Dealing with single character death like in Heroes of Hammerwatch

There was a meandering conversation on discord which touched upon character deaths in roleplaying games, and Undead Bob said this:

I do get that, but from a GM point of view, while an interesting and timely death of a PC might be perfectly in keeping with the style of play, single character death is often a functional game problem. If it happens near the end of a session, not so big of a deal, especially if the Party can then regroup offscreen between sessions elsewhere and pick up a new PC. In a very real way, a Total Party Kill is less annoying on the GM end than a single character death mid-session and away from some sort of recruiting site.

Undead Bob (emphasis mine)

Essentially, one player is eliminated from the game and that’s annoying. (Many classic board games also have this problem: Monopoly, Cluedo and Risk all have the potential for a bored player at the table who’s out of the action.)

I have a suggestion on how to deal with this, although it’s a niche one.

Soul-linking in Heroes of Hammerwatch

Heroes of Hammerwatch is a roguelike hack-and-slash where you delve through the dungeon.

When a player’s character dies they can be brought back to life by a different player, but when this happens the two characters become ‘soul-linked’. Now if either of them die, they both die.

If they were both to die, then another character could come and resurrect them, but then all three have their souls linked, so now if one of them dies, all three die.

So if you have five character’s in the dungeon, this gives 4 respawns. On the fifth death, everyone goes down.

How to add soul-linking into games.

It can give combat a sort of death-spiral, as if the fighter has already soul-linked the wizard and then the wizard dies again, the fighter also dies.

There is a ramping tension as more and more party members become part of the soul-link. Knowing that if one of your allies goes down then all of them go down makes your thoughts wander much more toward potential escape routes.

I imagine that groups of cut-throat adventurers might be reluctant to use this mechanism, whereas groups of heroes are more likely to be willing to take on the risk to themselves to save an ally.

I would make soul-linking about a minute long – long enough that you can’t easily do it in combat but not so long that it weighs into other time considerations the party has.

I’d also make it nigh-impossible to reset soul-links whilst out on an adventure – maybe it takes a week-long ritual to undo or it can only be undone by a priest at a temple.

Alternatively, soul-linking can come from a specific magic item which is either unique or uncommon enough that it’s not a big worldbuilding concern.

There’d have to be a reason why peasants aren’t constantly soul-linking to recover from sudden accidental deaths or illnesses (actually there doesn’t have to be, but it’s less disruptive to the setting if the peasants aren’t doing this). I’d suggest that the ritual is done to a deity (saint/god/demon) whose domain specifically covers adventuring.

You could also have rival adventuring groups use this ritual. It actually gives a higher incentive for groups to de-escalate and bargain mid-combat. It also gives a greater incentive to not let that one enemy get away – they could come back and resurrect the whole group. Similarly hiding corpses and securing side-passages in dungeons (so that you don’t get flanked and have that whole lizardfolk guardroom you cleared out storm you from behind) become more important.

So soul-linking: it’s an interesting and quite workable solution to Undead Bob’s problem. However, there are campaign/setting implications so it’s hard to just drop it in thoughtlessly. A niche solution, and perhaps one worth orienting a campaign around.

This is part 2 in a loose series I’m awkwardly calling ‘like in’ where I take some trick from video games and apply it to tabletop games. Part 1 is about Truncating the Calendar Year like in Stardew Valley.

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