Monday, 11 April 2011

AtoZ April - I is for Immortality

[This is a "blahblah"-heavy post amplifying some hashed out ideas about high-level play IMG. The JLCC is at the bottom if you want to skip ahead.]

Achilles: "Do you know what lies there, beyond that ridge? Immortality. Take it! It's yours!"
Sensible Myrmidon: "See him there? He's the kind of noisy arrow-magnet you kill before you get within earshot of the enemy."

Immortal Fame
"By this axe I rule! Well, partially by this axe, but more generally because I’m just so-o-o-o Howardian."

Attaining enduring fame in the Wilds is easily achieved. Kill dudes; take their stuff; hire bards to sing your praises; erect massive phallic monuments to self in conspicuous places. You might also want to work on some pithy one-liners (it worked for Genghis Khan and Kull of Valusia). Simple.

The hard mode/self-imposed challenge version of the above is known as the 'just rulership' model. This is the one in which your name becomes a byword for a golden age that everyone looks back on with nostalgia and longing. Your personal qualities are remembered with awe and affection, your achievements with pride and reverence, and your name becomes a byword for honesty, mercy, generosity, truth, justice and other such apple pie qualities. What are the chances of that though? Everyone knows that none of the cool kids like the big blue Boy Scout archetype. ;)

Oh, you mean *real* immortality. As in 'not dying and getting to enjoy all the good stuff you centuries beyond your allotted span' immortality. Well, that's slightly less non-trivial.

Transformative Immortality
"Power, respect and longevity. Why yes, that does sound like an interesting package deal. Please tell me more."

Gaining the attention of - and hashing out a bargain with - powerful inhuman entities from beyond the bounds of the known realities is pretty much a known quantity in popular culture, going back to Faustus and before. AD&D had whole panoplies of spells dedicated to wringing concessions out of the inhuman (often overlooked in favour of the more immediately useful "destroy it! with fire" or "destroy it! with no save" spells, but they were in there).

Making such a pact for power will get you beyond the 10th level soft cap on (demi-)human ability. Doing so turns you from a guy with a magic sword/wand and a reputation into a power in your own right. In essence you jump from the Conan/Theseus/Druss "chew-toy of fate" tier to the Elric/Hercules/Shef Sigvarthson "tells fate to sit down and wait until he's ready" tier. 

Transformative immortality is the realm of altered states like lichdom, worm-that-walks-ery, heartless mage-hood, plated mages and suchlike Baxa-illustrated oddness. Characters follow this route forgo their humanity in search of greater power. In accordance with the law of the conservation of bad-ass each of these guys is much more interesting and memorable if they are a unique entity. There might be any number of undead in the world, but it's just cooler if there is only one Koschei the Heartless; one Worm That Walks; one primal vampire, and so forth. Being unique has its privileges.

Done wrong this whole mode of play is just going to degenerate into numberwank and munchkinry; a relentless storm of egotistical cheese on a par with the most nakedly power-worshipping Saturday morning cartoons. We've all had games like that, and it's not my intention to visit such things again (fun as they were when I was 13 or so). Done right however, and the tensions and trade-offs from such a pact is likely to be an interesting play option. Think Moorcock at his best, or WoD played as intended by people who ain't darker than thou.

The whole process of bargaining for and attaining unearthly power is liable to be a role-played situation, possibly with heavy use of all the nasty demon-summoning tropes that gave D&D its scary reputation back in the 80s. All the usual "Mature content", "Player discretion is advised" and "Don't weird the normals" caveats apply. As implied above, the pact puts your character in long-term hock to some inhuman power that wants to use you as a glove puppet to further its inscrutable alien agenda. The character gets to channel unearthly power and summon (un)holy aid from the worlds beyond, all in return for blood and souls (sometimes others; more often their own). Not an ideal long-term situation, n'est-ce pas?

True Immortality/Divinity
"Power corrupts: absolute power . . . is much more fun."

The big time. The real deal. Immortality with all the trimmings. This is what humans have longed for since the days of Gilgamesh and the Greek myths. It is the dream of every Nietzsche wannabe and the cynosure of every munchkin. It's even been the stuff of children's films. The whole point of The Dark Crystal is reunion/apotheosis of the Urskeks and the healing of the world by the Grand Conjunction.

To partake of divinity in the world of the Vaults is to become, in some respects, an eternal verity. The gods are immortal and worshipped because they command, epitomise, or otherwise ideally represent, a substantial fact of life. Of course, a good press office (in the form of temples and clerics) really helps to spread word of their might and majesty and extend divine market share. Agni is the god of fire because he’s recognised and revered as such; Demogorgon draws power from being the Prince of Demons because cults worship him and numerous tales speak of his terrible power; Utravit is the goddess of the sea because every sailor in the world fears her hungry attentions.

The best way to cut the Gordian Knot of the Faustian pact for power is to become the public face of a concept in the popular imagination. The existing gods, being obsessively focused on their field of interest, are likely to be really touchy and jealous of their patch: jealous like psychotic mobsters with countless fanatical followers, diplomatic immunity and a nuke in their sidecar. Set yourself up as god of fire and (whether you manage to grant spells to your clerics or not) you’re likely to kick off a holy war with the existing holder of that franchise. But, if you’re lucky, and cunning, and careful, you might be able to carve out an overlooked niche somewhere. Many of the small gods achieve this (either through obscuritydivine grandfather clauses or the fact that they're big crayfish who don't play silly human god games), but being ‘god of that rock’ doesn't have many growth prospects in the long term.

