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Monday, September 26, 2016

What Happens When You Die in Dungeons & Dragons

I've been meaning to write this one for a while. Today, I want to look at death in D&D. First we will go over the death rules from the 5e Player's Handbook and then we will look at what happens to your soul once you move on. At the end, I'll give you the multi-edition version of the afterlife that I like to use in my campaigns with the Raven Queen and all that good stuff.

Death (PH page 197)

Dropping to 0 Hit Points:
  • You're unconscious.
  • Make a death save each turn. Roll a d20. 10 or higher is a success, lower is a failure. Once you have three successes, you are stable and you stop making death saves. On your third failure, you die. If you roll a natural 20 on a death save, you regain one hit point. If you roll a 1, that counts as two failures.
  • Damage at 0 HP: If you take damage, you suffer a death saving throw failure. If you are hit by a critical hit, you suffer two failures.
Stabilizing the Dying: DC 10 Wisdom (Medicine) check. Success = You have 0 hit points, are unconscious and you are stable (no death saves required). You regain 1 hit point after d4 hours.

Instant Death: When damage reduces you to 0 hit points and there is damage remaining, you die if the remaining damage equals or exceeds your hit point maximum (no death saves - you're just dead).

Spells that Bring the Dead Back to Life

Raise Dead (PH page 270): Creature must have died within the last ten days. It doesn't restore body parts. It takes an hour to cast and you need a diamond worth 500 gp.

Reincarnate (PH page 271): This spell actually forms a new body for the character. You roll on a chart for a new race. It takes an hour to cast and the components cost 1,000 gp.

Resurrection (PH page 272): This works on creatures that have been dead for up to 100 years. It also restores body parts. It takes an hour to cast and you'll need a diamond worth 1,000 gp.

Revivify (PH page 272): You touch a creature that has died in the last minute. It now has 1 hit point. You need a 300 gp diamond for this thing.

What the Core 5th Edition Books Say About the Afterlife

Good Souls go to Elysium: Spirits of good creatures go to the plane of Elysium (Dungeon Master's Guide page 43). Elysium  is described on DMG page 60. The flavor text is strong with this one. "Tranquility seeps into the bones and souls of those who enter the plane. It is the heaven of a well-earned rest, a place where tears of joy glisten on many a cheek."

Dead Gods: When gods die, they become giant stone corpses that float in the astral plane (DMG page 47).

Claiming Souls: Some souls are claimed by the gods of the Upper Planes. Some souls are claimed by the rulers of the Lower Planes. Unclaimed souls become larvae (DMG page 63) and appear on the Grey Waste of Hades. The larvae is medium-sized and it has the face of its mortal form. It has dim memories of who it once was. Night hags harvest them.

Empyreans Can't Die: (MM page 130) Empyreans are children of the gods. If they are slain, their parents just bring them back to life.

You Can't Become an Angel: (MM page 15) Angels are formed from the astral essence of benevolent gods and are thus divine beings of great power and foresight. Mortals do not become angels when they die!

Fun Fact About Solars: (MM page 18) There's 24 of them, total. Only a few are known. It might be fun to look through old products and see if we can name every solar that has been published.

Death in the Forgotten Realms: The Realms is the default setting of 5th edition. In the Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide on page 20, there's a whole section on the afterlife. Souls go to the Fugue Plane and wander the City of Judgment. Servants of the gods collect them and bring them to their deity's domain. Sometimes, the faithful are sent back into the world to finish work that was left undone.

Those souls left over are judged by Kelemvor, Judge of the Damned. Some become guides for other lost souls. Some souls are turned into larvae and "cast into the dust." I assume this means they are sent to the Gray Waste.

"The Truly False and Faithless are mortared into the Wall of the Faithless, the great barrier that bounds the City of the Dead, where their souls slowly dissolve and begin to become part of the stuff of the wall itself."

How to Become Undead

I thought it might be fun to list who can become undead or other weird creatures in 5e under what circumstances. Here's what I dug up:

Anyone: You can become a mummy! A priest of a death god needs to do a ritual on your corpse to animate you. 

