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Funerals in games

I attended a funeral this last week, which sparked thoughts about funerals in gaming. One of the most ambitious roleplaying funerals I encountered was the Throne War scenario in the Amber Diceless RPG book. Less an adventure than a vigorous kick start, Throne War used a dying family member as an excuse to gather the family together and turn the PCs loose on each other in a free for all struggle. While Amber’s family dynamics are famously fractious, the experience of people going a little crazy when a loved one dies is universal.

Deryni Rising features an excellent setting that kicks off with the death of the king. Queen Jehana challenges Kelson’s allies now that she’s secure in her power (after her husband’s death), bloody Charissa and her allies strike while the kingdom lacks its king, and so on. The setting is filled with secrets and intrigue– all kicked into motion by the king’s death, with large parts taking place during the king’s funeral preparations.

D&D typically features wide pantheons filled with gods. An interesting question is whether each faith has a funeral rite (or similar), or do believers in each god go to the priests of the god of death? While turn undead is nearly universal, how does each faith deal with their own faithful dead? (If they go to the priests of a god of death for their rites, which one they choose is a question they’ll have to answer in particularly large pantheons.)

Undead and Funerals

Undeath raises additional questions. Is Gentle Repose a part of all funeral rites, only those of special personages, or is the effect built into the traditional rite? In a setting like Ebberon, with fewer spell casting NPCs, does the faithful priest’s blessing keep you from rising as a horrible vampire, or do you need a full Cleric to keep that tragedy from happening? How do you make sure that the graveyard that your companion is being laid to rest in has been recently Hallowed?

PC undead, particularly vampires, open up an additional angle. Vampires have a lot of rituals of death around them; they sleep on their home earth, in a coffin, etc. To many vampires, a funeral is filled with important meaning. Some vampires envy the dead their rest (and the afterlife), while other vampires claim superiority over anyone moldering in a pine box. A funeral for a friend, ally, or lover highlights the loss– their companion is gone forever, and might be walking around today if only they had shared their unnatural state. The Sabbat ritual of burying their shovel heads in shallow graves is disturbing on another level– as a perversion of laying people to rest and the horror of seeing the dead claw their way out of the ground.

Raise Dead and Funerals

Raise Dead spells could have a huge effect on funerals. For wealthy people, the decision to bury someone instead of raising them casts doubt on their loving family. Are they just putting the dead nobleman in the ground to get their inheritance now? Perhaps funerals don’t exist at all; spending money on the funeral is too much like a party– instead, the heirs should all work like dogs to raise the money to bring back their beloved matriarch. Maybe dwarves have a custom where guests bring diamond dust instead of food, as a contribution towards raising the fallen.

At what point do you grieve a fallen comrade? If she’s just going to get up when you reach the next town, isn’t it more like she went off on a short road trip? Should you throw a wake while she’s dead, or will she be upset that she missed her own party?

Looking at the penalties upon returning from death is interesting– much like later MMOs, more recent editions of D&D have tended to reduce the penalties for death. Instead of undoing months of adventuring or permanently damaging the PC’s health, a short period of weakness might be the only lingering effect. Even that might be wiped away by another spell– or using a more expensive ritual to raise the fallen comrade. How do you treat someone who wakes up from death completely healthy and unscarred by the experience?

After your funeral

Have you ever had a character change dramatically after dying? If you’ve never done it before, consider trying it the next time your PC dies. You can get religion, become an even greater risk taker (eager to return to that half remembered reward), or even turn cautious and afraid to ever risk that period of nothingness again. Of course you have to be careful when choosing your motivation– if you want your character to continue adventuring, don’t retire from adventuring. If other PCs spent money to bring you back, they will probably feel cheated if you just retire the character. But if you really want to change your character, reincarnation puts the PC in a whole new body…

Comic book heroes often get the best of both worlds: lavish funerals, lovingly attended and a mysterious event that returns the much mourned hero to the world. Returning heroes from death can’t become common or players will never trust a death… but if you’re going to save NPCs with those dramatic coincidences, shouldn’t the PCs also benefit if their story isn’t done? [On the other hand, the story of a sidekick stepping into their hero’s mantle is a great opportunity to tell a very different type of story.]

Funerals you caused

PCs tend to cause many deaths– I know of few games where the PCs never kill anyone. In a game with shades of gray morality, a funeral might be an excellent time to reveal all of the historical events and motivations for the NPC. Televise the funeral and show the PCs the positive side of their foe and dispay the people gathered to mourn their foe’s passing. Conversely, if you’re playing with clear lines between good and bad, avoid giving your foes a stirring elegy– you risk robbing the PCs of their easy motivations. In D&D, it’s probably best to avoid giving your goblins (and other evil races) funerals– it could muddy the waters quite a bit. Though tombs are a popular place to store loot and you have to figure there was some rite, right?

Have you ever set a funeral in game? How did it go? Have you ever used a funeral to tell the missing part of the story, or show the good side of a foe?

16 Comments (Open | Close)

16 Comments To "Funerals in games"

#1 Comment By Rafe On September 5, 2008 @ 7:31 am

Love it. You’ve raised so many good points and illustrated how a ceremony (any ceremony – a wedding, a funeral, a holy day) can be made to work for the campaign story.

