04 June 2012

Why Resurrection Is Bad for D&D

As presented in Dungeons & Dragons, spells that restore life to the dead — actual life, not an undead existence — would have catastrophic effects on any world if taken to their logical conclusion. The primary culprits are the clerical spells raise dead and resurrection. Unsustainable population explosions are often cited as one side effect of this boon. Another, likelier, byproduct of such spells would be the inevitable rise of theocracies wherever there are clerics with the ability to cast them. Surely the ultimate tool that could be used to win converts would be the allure of eternal life. Surely the primary form of corruption would be the fleecing of the wealthiest to ensure their resurrection. The highest level clerics would inevitably become either the power behind the throne, effectively reducing all monarchs to puppets, or they would rule outright. Who would deny their legitimacy at the risk of losing the opportunity to be resurrected? In such a world, the primary concern of all people would be to earn the right to be resurrected. All wars would be religious wars, because every nation would be under the direct control of a specific religion. The ultimate form of rebellion would be the deliberate rejection of resurrection and those who control it. All of this is fine for an alternative dystopia, but it utterly fails to reflect any fantasy world I've seen depicted in literature or gaming.

Apart from the vast global implications of resurrection spells, what about the personal implications? If I am playing a lawful good cleric capable of casting resurrection, how could I not spend the rest of my days restoring life to every corpse brought to me by a grieving relative? Do all clerics rise in level to become resurrection factories? How can one be selective without being consumed with guilt? Whether the scale is large or small, raise dead and resurrection as standard clerical spells simply fail to support the emulation of any fantasy world I've ever read about, gamed in, or seen. That is why I would abolish them.

I would be willing to consider resurrection as a unique power that might exist in a single relic, or which might be granted by a god under extraordinarily rare conditions (perhaps once per century... or millennium), but as a spell, most emphatically no.

Reincarnation is another matter.


  1. I think the effect is somewhat important for a traditional D&D game though. Which is not to say that it should be easy to acquire, common, or without risk. Make it a quest, or a pact with the devil, or a boon only granted by Orcus.

    Not that there's anything wrong with variant games that lack raise dead, but there's also no need to take things to their logical conclusions (I mean, think of the logical conclusions of reliable continual light spells; that way lies Eberron or other "magitech" type settings).

    1. As an ultra-rare event that entails an epic adventure in itself, I can see allowing it. I just don't want spells that cheapen the concept.

      On a personal level, having a player character resurrected diminishes the enjoyment I derive in playing that character. I've only ever had one character resurrected, and it made me feel guilty (both for the trouble the party took to accomplish it and for the fact that my character deserved his fate because of his foolhardiness). Had the character not deserved his fate, dying heroically to save others, I think the resurrection would have lessened the impact of his sacrifice. I'd rather let him pass into history. That's just my personal take on resurrection with regard to my characters. As a referee, I allow my players to seek it if they wish, with the understanding that resurrection in my game worlds is never a matter of shelling out gold pieces to a willing cleric.

  2. If you apply the rule that the person being resurrected must want to come back to life and further posit that most people have gone to their greater reward in Heaven, then it becomes less disruptive - adventurers and other crazies may want to come back (and evil types who have found themselves in Heck, I suppose), but not the population at large.

    1. That is an excellent point. Taken in that context, few in heaven would willingly return.

      It makes me wonder, though, what is the point of enabling clerics to resurrect the dead if their religion's cosmology includes a heaven? Wouldn't it be considered a questioning of their god's judgment? Plucking a soul from its deserved afterlife would be an act of theft, in a way, and clearly an act of defiance against the will of one's deity. One could argue that one was only borrowing the soul for a time, but it's still a matter of contradicting the ultimate power and authority of the gods, which clerics may not do. That's another reason why I don't like that ability to exist as a spell. It's an open invitation for clerics to disobey their patron deity.

      As for those pantheons in which only certain gods determine the fate of the soul, it would still stand as an act of defiance against "the gods" as a whole. Then again, if it were in the interests of one god to dispute the fate of a soul, a cleric could be used as a pawn in such a game of cosmic politics, but I still think it would be better implemented as a one-time gift bestowed to a cleric (or a champion, or a blind seer) rather than a reusable spell.