybe that his body will soon stop functioning so that the player can still play, but raise dead is first on the priority list.

- Do the shipwrecked sailor thing. Not every PC has to be a destined hero.

Ms. Pleiades wrote:
Uncharted = Littered with fey. Have a benign fey creature come up with a resurrection, and they're honored to do so because they had a prophecy that they would need to help a group of elves who in turn would help the island fey return to the First World. Have the quest be to restore a portal to the First World, after which it can be repurposed to teleport them back to civilization.

I would suggest something similar.

Fey might be part of the prophecy, maybe she have had dream about character or about something that is linked to prophecy.

Fey resurrects the dead character, BUT now he is in great debt to the fey (that can be nice side quest at some point of the campaign).

Auto-reincarnation doesn't sound good to me.

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They could come across a hatch with the numbers 4, 8, 15, 16, 23, 42

To take some of the ideas here and mesh them together:

-Give the player a new character of some sort (shipwrecked sailor, native, fey, whatever) to play for a few sessions.

-Bring in an NPC that tells them about a Grippli temple in the swamp that has a cleric that can cast resurrection (or at least reincarnation).

-The Grippli High Priest sends them on a quest for a Macguffin that only Grippli's would want, like a staff that draws all vermin in a 50ft radius.

-The staff is guarded by giant vermin of some sort that they have to slay to win the staff. Note: the linked adventure has some great map tiles that you can print off and you have a spider-themed temple!

-Bring back the staff and the paladin is once again part of the group! Not only that, he brings back a message from Calistria for the party. This message points them at their next task!

-Also bonus: You now have a shipwrecked sailor living on the island who is friendly with the PC's. If any other character death happens, you have a replacement PC.

Sovereign Court

Have an eldarin (Azata in pf) stop by fancy the dead character "no dear this just wont do." Raise dead w/o restoring negative levels.

"That's better we expect great things from you. And you're (dead) uncle Fin says to buy better armor."

The Exchange

Hmm..maybe have him follow the party as an intelligent riding dog with 6 int until they run into a hermit who would reincarnate him for a small favor. How he tries to introduce himself to the party without getting killed by them would be pretty funny though.

Have the body disappear at night and have the character stumble into camp the next day resurrected. Make this mystery resurrection part of an ongoing storyline.

Pathfinder Adventure Path Subscriber

You hard-coded Prophecy and starring roles for the PCs but allowed the dice to override your narrative.

So now you must decide which is more important? Sticking to the letter of the rules or your narrative/story. Something has to change.

Here are few ideas:
The PC who died wasn't the 'real' scion. Switched at birth, the real scion lived a separate life, unaware of his true destiny. He'll have to join up with the party later.
How did they know the Paladin was really dead? Of course if they fed the body or burned the remains it's a bit late for that. Perhaps the Paladin appeared to be dead (based on the dice rolls and hit points) but really he was wounded onto death.
Outright re-write the outcome of the fight. The pally was knocked out, not dead.
In the future any time one of the "stars" is about to die, he gets to redo his destiny. He or she is still "down" but not dead. a result of the fight, he suffers permanent trauma (work with the player on what he/she thinks is appropriate). A hideous scar (permanent penalty on all social skill checks...except for Intimidate). A limp (reduce ground speed by 10)....etc. Regeneration or other high-level magicks would restore this...but that's a long way away. As it should be.
The Paladin did die...and made a deal with Death as he stood viewing the Abyss...he's now an Agent of Death...or is sworn to some secret pact or service.

Whatever the outcome...It's not "death" but this still makes the players want to avoid mortal wounds. Unless you want to avoid death altogether going forward, it's your campaign.

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Gilbin wrote:
They could come across a hatch with the numbers 4, 8, 15, 16, 23, 42

Oh, great, a 42 Charisma. Real convincing rolling, there. Look, if you're gonna cheat, you could at least cheat on a useful ability...

Watch out for polar bears!

Rerednaw wrote:

The Paladin did die...and made a deal with Death as he stood viewing the Abyss...he's now an Agent of Death...or is sworn to some secret pact or service.

Now, that sound awesome.

You should totally do that.