Creature Slain by a Shadow: Becomes a shadow! (MM page 269)

Dragons: (MM page 84) Dragons can use ancient rituals and necromantic energy to transform themselves into dracoliches.

Elves: Elves who used their beauty to corrupt others become banshees when they die (MM page 23).

Evil Beings That Perished in Anguish: Become Will-o'-wisps (MM page 301).

Evil Creatures: The spirit of a slain evil creature can be bound to a scarecrow (MM page 268).

Evil Mortals: Mortals who are shunned or cursed by the gods become demons (usually manes) MM page 50. "Souls of evil creatures that descend to the lower planes are transformed into manes."

Evil Mortals Who are Really, Really Evil: Become wraiths (MM page 302).

Human Babies: Hags eat a human baby and then one week later they give birth to a daughter who grows up to look just like their hag mother.  

Humanoids Bitten by Vampires: They become vampire spawn under the control of the vampire (MM page 295).

Humanoids Who Can't Pass on to the Afterlife: They become specters (MM page 279). They are created either through dark magic or when a wraith rips a soul from a body.

Humanoids With Unfinished Business: Those who have an unresolved task from life become ghosts (MM page 147). 

Liches: A lich who doesn't feed souls to its phylactery becomes a demilich (MM page 49).

Mortals Corrupted by a Succubus: Once a mortal commits betrayals of thought, word and deed, their soul belongs to the succubus. The succubus kills them and their soul is sent to either the Abyss or the Nine Hells.

Mortals Driven by Dark Desires: When they die, Orcus or a god of the underworld grants them undeath to make war on the living.

Mortals Who Deal with Devils: (MM page 66) Devils love to make contracts with mortals, all of which are enforced by the will of Asmodeus. "Any mortal creature that breaks such a contract instantly forfeits its soul, which is spirited away to the nine hells." To own a creature's soul is to have absolute control over them. "Only divine intervention can release a soul after a devil has claimed it."

Mortals Who Met an Undeserving Fate: Rise up as a revenant (MM page 260) to claim revenge.

Murderers: If you cut off the severed hand of a murderer, a necromancer can make it a crawling claw (MM page 45). I think technically most adventurers are murderers.

Other Evil Mortals: "When the soul of an evil mortal sinks into the Nine Hells, it takes on the physical form of a wretched lemure."

Paladins: When a paladin who fell from grace and never atoned for it dies, they rise up as a death knight (MM page 48).

Soldier: A soldier or knight who dies on the battlefield might become a phantom warrior (Curse of Strahd page 235)

Wizards Who are Dead: Sometimes spellcasters will turn the remains of wizards into flameskulls (MM page 134).

Wizards Who Are Evil: A wizard can use an ultra-secret arcane ritual to become a lich.

Wizards Who Read Alot: Some wizards who spend their lives looking up arcane secrets end up transforming into a Nothic through a curse of Vecna (MM page 236).

Multi-Edition D&D Afterlife

This is what I do for the afterlife in my campaigns. For some reason, I put a lot more thought into what happens when evil people die.

The Raven Queen Judges Your Soul: The Raven Queen, goddess of death, is in charge of safeguarding a soul's passage to whatever lays beyond. Above her citadel (Zvomarana, Fate's Palace, in the Shadowfell) is a maelstrom of swirling souls that shine like stars.

There is a magical lattice that sends most of the souls along automatically. Once in a while, she intercedes and judges a soul.


Her sorrowsworn agents fly up and grab the soul and bring it to her. There's actually flavor for this in the Shadowfell boxed set:

"A soul falls through the air to burst onto the floor before the Raven Queen's seat in an eruption of light and in an instant, it regains its mortal form and sinks to its quavering knees before the god of death. The Raven Queen seems to take no interest in its plight. Her face impossible to read, she fixes her gaze upon it, searching its features in silent judgment."

I say that each soul is marked with their alignment or the symbol of their god or whatever.

