Along your path to adventure, if you play enough, you find yourself face to face with death itself. Now usually that doesn’t include the boney dude in the cape swinging the scythe; although in RPGs it totally could. No, most of the time, facing death is just that. We find ourselves dropping to zero hit points or below, no cleric to be found and we’ve just failed our last death saving throw. Now, we could simply file the character sheet away and roll a new character or trust that your party to preserve your body long enough for a resurrection. For some of you, knowing the rest of your party, it might be better to start rolling.
Of course, for most situations and players, it’s best to move on. I mean, for the most part, death needs to be a seriously fatal end and be taken seriously. On top of that, the death of a character can be an amazing story point and can drive the adventure ever onward. It can also drop a unique angle that can give the story depth and meaning (consider the Mighty Nien and Critical Role). But, for the more tenured adventurer, you may not be ready to let go. For you, well, there are options.
First of all, let’s look at death or, better yet, afterlife.
The main inspiration a lot us old-school players take from when it comes to death and afterlife comes from the Forgotten Realms. Once dead, the soul travels to a special hub called the FUGUE PLANE. Here lies the City of the Dead where Kelemvor, the god of death, sits in judgment. Once here there are certain set of options open to where the soul of your dead character ends up.
ON TO YOUR REWARD
If your character had any kind of faith in any deity, a representative of your god should show up and claim you. Once that happens, your off to the chosen plane of your god and, usually, your stories officially over. That is, unless your party sees fit to travel there to retrieve you. Might make a good story, but for a epic level party.
YOUR NOT DONE YET!
Page 20 of the Swordcoast Adventurer’s Guide states “Occasionally, the faithful are sent back to be reborn into the world to finish work that was left undone”. There’s a lot of gray area here that leaves a lot to the imagination of the player and the Dm. The nature of this rebirth is unclear. Does it mean that the character is sent back to its body? This would be the easiest. But possibly the soul could be sent back to a different body. Wait, is this how Mollymauk has been inhabited by different souls?
Don’t forget that being sent back this way comes with a special task and probably lasts just as long as it takes to finish it.
Facing the Judgment
If you’re not gathered by your deity or sent back, you will probably be judged
A) You may be charged with serving as guides of other lost souls
B) You may be transformed into a squirming larva and ‘cast into dust’
C) If your character is a truly false and faithless being, they may be relegated to the Wall of the Faithless that surrounds the City of the Dead
CUSTOM OPTION: THE ART OF THE DEAL
An off-the-wall option would be to make the classic bargin while dying move. Either in the throws of death or in the halls of the City of the Dead, you make a plea to a certain god, either one you’ve worshiped all your life or one at random, for a second chance of some sort. Possibly, it could be the classic ‘to finish the unfinished’. Possibly, by appealing to this god’s portfolio and dogma, you gain their attention and they, in turn, send you back to champion their cause. This means, you are basically on a mission and, if you veer off said mission, you are in danger of voiding the agreement.
Great drama and a potential massive storyline.
Custom Option: THEROS/Trek into the underworld
You may attempt this in almost any campaign setting but Theros is built to handle it best. But any DM could run a campaign that sends their party into the underworld or The Fugue Plane or any other land betwixt life and death to retrieve a fallen ally. Much like the myths of Greece where this world took its cues from, this is an age old story of friendship, love, valor and courage.
One man’s curse (Undead Character Options)
But this is only if you let nature and the gods take its course. There are plenty of other unfortunate ways to meet your final end that aren’t so final. Some may be inflicted upon you by the powers that be (probably ticked off the Dm), but you could totally take these ‘curses’ as a flawed story point for your character.
Even today, we are fascinated with the haunting visage of the shadow. That dark elusive form moving just outside our sight, but we know it’s there and we fear it. In D&D, the Shadow is made real as a creature. Not only are they undead, but incorporeal. They also create spawn out of those they kill. This means you if you’re unfortunate enough to fall in battle with these dark creatures. But it also means your enslaved to the shadow that killed you.
However, if this does happen and your character happens to make its death saves, there may be another option. The book, Savage Species form 3E, lays out 10 levels of continuing as a Shadow PC. Of course, this would take some tweaking.
For 5E, it would be better to work into a subclass. I’d be tempted to try a new template, but that would complicate things. The best would be a Rogue Archetype.
[ART from ARTSTATION by Polina Hristova]
In d&d, scarecrows are more than just something put in the field to chase the crows away. They are entities brought to life by dark magic. First of all, a scarecrow is a construct. But it is a construct infused with an evil being, usually the essence of a fiend. Beings like Hags and witches were especially fond of the spirits of demons. But, according to the lore, it can be animated with the spirit of any slain ‘evil’ creature.
