Thursday, June 6, 2019

A Moving Experience for Dead PCs

I’d like to comment on a conversation that recently caught my interest, but happened while I was busy working on Brazen Backgrounds and didn’t want to divert to comment at much length. The key idea under discussion has evidently been around for quite a while in a variety of forms - namely, that you can redeem back a good chunk of your deceased character’s XP if you recover their body and throw a suitably expensive funeral for them. The In Places Deep blog discussed a variant of this idea a few months ago; I’m pretty sure that there also was even more discussion recently that (arghh!) I thought I’d bookmarked but now can’t find, even with some Google-Fu. 

At any rate…paying treasure to redeem a dead PC’s experience points offers a number of advantages (which others have already noted before me): it can mitigate that feeling of being the one Level 1 character in a pack of Level 6’ers; it can benefit the party as a whole, since they don’t lose as much competence per PC death; it can give absolutely loaded characters something to actually do with all that loot; it can help players transition emotionally and mentally between characters, and highlight meaningful connections with new characters (maybe a long-lost cousin - your new character - is the one throwing the massive funeral); and it can change play in meaningful ways by incentivizing new behaviors, like risking death or dismemberment just to get back the body of a fallen comrade and transport it to civilization (I’m not going to drop spoilers, but a recent Netflix Original action movie revolved around exactly this kind of abrupt mission-adjustment, and struck me as analogous to a dungeon crawl gone wrong). Someone mentioned that you could require a funeral on consecrated ground, or at least incentivize such a location. Doing so, worth noting, would automatically flag certain places/things as more important in your setting.

It’s that last piece that I’d like to unpack a little in this post. Reading about this “PC funeral for XP” idea immediately reminded me of a somewhat recent academic study addressing the return of bodies to ancestral homes from overseas in the Roman and Greek world. The point I want to stress is how this funeral concept also lets one highlight cultural values that run very deep in your setting (well, if you want them to, that is) - in a way that signals that even your murderhobo PC runabouts, as footloose and isolated as they may appear, actually belong somewhere - and at the end of the day (err, life), someone is looking for them to come home. 

Perhaps he was a Level 5 Fighter. (Source)

For the two and a half of you who will care about the precise details, the study is:

Rolf E. Tybout. “Dead Men Walking: The Repatriation of Mortal Remains” in Migration and Mobility in the Early Roman Empire, edited by Luuk de Ligt and Laurens Ernst Tacoma, 390-437. Leiden & Boston: Brill, 2016. 

Ok, I’m going to let Tybout speak for himself with some direct quotes, then I’ll comment briefly on using this idea at the game table. 

“The repatriation of corpses appears to have been more widely spread, both geographically and socially, than has generally been acknowledged … in archaeological reports.” (391)

“Dying abroad was a grievous matter in itself; although it could cause relatives excessive sorrow, this might be mitigated somewhat by being able to grant the deceased his last journey home … To be left to lie in alien soil, far away from family and native community, is a frequent source of lamentation [in funerary inscriptions] … If it was impossible to retrieve the body, the next best option open to the bereaved family was to erect a cenotaph in a graveyard in the deceased’s hometown, so that its members would at least have a tangible and lasting focus for commemoration…” (394-5)

“Obviously, the considerable time span involved in the whole process meant that the bodies could not be brought home intact … it is clear that some form of preservation of the corpse was required for long-distance repatriation. … Cremation would have been necessary to strip the flesh and reduce the body to ashes or bones … bones are likely to survive intact when heated for a relatively short duration and not subjected to the very high maximum temperature of the funeral pyre. … Two [Greek] poems certainly describe the transportation of bones …” (398)

“Needless to say, the operation was complex and must have involved considerable trouble and all sorts of expenses. In the ideal situation … relatives already present at the place of death accompanied the body on its way to the homeland. But in most cases companions or colleagues will have taken care of a traveller’s or migrant’s funeral. Days, even weeks must have passed before relatives even received notice of the death of their loved one; they would have had to travel, perhaps after deliberations in the family circle, to destinations often beyond their horizons, where they would have had to find out how the body has been dealt with so far and where the remains were located. They would have found either an urn or another receptacle containing the ashes or bones or a grave in which the bones or the intact body had been interred. In the latter case, they would have had to obtain permission to disinter the remains. If time had not already dissolved the flesh, cremation would have been inevitable after disentombment. Finally they would have had to organize transport home. In all its variants, the whole procedure of repatriation might have taken months rather than weeks. … That at least twenty-three of the 142 epigrams considered in this study attest to repatriation post mortem, implying that about one-sixth of the relatives opted to spare no effort to achieve this end and accomplished their objective, is indicative of its vital role and ritual function in the contemporary ways of coping with grief and bereavement.” (400)

