Playing with permanent death - How does death affect your game?


Pathfinder RPG General Discussion


I like to run games where death is non reversible - outside of a Breath of Life if you die, you are dead and it is time to make a new character. This is my group's personal preference and for us it enriches the story telling.

However Pathfinder power curves and CR ratings assume that Ressurection is a tool and also a resource (measurable in gold). If you take this away and you run the game as is you possibly might end up having a lemmings game on your hands. When you take away ressurection you essentially take away a chunk of power budget from your players.

So what do you do in your games to mellow this out? We always clarify at the start of the campaign what the understanding with lady death is, and my players trust the GM enough to accept death when it comes.

I personally dont like hero points too much...they always felt a little deus ex machina - perhaps it is my own fault where I cant find the balance of there being too many hero points or too few. Has anyone any insight on these, how have you tweaked them?
I would really like to hear of people running such games and what their solutions are or what their experiences are with problems that may have cropped up.

On non permanent death I feel like it is a speed bump and I feel it creates way too many loop holes around story lines. There are very few APs (which is mostly what we play) where I find it hard to think "why wouldnt this bad guy just get ressurected again, or have a contingency set up for it when it happens?" and adding permanent death makes sense and certainly creates less head aches for the GM. We mostly manage to run a fun and relaxed game with a gritty edge (and shy away from high heroic APs) but as a GM I feel that Pathfinder sometimes assumes an encounter can kill someone but they'll be able to bring him back, essentially burning a resource.


I also like games where permanent death is the norm, outside Breath of Life.

To avoid the "lemmings game", I try to control encounter difficulty carefully so that death is a possibility only from poor PC tactics or egregious bad luck. Some of things I do to control encounter difficulty are:
1. Reduce the occurrence of save or suck (especially save or die) magic.
2. Use multiple bad guys of lower power each.
3. Provide some hints when the PCs are getting close to something they cannot handle.
4. Let encounters have diplomatic or other non-violent solutions.

For the occasions where a PC dies and the death is just bad for the game/players, I usually have a few small side quests prepared that I can pop in anywhere and that lead to raise dead opportunities.


At least these days when I'm GMing and I have player buy in, I do the same thing as OP in regard to death (Breath of Life, plot device, or go home) however, I do use a stripped down hero point system to keep death less a lemming thing.

Essentially, characters get 3 (or 2 or whatever) points period that can be used per sesh for rerolls. However, in the case of your character dying, you can permanently lower your stock by 1 in order to survive. The ship explodes, throwing you clear, that mace hit bonks you to a forgotten corner of the battlefield at -1 hp and stable, etc etc.

Essentially this gives you 3 (or 4) actual lives before you permanently take a dirt nap which I figure is fair enough to last most campaigns. You can toss on permutations like burning to get up at half HP and conditions wiped to continue fighting (but run the risk of getting bonked down again) but the basics I find work well enough (Then again that could just be because I did Dark Heresy before Pathfinder).


Errant Mercenary wrote:
When you take away ressurection you essentially take away a chunk of power budget from your players.

I thought that it means players just got new characters of the same level whenever they wanted. This doesn't reduce their power, just their ability to engage with the narrative.

Possible house-rule: instead of dying at negative Con, you die at negative HP.


Permanent death makes the entire world make more sense. Who cares if a king, princess, or other important NPC is killed or threatened with death when all those people have relatively easy access to raise dead or better spells? Everyone important in the world would only ever die (and stay dead) from old age, including the BBEG's (after a certain level of opponent started showing up).

I'm currently working on a world where the gods of good and evil created the world to use as pretty much a chess board upon which they resolve their disputes (it actually has a pretty complicated cosmology, so I won't go into it). Part of the "rules" of the game conflict is that if one set of gods allows one of their pieces to be brought back to the board (ie., if the gods of good allow a character to be raised), then the other side automatically gets to bring back an equivalent piece to the board (ie., then the gods of evil could bring back any comparably powerful entity they wanted, too). Consequently, beings being resurrected or raised almost never happens, and priests for the entire pantheon high enough to cast such spells are knowledgeable enough about the consequences to never offer such services without direct instruction from their deity. (Mechanically, the only return to life spell in existence is Resurrection, and it is moved to 9th level).

Sovereign Court

I like hero points for the situation where the player has no bearing on their character's death. Like failing a perception and getting ganked in the initiative before they can act. Also, sometimes a crit can come along and destroy a PC.

