Many RPGs deal with life and death, the biggest stakes for your character. Sometimes the risk is in a private duel in a back alley, but more often we’re thinking about melee, small groups or even armies clashing in a noisy, terrifying, violent storm of chaos with lives in the balance.
Such is the like to thin the veil between the living and the dead. So many moments from passing through that veil could have some very striking effects on reality, on what the living perceive, or even what the dying see as they pass through the veil. A recent episode of Vikings, the TV series on the History channel, did the best job I’ve seen of exploring this with a culture who truly believed in the gods and in the glory of battle.
Let’s examine some ways that the battlefield can get weird for the player characters.
1) My Life Flashed Before My Eyes!
Death and near-death are the same thing in many ways. Those who have experience either of them and lived to tell about it talk of their life flashing before their eyes. This would be a great way to have a supernatural or weird experience for one of your characters without dooming them to die to have it happen.
It could happen as the killing stroke is descending. Before the blow lands (or deflects off armor) the character has a series of visions and only afterward do you determine their fate. The visions should tell their story from the most impressionable moments in childhood, young adult years, and beyond. When did they first kill? Who was their first love? What were their greatest moments of achievement and deepest failings or tragedies? Tell their story and spin it as epic as possible to infuse this next die roll with dramatic energy.
2) The Dead Came For Me
In the midst of battle with life and death all around the character might have visions of people they know but who were long dead. The appearance of their parents or ancestors might beckon them to pass through the veil into the welcoming arms of family. Even a friend newly dead elsewhere on the battlefield might urge them down a path to ‘elsewhere’ to escape harm.
Perhaps these are mischievous or simply cruel spirits masquerading as those the character might trust. If their urging is heeded, the character might step into the path of a killing sword or axe, sending them to the lands of the dead when they might not have gone otherwise. If the battle is being fought on a field of past battles, the chances of such interference from the dead is much greater.
Personally I would never be explicit with the players regarding the veracity of their characters’ visions; whether they are the actual spirits of people they knew, or evil spirits of manipulation. It serves to preserve some of the mystery and wonder of your setting.
3) I Am Changed!
There is such power in the death happening all around that supernatural forces manifest themselves. The battlefield may begin to look haunted, with skeletons fighting each other or even the bodies of the newly slain. Odd lights, shadows, and mists may penetrate the atmosphere and great chills or heat flash over the combatants. They might meet odd people or creatures walking unconcerned through the death and bloodshed. Visions of the impossible or bizarre could occur and the player character be swept up in transformative magics.
After the battle, they might discover their hair has turned white, they have aged, or suffered some other physical change. Their sense of their native tongue might change to a language they never spoke in their life. Nagging injuries or scars from disease might be washed away. A missing limb might be restored or a healthy hand lost.
More serious transformations involve new abilities such as spellcasting or magical powers. Gifts such as foresight or the ability to know when others are lying might play into a greater purpose. They might have been imbued with these powers by a great spirit from beyond the veil. So chosen, they feel a great purpose as well, bent on achieving the goal of the spirit who gave the gifts. Someone might have to die in vengeance. A king or great person might need to be saved from their enemies. A monster who slew what became the great spirit might need to be hunted and slain itself. The demands of the spirit may not be reasonable (“Slay every member of the Thuava clan!”) but should certainly encourage the receiver to new lands and new adventures.
4) I Was Already Dead
Not everyone makes it out alive from a melee, obviously. True, player characters are the heroes, the named roles who appear to wade through battle without consequence, their every weapon stroke a killing blow. That said, even they can be felled by an arrow from nowhere or the master stroke of their vilest nemesis.
In RPGs it isn’t really fair to ‘fate’ someone to die unless this has been a big build-up for the character and the player would find it dramatically correct. So this version comes into play after circumstances kill the character. A series of visions play out as if they had survived the battle, made it home to family or friends, breathed in the sweet air of the morning dawn, and the like. The ‘reveal’ would be that they are already dead on the field.
You might make this a representation of how they journey to the next life, however their religion may define their mind’s inability to accept death for a time. If done powerfully enough, this might even herald their remaining in the area as a ghost, trying to go through the steps of this continued life even though they did not survive to live it. They might be confused as to why they are still hanging around this battlefield and angered as they try to get home and fail. That sets up a quest for their companions or even strangers to find his body and take it to his home for burial, giving him peace.
Great battles turn tides in war and the conflicts of nations and kingdoms. In terms of roleplaying, they can be a challenge when the heroes aren’t the focus of the action. I recommend bringing something extra and very personal to the table for each character by letting your battles get a little weird.
Jim Davenport founded Dragonlaird Gaming Studios in 2005 as a channel for his original tabletop RPG work. He’s an accomplished freelance writer with Knights of the Dinner Table Magazine (as a columnist) from Kenzerco, Margaret Weis Productions (Serenity, Battlestar Galactica, Cortex), and many others. He published Savage Characters Volume 1 a couple years ago and has plans to release a series of Savage Adventures soon. You can find his website at www.dragonlairdgaming.com.
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