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Return to Oz: A Thousand Ways to (Not) Die

In Oz, there are many ways to die and far more ways to not die but suffer for eternity. For tabletop role-playing games, it's a great example of how a campaign can deal with characters who never stay dead.
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By Александр Коротич - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, File:Иллюстрация к сказочному сериалу Л.Ф.Баума "Страна Оз" 18.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

Where It All Began​

In Dungeons & Dragons, characters can return in many different ways. Dungeon Masters have considerable justifications too (besides DM fiat). In my original Welstar campaign, the heroes ambushed their recurring nemesis, a red dragon named Molyemaia. They cut off her head, disintegrated the body and head, and then scattered the ashes... all to keep her from returning for revenge.

This behavior might seem extreme, but it's understandable in a game where reincarnation and resurrection are all feasible alternatives for PCs and NPCs. This is just as true in Oz, as Baum explained in The Emerald City of Oz:
No disease of any sort was ever known among the Ozites, and so no one ever died unless he met with an accident that prevented him from living.
That specific phrasing leaves the door open to all kinds of "accidents." Let's look at a few.

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Being a Witch​

Perhaps the most famous death is the one that started the Oz series, when Dorothy's house landed on the Wicked Witch of the East. Although the Munchkins claimed Dorothy "killed" her, the above quote indicates that she was still alive at the time. In fact, the real issue isn't the house falling on her at all. The Witch of the North explains in The Wizard of Oz:
“She was so old,” explained the Witch of the North, “that she dried up quickly in the sun. That is the end of her. But the silver shoes are yours, and you shall have them to wear.”
Witches were also deathly afraid of the dark and of water, which could melt them:
The Witch was too much afraid of the dark to dare go in Dorothy’s room at night to take the shoes, and her dread of water was greater than her fear of the dark, so she never came near when Dorothy was bathing. Indeed, the old Witch never touched water, nor ever let water touch her in any way.
In Baum's world, being old and ugly, in a land where anyone can stop aging if they wish, was less a condition of age and more of a manifestation of wickedness.

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Banished​

Because it's difficult to get to Oz, Ozma or Glinda would frequently banish intruders back to where they came from. This was always coupled with destroying the means for the intruders to reach Oz, usually with magic. Narratively, this is the least likely option in tabletop games, because most means of transportation are a repeatable spell or ability. But a carefully worded wish might ensure the invaders aren't interested in returning.

Banishment doesn't always involve magic. The roly-rogues that invaded Noland in Queen Zixi of Ix were poisoned so that they fell asleep, then tied up and rolled out into the ocean, where they presumably ended up on an island (because surely that won't come back to haunt anyone later!).

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Buried Alive​

In Captain Salt in Oz, a much worse fate awaits the enemies of the wizard Boglodore (who cannot die easily), by tying them up and then dropping them in the ocean, as he explains to the titular Captain:
"It is justice, seaman, and only what we ourselves planned to do. The vines will keep these rogues afloat for two days, then haply they will sink—not to die, as death comes not to the people of my country, but to lie for long forgotten ages at the bottom of the sea, harmless and sodden, and unable to do any more harm to the country they have so dishonorably served and betrayed!"
In The Scarecrow of Oz, King Phearse of Jinxland quarreled with his Prime Minister, King Krewl.The quarrel turned violent, and Krewl shoved Phearse into a deep pond. Here's what happened next, according to Pon, Phearse's son:
At once Krewl threw in a mass of heavy stones, which so weighted down my poor father that his body could not rise again to the surface. It is impossible to kill anyone in this land, as perhaps you know, but when my father was pressed down into the mud at the bottom of the deep pool and the stones held him so he could never escape, he was of no more use to himself or the world than if he had died.
It doesn't seem to occur to anyone to look for Phearse after Krewl was overthrown.

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Permanent Polymorph​

In later books by Ruth Plumly Thompson, Ozma was fond of dispatching enemies by turning them into animals. She turned the Wizard of Wutz's minions into moles. Oz animals can still speak, but those animals were inevitably small and harmless.

For really persistent enemies, Ozma took more drastic measures. In the Wizard of Wutz's case, the magically summoned Himself the Elf turned the Nome King and the aforementioned Wizard into cacti.

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Petrified​

Turning creatures to stone and then working to turn them back is a common theme in Oz. It's a major plot point in The Patchwork Girl of Oz when an accident petrifies several people and the heroes must find the cure to turn them back. More than one villain uses this ability to their own ends to either permanently paralyze or place characters in stasis. It's a specialty of the Wizard of Wutz. The most egregious use of this ability happens in The Cowardly Lion of Oz, when the stone man known as Crunch turns nearly ten thousand lions to stone with seven magic words.

