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Thoughts on immortalityby Khedrac
What is an Immortal?
Well, I think in Mystara, the answer will depend on who you ask. We all know what the game rules say an immortal is, but people get too caught up in this knowledge and forget that most of the multiverse’s inhabitants won’t share this knowledge.
Looking at the earliest canon for The Known World, to the inhabitants an “immortal” was some mysterious sort of super-being, but one thing it was not was a “god” (i.e. an object or direct worship). The adventure The Spindle of Heaven which came with the Master-level D&D screen makes it clear that while immortality is a mysterious state that the players should believe that their characters might be able to obtain, it is one of which knowledge is very hard to come by. Similarly, the Master rulebook lays out the structure of the epic quests to become “immortal” which involves finding and petitioning an existing “immortal”. For reference, Arik from B7 Rahasia was originally “an evil being of great power”, Arik was only changed to be an “immortal” when the B1-9 combination pack of adventures was published.
So, why do I say that the people of Mystara don’t think immortals are gods? Well, pretty much everyone will think they know how to become a god – just get enough people to worship you. We know better, but the inhabitants won’t, and neither will the characters unless they have tried it.
When the D&D renaissance started and Mystara was born, the authors started referring to the deities of the Mystaran peoples as “immortals” and things became very confusing, even if they were technically correct.
So, if not a god, what is an immortal (a.k.a. I didn't answer the question.)
We have a few early examples of immortals who would be known as such to the peoples of Mystara – the main one is “The Old Man of the Sea” who could either be taken from Arabian Nights sourced mythology (Sinbad) or from Greek mythology (possibly Poseidon moonlighting). I have to admit that, despite acquiring a copy cheaply, I have never read The Arabian Nights, so turning to Wikipedia, we find that the two figures have a lot in common – a very powerful figure who does pretty much whatever they want and challenges all they encounter (usually fatally) and may or may not be a god. Aside from the pettiness of the way they challenge people, this isn’t a bad fit for a Mystaran immortal capable of being a patron to immortal candidates.
Later examples of people who might be regarded as “immortals” by the populace of Mystara are Halav, Petra and Zirchev – the three legendary heroes of Traldara. In Gaz 1 they are honoured by the Church of Traldara, but they are not presented as the focal deities (immortals). These are legendary heroes of the people, so it makes sense to think of them as having been raised up by the gods to act as their agents. In this case there is a similarity to the way some Christians (notably many Roman Catholics) see ‘saints’ – i.e. as beings who may be willing to intercede with God/the gods on your behalf. Now, in Mystara this is actually the role of Titans and other Exalted, but again the common people will not be aware of this. (And as a titan – effectively a failed adventurer – would you want people to be aware that your state highlights your failure?)
So far, we don’t have too much to go on, but turning away from published canon to well-known history/mythology/fiction turn up something that seems obvious to me: Monkey, a.k.a. Journey to the West. I think the translation I have is the Arthur Waley version, so my ideas come from that.
In Monkey, there is a group of beings known as the Taoist Immortals. Leaving aside the religious aspects, they are creatures (people and other) that have found a way to become immortal; the ‘how’ being hidden knowledge that is only reluctantly passed on by those who know it. They are pretty much all of great power (compared to regular mortals) and able to contend with the lesser gods and the servants of the gods. Here, I think, we may have found the inspiration for the immortals of the Master D&D rules.
So, if we re-define “immortals” to be Taoist-type immortals rather than gods, what does this affect, and does it help or hinder?
I think it helps us fit more of Mystaran published canon into the world without needing workarounds!
So, some immortals are known and worshipped as gods (e.g. Ixion, who is pretty much the sun god) while others are known and fantastic beings (e.g. The Old Man of the Sea)? Err no, not really.
I think most immortals will fall into multiple categories – some will know them as a "god", others as an “immortal”, and others as both, just under different names. Indeed, it is quite possible that certain roles (such as The Old Man of the Sea) get passed around between multiple immortals depending on who is free (or junior) – so a senior immortal may take on the role when dealing with their chosen proteges, but delegate it to underlings the rest of the time.
This also still allows for clerics to still both be pantheistic or have a patron immortal as preferred. For some the patron immortal will be their “god”, for others it will be the “deity’s servant” who’s cause the cleric champions.
It is interesting to note that, iirc, the Companion Set requirement for Paladins and Avengers are that they follow a Lawful or Chaotic church not immortal/deity. I think most pantheons will have a range of alignments among their members (e.g. the ‘trickster’ is a pretty universal archetype even in otherwise lawful pantheons) but how the church itself is run will determine whether it makes paladins or avengers.
This also makes the religion of the Fire Shires fit more easily – are the High Heroes gods or the champions of the deities? At this point who cares? This is the sort of religious debate that the experts can hold long into the night, but won’t now affect the standard adventurer or their player. The same goes for pretty much all religions imaginable for the inhabitants of Mystara – since the locals don’t think of the objects of their veneration as “immortals” they are free to venerate how (and what) they want.
In short, breaking the link of immortal = god frees people to worship in whatever way the GM thinks best for the area. It also enables characters to go up against immortals without worrying about possibly committing blasphemy or suicide by fighting deities.
On the immortal side of the coin, it again makes it easier for immortals to establish multiple pools of worshippers under different guises to protect against interference from other immortals. Of course, this can lead to different groups of the same immortal’s followers fighting it out, but schism with a single church can cause that anyway.
As you may guess, this is something I have been thinking about for a few years, but have only now got round to documenting properly.
If I have written this properly (the way I intended) it should only affect the flavour of the world, but not any rule mechanisms.