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Hey I Can Chan

High-level Play, Part 6

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What about Coming Back?
This is one of the ugly secrets of high-level play: Characters are supposed to die all the time. And then they’re supposed to get better.

Unless, of course, steps are taken to ensure a character can’t get better. Then the character’s hosed.

So, dead or alive, you need to know…

Death Is Funny
The definition of dead (Player’s Handbook 307) reads that, most of the time, death causes a creature’s “soul to leave the body and journey to an Outer Plane. Dead characters cannot benefit from normal or magic healing, but they can be restored to life via magic. A dead body decays normally unless magically preserved, but magic that restores a dead character to life also restores the body either to full health or to its condition at the time of death.”

Following the dead condition down the glossary’s rabbit hole means you learn that to get the dead condition, the creature was disabled (Player’s Handbook 307) at 0 hp and dying (Player’s Handbook 308) at −1 to −9 hp and that while dying the creature was unconscious (Player’s Handbook 314) and while unconscious the creature was helpless (Player’s Handbook 309) and knocked out. The definition of helpless (Player’s Handbook 309) refers to a helpless creature as unconscious in its definition, making it circular—being helpless means a creature “is treated as having a Dexterity of 0,” gives foes a +4 bonus to melee attack rolls versus that creature, and allows opponents to coup de grace the creature (which, in turn, references the dead condition again). Amusingly, the Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and even Rules Compendium only mention the knocked out condition as an adjunct to the unconscious condition, leaving knocked out otherwise undefined. (Sidebar: The Monster Manual names drow poison knockout poison; it, of course, makes folks unconscious.) That means according to the rules the effects of being knocked out are unknown; common sense tells us otherwise, but common sense also tells us chanting Latin while wiggling fingers and throwing bat crap doesn’t create fiery explosions, so whatever.

Technically, gaining the dead condition doesn’t make the creature prone (like when tripped), doesn’t make the creature drop anything (like when stunned or panicked), and doesn’t make the creature blind or deaf; let’s go ahead and make the dead condition worse and infer that being “treated as having a Dexterity of 0” means that even if the creature’s suffered no ability damage, like a creature who’s been reduced to Dex 0 via ability damage the dead creature “cannot move [and, it] stands motionless, rigid, and helpless” (Dungeon Master’s Guide 289).

So, when a creature dies, it stands there, staring and listening, unable to move, still clutching what it last held. That’s weird, creepy, and horrifying. I’m also sure there was a rebooted Twilight Zone episode with that exact plot: death as eternal paralysis.

Except that, in Dungeons and Dragons 3.5, when the creature dies that happens, and the creature’s soul exits its body.

Soullessness Isn’t Funny
A creature’s body gained a soul when its existence began, and the body lost the soul when the creature gained the dead condition. Until the creature’s body has a soul again its body has the dead condition.

Canonically, when the dead condition’s gained, the soul stays in the body for 1 round (c.f. the spells last breath and revivify) then traverses the Astral Plane and arrives on the plane of the deity the creature worshiped or on the alignment plane corresponding to the creature’s alignment if no deity’s worshiped; the game’s silent on this trip’s length and methods of intercepting the soul of the newly dead. Further, the Player’s Handbook says, “Bringing someone back from the dead means retrieving his or her soul and returning it to his or her body” (171).

A non-spellcaster can find and maybe even acquire a creature’s soul if he can get to the plane the soul’s on and overcome the soul’s guardians (the Example Hades Site: Underworld on Dungeon Master’s Guide 162 suggests an adventure with this goal), but putting the creature’s soul into a body requires magic, and that’s the only way to end the dead condition.

Sidebar—It’s the Astral Plane, Dammit!: In the Ghostwalk Campaign Option, souls instead go to the Ethereal Plane on their ways to the True Afterlife. I don’t care enough about that to figure that out, but I’m pretty sure it has to do with Monte Cook thinking the incorporeal subtype definitionally interacted with the Ethereal Plane, even though the incorporeal subtype doesn’t say any such thing, and the Ethereal Plane is supposed to merely overlap the Prime and… really, who cares? Let’s stick with souls traversing the Astral Plane, okay?

Next: Returning from the dead.

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  1. nijineko's Avatar
    in d&d, souls have always gone to the astral. the only ones that wind up in the ethereal instead are ghosts... hence the title of the book... ghostwalk?
  2. Hey I Can Chan's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by nijineko
    in d&d, souls have always gone to the astral. the only ones that wind up in the ethereal instead are ghosts... hence the title of the book... ghostwalk?
    But in the Ghostwalk Campaign Option I'm pretty sure souls travel through the Ethereal Plane instead of the Astral Plane. But I did just reread the Monster Manual Ghost entry, and, yeah, proper undead ghosts are tied to the ethereal even though being incorporeal doesn't mean a creature must be tied to the Ethereal. So... um... whatever? Ghostwalk is a weird setting anyway.