Friday 7 May 2010

Men with Sticks and Ropes


“The giant swings round and brings its club crashing down on you – for (rolls dice) 16 hit points!”
“I’ve only got four left”
“Okay, that puts you on minus twelve. Sorry, but it looks like you’re dead”
“So what happens next?”
“Well, you’re dead”
“I know…but what happens after that?”

So what does happen? I remember the first character that I ever had dying. I picked up the d6 and got rolling but I asked the DM after the session what had happened to my character. His reply was short – “probably living it up on one of the Outer Planes”

And that, in a nutshell is what most of us reckon happens to our characters when they die. A transparent version of them wafts up out of the body, there’s a bright light, a tunnel and then lots of harps and singing. However, this might not be such a good thing.

In this article, I’m going to have a look at various examples of the afterlife, how to get there, how to get back and what might be waiting for you when you go. I’ll examine the efficacy of various methods to control the afterlife, how possession might work and how an altered perspective on the afterlife might change the layout of the planes themselves.

The Afterlife

“You see, the thing about heaven is that heaven is for people who like the sort of things that go on in heaven. Like, well, singing, talking to God, watering pot plants.”

However, there are other views as to the nature of the afterlife. Regardless of how unjust life is, no-one likes to think that this injustice will continue after the grave. Consoling tales about the happiness of loved ones after death are balanced by the tales told of the horrors that await those who transgress the diktats of the deities or who believed themselves to have escaped justice in this life. The mythologies of many cultures are replete with scenes of eschatological judgement, from Zoroastrianism to the scales of Osiris in the Egyptian afterworld. The whole of Christianity is predicated on the notion of the four last things, Death, the Day of Judgement, Heaven and Hell.

And maybe it doesn’t even have to be evil to be terrifying. Years ago, I read a short story, really can’t remember what it was called or who wrote it, about a woman whose husband is returned from a Japanese POW camp. She slowly comes to the realisation that whilst it is his body, it is not his soul. It turns out that there is an afterlife but without bodily senses like sight, hearing, touch, etc, there exists only consciousness in a dark and silent nothing world. The soul that entered her dead husband’s body had been driven nearly mad by the isolation and yearned for the sinews and bone, the veins and arteries of the meaty realm so he took the first opportunity that presented itself.
Another short story that I read (and I really should note these down) was about a man who was convinced that he was going to Hell and grew accustomed to the idea. When he finally died, he found himself in darkness, then a growing light and finally an explosion of brightness and sound – the noises of the delivery room. For him, reincarnation was hell itself.

There have been many treatments of the afterlife in fiction. I’m going to outline just a few that I’ve read or seen and from these, work out a way in which they can be used in game systems.

In Brian Aldiss’ Helliconia series, humans can enter into a shamanistic trance and commune with the spirits of the deceased, who seem to be sinking slowly towards the centre of the earth. The more recent dead are more recognisably human, whereas the older dead seem to have lost limbs and extremities and their memories are also fading. Their attitude towards the living seem to be one of irritation. This seems very compatible with the Speak with Dead spell in D&D, where the longer the person has been dead, the harder it is to contact them. This system might work well in a game world where the predominant religious structure was shamanistic in style. More advanced theologies would render this inadequately primitive.

In many stories, the dead seem always to be cold. The returnee in Truly, Madly, Deeply is always shivering. Fires and light seem to attract them. The old Celtic festival of Samhain involved bonfires at which the dead were held to come and warm themselves.

In the TV series, Being Human (whence comes the title of this article), a door appears for the newly dead, who are dragged through (very reluctantly in most cases) and seem then to join an afterlife bureaucracy, moving from room to room, filling out endless forms. Perhaps this is a telling commentary on the modern fear of pointless form filling, that the idea of hell is to be trapped in there. This has hints of the Chinese afterlife, where the pantheon is modelled on, and serves as a theological reinforcement for, the Chinese system of government. This system might work well in a Lawful Neutral game world, where form and function predominated and individual merits were subordinated to the interests of the state.

