I had been in the mood for a post like this: taking a topic and just writing to see where it ends up. It's partly a follow up on one of my very first posts: "Elves are no Mammals, Goddarnit!" (from 2011!). If you haven't read that one, check it out first, if you want to. It has a new class for the D&D RC (easy to hack into variants, of course) and gives examples how I handle level restrictions in the game. Let's get into that, shall we (turned out to be a long one again) ...
A word on immortals in the D&D Rules Cyclopedia
Vampires do it, gods do it and dragons do it, too, they live very, very long lives. Mostly will have done so when Adventurers encounter them and I always thought this should have consequences for a gaming world. Huge consequences, actually. Gods (or immortals, as they are called in the RC) are easy, one might think. And from a general point of true, that's right. They don't frequent the realms of mortals on a regular basis and do most their meddling using avatars or clerics.
But, and that's a huge "but", for a DM playing the D&D Rules Cyclopedia RAW they pose a serious problem. It's mostly ignored (in the games I know of) that Immortals had been mortal beings once and actually earned millions of xp before gaining immortality. They shaped the world, so to say. Even more so, the tasks they had to achieve should, according to the rules, last for a very long time (check The Four Paths on page 223 in the RC).
So one path, for instance, is the quest to travel to three different periods of time and "help three different descendants to retain their kingdoms and perpetuate the dynasty". This is a very particular can of worms worth a post on its own, I guess. How, for instance, did a not-yet-immortal hero do this? How many have tried and failed? Or how do the gods perceive time? I smell several time paradoxes coming along. And adventures connected to it ... But either way you play it, the impact on THE VERY FABRIC OF TIME AND SPACE is immense.
Other paths request the manufacturing of Legendary Weapons or solving impossible tasks, like "driving all dragons from the land or building a castle in the sky". It's all over the place, one is even about reincarnating three times and going the distance with three different classes (again, millions of xp). It's mind-boggling how consequent and ambitious the D&D RC actually is in this regard. I doubt there is more than a handful of DMs in the existence of this game who actually led a group of players from level 1 to immortality (for the off chance that one of them is reading this, please comment and tell me about it!).
Anyway, it's inconsequential if characters actually play all that and get there themselves. The thing is that the rules give explicit guidelines what needs to happen to get there. Consider the number of high level characters that tried and failed, consider those trying right now and those that already made it! Consider the impact this should have on a setting. Even if plane hopping takes some of it somewhere else, all of those paths actually demand of a hero to be active in his home realm. Consider there is a fifths path for the "sphere of entropy" that is on that page by name only, but rings of destruction and mayhem.
And that's before actual immortals start pestering the rest ...
I guess what I'm trying to say here is that although our little heroes are having epic adventures all over the place, leveling up, looting and killing kings, there is a gigantic subtext of other events, powerful events, going on. Needs to be. Because there are already thousands of others more powerful and further ahead in the same game, changing it all by being successful.
|People might notice things like this, you know ... [source]|
That's what you actually get with such a high power curve as the RC has it: 36 levels for all the humans and then some for becoming an immortal and some more for being an immortal.
How to live for millennia without getting bored (or killed)
So maybe you are thinking right now that it's just impossible to make all of this count in a game. It just can't be done, not even official products do it. It's just too much. And you might be right, but I'm not done yet. There is more, because there are several more Monsters in a game of D&D that are, if not immortal, around for thousands of years. Take your regular undead, like a Vampire. Give those guys a few thousand years to clean up their act and it's really hard to say where they might end up.
Or dragons. They grow up and grow old. They are powerful beasts if they manage to get that old. And if they did, they have a history. Their name should be legend, their influence and power beyond approach. the more I think about the implications of all of this, the more I think Game of Thrones is a kindergarten in comparison to the power plays those guys must have going ...
Which brings us to the concept of longevity in games such as the D&D Rules Cyclopedia. It is, of course, a philosophical concept. And hard to grasp, at that. The question a DM making his own setting should ask himself, is how all those npcs managed to stay alive for as long as they must have been to be the creatures they are.
|I think being that obvious about it|
isn't the best survival strategy ... [source]
A giant red dragon, attitude or not, just doesn't pop into existence and starts harassing folks for the heroes to get their 15 minutes of fame. No. She must have been around and there must have been a major change in her regular habits to risk getting killed by upstarts like mid- to high-level adventurers. Nothing is that easy. It's actually a bit naive to think it might be even close to being that easy. Living that long and with a superior intellect just doesn't allow for an easy kill.
So that's another thing. Most of those monsters are not only powerful, they are very intelligent, too. Would they even act in the open? Or do they have agents to do their bidding? How big (and influential) should such an apparatus be? How does it compare to, say, human kingdoms?
That's another thing. Humans breed, for those creatures anyway, fast as hell and spread all over the place, leaving their marks. How does a creature like an Elf or a dragon interact with something like this? Is it like us looking at an ant hill? Like, would you care to know the name of even one ant, knowing it won't be around for any serious amount of time? Does it matter? And if it matters, at what point is it becoming a threat and what would powerful creatures do about it? Not because they are evil, but because of necessity.
|Powerful Wizards do stuff like this|
ALL THE TIME [source]
And this is where we could go full circle. Some humans peak and get as powerful as those monsters are. Immortals might protect humans. The thing is, it won't be about getting powerful enough to confront each other, but more about getting powerful enough to keep the status quo, to keep the balance. Which, in turn, should keep all those involved pretty busy indeed.
What does it look like and who cares?
There is actually one series of fantasy books (I know of) that illustrates the machinations necessary for such a world and some of you might already know them: the Malazan Books of the Fallen series by Steven Erikson. Erikson worked 6 years together with a friend (Ian Cameron Esslemont, who also wrote some good books in the same universe) to build up their world.
|First in a great series [source]|
They have archaeological and anthropological backgrounds, so maybe those things came somewhat natural for them and the world they build is impressive, to say the least. I always thought it's the perfect example of how powerful creatures, powerful magic and powerful gods would/should shape a world. For that alone it comes highly recommended, so check it out (if you haven't already).
Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind is another great example for such a setting. Small human settlements, ruins all over the place, one gets a feeling that humans are merely guests here and it needs powerful characters to challenge some of the residents livings alongside the small castles here (the game being close to be a perfect sandbox setting might have something to do with it). For me at least, Vvardenfell always felt as if powerful entities formed it and it's definitely not just a standard vanilla fantasy affair. It got lots of depth.
|There are many good reasons for Morrowind being a classic ... [source]|
On a smaller scale, Lord of the Rings is another great example for a well thought out world, with The Silmarillion being a prime candidate of what I'm talking about here (as far as "powerful beings shaping the world" are concerned ...). But Middle Earth is decidedly what I'd call "low fantasy", as powerful characters are rather rare in the Third Age Tolkien is describing in the books.
|World Building 101 [source]|
What's left is to discuss how all of that actually plays out in our games. I know the Rules Encyclopedia is an extreme example for it, but it gets lots of points (in my book) for trying. Most other games shy away from that kind of scope. Even other editions of D&D, for that matter. But I believe our games would be better for it, if we actually put some effort into making the presence felt of those in our campaign that already lived for a very long time and shaped the world around them.
So how do you all handle those things? If you got an ideas, tips or campaign settings you know of, came up with or used, feel free to share them in the comments. I'd love to hear about it!