My players get 1 point per level and need to manage them like any other resource. Max limit is 3. This way if a person is attached to a character they can keep them alive in one of those swingy situations.


Saldiven wrote:
Permanent death makes the entire world make more sense. Who cares if a king, princess, or other important NPC is killed or threatened with death when all those people have relatively easy access to raise dead or better spells?

Even without house-rules, there are a bunch of reasons for why NPCs might not get raised. Maybe they're happy in the afterlife. Or their soul has been claimed/judged by a deity.

PC souls are probably unusual in having the resolve to crawl to their bodies to complete their unfinished business.


Death should be final. Adventurers should die. If adventurers didn't die, adventuring would be easy, and everyone would be doing it, and there wouldn't be any adventuring left to do. But people who go adventuring DO die, because adventuring IS hard, and that's why the town's people hire YOU to slay the dragon instead of doing it themselves. The chance that the dragon might kill you should be real, otherwise why have health and damage at all?


In my homebrew setting we use permanent* death with the following two mitigating factors.

- We use the "Death Flag" rule from Ryan Stoughton's "Raising the Stakes"
- We use the "at any point, if the entire party concurs, the party may withdraw from a combat, and the loss they suffer will be a narrative one, not a 'life and limb' one" rule from 13th Age.

I personally dislike how the ubiquity of resurrection both cheapens death as a thing of narrative import (or forces us to rely on kludges to prevent PCs from just raising anybody who suffers an important death) and also how much this lays bare the metaphysics of the setting to anybody willing to dig. Like "people know for a fact what happens after you die" would cause a major societal change, that I don't really feel like modeling.

* It is possible, but extremely difficult and may not be worth the cost.


Pathfinder Starfinder Adventure Path, Starfinder Roleplaying Game Subscriber

In my experience, HP damage doesn't typically result in kills at higher levels of play. I did manage to kill a level 16 barbarian with Sard once, as well as a 13ish rogue/warpriest via unfortunate Gunpowder Ooze shenanigans (these were both published adventures), but where I've seen bigger issues (and I suspect you'd come across more issues) are with things like Banshees or critters with save or die effects.

The player adaptation to this is likely going to be significant defensive investments to compensate. An example from my playthrough of Rise of the Runelords book 6 for PFS (we were 18) was to use Astral Projection duplicates of ourselves to go into the final fight, so if we died, we would snap back to our bodies. There's a plot reason this works well. I have a spreadsheet somewhere of all the buffs I had on for that fight that I kept to show how to prep for a Runelord encounter.

The main thing I would consider as a GM is how to manage loot for this sort of play style. Death and resurrection are considered to be part of the wealth expectations of characters as you progress, so removing the expenses associated means the players should have slightly better loot as a result. Most likely, this should mean additional consumables rather than permanent enhancements.


VoodistMonk wrote:
Death should be final. Adventurers should die. If adventurers didn't die, adventuring would be easy, and everyone would be doing it, and there wouldn't be any adventuring left to do. But people who go adventuring DO die, because adventuring IS hard, and that's why the town's people hire YOU to slay the dragon instead of doing it themselves. The chance that the dragon might kill you should be real, otherwise why have health and damage at all?

Because death isn't cheap or easy, even with raise dead available. Because TPKs are still tricky to recover from - at least until quite high levels. Because the dragon would slaughter dozens of the townsfolk, if they managed to kill it at all, costing far more in raises than it cost to hire the party.

Beyond that, low level adventurers don't get raised without GM fiat. Even when Raises first become viable, they're expensive and often hard to access. And as they become more practical ways of making them not work become more common, which can be overcome with higher level spells, but those are again more expensive and harder to access.

From a gameplay perspective - occasional deaths are pretty much expected at the higher levels. That's why it's fixable. SoDs, tons of damage, etc. Death becomes common and easy to fix - like being knocked out of the fight at lower levels.

Personally I don't really care whether characters can be raised or whether they just don't die very often (house rules, hero points, whatever). I find that too common permanent death leads to detachment from the character (I'll just bring in another toon) and that bothers me more than any setting issues.


If you believe in permadeath I would alter the loot structure. The money spent on resurrection should be reallocated to permanent enhancement to protect against the threat of permadeath.

People love their characters. If you are you going to remove access to resurrection; you should permit them to use their look however they sey fit to prevent death (or whatever they want).