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Gilbin wrote:

They could come across a hatch with the numbers 4, 8, 15, 16, 23, 42

Kobold Cleaver wrote:

Oh, great, a 42 Charisma. Real convincing rolling, there. Look, if you're gonna cheat, you could at least cheat on a useful ability...

I'm not sure that even a 42 Charisma would offset the problems inherent in a 4 Strength and 8 Dexterity ...


Is it possible that they are being watched by the person that teleported them there? He/they/it could send a replacement.

Personally I like the idea that they have to die for some reason.

Bellona wrote:
Gilbin wrote:

They could come across a hatch with the numbers 4, 8, 15, 16, 23, 42

Kobold Cleaver wrote:

Oh, great, a 42 Charisma. Real convincing rolling, there. Look, if you're gonna cheat, you could at least cheat on a useful ability...

I'm not sure that even a 42 Charisma would offset the problems inherent in a 4 Strength and 8 Dexterity ...


Sorcerer. I am become god.

The Exchange

I usually just bury them, but Ill give you a break on pricing if I can use the body as a mule for illicit cargo.

As to the specific problem of a dead paladin - maybe his god or a demigod says "sorry, not time for you to go yet, you live, and now show your appreciation by doing blah blah blah for your faith"

Possibly break the "totally" uninhabited thing by putting in some rare race druid or something who looked after those dogs, and is "very sorry" they all got in a fight. "You live, and now show your appreciation...."

Or, this could be fun, he's a (much-reduced power) ghost and acts as a spirit. Now they have a major side quest to bring him back by visiting some ancient shrines... Basically, weave it into the larger story and give him a few ghost-y abilities to make it a good time. Just do it in a way where it's obvious this won't be an option next time someone goes down when they're off that island.

To help in the future, at low levels, try not to let the dice fall where they may. Especially if you've put them in a remote location. If you can, don't roll your dice in the open. Some groups cry foul at this... but I'm guessing yours will not.

RumpinRufus wrote:
Uncharted =/= uninhabited.

This one might have potential. Have you statted up any natives on the island? Let the player play one of the natives.

Long ago he was bitten by an Apocalypse Zombie and while he didn't die from the zombie bite, he carried the zombie plague. Now, having met his death, he rises as an Apocalypse Zombie himself. Due to his paladin abilities, he is mostly able to maintain control over his urges to eat brains.

Grand Lodge

Pathfinder Starfinder Roleplaying Game Subscriber

Don't paint yourself into corners. Unless you make your characters immortal and invincible, you always have to build your campaigns to accommodate player character perma-death and replacement. This is just as true for mid to high level campaigns because there are ways to off characters that ressurrectors can't fix. (especially if it's the ressurector that dies.)

Jade Regent characters can be come marked for destiny. If that character dies though, their mark may be inherited by someone else.

Dark Archive

My suggestion is to roll with the prophecy dealie. Dude's a Paladin and usually as a DM I give Paladin's special treatment from their God for following the code(no one else has that strict a code or they lose their powers and Paladin's aren't the most powerful class) I would have the other characters receive a vision or a sign of some sort that would point to rare plants that need to be gathered on the island to complete an ancient ritual of the Paladin's god that resurrects him as an "insert favoured celestial/daemonic animal of God here" and the character must devour pieces of it's old body each day to slowly turn back into their original form.(probably make it so the player finishes eating the body by the time they would leave the island and slowly readjust the form of the character to resemble their original form each day)

Man, i'm running [PFS scenario "X"] and the rolls just now made me sad the guys passed the DC disable device check for the door, reminding me suddenly of this thread.

The guys are lvl 1 and the paladin took point walking into the room, which has 2 burning skeletons. So now the paladin's at 4hp, with the prospect of killing 1 could result in a KO.

They didn't bring healing items.....
*facepalms sadly*

I have all players start with a fate point(Like WHFRPG),they can use it to cheat death or gain an auto 20 for a single roll.
I also allow the use of Hero points (2 to cheat death)
Otherwise,"In cases like this you can only do one thing...go through their pockets and look for loose change."

Yeah, i was considering that too.

I mean in other games with higher lvl you roll your eyes for never hitting any of them, but to have them KO or potentially die in their 1st PFS as lvl 1 feels....damn :/, you know?

Sovereign Court

I just let them die. It's the name of the game, sometime you get unlucky with rolls and that's it.

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