GMs of Dungeon World: what is Death motivated by in your games, when it comes to the bargains he makes with dying…

GMs of Dungeon World: what is Death motivated by in your games, when it comes to the bargains he makes with dying…

GMs of Dungeon World: what is Death motivated by in your games, when it comes to the bargains he makes with dying adventurers? It’s not too hard to come up with generally “tough” choices to present players who hit the 7-9 on their Last Breath: put the Ranger’s animal companion in the crosshairs, make the Thief give up their prized trinket from their most memorable theft, force the Paladin to go against their divine oath in some way, etc.

What challenges me sometimes is making the Last Breath move’s hard choices follow the fiction in a believable way. The first time someone appears before the Black Gates, Death becomes a character just like any other in your campaign and should have agendas that characterize the interactions with PCs. Saying “the Druid must defile the great oak tree that sustains the Wood Elves of the Ithdell Forest” is one thing, but answering “why does Death want this?” is another thing entirely that I find myself getting caught up on.

Does Death want to take as many souls as possible beyond the Black Gates? Does Death believe in a balance such that a soul must be sacrificed to save another? Is Death a neutral party just trying to do its job? Is Death spiteful, and seeks to torment anyone who cheats it? Is Death simply cruel, and enjoys toying with mortals and watching the tragedy that comes from their attempts to escape its grasp? Any of these answers would result in very different deals when it comes time to deal with a 7-9, I feel.

I’m interested in hearing how other GMs tend to handle this question: what motivates your Death to strike deals, and in what ways does this tend to color the nature of those deals?

15 thoughts on “GMs of Dungeon World: what is Death motivated by in your games, when it comes to the bargains he makes with dying…”

  1. Man, so I once had a character playing an elf from the northern ice lands. He died, and I asked the player what the afterlife looks like for the iceland elves.

    “It’s an iceberg, floating in a black sea. There are very few elves here, because they rarely die.”

    Oh huh, so what does death say when you arrive? Is he shocked? What sort of deal do you think he’d make?

    “He’s shocked, but bored. He says that not many of my people arrive here, but he’d be willing to let me go back if I promise to bring more”

    Wait, he wants you to kill elves because he’s bored?


  2. Death is very much a character in my world. It has agendas and reasons for everything it does. Here is the text from a similar post I replied to. I hope it helps.

    “One player had to kill a Lich that was turning thousands into undead, robbing death of all those souls. Another had to bring Death a book that was in the possession of a being known as the Broker. The druid was asked for a seed from the World Tree. A few times gods or angels have stepped in to offer something to death in return for the players return to life. That Lich I mentioned before caught the party in a trap and caused a TPK! Afterwards when everyone was at the black gates the king of the angels made a deal for their lives with death because the party had saved his daughter earlier. My group has even witnessed a passing of the torch, where Death killed a demon lord, but was injured enough to have to be restored to the celestial realm, so he was replaced by another angel they had helped before. Luckily anybody who had a deal going didn’t have to follow through with the new death :)”

  3. Death is always about balance in my games. In exchange for the player not dying they have to write down the name of someone in the gaming world and something unknown will happen to them in exchange for the the player surviving. If it’s an NPC the players have encountered, woops, looks like some more adventure seeds just came up. If they choose an enemy, well it looks like that enemy’s deity just started paying attention to them and they get a little buff.

  4. I don’t agree that Death necessarily has to be a character with an agenda. It’s a personification of a concept, but what if that personification exists only because people expect it to? Maybe there’s no active intelligence behind it, it’s just how the soul interprets something that it can’t comprehend, and that’s why the perception of death is different, same way when people look in a mirror they don’t see the same view as anyone else.

    In this case, the bargain is a form of ritual; what is required is not as important as how the individual feels about it – the power comes from the feeling of loss or conflict or whatever.

    This is not to say that you can’t have Death as a character, obviously; Newhon Death or Discworld Death or anything in between. I don’t think it a necessity though.

  5. I usually play Death as a mash up of Piers Anthony Incarnation and Adam Corolla on Family Guy. He’s just doing his job ferrying souls to their respective afterlives, so if you can make his job (or home life, or love life) easier, he’ll let you slide.

  6. For me, death is this constant “rule of nature” kind of character. He’s not sympathetic to you, but you can work something out with him, so you both come out ahead.

    I had a Paladin who claimed he was the last of his order die. Early on in the campaign a priest from a different religion made a subtle hint that there might have been more alive still, but in hiding from death. So the paladin had the choice of hunting them down and bringing Death’s call to them, or just passing through the gate to prolong their lives.

  7. I’ve always liked playing Death as kind of a buisness man, he doesn’t care about you or his job so he is willing to bargain. But what he really hates is people getting away with it without that bargain. A lot of times my deals will be about that kind of thing.

  8. I plan to portray Death as inscrutable in its deals.

    It will just present deals that create juicy story conflict for the characters, and I will leave it up to the players to speculate on why Death made such bargains.

    An example: I already have a Black Gates deal in my pocket in case the bard in my game takes a Last Breath. Death will allow her to continue living until the end of her next (and last) performance.

    How will the bard cope without musical expression? What if her performance talent is required for some mission-critical magical ritual? What if she tries to stretch the bounds of the agreement (“It’s not a performance if I don’t have an audience!”).

    Imagine if the bard loses a loved one and ends up playing a sad elegy alone just so she can follow her love beyond the Black Gates…

  9. Playing Death I always find challenging because most motivations like getting more souls don’t make sense – Death is always going to get all the souls in the end and Time means nothing to it. It’s easier if there is not one Death, but multiple Deaths from different planes that have desires beyond gaining souls (although they have that too).

  10. Michael Mendoza Your idea is very poetic and I like the imagery, but I think your player might interpret it as basically a failed roll. Playing a bard without music is like playing a wizard without magic.

  11. This response is a bit late, but in an Elder Scrolls-based game I plan to run, the “Death” the players encounter could be one of any number of entities, depending on who died. Proud Nord warrior has died? Talk to Shor in Sovngard. A priest of the Divines just met his end? Talk to Arkay. Dark Brotherhood Assassin met a target that proved to be more than a match? Better figure out how to convince Sithis to let you live.

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