In The Warrior Who Carried Life by Geoff Ryman, the land of the dead seems to be populated, if that’s the right word, with people condemned to spend eternity as they died – hanging victims suspended from invisible nooses, those who died in combat being stabbed over and over again by unseen assailants. Those who died in their sleep might lie unwakeable forever. Great cataclysms such as a town being burnt by magical means might leave a scar of burning on the land of the dead itself, although generally physical damage did not show up in the land of the dead. When the flower of life is stolen from the great serpent at the heart of the land of the dead, the dead start to follow it, hungry for any scent of the life they once knew. This limbo existence argues for the existence of the dead merely as echoes of their deaths, trapped in an endless cycle of repeated demises. It is hardly surprising that when they get the chance to follow something new and vibrant, they take it. This system might work well enough in a world that lacks the complex eschatology of judgement and instead merely imprisons the dead in a kind of nothing world, where no prayer, intercession or ritual can save them unless, almost Orpheus-like, someone comes to lead them out.

Garth Nix’s Abhorsen trilogy revolves around the relationship between the living and the dead. The dead make their way slowly down a huge river, through various gates to a final destination. Necromancers can negotiate this river and bind spirits to their will but there are malevolent entities and dead spirits can be brought back into our world and bound to service. This gives an explanation for the existence of the undead and there are several interesting new types to be encountered. Again, this serves a worldview in which there is some kind of ultimate spiritual destination, nature unknown.

In Terry Pratchett’s Mort series, Death, the kindly if stern psychopomp collects souls at the moment of death and sends them on to their next destination, which is implied to be dependent on their beliefs. Death exists independently of the gods and is a personification of a force of nature.

In Pullman’s Dark Materials Trilogy, the land of the dead is a vast prison camp established by the Authority. The infinite grey plain, patrolled by vengeful harpies is a torment rather than a paradise. The dead, once they have ceased to live, set off down a long road, accompanied by their own personal Deaths, who serve almost as companions and comforters on the way, to the crossing, a Stygian destination where an island very much like the Arnold Bocklin painting awaits them.

In Torchwood, Owen Harper was shot dead but brought back to life (it was thought temporarily) by the Resurrection Glove. However, his revival was permanent, although he now existed as a living corpse, not breathing, no bodily temperature, no need to eat or drink. Any damage he sustained would not heal naturally and had to be repaired. It was implied that there was no afterlife per se, but a darkness in which Something was waiting.

The Planes

“We all die – and religions are a way of trying to control what happens next.”

The idea of the Great Wheel of multiple outer planes is that there has to be somewhere for the gods to live. Many D&D worlds tend not to be quite so multi-mythoic and may well have only a handful of pantheons, if that. How then can we reconcile the differing doctrinal claims as to the nature of the afterlife with the naturalistic homogeneity of a single spirit world?

It could be that each one has come to a separate understanding on the way in which souls make their way to their particular paradise. It may well be that there is only one paradise and that the gods are merely expressions of the nature of that paradise, perceived through the prism of cultural identity. If all gods are aspects of one universal concept, there need be only one final destination and possibly one final infernal one as well. If the various pantheons do have a separate and quite definite existence and identity, then their planes of existence must exist but link in to the spirit world in some fashion that a gateway may exist, but on the deity’s plane.

In an earlier post on the concepts of good and evil, I discussed getting rid of alignment altogether and replacing it with what I called a Statement of Principles. It stands to reason that if alignment is no longer a factor in the game, there does not need to be an outer plane for each alignment and therefore, a new type of cosmology can be introduced.

In the standard D&D cosmology, the ethereal plane was for travelling between the Prime Material Plane and what were known as the Inner Planes. To get to the outer planes required the use of the Astral Plane. The merging of the functions and nature of the two could form a new plane, which I’m calling the Spectral Plane. This name was suggested by a commenter on a post on Grognardia, and I hope that he does not mind me making use of it.

