This is a reprint of my column from Unwinnable Weekly #47. If you like it, try a subscription.
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Lately, in Dungeons & Dragons, I like to think of death as an opportunity.
When we were kids, we flip-flopped between not killing characters because it seemed mean in that grade school sort of way and killing all the characters because it seemed mean in that grade school sort of way. As time went on and my games became concerned with telling serialized stories, I shied away from character deaths in service of preserving the narrative. Like a novel, the heroes have to survive.
When I started my most recent campaign, though, I had a lot of new players who, well, let’s just say they made some interesting decisions. Like the time Hambone’s cleric, the lone healer in the party, went up against a couple ogres exclaiming, “Don’t worry guys, I got this.” He didn’t. He got creamed.
Since he was the person usually doing the resurrecting, the party didn’t have the loot or the means to bring him back. Enter the back alley necromancer. He brought Hambone back. Mostly. That left arm, though, is a bit ghoulish. And just like that, we had a memorable moment for the entire group and an interesting bit of character development for Hambone. There have been plenty of others since.
I have never used githyanki in any of my games, despite their iconic appearance in the first edition Fiend Folio. In ancient times, they were human slaves of the mind flayers, but after winning their freedom, they gradually turned into something else, a bizarre warrior race living in the Astral Plane. Since the party had just wound up on the Astral Plane, it seemed like destiny.
I’ve also never used a villain who used a vorpal blade at the party. On a high enough roll, the vorpal blade immediately severs the opponent’s head. Now, you are probably thinking that sounds mean, and you’d be right. But that isn’t why I never used one in a game. I’ve always omitted vorpal blades because I don’t want my players to get their mitts on one. I can’t imagine how angry I would be if a fighter rolled a 20 in the first moment of the final fight against my main villain.
The githyanki are a nice solution. They carry special silver swords which are vorpal. They also rest at nothing to retrieve the swords when they are lost. The ongoing risk of ambush by more githyanki with silver swords (usually) outweighs the reward.
Anyway, back to death. In the final battle of the session, a frenzied escape from a githyanki fortress on an astral ship, pursued by a war party and a red dragon, the players got intimately acquainted with githyanki vorpal blades (sorry Hambone and Ian).
Now, just to make things interesting, I decided that because they died on the Astral Plane, their character’s spirits had nowhere to go. They’re still there, ghosts attached to their headless bodies by silver cords. I have no idea what the gang is going to do about that.
But then, that is half the fun.