Raise Dead has always been tricky. It’s nice to have but also a cop-out. I’ve known DMs who will say that, in order to raise someone, you must find their soul. That in itself can make up a number of game sessions’ worth of adventuring. Others have imposed penalties on the newly revived, whether as loss of an attribute or some such.

Personally, I like a mixture of the two, and I’d add in an element of Iron Kingdoms’ summoning penalties. So I’d say something needs to occur for the rite to happen (a rare material, perhaps, or an implement of significant power must be found), the returned comes back with a random feat missing (can’t be a pre-req feat) and is replaced by some random bonuses/penalties and there is a chance that a demon or other otherworldly creature latches onto the soul and manifests (Iron Kingdoms summoning issues mentioned above). Example:

My level 16 Fighter dies. Well, the party must find a Holy Symbol of Battle +4 (or perhaps something more specific to Kord, whom my character revered) and give that item to a priest of Kord who will attempt the ritual. Additionally, when raised, my character loses a point of Con, a point of Cha and suffers a -1 to saving throws vs fear effects (or some other appropriate mechanic). However, he gains a free multiclass feat or otherwise has a boost in skills, particularly knowledge skills. Perhaps his experience with death has also rendered him somewhat prescient, so he can choose to re-roll initiative (but must take the second roll regardless). Unfortunately, there’s also a 15% chance that a demon or devil has latched onto the Fighter’s soul and manifests.

Any time a simple mechanic can reinforce and push the story of the game, do it. In my opinion.

#2 Comment By DarthKrzysztof On September 5, 2008 @ 9:19 am

Since one of my PCs derived her psionic power from her faith in Silvanus, a facet of her character that never got much screen time in-session, I used her death and subsequent resurrection as the basis for an afterlife excursion which reestablished her divine focus, and set her on the path to romancing an NPC she’d fancied.


#3 Comment By Dasis On September 5, 2008 @ 11:02 am

You gave me an idea for how to appoach death in a game setting, like you said, if death means nothing then whats the point, i thought what if once you cheat death once the Grim Reaper has a % chance of coming after the character to keep him dead for good. It would make of an interesting encounter in characters lives. Thus you can cheat death but not forever.

#4 Comment By Scott Martin On September 5, 2008 @ 11:24 am

What’s funny is that I’ve long been a proponent of reducing the penalties for death… which makes for a game that can handle one bad roll easier, but really removes the sting. I like the Grim Reaper haunting PCs who have been raised often Dasis.

Edit: I’m glad you were freed from the spam trap Darth K; that sounds like a great way to shine the light on a neglected part of your character. Sounds like a great excursion.

#5 Comment By Dasis On September 5, 2008 @ 11:51 am

This post also gave me an idea for my next game, also i dont know if you do 4th but i really like there dying rules with three strikes your out, but the interesting thing you brought to my attention is what if that was you soul recharge limit, if your character dies once and then comes back you lose on of your strikes from the game, thus it is more easy to die. Recharging the souls limit could be possible with quests that lead the character to a new plateau of life, or understanding of life. Just a thought to add to the Grim Reaper balance. But i also want the reduction of penalties, because a game about heroic people should be about taking big risks otherwise you undermine the game.

I think i might add a few goblin funerals just to put my group in that awkward spot. Very good post.

#6 Comment By Azmo On September 5, 2008 @ 6:31 pm

A related story device that I have used (in Mage, Shadowrun and D&D) is the reading of a will. The party comes together (usually a first session or pickup game) to hear the reading. This could be the first time they meet or a good way to bring in new characters. They establish how they knew the deceased and discover they have come to own an old haunted mansion, or building downtown with a secret garage, or a keep with a dungeon below.

Exploring the environ, coupled with strange visitors and packages can arrive, thus acting as plot hooks for episodic style play. Estranged spouses or relatives can arrive feeling they are owed a cut of the inheritance, Police investigators can knock on the door with questions the party cannot answer.

Depending on story needs, the patron need not even stay dead. Good crossroads for plots.

#7 Comment By coolcyclone2000 On September 6, 2008 @ 2:20 pm

Another thing that this post got me thinking about:

What happens (in DnD) if you bring back from death a paladin or cleric of the Raven Queen?

Its kind of interesting where you could go from there.

#8 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On September 6, 2008 @ 9:54 pm

I attended a funeral this last week, which sparked thoughts about funerals in gaming.

I’m not sure if I am impressed or embarrassed by this statement. 😉

Cool topic, however. It makes me wonder what other milestones in life can be effectively used in an RPG.

#9 Comment By Scott Martin On September 8, 2008 @ 9:39 am

Dasis: I like the tension of three strikes, but if your players never get below a strike, I could see reducing it to two or one strikes on successive raises. That would certainly make it tense. Maybe a quest for the Raven Queen’s church can get her to loosen her grip on your soul and reset you to 3 strikes?

Azmo: Wills are great– particularly for murder mysteries! I know Shadowrun had a fun supplement, Dunklezahn’s Will, with lots of short adventure ideas funded by the Draco Foundation.

Coolcyclone: That is interesting. I wonder if being raised is enough to be a crisis of faith for her clerics… and what god they migrate to thereafter. Or maybe their experience is enough to convince them to fight to change their faith’s doctrines…

Kurt: I was afraid that statement would be “TMI”, but… I’m a geek and wear it on my sleeve. Everyday events are interesting to imagine translated into games– you know the core is the same [people gathered and grieving, distribution of goods], but small twists can really make a fantasy world feel coherent.

#10 Comment By Qwilion On September 8, 2008 @ 12:26 pm

This was a really great post.

Playing Arcana Evolved I have a great deal of ritual in my home game, this cemented the fact that when a major npc dies my players will have to attend the funeral and preform the eulogy.

I love the grim reaper idea! (good call)

I have often thought of a community that had religious precepts against raise dead, and likely they would have legal ones as well, you are no longer a citizen you have no rights and they treat you just like you were one of the undead, with thier turning power actaully effecting the raised or ressurected character (using the planescape ideal that religion is based on belief, and belief creates reality). Nice place to visit would not want to be reborn there.

also if your playing 3.0 or 3.5 don’t forget reincarnation; all I can think of is the scene with Nordwick from Gamers 2. Let the PC try to convice the tax collecter that he is the same guy and has already paid his taxes.

Because undead are a community problem, the goverment of my game gets involved in all death rites, regulating what must be done. The local graveyard (necropolis) is desinged to stop undead for being created and if they are created to keep them trapped in the graveyard.

I have done the reading of the will, it is a very good starting point for a game. I have also enjoyed the inheratice hooks: my players found a very dangerous room with a Living Wall (2.0 MC) in thier new house, they closed it off, bricked it up and put a big sign: Do Not Enter.

#11 Comment By Scott Martin On September 8, 2008 @ 4:57 pm

Qwillion: If your community hates raise dead, then removing the citizenship of raised people makes sense. I don’t know about treating you as undead (since that’ll have you burying the PCs), but second class status, “guest taxes”, and the like would all sting while allowing the game to continue. Interesting idea.

#12 Comment By DarthKrzysztof On September 8, 2008 @ 8:29 pm

I’ve always wanted to use a funeral as a hook to bring a party together if the players don’t come up with one of their own: a local hero dies, and each of the PCs has his own reason for coming to honor her. Then Something Happens, either at the ceremony or at the graveyard, and the PCs need to band together to do something about it.

(This is also a test to see if I’m free of the spam trap. Edit: Huzzah! Looks that way! Stupid firewall.)

#13 Comment By Swordgleam On September 8, 2008 @ 9:16 pm

I’m starting my next game with the death/disappearance of the town’s former heroes. I keep going back and forth on whether or not I want a funeral. The town’s ethos is that the only way to survive is to forget the past and go on to the future, especially since death is so common there. (It’s a post-apocalyptic setting.) On the other hand, I can see them doing some sort of ‘celebration of life’ type thing, because they’re all modern people who understand the grieving is a required part of the healing process. It seems strange to just regress understanding of psychology back hundreds of years simply because everything got blown up.

#14 Comment By DocRyder On September 11, 2008 @ 7:43 pm

I didn’t use a funeral so much as a character death to move my plot, and make an Edition transition. When the 3.0 to 3.5 transition happened, the ranger in my game got killed (not on purpose). I used her passage to her god’s realm to shift her mindset subtly (to account for skill changes and combat changes) as well as to give the player an allegorical dream that was basically a lot of hints about the campaign before she was raised. Sadly, the campaign died a couple of episodes after she was raised, but I still pat myself on the back for how I used the unfortunate situation and make it move my story forward.

#15 Comment By toriel On September 24, 2008 @ 1:16 pm

I don’t know if any of you have read the Sandman comics but one of Mr. Gaiman’s creations in it I find fascinating and have always looked at a way to insert it in a campaign.

It is a big city called the Necropolis Litharge where the population are undertakers. They make it their job to learn the funeral rites of a multitude of peoples and worlds. This means that people from all over the “multiverse” bring their dead to them and the people from the necropolis will hold the last rites, rituals or other ceremony (embalming or special treatment of the body included) appropriate to their religion or customs.

Since they only offer a service, they do not produce goods and ask in exchange some offering of food, money, clothing etc.

I have always found it a very cool place where interesting things could happen. Of course, the one in a fantasy world does not have to cover multiple planes but could simply work for the whole prime material plane.

It also raises questions of warring races or factions. Do creatures that hate each other uphold the peace if they meet there? Is there something that forces the peace? In D&D 4th, maybe the Raven Queen punishes severely those who disturb the peace in such a place.

#16 Comment By Katana_Geldar On January 18, 2010 @ 10:33 pm

Yes, I have had a funeral in my game, it was the ending of the campaign and on board a ship inside a nebula.

Of course, as it was Star Wars I had John Williams playing, the ending music of The Empire Strikes back. There’s also no ressurections

The player’s body, I had the players say a few words about the character and what they had done before the body was launched into space and floated away.