Afterlife (5e Variant Rule)
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Very few RPGs actually deal with death. Oh, sure, lots of games have rules to tell you when you die, but very few games ever actually go out of their way to deal with death itself. Most games go up to that edge and then stop. Most people just abandon their character and make a new one. Immersion is immediately broken. This system of rules deal with death in the Dungeons & Dragons game and setting.
We all know the basic run-down of it all. If you drop to 0hp, you're dying. You get three death saves over the next 3-5 rounds. Statistically, these death saves are a coin toss. If nothing heals you in that time, and you reach 3 failed death saves, your character catastrophically destabilizes and they reach true death- their heart has stopped and brain death is only moments away.
But what happens after that last tick is struck? What does the character see? What can they, as a spirit, do? What impact did their beliefs have upon their soul? Quite frequently, this is entirely forgotten. The character dies and, unlike NPCs, their soul- even their body- vanish. Not literally mind you, but figuratively, as the character's being is completely forgotten by everyone at the table! The character's death devolves into a purely metagame discussion of whether they want to roll up a new character, or wait for resurrection, etc. In essence, the story just cuts off arbitrarily! This, I think, is what causes the most dissent when a character dies: it has no meaning. The DM, in their immaturity, fails to address the subjects of death and faith, and the effect is that they drop the whole situation like it's a bad meal. Nobody likes their hard work to be treated like that.
So, You Died. Now what?
That depends a LOT on the cosmology of your setting. This can be really simple or really complex. Generally, if you're using a pre-existing faith, such as a real religion, (IE: Judeo-Christian, Norse, Pharonic, etc.) then the more complex that cosmology will be. The cosmology of fictional religions, such as that of Faerun, tend to be comparatively simple, with that simplicity masked by heaping layers of distracting details- more filler than faith, really. In general though, humans tend to think of the moments following death in one of 5 ways:
- A being, or court of beings, possibly your ancestors, possibly higher entities, will judge you. Their decision will determine if you have been good or bad- based on the faith's values- and then sentence you to eternal reward or eternal punishment. Typically, the reward and/or punishment will then take the form of one of the other belief systems. (For example, Buddhism would have you judged by yourself, with the reward being paradise in the form of Shangri-la, and the punishment being rebirth.)
- Less commonly, everyone who dies just goes to eternal bliss. Just what that is can vary significantly from one group to another, but there is no "hell".
- Like a bubble bursting, your etherial being is freed from its mortal bonds, rejoining everything. This comes in two flavors. The popular one is that the universe has a mass awareness which we return to, retaining some essence of our individuality, while still becoming one with the mass. The less popular option is basically atheism- that there is no mass awareness, and when the bubble bursts, the bubble is gone, all that remains are the disarrayed materials that once composed its form.
- More Life.
- These belief systems work on the assumption that there is only one world- this one. The spirits of those who have died remain among us. We are awash in a vast sea of the dead that we cannot see or comprehend. That the afterlife has actual cities and communities of the dead. (In some religions, this may be in lieu of some major event still yet to unfold.)
- The universe is a recycling depot. Every soul that lives and dies is washed and reused, over and over again.
In general, most people who begin to die will complete that journey. Very few people can resist the cosmic forces of their given religion. All of this is based very strongly on the default faith system of the D&D core rule books. In the D&D setting, there is no question about faith. The gods are real, physically present beings whom you can interact with directly in life. Their agents call upon their power to enact very real miracles. Good, evil, law, and chaos are literal fundamental forces underlying the very fabric of the universe, they are actual physical laws, like gravity, or electromagnetism. If you simply cannot gel with that, then I'm sorry, the D&D setting is not for you, and very probably neither is this rule.
What do you experience?
