Beyond Total Party Kill: Playing Labyrinth Lord in the underworld

by Nicholas Moll

Sometime ago, I became notorious for building Labyrinth Lord campaign settings that were quite lethal to player characters. One of my initial creations, Scarlet Empire, presented the situation where a dark lord has risen, triumphed, and was now ruling the world. The Party began this campaign as prisoners of war from the previous conflict sold into slavery by a Goblin merchant and deployed into a certain trap-filled labyrinth – armed only with their wits – to, well, spring every trap before the merchant sent in the real adventurers. Another example is the setting I publish through Owlman Press – Over the Top – which applies the Tolkien-esq template of Labyrinth Lord to a steampunk, World War One inspired, campaign setting. The thing I found very quickly with Over The Top was that a machine gun nest – even at a cinematic scale of realism – is really effective at killing level 1 parties. This required some special setting rules designed to bring some heroism to Over the Top and avoid a regular total party kill.
Total party kill can be an awkward event for most gaming groups. It effectively ends play for at least that night, which can also mean an entire evening of entertainment goes to waste if it happens early in the session. While poor luck or player-initiated actions (and when I say players, I mean the Game Master as well – there seems to be this strange assumption that the Game Master is somehow not a player at the table. Their role may be different, but they’re still looking to have fun. But that is a discussion for another time) may be all involved in individual or collective character death. There are many common solutions to this from fudging dice for damage rolls, having some sort of deus ex machina occur such as a cleric appear offering an instant resurrection, and so on. However, for my Labyrinth Lord games I started to consider the other possibility. What if play continued after death as dead and departed souls in the underworld?
The underworld itself changes with each campaign setting. But at base, it is a composite of the world itself – meaning that it has a little bit of everything from each vista featured in the game. It generally is inhabited by the dead, gods of the dead along with their aids and helper beings (such as Angels). The underworld does not, however, contain any undead as such. Rather - as the player characters are not ghosts, zombies or the like - the undead are an aberration of the natural cycle of life and dead that occurs in the world of the living. The player characters themselves along with the underworld at large is posed herein as a natural part of that cycle. Aside from that basic premise, there are also some specific rules I engage for Labyrinth Lord characters playing on after their death:
1. Your character is dead, not undead
The hero is dead, and their soul has left their body coming to dwell in the underworld. When manifest in the underworld, the character’s corporeal (that is, the soul-form that serves as their body in the underworld) mirrors the one they had in life – including any possessions and equipment they had with them at the point of death. There may be some differences. The body may be withered, pale and ghostly. But it is still clearly the character. Any aging will, naturally, cease upon death.
2. You do not eat, but you do need to sleep
A dead character’s corporeal does not need to eat. It’s not a body in the biological sense, but has taken on a purely spiritual existence. A corporeal form does, however, still need to sleep as the mind requires breaks from, well, eternity to refresh focus and process the endless experiences of underworld existence.
3. You still loose Hit Points, but you cannot Die
A dead hero awakens in the underworld with full hit points. And this along with the presence of a body implies that the corporeal of a hero can be damaged and wounded by all the things that they once could in life. But the character cannot die. Rather, after reaching zero hit points they are unconscious but continue to take damage to maximum of -10 – at which point their body is little more than an oozing, shattered form. In the underworld, this state is often called Silence. A corporeal in the state of Silence will not heal naturally and can only be restored through magical means.
4. Certain Class Abilities and Spells may not work on a corporeal form
The inhabitants of the underworld are largely deceased living creatures – mostly Humans and Demi-Humans. But their corporeal forms are not a state of undeath, rather a natural progression from life to the great beyond. As such, a Cleric’s Turn Undead ability will had absolutely zero effect on most inhabitants of the underworld. Likewise, the spell Animate Dead has no effect on the corporeal bodies of the dead nor does Raise Dead or Resurrection.
Effects that cause a Save vs. Death still function on the dead, rending and reducing the corporeal body to Silence. Effectively, this means failing a Save vs. Death reduces the hero to zero hit points. While a character can recover they are considered, for all intents and purposes, non-functional and can still loose further hit points to the maximum of -10.
5. You can’t go home
Generally, death is a one-way trip unless friends in the world of the living have the ability to muster up a Raise Dead or Resurrection Spell. And on returning in this fashion, any memories of ones time in the underworld vanish – making return trips somewhat interesting. Naturally, there are rumours throughout the underworld of special gates that connect the underworld to the lands of the living, maps that will guide an individual to said gates, special ferrymen that will guide them there and so forth. Such routs are about as common as means to for the living to enter the underworld without actually dying. And many of the dead who wish to return can spend years, if not centuries, trying to find a way out.

Aside from the rules and premises above, most monsters can still be employed when adventuring in the underworld. As far as underworld-specific adventures go, the obvious one is to try and defy death and return to life. However, should the Party embrace their life beyond they may find themselves still sought for their heroic abilities. With decades or even centuries (Elves do live long lives) apart, the recently departed may have difficulty locating their previously departed loved ones on arrival. Likewise, many lost places and treasures lie in the wild places throughout the underworld and there are those willing to seek them – particularly if such wonders are those that eluded them in life. Additionally, most Labyrinth Lord Party’s kill a lot of people and even if they were not a dire villain in life, a mere henchman may have risen to such in death (motivated by their own demise). Revenge of their former foes always makes an excellent adventure, especially if the immediate option of death is off the table…
Corporeal: The physical manifestation of the individual’s soul that serves as their body in the underworld.
Silence: The state by which the Corporeal reaches zero or enters negative hit points and becomes unconscious.
Underworld: The plane of the dead, inhabited by deceased creatures and beings.