Immortal Characters in RPGs

by Frank Mitchell

July 7, 2006

One rainy day I got to thinking about representing an "immortal" character -- hundreds, thousands, or maybe millions of years old -- in a role-playing game system. If the GM needs to create NPCs, or if an entire campaign revolves around immortal characters amidst mortals, maybe the following ideas would prove useful.

Skills

One of the fundamental questions is how to represent centuries or millenia of experience. For example, in GURPS (3e at least) a character could have no more than two points in skills per year of life. However, if a character is a thousand years old, that's up to two thousand points of experience, which might exhaust even GURPS's huge skill list.

In any system, though, we run into similar problems:

  1. Immortal characters would be essentially unbeatable, especially in skill-based systems. Even in a level-based system like d20, immortals would have more than enough time to reach Epic levels.

  2. Keeping track of all those skills would be a chore, never mind allocating them.

  3. At a certain point, a high level of skills is less advantageous: whether you beat your opponent by 1 or by 20 is usually immaterial. Wouldn't someone with hundreds of years of experience be qualitatively different than someone with twenty or forty?

We consider possible simplifying mechanisms below.

Absolute Limits

The simplest strategy might be to place an artifical cap on immortal abilities. Possible justifications include:

  1. Immortal humans can keep only so many memories in their heads. Maybe they gradually forget their pasts, or have trouble learning new things. Maybe as they practice some skills they lose skills they haven't used in a while.

  2. All humans plateau at a certain level of accomplishment, regardless of age, so skill levels, class levels, etc. stop at some level. At a certain point, human physical and mental limitations kick in.

  3. If immortals are few and far between, perhaps the lack of worthy opponents causes immortals to stagnate at 20th to 30th level, or the equivalent in skill-based systems.

This helps balance against non-immortal characters, but in an immortal game, or when the GM wants to knock the players' socks off, limits are boring.

Uber-Skills

Another option is to allow immortal characters to acquire "Uber-Skills" that subsume a large number of related skills. GURPS's Atomic Horror supplement introduced the skill Science!, to model a B-movie scientist's ability to deduce an alien monster's weakness or construct a super-science gadget in the third reel. Fourth Edition GURPS (p. 175) has a sidebar on "wildcard skills" or "bang skills", appended by '!', which substitute for individual skills within a specific area, e.g. "Detective!" (all the crime solving skills like Criminology, Interrogation, and Shadowing) or "Sword!" (using any kind of sword or sword-like weapon: shortswords, longswords, scimitars, katanas, light sabres ...).

Other games like Risus, FATE, and PDQ define all characters as a small set of "cliches", "aspects", or "qualities" that might be professions, physical or mental ablilities, magical traditions, personality traits, and so forth. A game with a normal skill set may allow immortals to take uber-skills with some sort of limits, perhaps combined with ordinary skills at no limit (e.g. wielding a katana conjured out of nowhere).

Skill Mastery

Issaries's HeroQuest caps skill numbers at 20, but allows heroes to take levels of "mastery" above 20. E.g. a character at 20 in a skill would progress to "1 mastery 1". Far from being a regression, each level of Mastery allows a character to raise a Fumble to a Failure, a Failure to a Success, or a Success to a Critical. Any levels left over allow him to bump his opponent down one level. (The mastery levels of each opponent cancel out before applying what's left.) As shown in this chart, having one level of mastery above an opponent gives a character a major edge, two makes him really hard to beat, and three or more makes him unstoppable.

Translating this idea to your favorite game system sounds best for an immortals-based game where immortals can outperform ordinary mortals but are on an equal footing with each other.

Combined with "uber-skills" above, immortals may have levels of mastery in skill groups, plus ordinary-seeming skill levels. If a skill falls within one of those groups, however, it's an immortal-level skill.

On-The-Fly Skills

If the GM is making up a patron character on the fly, or players feel comfortable with making up characters as they go, they might make up the character's skills and abilities as the adventure progresses. This is a huge advantage in a world where ordinary mortals have pre-defined skills, since immortals can choose what's right for the world and adventure, and probably have options for high-level skills. Two mechanisms spring to mind:

  1. In Fudge On The Fly, each character has a fixed number of slots at each skill level (Poor through Superb); when the character confronts a challenge, he uses one of those free slots to define the level of a relevant skill.

    Similarly, an immortal may have a number of slots for each level of skill (for other systems +2, +3, etc.). Comparatively, an immortal would have more higher-level slots than a "short-timer".