[Tybout notes that some sources indicate that dead travelers were embalmed prior to transport] “However, the people concerned are all Egyptians, for whom the unity of body and spirit expressed by this most thorough variant of embalmment was of vital importance. Greeks and Romans, who shared in the age-old belief that the spirit should be set free by the decay of the body, did not consider the latter’s perpetual conservation an appropriate treatment. We have seen that cremation, with the ashes and bones remaining, was the normal way for Greeks and Romans to evade the problem of putrefaction during transport.” (408) [But, Tybout notes, in some cases even Greeks and Romans would resort to the temporary preservation of whole remains using wax, salt, or honey, but only for transport]. 

“All this puts the picture of widespread, largely voluntary mobility arising from sundry sources into a somewhat different perspective. Perhaps it would have been unlikely for migrants to encounter physical or legal boundaries, but many of them will have had mental barriers to overcome as they set out on their journeys. Numerous … sources testify in one way or another to the extremely strong bonds of affection which connected them to their ancestral home and native soil, the trusted communities in which they had grown up in the bosom of the loving families they had left behind. These bonds were to last a lifetime, and beyond: repatriation post mortem was, in a sense, an act of reparation - of restoring the natural order disturbed by migration. … [For] most Greeks or Romans, no matter how much they chose to wander in a world whose open frontiers allowed them to travel or migrate as often as they wishes … whatever fruits ‘foreign earth’ might have yielded to its immigrants, the outside world remained second rate compared to their homeland.” (415). 



Ok, time for a few ideas to elaborate on how all this can be put to use at the gaming table:

+ first: there’s nothing wrong with the idea of paying gold to harvest a dead PC’s experience points - in fact, although this idea probably arises out of gamers’ very pragmatic concerns, it perfectly reflects the kinds of psychological and cultural factors that would have shaped end-of-life rituals in some prominent ancient societies. This is a huge win-win in my book, as it allows something that is mechanically helpful just for the purpose of playing a game, and also makes that game even deeper and more expressive of historical realities. 

+ as Tybout notes, different adjacent cultures might handle these practices in different ways; Greeks and Romans preferred to transport charred dry bones; Egyptians preferred embalmment; and, as Tybout goes on to note, the Christinaization of the Roman world led in some cases to less concern about one’s final resting place, as the deceased awaited resurrecting life from a single God present in every corner of Creation. If your game has several different cultures existing cheek-by-jowl, it could be interesting to determine in advance how each prefers to handle their dead - and in particular how they handle their dead when far from home. This can even be relevant for PCs all of the same culture, if they wander into foreign territory…for example, if your culture mandates embalmment but the locals consider that some weird heathen superstition, good luck finding an embalmer (or at least a trustworthy one - maybe the only choice has about a 35% chance of actually turning your friend into an undead horror for purposes of his own…mwuahahah…). Finding a really large clay jar, and a LOT of honey or salt, may be next on your remaining PCs’ agenda…

+ these cultural practices allow for a hierarchy of preferred funerary-transport methods which can fit seamlessly into a hierarchy of XP gains in different circumstances. Could’t recover that PC’s body at all? Maybe you still get a fraction of the XP for setting up a funerary cenotaph on home turf. Is transport overseas unsafe or otherwise impossible? Set up a proper burial in a less-desired spot for more XP than just a cenotaph, but less XP than a proper tomb back home with the ancestors. 

+ Ok, now how to define “home” turf? In many campaigns, this should be easy to do. But there may be some campaigns where this is more complicated; maybe characters are from all over the place, but the frame of play itself is within a more narrowly defined sandbox far from home (which I think is actually a better more manageably game-able idea in most cases than a giant continent-spanning epic). Or maybe most of your characters are locals but one player is running a barbarian from far away; do you want to penalize the barbarian player because of a distant point of origin? Here are a few possible work-arounds:

+ designate some place that is familiar and within reach in your campaign ‘frame’ as home turf for each PC. This may be their literal point of origin or, for more footloose characters, it may be a kind of new home away from home where they’ve found meaningful connections. So maybe your barbarian from a distant land has fallen in with a group of fellow tribes members living in exile or as mercenaries far from home, and they band together for common identity. Burial among them counts as ‘home.’ 

