GM Tech: Back with a Vengeance

So I’m back again with another GM Tech post, and once again borrowing from Apocalypse World. Also once again, I recommend it as a great rulebook to read for tips even if you don’t ever end up playing the system.

This time, I’m going to introduce you all to a house rule I like to use in harder games as a “safety valve” against character death, either through PvE or PvP.

You only Die Twice

When a PC would die for the first time in a campaign, they instead get left for dead by their foe and return later with a grudge.

That pretty much sums up the whole thing really, but I’ll go into my reasoning and some potential mechanics that would work with it.

Death is not the end

Firstly, the reasoning. How many films, shows or books have that scene where the hero is struck down by the villain only to return and win the day?

Luke Skywalker loses his hand and tumbles to the bottom of cloud city because of his hubris; Harry Potter has to sacrifice himself to destroy the final piece of Voldemort; James Bond falls from the train as it crosses a bridge and MI6 thinks he’s gone for good.

This house rule captures that feeling, of the tragic fall and triumphant return. It also lends some resilience to PCs to allow you to put harder challenges in front of them or allow a small amount of PvP without worrying so much about the “feel-bad” of players losing their characters.

Gone but not forgotten

You can easily just play this house rule in its most basic form, but because we’re all massive nerds I have a few suggestions of mechanics to modify the rule with:

  1. They come back with a Perk representing their grudge and/or a Flaw representing their injury. Either of these could be due to being “touched by death” in certain settings. Remember that Flaws are a bonus to players, because it’s more chances to earn Legend points.
  2. They come back with 5 (or less) levels of Fatigue. This fits a much grimmer tone, giving the character a long, slow road to recovery. It may however be kind of unfun if your game involves daily fighting.
  3. They get an optional respec. Almost dying changes people; if the player wants to keep RPing the character but would like to change up their playstyle, or vice versa, then this is an excellent opportunity to fit that into the narrative. It also lets players fix any problems with the build which may have resulted in the death to begin with.
  4. Give them an Extraordinary “item” (not a physical object) to represent their condition. Maybe it’s gives them special powers from their brush with death, or maybe it’s Cursed with something due to their injury. I like to have it be an automatic Provoked bane when dealing with the foe or type of foe that struck them down in the first place. Either way, it should be temporary but especially if it’s Cursed; a permanent debuff is quite likely to lead to permanent death and/or the player not wanting to play the character any more.

Use one of these if you like, or come up with your own. Don’t attach too much rules baggage though. Two distinct mechanics at most, the simpler the better. Remember that the goal is to encourage the player to come back to the same character; if you make a harsh punishment mechanic they’re likely to either write the character off and make a new one, or just stop coming to your sessions.

Like the phoenix, from the ashes

There we go, hopefully you’ll find a use for this interesting house rule. It’s not a fit for every game, but I’ve certainly found it a helpful tool to have in my back pocket in case the worst happens during one of my campaigns.

If there’s any interest, I also have some examples of times when I’ve used this mechanic to great effect. Ask away, and I’ll write some of them up.


would really like to hear some of those


By its very nature, this is the kind of mechanic that doesn’t come up very often, but here’s a real example of a time when it happened twice in quick succession and worked really well.

Stomp, Vega, and the Sheep-field

So, uh, this one is going to take a bit of explaining. This was a weird, post apocalyptic game that I’ve mentioned before when talking examples because it’s probably the game I’m most proud of.

Winter was approaching (the wolf-god of ice and snow) so unseasonable cold was coming to Steel City. Vega was the boss of a settlement, and she needed warm clothes and blankets for her people. She tracked down a factory outside of the city that produced wool from a sheep-field (an entire field that was a “sheep”, multiple acres of carnivorous wool) but she couldn’t keep trekking to and from the factory with these items, so she bargained for a section of the field to take back home.

Stomp was Vega’s chief enforcer, and had been convinced (coerced) into being the one to cut this section out and bundle it into a truck. He dives into the wool and starts hacking away, taking severe damage but surviving. A blizzard is rolling in at this point though, so they have to hurry back before they get snowed in. The cold becomes biting, almost literally, and Stomp takes a small about of lethal damage and succumbs to his existing wounds. I ask the player how he wants to come back, and he declines because his death is dramatic and appropriate. Always offer your players the choice.

Vega is distraught that she caused her chief enforcer to die, and furious at the sheep-thing, but her settlement comes first. She offloads it into the pen they’d built as the snow piles up, but rather than moving the sheep-thing expands to fill the new space. After severing the connection, the two halves both live. Vega needs her truck back, and senses an opportunity for some revenge, so she pulls the machete from Stomp’s cold body and goes on the attack. The sheep is dangerous, and she’s on her own, so despite her righteous fury Vega is brought down.

The following day, some other members of the party go out searching and find the truck. They pull the now-dead wool out and find Vega in the back, barely alive. A sheep skull is pinned to the wall with the machete, with Vega’s blood on its teeth.

Yet another day later, Vega has mostly recovered. She heads out to the truck, pulls the machete from the wall and dons the sheep skull as a mask. Rather than a shrewd and cunning leader, she is now a bloodthirsty berserker.

Campfire Story

That took a lot more text to properly describe than I first thought, but I hope it gets the point across. The key is to make it fit the narrative and the player’s desires. Let me know if you have any questions about my decisions there. I have maybe one more real example, and some thoughts about how I’d handle it in my currently ongoing game.