With few exceptions, regardless of the cosmology of any given beliefs, or their absence, a person who reaches cardiac arrest will have a near death experience. NDEs have nearly identical traits across human cultures and throughout time. In a game of D&D, where the theological cosmology is assumed to be reality, this NDE is characterized as a very short and rapid journey- that soul's process of passing from this plane of existence to one of the outer planes, typically based on their beliefs. You can alter the details of an NDE to suit just about any religion, even atheism. You can also alter the fundamental qualities of NDEs depending on race if you'd like. Maybe other races just have different experiences? Remember, they are technically not even related to humans in an evolutionary sense! The steps for (human) NDEs are as follows:
- A sense/awareness of being dead. They suddenly know, in a very real way, that they are dead.
- A sense of peace, well-being and painlessness. Positive emotions. A sense of removal from the world. Even though they are dead, they generally suddenly feel totally OK with that. An intense feeling of unconditional love and acceptance. They may suddenly empathize with even the most cruel and insane of villains- even if that monster is responsible for their death.
- An out-of-body experience. A perception of one's body from an outside position. Sometimes observing people performing medical resuscitation efforts. They have reached brain death, and the philosophical "bubble" which contained their soul has burst. Their etherial form has now left their physical body.
- Encountering "Beings of Light", "Beings dressed in white", or similar. Also, the possibility of being reunited with deceased loved ones. Generally, depending on the individual faith, this journey is accompanied by agents, or representatives of the faith. These are often the deceased's ancestors, or angels. They may be waiting immediately over their body, ready to start the journey and initiating the transition across planes, or they may meet the deceased at some point on that journey, such as immediately after the life review, or on the boundary of the destination plane.
- A "tunnel experience" or entering a darkness. A sense of moving up, or through, a passageway or staircase. Their soul begins to be drawn through planar boundaries, and they find themselves experiencing the vast void which exists between realities.
- Receiving a life review, commonly referred to as "seeing one's life flash before one's eyes". In the void, there is a lot of time to think, and generally, this thought is of all that has ever been done. This may simply be idle thought by the soul, or it may be induced by their deity or its agents.
- Receiving knowledge about one's life and the nature of the universe. Typically, once the life review is complete, some revelation, or a series of revelations, follow, in which the meaning of their life, the intended purpose of their life, and the nature and meaning of reality, are revealed to them. This may just "happen", or be communicated by a deity or its agents.
- Approaching a border, or a decision by oneself or others to return to one's body, often accompanied by a reluctance to return. At this points, most souls suddenly feel that they have a choice. They can continue onward, breaching the boundaries of their destined plane, passing on to the afterlife, or go back. Generally though, people do not want to go back, their thoughts of returning to life are paired with the sensations of mortal suffering, hunger, thirst, the pain of their physical death, the suffering of their soul in its ignorance, etc.
- A rapid movement toward and/or sudden immersion in a powerful light (or "Being of Light") which communicates with the person. This is what they experience as they transition to a new realm of existence. Their individual faith takes it from there.
Now, as for what this journey means in regards to those who do not believe in passing to other realms of existence? I have no idea. However, testimonies show that this general template NDE still holds true, even for them. I just don't really know what it would symbolize, cosmologically.
At the last moment before crossing over to your afterlife, you have a choice: move on or go back. Make sure they know that their body will almost certainly be incapable of holding them, meaning returning to the material plane will likely cause them to become some form of undead. Explain this in terms of sensations as they head back, feelings of dread, pain, coldness, sickness, or a sense that they are "losing themselves". Most people choose not to go back, to pass peacefully into the light. What happens then?
In D&D cosmology, your soul is judged and claimed by whichever deity has the right to it. Rather mundane and anticlimactic, honestly. Most real religions have a much more convoluted answer to that question. In general, we will make a couple of assumptions about the afterlife:
Manifestation. Upon arriving in the planes of the afterlife, your soul is wrapped in a layer of that plane's external boundaries, containing and stabilizing your soul, and manifesting your subtle body as a physical thing. Your subtle body has the same intelligence, wisdom, and charisma scores as you did in life. Roll 3d6 to determine each of your new physical scores. Apply your intelligence modifier to your strength score, your wisdom modifier to your constitution score, and your charisma modifier to your dexterity score. As a higher being, you are no longer bound by ability score maximums. Recalculate your HP maximum, armor class, and initiative bonus. You are now undying, ageless, and immortal. If your afterlife body is slain and destabilizes, your soul simply drifts from its physical form and becomes a ghost on the outer plane. It is possible to petition a god or its agents for a replacement body.