Of course it may well be that there are no gods per se, and the dead arrive in the spirit world with no idea of how to progress. Those who are homesick for the physical may try to return there, those who have viewed the afterlife as a journey towards immortality may set off for wherever it is that they believe they are going. Some might be drawn by the pull of ancestors, some might fall prey to spectral predators. There may well be pocket dimensions where like-minded souls have set up social experiments in afterlife. Alternatively, the spectral plane may well be in some sort of quantum flux, inasmuch as the desires and perceptions of the dead may cause new dimensions or mini-planes to come into existence, much as in Moorcock, when visitors to the castle of Myshella forge new lands from the raw stuff of Chaos merely by journeying into it.

In a godless planescape, it might be that the Positive and Negative Material Planes could serve as the ultimate destination for good and evil souls. The spiritual essence of good and evil that inhabits each person and serves as the touchstone for their moral values (a sort of spiritual explanation for alignment, in a way) may return to its origin; it is possible that within each person, there are varying degrees of positive and negative energy that contend and struggle for dominance, each good or evil act reinforcing the power of the respective energy. Death may release the energy in the form of a spirit or soul which, depending on the balance, may well be drawn towards the positive or negative. In a way, the Manichean nature of this solution serves as some sort of cosmic battleground, since if a soul has more negative than positive, then when it reaches its destination, the negative returns to the pool of ‘evil’, whilst the positive is consumed, thereby altering the balance throughout the multiverse.

If the concept of reincarnation is being used, it may be that there are nexuses that form at the moment of birth on the Prime Material Plane and any soul that happens to be nearby on the Spectral Plane may be sucked in and reborn into flesh. The random nature of this phenomenon may not suit those who believe that some sort of karma or fate determines the next incarnation but a rebirth nexus may be classed as some sort of natural predator, claiming souls – it could be that it feeds off the memories of the soul as some sort of psychic nourishment, explaining why alleged reincarnation subjects tend to forget their previous lives.

Crossing over

Death can be sudden or prolonged. In either case, the imminence of death will affect the relationship between the spirit world and the material one.

It may be that when a person is undergoing the process of dying (rather than an unexpected or sudden death) there is some sort of corresponding manifestation in the spirit world which draws all manner of entities thither. One or more may try to slip in to the body as the spirit departs, and this may be prevented by the use of charms, spells, incantations and such like.

In a sudden death, the barrier between the worlds is punched through, and the speed of this may leave the dead person confused and unaware of their situation. In this circumstance, they may be easy prey for anything that might be in the area of the death event. Alternatively, their anger at the unfairness of their end might cause them to linger at the event and plague the living by trying to act out whatever agenda they have.

Funeral rites may be necessary both to protect the spirit on its journey to wherever, or to close the hole that the death has caused. If there has been a long process of dying and the death itself was peaceful enough, the hole may closed more quickly as the level of disruption has not been so great. In the event of a sudden death, it may need mending and without this, it may take a lot longer to close.

If there is no-one to perform the necessary rites, then there is a bigger chance that something will try to use the corpse. Depending on the nature of the afterlife, it may well be that the spirit is insane or greedy for life. When a person has been killed by a member of the undead, it could be that in some way their spirit has been bound into the body or has been forced to remain on the material plane against its will. An exorcist (to which we will return later) might have the experience and skills to break the binding and release the spirit to continue on to its final destination – wherever it is.

Some cultures believe that the spirit must be sent on its way after death, since the temptation for it to remain in the material world as a ghost is very strong. Rituals for the journey to and from the burial site reflect this, as the spirit might follow the mourners back to its original home. Superstitions linger; I still recall my mother drawing the curtains when an elderly neighbour’s coffin was carried out of her house. She said this was ‘out of respect’ but in reality, it harks back to a time when there was a fear that the dead person’s spirit might try to enter another home through the doors or windows. This suggests that the Spectral Plane is a place where spirits do not want to linger, and the journey across it is not something to look forward to.

The question also arises of possessions on the Spectral Plane – do clothes, weapons, tools, food and drink exist there? How do grave goods become spiritual? Are they subjected to a spiritual killing to enable them to exist with the dead person?