Lost Souls: Some souls end up lost and are snatched up by planar beings (like hags). The Raven Queen's sorrowsworn do their best to find and rescue these wayward souls.

Vorkhesis, son of the Raven Queen

Powerful Souls: This is from the Shadowfell boxed set. "When a powerful hero or villain dies, the Raven Queen might choose to hold the person's soul in her realm, whether at the behest of another god or for her own inscrutable reasons." Vorkhesis, Master of Fate, guards them in his Hall of Final Fate.

Vorkhesis knows the fate of every creature that has lived.


Now You Are a Petitioner: Once you are shipped out to whatever your destination is, you become a petitioner. In the Planescape boxed set, it explains that a petitioner is the departed spirit of a mortal who reforms on the plane that matches their alignment. All memories of their past are wiped away. Their personality remains.

Petitioners hate leaving their new home plane. Once the petitioner dies, their essence is merged with their plane and that's the end of them.

If they die outside of their home plane, they are destroyed forever.

Proxies: A proxy is a soul chosen to act as the agent of a god/demon lord/whatever.

Soul Distribution


From there, the soul is either sent to a plane linked to their alignment or to the realm of their god to serve them as a planar being. You could pick your own planes from the handy list on DMG page 58. Here's how I would do it:
  • LG Mount Celestia - Home of Moradin, Bahamut and more.
  • CG I'd go with a homebrewed realm, probably. I don't like any of the choices in the book.
  • NG Elysium or a homebrewed realm.
  • LN Acheron - I love this plane.
  • CN Limbo - You become absorbed into the plane, or become part of a chaos elemental.
  • NE The Gray Wastes of Hades - You're a soul larvae being harvested by hags.
  • CE The Abyss - You are a soul larvae or you become a manes.
  • LE Nine Hells - You become a soul shell on the banks of the River Styx.
Soul Larvae
There are a few creatures and weird things that are affiliated with souls in D&D.

Death Giants: (4e MM page 120) They harvest souls. The people they kill are absorbed into a "soul shroud" that contains soul shards. They expend these shards to heal themselves. They live in the Shadowfell but cross over into the material plane often.

Oni Souleaters: (Open Grave page 172): They can harvest souls - pull them right out of your body. They can devour your soul to acquire your memories and learn any languages you speak. The person's body crumbles to dust.

Soul Larvae Herd

Soul Larvae: In 2nd edition, soul larvae appeared in Hades. In 4th edition, they appeared in the Shadowfell. I just say that they show up in both places. There is a huge article in Dragon Magazine Annual 2 that has a ton of info on larvae:
  • Larvae appear on all of the lower planes, but the larvae that appear in the Grey Waste are pure evil. Hags wander the Grey Waste accumulating herds of larvae. They brand them to mark ownership.
  • Liches can use soul larvae to keep their condition (liches need souls for their phylactery).
  • Hags end up with herds of soul larvae
  • Devils and demons can turn soul larvae into quasits or imps.
  • In the Grey Waste, there is a sort of shanty town called The Grande Larvae Emporium. It is right on the banks of the River Styx and it has yugoloth guards. 
  • They make Yellow Wurm Stout there, a liquor made of soul larvae. They also make soul larvae perfume called "Evil."
Demonic Life Cycles

A manes, lowest form of demon
The 4e Demonomicon has a lot of cool ideas to use. The 3e Fiendish Codex I has surprisingly little about souls heading to the Abyss. Here's what we learn:
  • Demons consume souls. That is how they become more powerful types of demons. They can do this by killing creatures with souls, consuming soul larvae or acquiring mortal thralls. Enough soul energy will give the demon the power to control an abyssal realm. Once that is done, they can take a truename and become a full-fledged demon lord.
  • Demons sometimes buy souls from night hags, onis and death giants.
  • One soul larvae is worth 1,000 gp in goods and services.
  • There is actually a chart of effects for what happens if a character eats a soul larvae. It is not pleasant.
  • I would say that when chaotic evil creatures die, they are either absorbed into the Abyss and are spewed out as manes, or they become larvae that appears either in the Abyss or the Grey Waste. Demons can promote the pure evil larvae of the Grey Waste to higher ranks of demon right off the bat.
The Economy of Hell

The Fiendish Codex II is one of my favorite D&D books ever. When you die and go to hell, you become a soul shell.