This opens up an opportunity for both DM and player. If, during the course of a battle with a Hag, witch or another powerful magic user with an evil bend, your character is killed, your wicked, powerfully magic empowered enemy could decide to curse you by infusing your dead soul to the scarecrow construct. Now, usually, that would bind you to the enemy. But, if your comrades destroy the evil that cursed you, you have options.
I see a strong spirit overcoming the enchantment enough to power his will over the construct they find themselves trapped in.
[ART on ARTSTATION by Sergey Cheskonov]
Now, this could be a temporary state while he and his allies find a way of fusing his soul back to his body. You could also merge the dead characters numbers with the traits of the scarecrow. I think the easiest way is to change them to the scarecrow using Warforged traits and numbers. This is also a great way to start a character or NPC who dies and is cursed while you are fighting the being who does the cursing.
I think if a character wants to use this as his warforged origin, it would make a great first meeting as the other characters fight and destroy the maniac that fused him to the construct. His body being destroyed, he would adventure as the construct using the warforged racial numbers.
It seems a good many players from 3E have tried to work the Death Knight back into 5E. I mean, it does make a colorful PC idea, but an even better NPC. I have a better idea.
Death Knights in 5E are connected to a fallen Paladin. Older versions are little more open to other martial classes. Basically, a fallen or otherwise evil creature can be transformed into a Death Knight. Now the 5E MM says that ‘DARK POWERS’ can do this. The Dragon magazine #360 states that there is a ritual involved; so, it is a conscious act of some powerfully dark individual or individuals to bring the marital character back as an undead, unrelenting skeletal warrior. The ritual also consumes the body of the deceased. I could see where one could develop a martial subclass in any one of them to facilitate this condition without tipping the balance of the game. I also think it would be a great story of possible redemption as the Death Knight may actually pass on if they redeem themselves.
BUT let’s talk about a little tidbit from Dragon #360 that the 5EMM skips. It states that the soul of the departed is torn from his body and placed into his favored weapon. The weapon cannot be destroyed because the Death Knight will simply, with a touch, bring it back. The weapon has the ability to bypass armor and do damage as if it weren’t there also. The weapon can, however, become separated from the Death Knight although the creature will hunt it unending.
So, what we have is a Soul Weapon cursed to always be connected to the Death Knight. A good creature will attempt to deliver the weapon to a good temple to be disposed of or hidden. An evil creature would probably do the opposite by taking it to an evil temple. So, there are many angles of how a PC could get ahold of it. They could wield the cursed item, but will continually have to fight its darkness.
The wight derives from Viking legends of vampiric undead. There is no direct legend of their origin; although most sources say that powers and deities connected with death and undeath will create them out of loyal servants. In the 5E MM, it also states that some vile god of the underworld is necessary in the process. It also states that a being killed by a wight will rise in 24 hours under the control of the wight that killed it.
So, the only two options here seem to be either becoming a spawn or a warlock with a patron of a god of undeath/death. But, after reading Dragon #348’s article THE ECOLOGY OF THE WIGHT, there appears to be another way possibly.
One of the many legends mentioned in the Dragon article mentions barbarians. Those primal warriors from the Winter’s Teeth Mountains (Haven’t found much info, but Forgotten Realms) fear that their strong-willed dead warriors will refuse to die and come back as wights. They fear this so much that they place huge stones upon those graves.
At times, great warriors, wishing to prove their power will challenge these wights.
Taking part in the Ritual of Crucimigration, the Necropolitans are mortals who chose undeath over life. This is sort of a poor man’s Lich or an option for a character (PC or NPC) who does not aspire to the high ranks of magic usage. I say this because the cost is vastly different between the two. The rite to become a Necropolitan looks to be around 1000 gold. The price to become a lich is much higher; ranging up to 200,000 gold and beyond. In fact, reading about the ingredients to achieve lichdom, a DM could make a whole massive lifelong campaign around it gathering ingredients like a quart of blood from a vampire as well as from several beings killed by specific venoms.
[ Art concept by Yong Hui Ng]
No, the PC who searches out the fate of a Necropolitan is either unable, unwilling or too impatient to do what it takes to become one of D&D’s most iconic undead. However, this would be a good compromise point for the DM dealing with a PC who wants desperately to walk the earth as an intelligent undead. In fact, this is the main caveat of the Necropolitan. Although, in every undead type I’ve dealt this, the intelligence of the PC is never lost.