Free Will. You do not lose your mortal nature. You are still a being of free will, even in death. You can act as you will. A good man could go to heaven and become evil while dead. Like the agents of the gods and gods themselves, the souls of men can ascend and fall just as well. Most importantly though, this means you are free to travel as you will. Most planes of the afterlife control the movements of their residents very closely, carefully containing people to specific regions, and explicitly forbidding planeswalking by the dead. (Technically, planeswalking isn't supposed to be done by the living either, there just aren't any gods dedicated to policing that movement the way there is for the intended residents of the outer planes.)
What are your options?
So, what is there to do in the afterlife? Honestly, not much! Most afterlife planes are a boundless paradise, boundless wasteland, or boundless nightmare! You can certainly explore these realms as you wish, though there's typically little to gain from such, and doing so is a distraction from the group play. If a player shows an interest in such a distraction, just generalize what the following ages of travel and exploration will provide with them as a sort of "curtain-call" on the whole ordeal. There are, however, three very specific things the players may do that could be very significant.
1. Petition the Gods. A character may wish to petition the god's favor for his still-living allies. How difficult this is generally depends on the plane they have been sent to, the location/accessibility of the deity, and whether or not that deity even gives a damn. It may be easy to petition a deity who personally greets or judges every soul to arrive on its plane and lives amongst the souls of its faithful. It may be nearly impossible to petition a deity who is disgusted by his faithful, lives on a separate plane from them, and intentionally acts against their every wish. As DM, you're going to have to figure out what it'll take to petition a given god based on the plane the character has arrived on, and who that god is. If you're using a preexisting cosmology, this will likely mean a LOT of reading.
Once a character has gained access to a god to petition them, and the god is willing to hear and possibly deliver on such a deal, you now need to decide what that god will do about the petition.
- Accept it in full. The god agrees with you, and does as you ask. This is best for really simple, perfectly reasonable requests, like asking the god to kill the monster that killed you before it kills your friends, and that monster happens to be a servant of an enemy god.
- Accept it in part. The god strikes a compromise, and partially satisfies your request. Say you ask the god to deliver your friends to safety from danger. The god responds by opening an escape route- but it is up to your friends to recognize it and use it.
- Accept it on condition. You, or someone relevant to the petition, must do something in return. This could mean going on a quest on the outer planes by yourself. The god may require recompense before or after delivering on the petition.
- Refuse. If the god is evil, or dislikes you, or if your petition goes against the god's values, or if the god just doesn't care, they can totally just say no. Who are you to argue with a god?
But what does petitioning the gods do? That is, again, up to the DM, and also dependent on what that player asks for. I, personally, would just translate the petitioner's request into the form of an epic boon and apply it to all of his living allies, as this is the sort of thing they are most likely to ask for. No god will happily let one of their faithful return to life just because they asked. At most, they may return the person to life for a limited time, to act on their behalf as an agent or avatar, in order to achieve some specific goal.
2. Deal With the Enemy. So, let's say you get to the afterlife and you hate it. Your priests lied to you. This is not what you want. You have defected to the enemy faith. One thing you need to know about the gods, is that they are constantly at war with one-another, and every one of the outer planes is riddled with spies, saboteurs, and double-agents. It is possble to seek out these enemies of your god and make a deal with them to get what you want. This works pretty much the same as petitioning a god, but it is more dangerous and less direct. Searching for enemy agents is dangerous, and can lead to you being punished by confinement, or other horrible consequences. Enemy agents are known liars, and there is no way to ever know who they truly work for. Enemy agents are less powerful, and it may take them some time to carry your petition to their patron deity if they cannot do it themselves. As an enemy agent, they may not carry out your petition exactly as you anticipated, playing word games with your wishes, much like an evil genie. And finally, and most importantly, the enemy wants something from you. A deal with an enemy could have you sneaking around your god's plane trying to smuggle divine relics, or spying on angels, or trying to open a plane to allow a mass interplanar invasion! There can be terrible consequences to making such deals, which may be far beyond the imagination of the person making them.