Coming back

Ghosts, in whatever shape or form they may manifest, are the staple of supernatural fiction and we need to discuss the ways in which a dead person might return to the land of the living.

Characters who are dead may well take one of three forms in order to come back

 Ghost – the character’s spirit remains on the Prime Material Plane but can plane-shift to the Spectral Plane. The ghost may either be visible, invisible, tangible or intangible.

 Animated corpse – the character’s spirit remains in their old body, even though that body is no longer alive. Any further physical damage that the body sustains must be repaired – it will not heal. (A variant of this is the decaying animated corpse. The body will decay at the standard rate and the occupying spirit must consume life force in order to halt the decay or reverse it.)

 Possessed body – the character’s spirit has come back from the spectral plane but its old body is no longer in a fit state to be used so the spirit must occupy another body, either by evicting its current occupant or occupying it at the moment of death or while it is still fresh.

Reanimators and Exorcists

I’m using this in its original sense – those who try to find the soul (anima) and reunite it with its body. This would suggest that somehow, they are able to enter the Spectral Plane and seek out the souls of the dead. If the souls linger on the Spectral Plane rather than voyage towards some ultimate reward, the reanimator’s job is easier, but no less dangerous, as we have already discussed the notion of spectral predators. Similarly, the reanimator’s body may well be occupied whilst he is out. Protection will almost certainly be needed. Training, therefore would seem to be a great necessity – an apprentice reanimator can voyage with their masters, getting to know the lie of the land, so to speak, and watching their master’s back.

Those who try to drive out possessor spirits. This is a hard battle, in a way trying to assist the possessee in their struggle to reassert dominance. The exorcist may be able to lend the possessee their spirit power in a bid to drive the possessor out. This could be done by another roll on the possession table. The danger to the exorcist is that the possessor may well decide to leave its current home and move into the exorcist himself.

In some cases, the dead person may not even realise that they are dead. As far as they can see, the life they are now experiencing is very similar to the one they had. In the case of multiple deaths in the same incident, the presence of other familiar faces may well reinforce this perception. The central premise of the Sixth Sense hangs on this very fact.

How to communicate as a ghost? I read a story once where, after an accident (I think, it was a long time ago) a girl found herself a non-corporeal entity (more or less a ghost) whose presence could be sensed but nothing else. She drank from a bowl of blood, which gave her a fizzing sensation and with that, she could be seen as a translucent image of herself. Alternatively, the idea of mediums might be of use here as those who are either born with or acquire an ability to ‘see’ objects and entities related to the Spectral Plane could be receptive to the presence of ghosts. Or the ghost might try to possess the medium, albeit with their consent in order to send messages. This is of course very dangerous for all parties since if there is a gateway to the Spectral Plane, all manner of things might use it to gain access to the material world and the beings therein.

Raise Dead and Resurrection
These two spells are very powerful and the way in which they operate will vary immensely depending on the nature of the afterlife itself. If the soul of the departed has joined the Positive or Negative Material Planes, there is not much chance of getting it back. However, what if the spells didn’t bring the soul back per se, but recreated the body and reinfused it with essence from the plane to which the soul had gone. The end result would be the same – more or less.
If the soul can be brought back from wherever it has gone, and said soul does not mind overmuch being returned to the world of the flesh from whatever paradise (or otherwise) it had found, then the use of such strong magic must, by implication, rip a hole in the barrier between the Spectral and Prime Material. The dangers in this are similar to those presented by a sudden or violent death, except that it may take longer for the rift to heal, if it does in fact heal at all. Permanent holes, gateways that never close may be the result of recourse to strong magic that overturns the natural order of things.

What’s out there

The Spectral Plane is not a calm, tame or pleasant place to be. It is alien to our senses since conditions there are wholly inimical to the material and survival is often a matter of chance rather than skill.

