Grave Problems – The Dead in Your Game

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My wife and I had a conversation about death recently. More specifically, we talked about what we wanted to be done with our bodies when we died. A morbid conversation, maybe, but one that got me thinking about the same issue in role playing games.

I’m not a simulationist gamer, but I do like to add little touches and flourishes to my game/game world to make things feel more real. One of these things (if I remember to think bout it) is the set funerary that a given country or culture has in the world. In my campaign world (still a work in progress), one of the cultures greatly revere the dead and hold long processions from the city down to the public mausoleums and graves that the whole city uses. The poorest people may have their procession done only by the public guild assigned to the task, while the richest may have most of the city turn out for their procession.

In Freeport, the pirate setting that I am currently using, ground space is limited, so every dead body is taken to a massive crematorium. Funerals are more like memorial services, as there are too many bodies that need to be incinerated on a daily basis to keep track of the ashes of any given individual.

All of these considerations lead to a lot of flavor for your game world. In addition, there are plot hooks galore that can be gleaned from thinking about the ritualized side of death. From thinking about how a given culture handles death you can extrapolate how they feel about undeath, as well as the types of undead that are likely to be found in a given area. In the part of my campaign world that I described, undead are hated with a passion, necromancers are persecuted, hunted and the graveyards are routinely swept for the walking dead. In Freeport, you might come across fiery versions of your typical undead, or maybe even an ash elemental made from the combined cremains of a group of criminals.

Like any one aspect of a given culture, focusing on how different countries deal with death can be very revealing and can really help you flesh out your game in terms of both content and plot. Next time you’re stuck for ideas, just turn your thoughts lightly to the valley of the shadow of death and see what shambles out towards you.

[tags]rpg, rpgs, role playing games, camaign design, world design[/tags]

2 thoughts on “Grave Problems – The Dead in Your Game

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  1. I’m often *that* DM that doesn’t like to see my player characters die. As such, in one campaign I set up an insurance policy for them, they paid gold each month for a resurrection service. Provided they could get to a major city, they would wait 1d3 days for a member of the agency to arrive and perform the ritual to raise them.

    This was D&D 3.5, so there was a chance that they might not make it back in time for the resurrection, or even if they did the agency might not arrive in time to perform the spell, so everyone had to decide what the party should do and “put it in writing” in the event that they could not be raised.

    It was pretty cool to see everyone come up with family members or groups they would like to support in the event that they passed. The group had been adventuring for a while by then, I think level 4 or 5, so one of them named some orphans as his beneficiaries that they had saved in an earlier adventure, another named his mother back in the Dwarven homelands, and so on. It made for a fun night roleplaying something not often roleplayed, a last will and testament.


  2. I find the undead to be quite overused and often problematic. When you have a Cleric who threw everything into his charisma, the undead are obliterated in a mere gesture, and using stronger undead to counter just the cleric means you’re throwing very unbalanced encounters at the party.

    It does bug me however how in a land where the undead can be an issue, how the locals never adopt a policy of burning the corpses of the dead, Hell or high water.

    Though, a burning undead because of a mass-cremation sounds like a pretty neat idea. I’ll probably pinch that if I ever use an undead situation (which is very, very rare for me).


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