3. Planeswalk. So, you asked your god to go back to earth and he said no. Then you tried to find an enemy god who would do it, and they all said no too. Or maybe you just want to go sightseeing across the outer planes. Now what? You try to escape, that's what! Things players may try:
- You must be able to touch your own dead body in order to cast Revivify, Resurrection, or Reincarnate. You can not cast this spell during the out of body experience phase of death, as you have no physical form with which to interact with material components, speak words, or make gestures. IF you are brought back into your old body, your afterlife body dissipates into nothingness, your physical attributes return to their original values, and any ability scores raised above the limit of 20 become 20. You are mortal again.
- Casting True Resurrection is interesting, as you do not need the dead body for it to work. However, if you cast it and call your own name, the spell will actually construct a replacement of your mortal body, and place your soul inside of it, on the outer plane. Although you are still stuck on an outer plane, this does make you mortal again, giving the deity no rational reason to keep you there, and possibly even giving them reason to send you back to the material plane. (Or just kill you again.) Since it only reconstructs your body, not your possessions, you will be naked, and you'll have to go collect together some material goods for yourself.
- Casting Banishment on yourself just sends you to a different location on your current plane. You are dead. This is where you belong. In order for banishment to work, you would need to fully and deeply devote yourself to another god, without alerting anyone on your current plane, and then cast banishment on yourself. Alternatively, if you're trying to reach the material plane, you could use True Resurrection to become mortal again, in which case Banishment will work... It will just plonk you down, naked, in some random place on the material plane. It is recommended to spend some time getting together some material goods beforehand.
- Casting Word of Recall technically works, but because the destination must be a place strongly linked to your deity, it'll set off some alarm bells at least! In conjunction with True Resurrection, this can be a legitimate escape route back to the Material Plane, though you will be naked, and have no possessions to your name. It is recommended to spend some time getting together some material goods beforehand.
- Casting anything directly involving the etherial plane does not work on the outer planes, because it does not touch them. Deal with it.
- Casting Planar Ally can be used to obtain an enemy agent where one was not previously available.
- Casting Sending or Telepathy can be used to communicate with agents who are helping you to escape.
- Casting Contact Another Plane can be used to gather information about how to get off your plane, or to arrange for yourself to be smuggled away, if you know of specific beings who can help you.
- Casting Divination works about the same as Contact Another Plane but it is more generic, and less dangerous, but also more limited in scope- you need to get out within 7 days.
- Casting Astral Projection is, pretty much, how planeswalking is done in 5th edition. However, I'd imagine the gods are well aware of this and, desiring worshippers be on their plane in the afterlife, will have taken some measures to prevent it and to catch those who achieve it. They may even prevent the spell from being cast on their plane.
- Casting Gate will work, if you can find a way to get around the fact that no deity allows it to be cast on their plane, which is troublesome. See Demiplane for a possible workaround.
- Casting Plane Shift will, obviously, work. However, the oversight of the gods' interest in planar security in the spell description may be filled in by the DM restricting its use the way the Gate spell is.
- Casting Teleportation Circle will work. Again, as with Plane Shift, the DM may extend deific ban of portal creation to this spell.