  2. For a more random method, roll dice to determine the character's skill level, e.g. 2d6 (or 3d6?) for d20/OGL games, DX or IQ + 1d6 (or more) for GURPS, FUDGE dice (plus a bonus?) for FUDGE.

In some cases, e.g. with Gallifreyan Time Lords, skills may change between adventures: the master swordsman of one episode may become inept with swords the next.

Unless the immortal has been everywhere and done everything, you might have to bias some skills for that character's background, e.g. a warrior might have high battle skills but low academic skills, whereas a scholar might have plenty of knowledge skills but few physical skills. Also, if the game takes place in a modern or future setting, the character might have low or no skills in modern equipment like computers, cars, or even firearms.

Legendary Abilities

With mastery of a skill might come qualitatively different abilities. Two examples from other game systems:

Social Impacts

In something like a modern society, where an immortal must remain hidden, he would have to change identities every twenty or forty years. Especially in today's world, either he would need to leave no paper trail at all or come up with enough forged documents to establish his new identity. Coming back as your own heir is a popular option, but it relies on either being highly reclusive or keeping your "family" from blabbing.

In older societies, moving from place to place can obscure your identity, although most older civilizations don't take kindly to strangers and travellers. If you're lucky enough, though, you can walk into someone else's identity; see The Return of Martin Guerre (book or movie).

In a fantasy or science fiction society, an immortal might be accepted for what he is. However, he'd likely be famous, perhaps revered like a king or worshipped as a god, and a target for the occasional crazy who wanted to disprove his divinity.

Source of Immortality

I'll end with a quick(?) discussion of various mechanisms for immortality, and their implications.

Doesn't Grow Old

By definition, "not aging" is the simplest form of immortality, the character stays at a certain age for the remainder of a very long life. However, the character is subject to all the ills that flesh is heir to: disease, accidents, and assassination. Such a character might very well become a recluse, unwilling to risk eternity ... or, he may become a thrillseeker after centuries of seeing the same things over and over.

For more daring immortals, one might add one or more of the following options.

Immune to Poison, Disease

Added to an immunity to old age, immunities to disease and poison make a human immortal more resilient. However, he might have lived through the Black Death or innumerable assassinations, and end up quite depressed or jaded. If alcohol is considered a poison, he might be very cheerless indeed.

Doesn't Breathe, Eat

Removing the need for air removes a whole host of ways to die, and removing the need for food even more.

One horrible alternative is that, without air, the immortal passes out; without food, he slowly withers away. Maybe he enters suspended animation, or maybe he lays there, insensible except for the pain ...

Regeneration

Also known as the "Highlander" option, this type of immortal rapidly heals from physical trauma, perhaps at a miraculous rate. One hit point or wound level per round would make the immortal wholly unkillable except for truly massive trauma. More sensible limits might include a slower rate, or regeneration only in non-combat time.

Such an immortal might be truly reckless, since very little apart from a fall from a cliff or head-on collision could kill him. Of course, lesser damage would still hurt.

Unkillable

A whole category or immortals simply cannot die, due to a supernatural hold on life. For example, GURPS defines an "Unkillable" advantage, in three levels:

  1. The character isn't dead until his body is completely destroyed.

  2. The character has an "indestructable skeleton" (ugh) from which he or she can grow back, unless prevented by continuous damage (e.g. a roaring fire). [Aside: I'd probably work out something less hokey, e.g. a crystal in the skull or heart, the ashes themselves, or an overlooked drop of blood.]

  3. When completely destroyed, the character becomes a disembodied spirit, who will eventually reform a body at a place of the GM's choice. [Actually a good power for incarnated angels, demons, and gods.]

GURPS has further limitations for conditional resurrection, e.g. "must spill blood on the remains", or "cannot rise if staked through the heart".

Combined with regeneration, you could have a Wolverine-like character who can grow back literally from nothing. This might be an excuse for skill limits: every time the brain is destroyed, the character forgets all but a few basic physical skills.

Displaced Soul

A strange but folkloric variation of Unkillable is that the character's soul is displaced into one or more physical objects. As long as those physical objects are intact, the body will keep coming back. On the other hand, if the object is destroyed, the character immediately dies.

Evil giants often hide their souls in some seemingly inaccessible place, which some nosy wise woman invariably knows about. Players can probably think of better options, like a safety deposit box or in a hall of cursed jewels/eggs.

Reincarnators

In another version of Unkillable, the character comes back as a different being entirely, with the old character's memories but skills and other abilities altered.

For a more folkloric version of reincarnation, the characters may be reborn in multiple mortal forms, and "awaken" at some point to resume their old identities.