Time itself may well be an alien concept to the Spectral Plane. It could well be a timeless place, where there is only a simulacrum of passing time, or perhaps time only passes when it is being observed. If someone comes back later, nothing will have changed. We return to Ryman’s Land of the Dead – time itself is dead there and there can be no progression, no development, no past and no future – only an infinitely extended now.

Maybe time itself is a commodity on the Spectral Plane, and has to be imported from the Prime Material plane – globes of time could be used to create temporal pockets where things seem to run normally. As time begins to run out, things will slow down perceptibly, like a clock whose battery is running out.

This, incidentally, might explain the rumours of time displacement so beloved of the X-files – maybe denizens of the Spectral Plane are stealing time to enable them to function in their own world.

It could also be that in areas where the Spectral Plane and the Material World come closer together, there may be overlapping images of various times in the past, present and future as raw time bleeds through into a plane that might, otherwise, be starved of it. It may attract those who value it, like moths to a flame. The flux of time back and forth as the rents in the barrier between the planes heal may catch those unawares and land them many centuries from where they started – or only a few second.

If the Spectral Plane is like a world, then it must have predators. They may well roam the spirit world, seeking out unprotected souls. The denizens of the Spectral Plane may well be spirits of humans and other creatures who have just been there for a long time and gone feral. Some may have grown huge and wild, devouring others and becoming debased thereby.

The landscape of the Spectral Plane could be similarly in flux, with areas of solidity interspersed with areas where there is nothing at all. Islands of reality could float through oceans of illusion. Given the temporal confusion that reigns there, what is there one day might not be there the next. Establishing anything like order would be a virtually impossible task. Movements of energy, almost like weather systems, although the weather systems of a nightmare may cause great dangers for travellers and denizens alike.

Controlling it

We’re well-acquainted with the cliché circles, pentagrams, eerie symbols, Dennis Wheatley stylie, but these to me suggest that the Spectral Plane and its denizens can somehow be controlled or compelled to do the bidding of those who have the knowledge.

To me, this reduces the Spectral Plane to just somewhere that you can pop off to, safe in the knowledge that any danger there is can be handwaved away with the appropriate scroll or symbol and that anything that lives there can be summoned to do your bidding with the right incantation.


The Spectral Plane is a wild and dangerous place and even those who know about it and have some learning about rituals, amulets and talismans can no more control it and its denizens than a meteorologist can steer a hurricane. The feeble nature of the human body ill-equips it to handle the immense energies that course through the Spectral realm, let alone the fearsome creatures who roam its weird and nightmarish intricacies, seeking who knows what.

There may well be safeguards to stop unwanted spectral intrusion and devices, artefacts and spells that might offer some protection but the notion that there is one single set of rules and that all spectral creatures are bound by it, a bit like a Shadow Proclamation does not wash in my opinion. It might be an idea therefore that certain countermeasures work only against specific named spirits or creatures and that others who are not guarded against can still cross over. As we’ve already mentioned, there are areas where the distance between the material world and the Spectral Plane is very short indeed. In other areas, they might as well be a million miles apart. The trick is to find the short places and use them.


As we’ve seen earlier, possessing a body, either living or recently vacated can be one way of returning from the dead. It should be noted that this system supplants the one used in the spell Magic Jar although that could theoretically still be used since it is a magic user spell rather than a clerical one.

Possession, once attempted, can have the following outcomes

i) Rebuff – the possession fails. The would-be possessor remains outside the body
ii) Possession succeeds but the possessor is the minor party inside the body. He will be in essence an observer, a passenger, but can try to influence the possessee through dreams and subconscious suggestion
iii) Possession succeeds but control is only 50/50. A battle will ensue as both parties are aware of the other’s existence, unless the possession was agreed upon beforehand.
iv) Possession succeeds and the possessee remains in the body but as a minor presence. If the possessor departs, the possessee regains full control and will not remember anything about what happened during the possession.
v) Eviction of the resident spirit. The possessor now has full control of the body

The act of possession is a combat of spirit vs. spirit. Spirit is calculated by adding WISD and CHA together. Wisdom is a measure of how intuitive and in tune with the universe the character is, whilst Charisma is a reflection of the strength of their personality and ‘spirit’. I feel that these are appropriate parameters to use in this calculations.