- Casting Demiplane can be an extremely effective way to hide yourself and your escape activities from the prying eyes of your god and other beings on your afterlife plane- but only if you produce it and access it in absolute secrecy- you must obscure even divination of your activities in order to keep its creation and access a secret. This can be done by casting Dispel Magic or Sequester on yourself beforehand. Note that, though Sequester can be permanent and more thorough, beings on your plane may be alarmed if they see you physically but cannot divine anything about you. Another way to hide what you're doing, is to cast Greater Invisibility, Mislead, or a similar effect, go somewhere else that people are unlikely to be watching, and then create your demiplane. Another method is to cast Hallow in some innocuous place, making a safe space for you to do your work. Rope Trick is an acceptable lower-level stand-in for Demiplane, but it is less useful, as you can't keep anything there, and have limited time to work. Also note that this whole process may actually require the assistance of other dead folk who know how to cast any of the spells that you can not. The material components in order to cast some of these spells may be extremely scarce on some outer planes.
- Casting Wish always works.
OK, so let's say, hypothetically, the player decides to go with the obviously bad choice. He decides he's going to reject eternity, and instead try to claw his way back onto the material plane. Great. What happens next?
Well, first, he's going to need to keep himself together- literally. Without a physical form to hold them together, and without the divine essence of a higher plane to fuel them, a soul is a fleeting, ephemeral, fragile thing in a constant state of evaporation. A character who reverses their journey is swimming upstream, and the return trip takes far longer, and is much harder on the soul than just being carried away by the natural forces of the universe. The journey is made by forming spiritual bonds to the material plane, called tethers. A character must form three such tethers to return to the material plane. Tethers function much like the bonds and flaws of normal characters, but with a catch: a tether must be a specific, achievable goal, which cannot be achieved trivially, or at their leisure. Each tether must also be unique, pertaining to different subject matter. Forming a tether is taxing, and destructive to the spirit, forcing a save after each tether is formed. The step-by-step process is explained below.
- Give a reason for why you would reject eternity, in the form of a goal which, if completed, would make you want to pass on.
- "My allies aren't there yet. I want to help them on their journey and be there when their time comes."
- "I know I was sinful in life. I must redeem my soul, for I know what my judgement will deliver."
- A DC20 intelligence save. If this save is failed, the character loses nearly all of their memories, except for the most basic of knowledge. (That is a chair, doors can be opened via their handle, etc.)
- Give a reason for why you would return to the material plane, in the form of a goal which, if completed, would cause you to lose interest in the mortal plane.
- "I want to be here for my wife and children for as long as they need me."
- "I want to make sure my heir does my people right."
- A DC20 wisdom save. If this save is failed, the character loses nearly all of their ethical and moral values, becoming a disinterested, animalistic entity. If the character was not already evil, their alignment shifts one step towards evil.
- Create one last goal for what you would like to actually do in the material plane before passing on again.
- "I want my son to become king."
- "I want to see the palace of my rival burn to the ground."
- A DC20 charisma save. If this save is failed, the character loses their personality, becoming a bland, generic blank-slate person.
Obviously, the more of these saves the character fails, the less of a person they become. If all three are failed, they become a mindless animal- much like the vast majority of undead. Remember that the player still controls their character- that character has simply changed significantly.
In order to pass on, a spirit must sever its three tethers. This means that, even if a spirit decides they've had enough, leaving can be much harder than expected. Also, tethers can be destroyed, if their resolution is made impossible. For example, say you went back to get revenge on an enemy, only to discover that they have been petrified by a Medusa. You can no longer wreak your vengeance upon them- even though they got what they deserved. Each time a tether is destroyed, you are forced to make its associated save again. If all three of your tethers are destroyed, (but not completed) then you will be trapped on the material plane forever.
Keep in mind that all of these rules and esoteric contrivances should be left unknown to the player. They should not be in a situation where they know the importance of their tethers, or the true magnitude of the stakes at hand. They shouldn't be planning their tethers like a game, dreaming up indestructible goals. They should be role playing here. These aren't the player's tethers, they belong to the character.
Those who failed the saves are then stuck in the material plane as revenants.
OK, so after reading that, here's some basic guidelines:
- If the cosmology has their soul deconstructed, vanish, or significantly altered in any way, this may make resurrection pretty much impossible. If it is possible, it is likely that they will not return as the same person at all!