Soul Shell: You are a rubbery, bedraggled version of yourself and you still have the wounds you suffered when you died.

Fiendish Codex II has a huge section on what happens when you die and go to hell:
  • You materialize on a blood-soaked rock protruding from the River Styx in an area known as the Shelves of Despond on the first layer of Hell.
  • Almost every soul shell has a special mark on them to denote that a particular devil has claimed their soul.
  • Bearded devils, soul collectors on boats, put the new arrivals in cages. The cages are put in carts and shipped off to a torture station.
  • You are brought to a torture station and go through a process that peels off your individuality. A portion of your essence flows to a prominent devil who has staked a claim on you.
  • You are thrown in the Maggot Pit where you are reborn as a mindless lemure.
Unclaimed Soul Shells: Soul collectors barter and brawl to claim them. Sometimes minions of lawful evil gods prowl the banks of the River Styx for unclaimed souls. Each archdevil keeps a bunch of unclaimed souls to use as units of exchange.

So there you go! Now you can whip up your version of the afterlife in your campaign if you haven't already.


UtarefsoN said...

Great article! I had never put much thought on afterlife in D&D, but now it seems like a great idea to explore it further.

I remember a 3.5 supplement called Ghostwalk which I think brought options to play as a ghost after your character died. Ever heard of it?

Also, about the spells that bring characters back in 5e I think you forgot to mention Revivify.

Unknown said...

SCAG has more information on the afterlife for the Forgotten Realms setting. Souls await judgment from Kelemvor in the City of Judgment (fugue plane) if I recall correctly. After judgement they are sent to their respective reward or punishment.

Domigorgon said...

IMO, Planescape seems the best choice, since all that has followed since (in 3rd, 4th, and apparently 5th edition) are all stripped down, lite versions of the Great Wheel Cosmology one.

With Planescape, you can also pick and choose and say "yeah, it works like this in this part of the multiverse". So yeah, if you're on Toril, you get judged by Kelemvor. But say his power isn't that great on all spheres. On another plane or planet you might get judged by another deity of death.

Or none at all. Since death is a big deal, and there are dozens of death-gods, I would say it's not fair to leave judgement to just one. Afterlife is dependent on alignment, but also deeds done in life. As an Athar, I find it amusing if even gods can't have their say in the matter.

Anonymous said...

Another great article, but I personally would add a few things concerning 5e:
* You can be brought back from the dead by the spell "Revivify" (minutes only, 300 gp diamond)
* You may become undead if you are killed by a Wraith or a Wight. I am not sure if you want to include "animate dead" as a way to become undead.

Red Hand Of Domiinus said...

Love afterlife content. Can't wait for my current group to die so I can do a ghost walk campaign. 8

Sean said...

UtarefsoN: I've heard of Ghostwalk but I never player it. I added revivify, thank you!

Benoit M: Thanks! I did not know about this. I added it to the article.

Domigorgon: Planescape is awesome, I agree. I've always stuck with the Spelljammer and Planescape concepts, where the gods have influence in their own crystal spheres.. so there are many gods of death and etc. Thanks!

Anonymous: I added revivify, thanks! The Wight thing I thought I and in there, I'll go over it again.

Red Hand Of Domiinus: I may need to buy ghostwalk. Everyone is praising it quite a bit. Thanks!

melgo said...

Great article, it made me coincidentally search the different cosmology of the realms. And between editions renaming and restructuring of the planes it's a vast subject in itself.

Sean said...

melgo: Thanks! They definitely leave the door open for you to do what you want with the planes. There's so many of them, it is really hard to keep it all straight.

Anonymous said...

I was wondering if you would add sword wraiths from Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes, and also I'm pretty sure Chaotic Evil mortals become demons, whereas Lawful Evil mortals become devils. Great article and really cleared a lot of my questions.


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