There’s nothing more humiliating for a hero than an ignoble death — fumbling while climbing a cliff, failing a critical save against an acid pit trap, getting backstabbed by a common (standard) goblin during a Dramatic scene… These aren’t the ways a hero should go out. Fortunately there is now a loophole: heroes can often Cheat Death, beating the odds to adventure another day. Like all miracles, though, Cheating Death has a price.
A character may only Cheat Death once per adventure, and only with DM approval. The option shouldn’t be extended to characters whose deaths were reckless, foolhardy, or a result of violating the basic principles of the game (e.g. acting ruthlessly in a heroic game, betraying the party, supporting the enemy, or being disruptive).
With DM approval, the player proposes a plausible reason for his character’s survival, as well as a lasting impact the experience has on his character’s background or the campaign world.
Example: At the conclusion of a daring rescue operation, Brungil holds Lord Bloodpyre’s men off long enough for his companions to escape. He lands a critical hit on the orc but overextends himself, giving Bloodpyre the chance to sink a dagger deep between Brungil’s ribs. Brungil stumbles back and gets hammered with arrows from Bloodpyre’s men, tumbling over the side of a cliff. He disappears in a forest canopy nearly 100 ft. below.
By the rules, Brungil is good and dead, having suffered enough damage to bring his injuries/Hit Points to –28. This is even enough to pulp his body when it hits the forest floor, but Brungil’s player has another thought. Rootwalkers have yet to make an appearance in this game, so he proposes that the trees he falls through are in fact slumbering NPCs who break his fall and nurse him back to health.
The GM’s current story deals with Bloodpyre’s tribe expanding its territory, an effort that’s pillaged much of the natural environment and threatens the local fey population. Brungil wagers that the Rootwalkers aren’t happy with the tribe’s actions, and that they might be open to negotiating an alliance with the region’s folk — through Brungil.
Everyone else at the table, including the DM, jointly rates these proposals on a scale of 1 (horrible) to 5 (brilliant). These are averaged — added together and divided by the number of people rating the proposals, rounding up — and the result is recorded. It’ll be important in a second.
Example: Brungil’s player is one of four at the table, plus the DM (a total of five). The other three players love the suggested story, rating it 5, 4, and 4, respectively. The GM likes it but is a bit concerned about it being so self-serving, so he rates it a 3. The average rating is 4 (5 + 4 + 4 + 3 = 16, divided by 4).
The player rolls 1d20 and consults the Table in the DM only section below: Cheating Death. His character seemingly dies but actually suffers the fate corresponding to the averaged rating (1 being Catastrophic, 2 being Ruinous, 3 being Tragic, 4 being Damaging, and 5 being Petty). His character earns no XP or other rewards for this adventure.
Example: Brungil’s player rolls a 7. The average rating of 4 translates to a Damaging fate, which with a result of 7 on the Table yields “He [Brungil] is regularly visited by spirits of fallen enemies and suffers a –2 penalty with Morale checks.” The GM jots this down and starts planning.
The character may return in the next adventure, suffering the listed penalty (if any). This penalty is permanent (though the character can sometimes recoup over time).
Example: Early into the following adventure, which the DM shifts to several days later to allow Brungil time to heal, the dwarf returns with his Rootwalker saviors. Talks of alliance begin and the party rejoices that their friend survived. A week later, as the alliance is prepping its first retaliatory strikes against Bloodpyre’s tribe, the party is sent to spy on the orcs’ main camp. This is a Dramatic scene and when the party accidentally alerts an orc patrol the GM indulges in a bit of deceptive description, portraying more orcs to Brungil than there were in the patrol. His attacks pass harmlessly through the newcomers, confirming they’re spirits, or visions, or… something, and he recognizes a couple from previous battles. He soon realizes he’s being haunted and if the patrol manages to alert the camp, outnumbering the party many times over with reinforcements, he’ll also suffer the penalty. Both will remain with him for the rest of his career, so he’ll never forget that fateful fall into the arms of the leafy, slumbering giants…
For heightened drama, the proposal ratings can be recorded secretly and handed in without the player learning the results. The DM may also roll on the Table secretly, ad the player will be completely in the dark about his character’s fate until it’s revealed in play.
Example: The previous example is a great illustration of this tactic’s potential. It would be so much more powerful if Brungil had returned without the player knowing his fate — if he’d put it together himself on that battlefield, as orcs seemingly appeared from nowhere… Even the fact that he’s haunted wouldn’t necessarily reveal the penalty. With five possible fates, the player would be left guessing until a Morale trigger came up.
With DM approval, a character may Cheat Death more than once. All fate effects are cumulative.
Villains and certain other NPCs can also Cheat Death, generally at the cost of 4 DM action dice. When an NPC Cheats Death, the players don’t vote; rather, you roll 1d20 for the general result and 1d4+1 for the NPC’s specific fate. Again, it’s often best to keep these results secret — the DM doesn’t even need to announce he’s spending the dice — so the villain’s survival can be revealed as a surprise down the line.
Example: Turning the tables for a second, what if Bloodpyre had been sent plunging off that cliff instead? The GM could spend 4 action dice and roll a d20 and a d4 to find that he survived the fall an amnesiac (Rootwalker magic at work?), or without Contacts (and thus expelled from the tribe, perhaps to be come an unlikely ally against the orcs’ new leader), or with a reduced Constitution score (a weakness the party can exploit in an upcoming adventure). The possibilities are limitless.