Monday, November 16, 2015

Musings about Longevity of Sentient Beings in the D&D RC (and other Fantasy Games)

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!


  1. You are absolutely right about Malazan. Deep, old history is the hallmark of so much of the series. One of the parts of the books I always enjoyed is when a person meets one of the truly legendary figures of the world. There is always the mental stutter. Like meeting Gilgamesh in person.

    1. It's a great series and especially because of those ideas, like creatures plotting for centuries before they see fruition of their plans or monumental remnants of older civilizations. You can feel how all those old entities with their alien mind frames work way beyond what mortals could grasp. And hold a grudge for centuries, too. Good stuff!

  2. I ran a 4e campaign from 1st to 30th a couple years back. It's the longest campaign I've ever run, and the first (and only) one to reach "Epic" levels. It took us about a year moving along at a breakneck pace, and most of the shenanigans took place between levels 10-30.

    There were a couple of artifacts involved (Rod of Seven Parts, Amulet of Epic Charisma), the enmity of a few gods (Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades), and the party amassed and marched an army across the isthmus of Corinth to conquer Thebes. The climax involved a primordial dracolich, some 50+ phylacteries, an epic siege, some divine intervention (Hera and Demeter), and the creation of two new races (dragonborn and tieflings).

    The heroes were thrown into Tartarus for their trouble.


    1. Cool. Thanks for sharing! And with 4e, no less ... How many hours do you think it took (within a year seems awfully fast!)?

      Epic ending, by the way :)

    2. We didn't really use XP since 4e assumes you're killing monsters for XP. Instead the party leveled every other week, and right at the end they leveled every week. There isn't a big difference between levels -- mostly numbers increase -- not like other editions.

      In hours though? Probably 250-300. It was highly structured though, some time I'd like to see a campaign go to epic organically.


    3. Definitely sounds like a great campaign, Dither. My first thought has been something like "Wow, with 4th E that's a lot dead orcs and many, many battle-intensive hours ...". I'd love to have an organically growing campaign like this, but I think that'd need dedication of a group worth years. Maybe I'm not there yet in my life (still hoping for retirement here ...).

  3. Jack Vance's books, especially the Dying Earth books, are an excellent example of this actually going on. There are insane levels of magical dastardry. semi-technological gods, burnt-out civilizations, and dimension hopping, djinn-wielding posthumans running around while these pathetic mud farmers are hoping nobody blows up the Universe around them.

    The 'New Sun' and related books by Wolfe, themselves deeply influenced by Vance, have a scope of the vastness and mind-bending weirdness of a Universe where magic, technology and time have slippery (and sometimes interchangeable) meaning.

    It is, of course, these books that serve as a huge inspiration for D&D.

    1. Totally forgot about Jack Vance! Still, I think (and it might be blasphemy, I know) Erikson did a better job for the sheer scope of his books. And although all those books you mention inspired parts of D&D, all the published settings that came with AD&D went very far away from those influences, especially in the worlds they described. I might need to find those "New Sun" books ...

    2. Gene Wolfe is great, especially if you like unusual diction.
      D&D settings are all over the place, partly because of the various interests of the authors, but also because a lot of it was more-or-less churned out without any coherent idea about what was going on. I think the ones designed for publication (esp. Forgotten Realms) often suffer immensely for their total lack of coherence or quality vetting, as well as the 'kitchen sink' approach, which is really quite different from the selective and picaresque weirdness that informs many of its genre influences.

    3. I like Wilderlands and Blackmoor more than 90% of what's come out, specifically because it is more like an Appendix N pseudo-history than an excuse to have elves that fire bows akimbo or whatever the fuck nonsense.

  4. I have put much thought into ancient characters, primarily the evil ones, as it seems that that is the predominate alignment for them; their psychology fascinates me, they would have their own stages of it, maybe going through the God/King phase until they suddenly feel that power is worthless to them, depressions that would break most people are no doubt common, but what really fascinates me is how they perceive time, and how this effects their way of thinking. If somebody defeats them, they'll never get revenge on them personally, however they will get it on your bloodline, and they do it in ways that are unique to them, just killing out a bloodline isn't good enough, they seek to hurt it in ways that gives the ancient creature pleasure. It knows emotional grief, intensely, and it knows how to cause it in others.

    If asked a question that is interesting to it, it could take ions before it feels that it answers, and by that time, nobody cares anymore.

    1. Yes! Exactly that! You should definitely check out Erikson, then (if you haven't already), because those are major themes in his Malazan books.

  5. Hi,

    the second gazetteer, The Emirates of Ylaruam, incorporated immortals. The history of the immortal Al-Kalim is given and referenced in the way the culture is described to behave: common greetings and sayings, general outlook of people, schism of followers, etc. They also described a MU, Barimoor, who is on the path to immortality, and describe his lair and the different ways that adventurers would interact with him at different levels.

    I am pretty sure in the Champions of Mystara boxed set that the immortal Yav is referenced pretty heavily when describing Yavdlom. He went the time travel path to immortality and I think that is given as an adventure seed.

    If you look at this page, Shawn Stanley, has compiled a list of people described as questing for immortality. Check out Leo Variantia especially!


    1. Thanks, John! Never got a chance to check the Gazetteers or the Champions of Mystara out. Pretty much stuck with the RC most of the time. Always thought I should take the time some day, though.

      Pandius is a great source and I love it, but I've never seen that one and it's exactly what I was talking about. Shows what can be done and where the problems are. That Leo guy is like 20 years worth of playing ... I doubt it's something that could be done in real life.

      But here is an idea: A DM keeps the characters and players get what he has to play instead of making them themselves. That way a DM could carry characters for as long as he cares ... Or one could do some sort of reincarnation rules, where a DM has characters of his own that earn experience with all the different players and characters (incarnations?) he got to DM Some sort of meta game, maybe. Need to think about it some more.

  6. I linked this post on my blog today. I thought you;d like to know. :)


    1. Thanks for spreading the word, Dither! I actually googled the plural for paradox and paradoxes came up. I believed them and used it without looking back :)


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