+ handle travel for burial with an epic montage. The character was able to get here, so they should be able (in most circumstances) to get back there. But that doesn’t mean we should necessarily derail this campaign for a seven-session narration of the long voyage back to the Republic of Thneed. Instead, if the players have clearly been able to recover the body and get it into shape for transport (embalmed, partially cremated, fully cremated, pickled, salted, etc.) then whenever they have extended downtime between sessions they can pay the requisite GP-for-XP so long as they provide a stirring, brief narration of how the other PCs and/or extended family members took the body home to its resting place.

+ or you just go full tilt and you have to game out every step of the way. Good luck. 

What a morbid but interesting topic. Cheers all!

By the way - I want to close with a very hearty THANK YOU to those who’ve purchased my rpg supplement BRAZEN BACKGROUNDS: Character Backgrounds for Bronze Age Settings. I really appreciate the patronage from all who’ve picked it up, and I’d love to hear how you use it. If you’re interested, you can check it out here (affiliate link). 


  1. As I slowly, slowly make materials for my Viking inspired campaign, I was trying to come up with ways to make burial rites more important to the game and this all has given me a lot to think about.

    I really like a lot of what's presented here, I can imagine great Iliad style battles over the bodies of dead PCs to play out on the table.

    1. I think this could be very relevant for a Viking-inspired campaign. Here are a couple of points to consider:
      + Vikings went ALL over the place, but many of them followed it up by coming home eventually and carving out their own power-bases using the resources and prestige they'd gained overseas. And you can use this on a smaller scale than 'the North Atlantic and all of northern Europe plus parts of the Mediterranean' too - Norse fighters in the British Isles, for example, probably did some moving back and forth between the Danelaw in northern England and Ireland, depending on the waxing and waning of Viking fortunes in those different but nearby territories. So you could still have a fairly small geographic region in which players have been off having adventures in 'not Ireland' and then they come 'home' to the new settlements in 'not England.'

      + Keep in mind that if your PCs' relatives 'back home' are in any way aristocrats or even proto-aristocrats, they will have a vested interest in getting the bodies, wealth, prestige, etc. to come back home. Having your dead PC show up for full burial with honors 'back home' means that the PC's relatives get a boost to their own honor and social prominence - "oooh, Sven's family always has the best exploits to commemorate...yeah, we should maybe put them in charge more often...' That kind of thing.

      And I love the idea of Iliad-style battles over a poor PC's corpse. Imagine a player having a character die fighting over the body of the same player's former character! Ouch!

    2. Yeah! It all fits perfectly! Though I'd also like to put some emphasis on how burial effects the dead and not just the living.

      The Norse had a bunch of different places the dead could go. The most famous is obviously Valhalla, the hall of the slain. The importance of Valhalla is really over stated in pop culture. Not everyone who died in battle got to go to Valhalla, only those who proved themselves worthy in the eyes of Odin and his Valkyries (Valkyrie = Chooser of the Slain). Though, it's also possible that lavish Norse cremations were intended to ensure the entrance of elite people to Valhalla.

      Most people would be bound for Hel once interred in their burial chamber or cremated. Though Hel was probably much more like the world of the living than it is usually imagined, the dreary and dark Hel may be a product of Christian influence.

      Similarly, those who drowned at sea might have been bound for the underwater realm of the giantess Ran and other deities had halls where some of the dead went.

      This is all to say that a person has a complicated way ahead of them after death and burial is an important part of that journey. It would not just be painful for a family not to bury their children near the family mounds but endanger that child's chance of ever making it back to their grandparents and ancestors in Hel or some other place.

      So, burying a body can be not just a way of getting xp back or commemorating the dead, but also an important final step in a person's life that carries deep consequences, just as making sure that the dead have the coins they need to pay Charon is important in the Greek view.

    3. Yeah, those afterlives definitely merit attention!

      Meandering Banter posted something recently on that topic, though not linked to a specific cultural setting: