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?