Tarn grappled with the orc, trying to push back the arms holding the twin jagged blades laden with a sheath of contact poison. He felt himself pushed to his knees, the smile of his foe growing greater. In the last moment, he let himself collapse to the ground and roll to the side while the orc dropped to the ground. Within seconds his own knife was in his hands – and then but a bit later – deep in the flesh of the orc.
He stepped back, bent over forward, gasping for air, watching the dying gasps of the orc finally end. And then, without flair, the corpse disappeared.
In many games across the ages, when enemies were killed, they simply disappeared into thin air, sometimes with an added flash or a spiral of dust for decoration. However, as anyone can discover if they were to take a knife and experiment in the real world, this is not realistic. When creatures and people are killed, they leave corpses. Over a period of time, bacteria, fungi and predators eat away the flesh until only the skeleton remains, and even this turns brittle over age.
While most people try to avoid anything which reminds them of death, corpses can provide a very valuable tool in games which prize realism or the feeling of danger. This article offers several suggestions on how you can put corpses to good use in your game.
Corpses as Nourishment
Mankind is omnivorous, which means that we are capable of eating both vegetable and animal matter. While many people may choose not to eat meat for a wide variety of good reasons, it is still a good source for proteins and energy – especially in primitive areas without a major agricultural background.
If your game has some type of "satiation" stat, characters need to be able to eat to survive. Even if it doesn't, it might be helpful to give food of all types (including corpses) a bonus to health. How detailed you go with this can be up to the game designer – maybe eating corpses leaves bones behind. Maybe you have to cook the flesh first over a fire, or you will get sick (and thus become even hungrier).
The first game which included corpses for nutritional purposes to any major extent was Rogue, the grandfather of the roguelike genre of games. Later games even included bonuses and penalties depending on what type of flesh was eaten – for example, eating the flesh of one's own species is often considered as cannibalism, and is punished by the Gods, and other corpses give the eater special powers – for example, special immunities or skills.
Even if the main character doesn't eat any corpses, other scavengers and predators will. If you kill a corpse and don't hide it, it might attract wolves or other dire beasts which can smell it from afar. This might make it useful to attract new enemies in games which depend on experience points by killing – or can be used as a way to trap others by surrounding them with corpses. Or possibly they are a danger, if there are huge scavengers such as dragons and the like, which force the player to bury the corpses or burn them.
Corpses as Treasure Chests
When somebody dies, they do not instantly become naked (unless they had illusionary clothes on). In a game, corpses may be a valuable source of loot. A dead player will leave his armor, weapons, and treasures behind for other people to steal. Of course, in a game which frowns of PvP, this will be of lesser importance.
But even non-humans can be valuable. Myth and legends are full of creatures whose body parts held value for magicians and alchemists. The horns of unicorns are vessels of great power, the horns of rhinos… well, they give power to certain "vessels" if consumed in powder form. Blood may be the source of dark potions. Some magic spells may only work if you have the eye of a newt, or the liver of a worg. Entire economies can be built around hunters who search out valuable body parts to sell to magicians. But even mundane animals contain valuable fur and leather which might be useful for clothing. A common example is the common buffalo, which was used by Indians for countless things: http://www.bluecloud.org/11.html
Corpses as Undead
Anyone who has ever wanted an inexpensive army has always tossed an eye at the hundreds of thousand corpses laying beneath the ground. In a fantasy world, necromancers have great power – by turning skeletons and corpses into willing slaves, they can attack others in a war which only increases their firepower faster than new people can be born. Maybe the necromancer's guild buys corpses – and robbing graves and tombs might be a lucrative job.
And even if the local necromancer's guild is unavailable, corpses may magically turn undead themselves due to ambient magical radiation. Imagine facing one of your old characters as an NPC mob attacking you! Imagine a party going along, giving corpses good burials to prevent them from coming back.
Another idea may be a game where players are only immaterial spirits who can take over corpses and control them, revitalizing them for a while. Whenever they are killed, the spirit is stunned for a while until it can either reenter the corpse, or find another one to inhabit. A race for good corpses would ensue whenever a strong person dies – even leading some players to have their characters commit suicide to get a new, better body – leading to a morbid game of musical chairs. And missions to kill great creatures (such as a dragon) are always filled with paranoia – what if a spirit can enter the creature when it is killed before you can?
The main use of corpses, however, should be as decoration, to help players immerse in a game. But even if corpses aren't a major play element, they can add a lot to a game. They might be a source of dangerous diseases which characters can catch if they spend time near rotting corpses (giving another reason to give them an honorable burial!).
In a detective game, corpses may have clues on how they were killed. Or maybe the evil and devious jabberwocky leaves a trail of corpses behind towards his lair after one of his hunts. Or maybe they are necessary to complete your collection of hunting trophies…
One thing is sure: As long as there is life, there are going to be corpses. Why not give them a second chance in your game?