In fact, this undead type could be developed as a racial template and has in the 3rd Edition book, Libris Moris, and many homebrews. This way, your character could begin the game walking the campaign world as a dread undead.
Possibly, we could develop a Clerical Domain where one could produce a priest of Crucimigration who specializes in this rite and can, at any given time, perform it. It could be a part of his service to his church following any number of deities or dark powers; any god of death or undeath would do. Or possibly this cleric has bent a knee to a more chthonic power akin to an old one who inspires a dark cult that intends to transcend death.
I’m not as familiar with the Deathless idea, but that is because I’ve spent very little time playing or DMing in Eberron. It also seems that after decades of the source material pounding into our heads the idea that undeath equals evil, Wizards of the Coast is trying to think outside of the box they made for themselves and work towards some rather unique philosophy.
The Deathless are a faction of elves in Eberron who have found a way to make their ancestors immortal and retain their amazing wisdom. The Undying Court is a recluse assembly that continues to aid their descendants with a never-ending pool of knowledge. Even the living elves don’t venture far from home. So, you playing an adventurer from these ranks probably means you’ve been sent on a mission; possibly by an eternal relative. Once again, it is something you strive toward and the elves of the Aereni hold exclusive control over the rites toward this end. Playing an elf or half-elf who aspired to become one with the court is a vast endeavor taken on only by the good at heart.
This is the best good option for those who wish to attain a life longer than nature attended. There must be good intentions and actions along the way to becoming immortal in undeath. But this is a limited option: Limited to Eberron, to the Aereni ELFs and only to those who are good enough or reach high enough to achieve it. This is a true heroic quest.
To move this beyond the confines listed above, you could simply clone the idea into your setting or build a story where the rites have been stolen. I would imagine that the very act of having to steal the information would mean that the rite would be tainted in the first place. What you end up with is a character that struggles with the consequences of his actions: facing undeath by either redeeming them to retain a true undying ending or devolving into a creature eaten up with death, corrupted into negative energy and falling from their lofty intentions.
It reads to me like a good character who committed an evil act with good intentions (Much like Full Metal Alchemist) and is paying the price; continuing to struggle with the balancing act between being undying and achieving a good end or failing and falling into the depths of a dark, negative energy that threatens to turn you into something unintended and dark.
This is one concept I’m familiar with seeing that one of my players has forever threatened to come back if he dies. And seeing the obsessive nature of the character it would totally make sense. Anyway, the Revenant is more than a movie. It is an undead creature of purpose and revenge. In most instances, the Revenant comes back to revenge its own death. But it is not exclusive to this task. In fact, any quest would fit in here. Just know, when the quest is over, so are you.
For 5E, there is a handy UA published in 2016 that lays out a subrace template to facilitate this. I’m really surprised they haven’t refined this or published this in a book yet. It doesn’t give much besides a focused quest and an unstoppable body, but what else do you need?
There is a lot of room for roleplay here as you have a dark character that has taken his obsessive focus into the afterlife. There is a potential for the character’s focus to grate against the focus of the party and, if pushed, the Revenant would simply leave and move on toward the finishing. Or, quite possibly, the goal the Revenant has aligns with the rest of them and they all become the instrument of their revenge.
art by Stephen Nickel on Artstation
I left the ghouls last, because it was the first one that caught my eye and started my mind working. There are several ways for a ghoul to be created. A truly evil being could die after living a life tainted by cannibalism; sacrificing his own in the name of devotion to a dark power or deity. Another way is for a character to be bitten by a ghoul. These undead creatures are not only hungry for mortal flesh, but seek to create spawn through the infection of their bite causing GHOUL FEVER. I could see a portion of a campaign being used to search for a way of saving the character before they die and pass into undeath becoming a ghoul themselves.
This one caught my eye because there is a specific origin, unlike most of the rest on the list. It seems an Elf named Doresain was fond of eating his elven kin in service to the Demon lord of the undead, Orcus. So much so that in his death, Orcus gifted him with undeath and made him the first ghoul. Not just that, but he made Doresain the King of Ghouls. Now he and Orcus are not quite on speaking terms following the demon leaving him high and dry against an incursion of his enemy, Yeenoghu . But this act led to another bit of lore. Doresain called upon Orcus’ deafened ears, but found pity from his people’s pantheon, the Seldarine, who saved him. (Which is why, to this day, Elfs are immune to the bite of a ghoul)