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Feeblemind​

When the Nome King assembled a fierce army to burrow under the Deadly Desert in The Emerald City of Oz, Ozma cast a spell that made the intruders dreadfully thirsty. The invading armies all ran to the nearest source of water, the Forbidden Fountain. Drinking from the fountain causes one to forget who they are, what they were doing, and become childlike (which also means becoming good-aligned):
...the great warriors had become like little children. They had forgotten all their enmity against Ozma and against Oz. They had even forgotten who they themselves were, or why they were in this strange and beautiful country. As for the Nome King, they did not recognize him, and wondered who he was.
It should be noted that in the case of the Nome King, this condition didn't last, so presumably the invading armies eventually regained their memories too.

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Dismembered and Reassembled​

What would normally be fatal in Oz turns out to be something much worse. Instead of dying, body parts live on (for at least some beings). In Ozma of Oz, Princess Langwidere changes heads like one would change hats. In The Magical Monarch of Mo, everyone who lives there can survive with all of their limbs cut off. Prince Jollikin, dismembered by a monster, ends up attaching his legs to his head in pursuit of the rest of his body. In Grampa of Oz, King Fumbo loses his head in a storm (it gets blown into some floating clouds) and his son must go on a quest to retrieve it.

Being cut up is bad enough. Being put back together incorrectly is worse. In The Tin Woodman of Oz, Nick Chopper (the Tin Man) was cursed with an axe that caused him to chop off his own limbs, each gradually replaced with tin by the famous tinsmith Ku-Klip. Ku-Klip later glued together the fleshy leftover parts with another Tin Man (Captain Fyter) to create a new humanoid named Chopfyt. And in Sky Island, the blueskins can't be killed, so their punishment is being "patched":
"They cut two of us in halves and mismatch the halves—half of one to half of the other, you know—and then the other two halves are patched together. It destroys our individuality and makes us complex creatures, so it's the worst punishment than can be inflicted in Sky Island...They stand you under a big knife, which drops and slices you neatly in two—exactly in the middle. Then they match half of you to another person who has likewise been sliced—and there you are, patched to someone you don't care about and haven't much interest in. If your half wants to do something, the other half is likely to want to do something different, and the funny part of it is you don't quite know which is your half and which is the other half. It's a terrible punishment, and in a country where one can't die or be killed until he has lived his six hundred years, to be patched is a great misfortune."

Nigh-Invulnerability and D&D​

As characters reach higher levels, their ability to withstand damage and overcome even death increases considerably. Conversely, anything the player characters can potentially do to prolong life or avoid death is also an option for the villains.

When I wrote 5E RPG: Oz Adventures, I created a new species called mofolk (inspired by the people of the Valley of Mo) that is mostly indestructible (that is, PCs can die but can be reassembled and eventually return to life). Each humanoid NPC that demonstrated indestructibility is considered a member of this species. For creatures, monsters that can’t easily die have regeneration instead.

As for that red dragon? I brought her back as a ghost dragon to bedevil the PCs one last time before being finally, permanently, defeated.

Your Turn: In a campaign where nobody stays dead for long, how do you keep characters from returning?
 
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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca

Ulfgeir

Hero
I believe we in Mutants and Masterminds 2e had a very dangerous villain with extreme regen. If I recall correctly she was put in a safe, and the safe dropped to the bottom of the ocean. I think the other characters even went for the Marianer trench... And this was years before the movie The Old Guard.
 

Urriak Uruk

Debate fuels my Fire
Turning that red dragon into a ghost is something I'm sure you only did because your party was so set on ensuring she didn't return... a true masterclass in DMing this is!

Anyway, this is a fun way to play D&D when "true death" isn't on the table. It would be very funny if a PC is beaten, gets his head cut off, and the villain just carries the still-alive head on them (think Kratos and Mimir). Everytime they face that villain in the future, the old PC is just there rooting them on!
 

Quartz

Hero
Trap the Soul and Soul Bind do pretty good jobs of preventing enemies coming back. Then drop the soul gem into a Sphere of Annihilation.

Or Polymorph the beastie into a petunia and drop that into the Sphere.
 


Eyes of Nine

Everything's Fine
It doesn't seem to occur to anyone to look for Phearse after Krewl was overthrown.

I lol'ed hard at this one.

Your Turn: In a campaign where nobody stays dead for long, how do you keep characters from returning?
Another question - in a campaign where nobody can really die - how do you keep things exciting? I would think trying to pivot almost entirely to a social campaign...

Also, in a world where mind control is so commonplace, wonder how to make sure players keep their agency.
 

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