Matthew Downie wrote:
Saldiven wrote:
Permanent death makes the entire world make more sense. Who cares if a king, princess, or other important NPC is killed or threatened with death when all those people have relatively easy access to raise dead or better spells?

Even without house-rules, there are a bunch of reasons for why NPCs might not get raised. Maybe they're happy in the afterlife. Or their soul has been claimed/judged by a deity.

PC souls are probably unusual in having the resolve to crawl to their bodies to complete their unfinished business.

I have to disagree with that. A king or other head of state who dies an untimely death (such as through nefarious means, an accident, or falling in battle) would almost certainly want to come back if given the chance. If they're evil, they'd rather keep pursuing their earthly pleasures. If they're good, they'd have a sense of responsibility to their people.

And the BBEG? If he gets killed, is he really going to be so happy with the afterlife that they do not want the opportunity for revenge or a chance to bring their plans to fruition?

It takes a certain amount of hand-waving to assert that the reason only player characters make a lot of use of resurrection magic is because most everyone else is happy with the afterlife. And why would NPC's have their souls "claimed by a deity" any more often than a PC's? Just because, I guess....

My point was simply that the ease at which Pathfinder makes being returned from the dead causes a lot of issues that have to either be addressed or hand-waved away.


Never played with death being trully permanent... probably i wouldnt play with death being trully permanent since i would rather leave the table til the next game instead of making a new PC to join an ongoing one.

But on the one game where ress wasnt easy to get and literally impossible for the NPCs, what we did have as players was an "extra life" each, so if we died we would come back once. If one spent said extra life, one could get another in key moments later, which means becoming quite vunerable for a while and thus change how people played.

Ofc, all that had ingame reasons to happen, it wouldnt fit an AP for example.


I think it should be the players' decision whether character death is permanent. Because it's them who are affected way more - they have a single character, probably spent a lot of effort developing them and definitely spent a lot of time playing them.

Further, I wouldn't trust any GM to always make up encounters in a way that random death doesn't happen. The option to come back from the dead is one insurance for players - and it also lessens the burden on the GM. A GM can design encounters more freely with this wildcard available.

Now I would see a point in a character appropriate death, like a paladin sacrificing herself to slow down a great menace, allowing the rest of the group to escape. But you can still have this if raise dead etc. is available - after all, the player is not obliged to take the raise.


It just means that if an assassin wants to kill a powerful noble, he needs to try harder. Repeated resurrections will start to add up (at 1-2 BP a pop) and smaller kingdoms may not be able to afford them.

If you want to kill something permanently, steal the body. True-resurrection is a 9th level spell. Not that many level 18 clerics in the world. That or kill the king's cleric too.


Cremation, it solves so many problems.


One thing it's made me do is make it harder to die.

In genre fiction, protagonists don't (generally) just get killed at the drop of a hat. When they die, it's meaningful. Sacrificing themselves for the greater good, completing their story arc, taking a baddie down with them, etc. Death should be a moment, with gravitas and emotion, not 'Bob lost another one'.

I also believe that easy PC death means you won't be as invested in your character. No point spending an hour coming up with a cool backstory when you might not get to actually play him long enough to explore it.

Seventh Sea (the original, non d20 version) had a pretty simple rule for PC death; unless the player asks for it, or it's truly TRULY unavoidable, you live. This 'asking for it' can be literal or figurative. "I'm kinda getting tired of playing this guy ... can we have him go out in a blaze of glory?" Or "He's covering me with a crossbow? I lean forward, say 'I dare you', and open my mouth in front of the bolt." (AKA 'rendering myself helpless and susceptible to a coup de grace'.)

I also don't assume that killing people is on every bad guy's agenda. If someone is holding up a caravan to swipe valuables from the passengers, he's not going to finish someone off if they go down; he may even be doing nonlethal damage because he outright does-not-want-to-kill-anybody, gentleman-thief style. For most people, murder is a last resort, I-feel-every-other-option-has-been-cut-off course of action, not SOP.

Now, I can already hear people bellowing 'a game without failure is no fun!' And that's a bullplop argument, because there IS the potential for failure, but the penalty for failing isn't inherently lethal. The PCs can fail more often because the penalty for failure isn't death like it seems to be in many other games. And like in fiction, when the protagonists get their butts kicked, they pull themselves up, someone gives an inspiring speech, and they get back in there. Hard to do that when you're pushing up daisies.


PossibleCabbage wrote:

In my homebrew setting we use permanent* death with the following two mitigating factors.