Fortunately for adventuring types the quickest, surest way to achieve the end of having a shining halo of power and adoring worshippers galore is the same means they got famous and wealthy in the first place: killing, theft and self-glorification. The idea is to gain sufficient clout and name recognition in a certain field to force your way through the metaphorical velvet rope and into Club Olympus before all the hostility, envy and general bad karma you've heedlessly cultivated catches up with you. This has an implicit (although probably unintended) part of the D&D endgame ever since the original Heroes and Demi-Gods first statted the gods and made them stabbable.

Remember though: Bellerephon didn’t fall off Pegasus coz he failed a Dex check. Despite (or perhaps because of?) the adulation of their sycophants the gods are jealous, petty, vindictive, and possessed of a wicked sense of humour. Well, how could they be anything else when their actions are adjudicated by your GM?

A player who wants his PC to ascend to the top table has to do enough in the context of the game to profoundly change the game world. The changes have to be something more lasting and profound than ‘founded a dynasty’. Any schmoe with functioning genitalia and a knack for exploiting inheritance laws can manage that. Setting up an empire won’t be enough to ensure godhood, but it might be a good start.

So what is sufficient to merit ascension? This could involve breaking the game world as written (the Elric model), purifying it (the Imajica or von Bek model), or changing the underlying assumptions of the setting (The Matrix model). The player's reward for winning D&D is that his character wins D&D and gets to be one of those annoying ascended PC demigods from the Greyhawk boxed set.

Routes to Divinity
"Where do I get a cool hat like that?"

Even moreso than bullying power out of demons, elementals, world spirits, dark godlings or who-knows-what, the path of ascent to godhead should be determined by the player and GM in accordance with the needs, requirement and limitations of the setting. Sometimes, and in some places, such a thing simply won't be possible; other times (as in the Vaults game) it might one of the intended long-term possibilities of play from the outset.

  1. Genocide - Kill everything in your path and set up your throne on the mountain of skulls. That'll get you remembered. Maybe not in a nice way, but remembered nonetheless. Examples: Yama, Iskander, The Steel Tsar
  2. Golden Age - People wish you'd come back, because life under your merciless iron rule was just so much better. The harvest was good, the animals fat, the enemy far away. Examples: Yellow Emperor, Osiris
  3. Empire Builder - Before you there was chaos, after you there was peace and order. People seem to like that. Examples: Marduk, Augustus
  4. Theocrat - You are that to which all eyes turn; the font of all virtue; the last court of appeal and the guarantor of prosperity. You can give or take life without apology or explanation. Sounds pretty godlike to me. Examples:???
  5. Steal it! - You remember Prometheus? Yeah, like that. Only godly power for self instead of Robin Hooding fire for humanity. Examples: Prometheus, Ranald (WFRP universe)
  6. Archetype - You're so identified with a particular thing that people confuse you with it. They say thunder is your footsteps, storms are you pitching a fit or a heatwave is you glaring. Examples: Thor, Ra, Poseidon.
  7. Exemplar - You are remembered as the ultimate (builder/warrior/wizard/whatever). People pray to you for help when they're doing what you used to do. Examples: Imhotep, Kwan Yi(?)
  8. Scholar/Nietzschean Superman - You learned enough that the universe reforms itself to your will. You can do what gods do; that pretty much makes you one of the club. Examples: Karsus (for all of 6 seconds)
  9. Sacrifice - They kill gods you know. Getting killed for a powerful symbolic reason might be enough to catapult you up to the big chair. Examples: Orisis, Adonis, Saints.
  10. Explorer - After a long quest that left the world profoundly changed you found the fount of godhead and took a long, deep draught. Divinity tastes good. Examples: ???

JOESKY'S LAW Compliance Content

Divine Vestige - The Living Shadow
Deep within a far-away cave in the most hostile of lands exists a curious thing; the enduring shadow of a great sage now long departed from the world. Some claim that this ancient teacher became too pure for the world and transubstantiated in a flash of light so powerful as to drive all his sins out of his body and into his shadow. Others maintain that the shadow maintains contact with its progenitor as an emissary to the world left behind. Disputes over these matters have long divided sages and theologians of the Wilds, but at least the disputation keeps such dangerously curious minds occupied.

The shadow may be consulted once by any person able to make the journey through the monster-infested wilderness and down the voice-haunted tunnel network of which the shadow's cave is part. To the best of mortal knowledge the shadow answers the question put to it fully and truthfully, seemingly asking nothing in return. A small but lucrative pilgrim trade has grown up around the shadow, and some skin-inkers claim to know the secret of tattooing with the blessed darkness of the living shadow.

Random Living Shadow Tattoo Table
1. Increases hide in shadows chance to 5in6
2. Acts as locate object, one time only
3. Allows wearer to reach through shadowed objects as if hollow
4. Acts as contact other place, one time only
5. Grants unusual sense (GM's option)
6. Allows wearer to carry objects (of reasonable size. No ships!) within his shadow

Links and Material of Possible Interest


  1. Your list of 10 routes to dvinity sort of covers some of the same grand as the paths to immortality in BECMI D&D, albeit in more flavorful way. That was something I liked about that edition, though its implementation was very idiosyncratic and not widely applicable.

    A pedantic note on your "JLCC" notation on all these posts. Joesky's post says if all your post does is "make an argument" you've got to give some rule stuff. All your posts are non-argument content, so it doesn't really apply to any of them.

    Which is no big deal, but I've seen other bloggers pick it up in this fashion, and I think that it sort of undervalues the game usefulness of the idea-provoking content you're providing.

  2. Oops that's "same ground," of course.

  3. @Trey: I re-read the 'I' boxes in preparation for this post. There are some great ideas in there, but IMO the four paths to immortality were - even in their looser Wrath' format - a leetle too systematised and prescriptive.

    As for the JLCC thing. I (mis)use Joesky's Law in this way mainly to keep myself honest. I've a dreadful tendency to waffle on about nothing and to no end.


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