Ressurectionists

Like Ras al-Ghul and his Lazarus Pits, some immortals may be unable to restore themselves except through a certain place, time, or artifact. Without that prop, they may be as vulnerable as ordinary humans.

Therefore, such immortals will take uncommon measures to protect their source. They may acquire economic or political power to safeguard themselves or, failing that, to ensure someone will be around to apply the life-restoring whatever.

"Rip Van Winkle"

From Rip Van Winkle onward, authors have imagined a form of immortality which requires the character to hibernate for extended periods of time. This idea shows up in games, too; Mummies from White Wolf's World of Darkness look like ordinary humans of Egyptian extraction during their "active" periods, but due to physical damage or gradual loss of soul energy, they must re-enter their sarcophagi and regain the energy to rise again.

These extended naps may provide the mechanism to limit skills and other abilities: some may be forgotten or lost, others might become useless in the next age.

Mutiple forms

Some immortals may not depend on simply one body, and could lose one without much harm. Two examples follow.

Body-Jumpers

Some creatures, either alien parasites or wholly mental entities, can jump from body to body over the centuries. Usually this requires some sort of proximity to the prospective host, and some means of rendering it unconscious, compliant, or simply immobile while transferring its mind or foul squamous form. Examples in fiction include the Goa'uld from Stargate: SG-1, the Trill from Star Trek, Asenath Waite from Lovecraft's "The Thing at the Doorstep", and innumerable stories of demonic possession.

Body-Jumpers work best as villains in horror scenarios where the protagonists notice acquaintances acting strangely, but an entire campaign could be centered on alien parasites or immortal mind-essences, especially if they're not wholly malevolent and don't completely destroy the host personality. Chaosium's Nephilim presents one such world.

Distributed Consciousness

In fiction, at least, a single mind could hop easily from one pre-existing body to another, or exist as the sum of several discrete entities. For example:

Durable Form

Some immortals may not be strictly human, and immortal because their physical substance withstands the ravages of time.

Undead

Vampires and liches are staples of fantasy gaming; vampires have entire game systems to themselves. (But why not the others? How about Lich: the Machination, or Zombie: the Shambling?)

Undead might be set in their ways, leading to some sort of skill limits. Or else, like liches, they've been underground for a while and may have practiced their magic and plotting at the expense of social skills. Undead also have a plethora of mundane drawbacks, including vulnerabilities to sunlight, dependencies on blood or other gruesome substances, and a fear of certain religious items.

Construct

Golems and androids might be built to endure for centuries, if not millenia. Like undead, they might be set in their ways ... or, through nature or nurture they may be masters of a particular skill set or domain.

Drawbacks of constructs include hiding their nonhuman nature, a lack of natural healing (barring special enchantments or nanotechnology), and mental programming that restricts their actions (like harming a human being or allowing one to come to harm).

Alien Physique

Nearly anything can be justified on the basis of an "alien physique", including superpowers, weird allergies (e.g. glowing stones or microwave ovens), and, of course, being immune to most types of physical harm.

In particular, being "silicon-based" can justify being as tough as rock; being a "moving plant" can make a creature Unkillable, especially if it can merge with other plants.

Unless the alien was raised by an elderly couple in Kansas, though, even human-seeming aliens will have a strange and perhaps naive way of perceiving the world. They might be brilliant technologists but socially inept (much like many gamers), or may have trouble adjusting to primitive Earth-toys and the native's irrational dislike of telepathic domination.

Incorporeal

If an immortal doesn't depend on a physical form at all, it can't be "killed". However, some devices or supernatural powers might be able to harm an incorporeal being, so it's not a complete immunity from all harm.

Incorporeal beings may have trouble making contact with corporeal beings, or relating to the problems of the living. Like undead, they may be set in their ways, and unable to understand concepts like "the Internet" or, depending on age, "heliocentrism".

Outside of Time

Some might escape the ravages of time by being outside of Time itself. Two possibilities are below.

Faerie, Gods and Spirits

Legends and myths tell of beings beyond the mortal world: the faerie realm where time runs differently, the abode of the gods who may be before or outside of time itself, and spirits who are perhaps frozen at the point where they left their mortal forms.

Such creatures would clearly have superhuman abilities, but, since they haven't lived linear years they might have reduced or "capped" skills, perhaps no better than a mortal's. Legends also tell how mortals can often trick them, given that their contacts with the "real world" are few and far between.

Time Travellers

Similar to the Rip Van Winkle option, being a Time Traveller could mean experiencing history in the wrong order. There are whole books written on temporal paradoxes and changing the past, which I won't get into here.