As well as the two attributes, there are also other modifiers, depending on age, character class and such like.

Child -4
Young Adult -3 (although since many stories describe adolescents being particularly vulnerable to spiritual influences, this can be adjusted if need be)
Mature 0
Middle aged 0
Old -1
Venerable -2

Fighter 0
Thief 0
Magic User +1
Cleric +2

Amulets and talismans give a bonus to the die roll depending on their strength. An Amulet of Life Protection will prevent possession attempts full stop. Whilst it is tempting to merely describe amulets and talismans as +1, +2 or whatever, they should have their own names, stories and features to individualise them.

If a character is injured, his ability to resist possession will be commensurately affected
% of hit points lost Die modifier
25% 0
26-50% -1
51-75% -2
75-99% -3

(you'll have to click on this to read it properly)

This table gives the bonuses or otherwise for the attempt to possess. The possessor rolls a d20 and applies the bonus; the possessee makes a similar roll.

The difference between the two rolls is then compared; if the possessor’s roll is higher, one of the five outcomes results, depending on the scale of superiority

Eviction of the resident spirit. The possessor now has full control of the body

Possession succeeds and the possessee remains in the body but as a minor presence. If the possessor departs, the possessee regains full control and will not remember anything about what happened during the possession.

Possession succeeds but control is only 50/50. A battle will ensue (re-running the contest again with a +1 bonus to the possessor on each subsequent round) as both parties are aware of the other’s existence, unless the possession was agreed upon beforehand.

Possession succeeds but the possessor is the minor party inside the body. He will be in essence an observer, a passenger, but can try to influence the possessee through dreams and subconscious suggestion

Rebuff – the possession fails. The would-be possessor remains outside the body

So, let’s suppose that a person with Wisd 15 and Cha 15 attempts to possess a person with those abilities at 11 each. Let’s check the table. The possessor will have a bonus of +3 on their die roll, the possessee has a –3.

The rolls are as follows – possessor rolls 9 and possessee rolls a 1.

Adjusted rolls are 12 and -2 – the difference is 14 and therefore the possessor succeeds but shares the body 50/50 with the possessee.

If the possessor had rolled a 15 for example, the difference would have been 20, and the possessee would have become a minor presence in their own body.

The possessor can choose to vacate the body of the possessee at any time but if the former spirit has been evicted, the result is a comatose body, vegetative and vulnerable to further possession. A reanimator may be able to locate the evicted spirit and reunite it with the body.

Conclusion and Acknowledgements

My inspirations for this article, besides the fiction that I’ve listed earlier are the incomparable Dungeonmum and her article on Speaking with the Dead and a post by Norman Harman last October I think that first raised the idea of using life after death as an adventuring feature for D&D.

This article has given some suggestions and ideas on how to treat the afterlife; in the next article, I’ll be laying out some plot ideas for the game.


  1. Holy Mackerel - that's a lot... Good treatment on death and dying. It'll take me some time to digest it, though... I like your thoughts on Resurrection & Raise Dead - but how about the reverse of that - a person/people going into the lands of the dead to retrieve the soul of a dead comrade (or love - Orpheus comes to mind, of course...)

  2. Wowsers . . . awesome. Loved the ideas about the spectral plane. You read a lot of spooky stories (I'm reading an anthology of short stories all inspired by Freud's essay on the uncanny, which the ones you mention remind me of).

    I'm looking forward to a PC death even more now (rubs hands).

    And thanks!

  3. The tagline for this post could be "No Hit Points? No problem!"

  4. Never seen Being Human, but the bureaucracy sounds like the template set in Tim Burton's delightful Beetlejuice . Perhaps you need a modifier for characters reading the Handbook for the Recently Diseased^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H Deceased.

  5. Very thorough. A lot of cogent thoughts there.