- We use the "Death Flag" rule from Ryan Stoughton's "Raising the Stakes"
- We use the "at any point, if the entire party concurs, the party may withdraw from a combat, and the loss they suffer will be a narrative one, not a 'life and limb' one" rule from 13th Age.

I like these.


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I don't get this issue about NPCs coming back. You are the GM you decide if an NPC wants to come back or not - in my worlds they simply don't. I don't feel a need to justify it - it just doesn't happen.
I don't get to decide for PCs, that's quite rightly the players choice to make.

I feel that if you have perma-death you run the very real risk of having players disinvested in your campaign unless you are running a truly 100% sandbox world and can just lose those subplots related to the dead character. Or you end up coddling the players and still lose any real sense of danger that you are trying to capture by making raise dead harder.

I'd much rather have deaths revolving door rather than the issues with 'insta-buddy TM' and campaign disconnect.


Pathfinder Adventure Path, Companion, Lost Omens, Rulebook Subscriber
Saldiven wrote:
I have to disagree with that. A king or other head of state who dies an untimely death (such as through nefarious means, an accident, or falling in battle) would almost certainly want to come back if given the chance. If they're evil, they'd rather keep pursuing their earthly pleasures. If they're good, they'd have a sense of responsibility to their people.

I don't know this is necessarily true.

People have complex motivations. Perhaps a good portion of the Evil Tyrants motivation was fear of death, but once in actually happened the soul might feel at peace and certainly wouldn't want to return to life. Similarly, a good person could be very relieved that their time is over.

'Souls' are not well developed as to exactly what they are and how they behave in Pathfinder. We can divine that they aren't simply the personality and thoughts but other things as well (and perhaps less things.) I don't think that someone would necessarily be able to tell in advance that they would, or would not, want to return to life after they died, so at best it would be a chance that anything fatal was permanent.

Of course, PCs have something else, a player that will determine this. Motivation to continue the struggle from beyond the bounds of the universe.


As a player, it wouldn't. I already invest a fair amount of resources into making sure my characters are adequately defended, and I always play to make sure they can get out a tough situation. I will even heal in combat.


As someone that has been on both sides.

I like permadeath. It raises the stakes for PCs, but more than one death and PCs start to get uninterested in the store fast.

On the other side, the current campaign we have, permadeath is technically a thing, but by the deity's power, we have limited resurrection. Two players have died once, but still live as the same PCs. This campaign is currently the most engaging campaign.


Dave Justus wrote:
Saldiven wrote:
I have to disagree with that. A king or other head of state who dies an untimely death (such as through nefarious means, an accident, or falling in battle) would almost certainly want to come back if given the chance. If they're evil, they'd rather keep pursuing their earthly pleasures. If they're good, they'd have a sense of responsibility to their people.

I don't know this is necessarily true.

People have complex motivations. Perhaps a good portion of the Evil Tyrants motivation was fear of death, but once in actually happened the soul might feel at peace and certainly wouldn't want to return to life. Similarly, a good person could be very relieved that their time is over.

Or the minions that were supposed to bring him back are more interested in fighting among themselves to be the successor than in bringing him back to boss them around again.

Or they're just dead. PCs tend to do a pretty good job on minions on their way to take down the Big Bad.

Similarly, perhaps the Good King does wish to return, but his heir isn't interested in going back to waiting around.


As a guy who is mostly a player, though I've had my stints at the other side of the screen, I must admit that I'd tend to make death, especially permanent death, less likely the more advanced the campaign is.
On one hand, the players7characters are more likely to have sufficient means to pay for resurrection and to know the right people to do it, or convince those who can; onthe other, I dislike the idea of killing characters that the players have had real investment in... and in my time I was a killer DM who had no qualms taking powerful characters and running them through killer adventures till they were dead or cried uncle... granted, most of those characters had not deserved their levles and pretties (I mean, I once stumbled on a PC who owned the wand of orcus at lvl 2), and was trying to teach the players some lessons in humility (without much success)... but it's a fact, I take it much more easily to have a character killed or terminally messed with a low level than when he's gotten powerful and I'm invested in it.


I don't really mind a permanent PC death as I make a lot of characters and would be content to put another in, but I can see how people who have really invested in their characters would want to keep them alive. But not allowing a player access to Resurrection spells so death has more impact is just kinda mean, I feel. And that spell is really high level and expensive, so it's not like people will be getting revived willy-nilly.

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