by Henrik Martensson
"I have been alive for four and a half centuries. And I cannot die."
– From the movie "Highlander"
Of all the advantages and powers in the GURPS Supers supplement, one catches the imagination more than any other: Immortality!
The trouble is that in most campaigns there isn't enough time to fully develop an immortal character. There are few campaigns where more than a decade or two will pass, before the players decide to move on to something else. This doesn't even begin to tap the epic qualities of roleplaying immortals.
This essay will deal with immortality as the focus of a whole campaign, where all of the PCs are immortal, or at least have the chance to gain immortality.
How does a character gain immortality? What problems does immortality bring? What happens if a PC runs the risk of losing his immortality? A campaign where the PCs can live forever puts special demands on the GM. He has to take the long view. During the course of the campaign empires may rise and fall, as will tech levels. Languages, customs, people, everything will change. Only the PCs remain, at least outwardly, the same.
There are several ways a PC can be immortal in a GURPS campaign. In some campaigns the PCs may start with either the Immortality or the Unaging advantages. In others, immortality will have to be gained.
A character may be created with the Immortality or Unaging advantages. This works well in most settings. In a fantasy campaign the PCs may belong to a race that is immortal, like Elves, or to a select group with special powers. The royal family of Roger Zelazny's "Chronicles of Amber" comes to mind. Blessings, or curses, by the gods are also possibilities.
In a science fiction setting the PC may be a genetic mutation, like Lazarus Long in Robert Heinlein's Time Enough For Love.
Powerful sorcery may make PCs effectively immortal. The Youth Spell from the College of Healing Spells (GURPS Magic, p.45) may keep a PC young and healthy forever. But what if not all of the PCs are able to use the spell? Perhaps only one of them can. Or perhaps the PCs all serve a powerful mage who pays them by using the Youth spell on them. In such a campaign the PCs may have to struggle hard to gain immortality, and they always run the risk of losing it again.
A variant of magical immortality, perhaps best suited to horror or semi-historical campaigns where magic is restricted, is immortality through Hebe (GURPS Magic, p. 90), the Elixir of Youth. An alchemist does not have to be a powerful mage to make the elixir. Indeed, he doesn't have to have Magery at all. This may make things considerably easier for the GM who wants to run a campaign where magic is rare. Of course it is always risky to make alchemical potions, and the ingredients may be very difficult to find.
Vampire PCs present interesting possibilities. Unless the players want to play evil monsters, the standard vampire from GURPS Horror really isn't well suited to this. It may be better for the GM to create his own variant of vampirism, perhaps using GURPS Supers. A vampire does not necessarily have to be evil. He may not have to kill either. Maybe he can make do on animal blood, or doesn't take enough to harm his victims.
This can work in magic, science fiction or psionic campaigns; it's a key element in GURPS Horseclans. An unscrupulous mage may use Permanent Possession or Exchange Bodies to hijack a new, younger body. A powerful psi may use Mindswitch to the same effect. Even if the PCs are good, kind people, if they can do this, can they resist the temptation? How do they choose their new bodies?
Science fiction campaigns may offer less sinister alternatives to this kind of body snatching. At Tech Level 9, braintaping allows a PC to transfer his mind to a younger clone of himself. Effective anti-agathic drugs become available at TL10, for those who can afford it. At TL14 a complexity 8, or better, computer may run a braintape as a program (see Ultra-Tech, p. 109). At TL15 the computer could be built into an exoskeleton, giving the PC a wholly artificial brain and body. In a cyberpunk campaign, these techniques may become available at lower TLs.
An interesting way to gain the Immortality advantage during play is through a disease – perhaps even an artificial one like the Proteus Virus (GURPS Psionics, p. 81). Conceivably, a virus could be created that confers either Unaging or Immortality. This doesn't have to be limited to a campaign set in the far future. What if visitors from another planet arrived to Earth thousands of years ago, and inoculated a few earthlings, either by accident, or by design?
Reincarnation is the only road to immortality not well covered in the GURPS system (though there is some general material in the Japan and China supplements.) The GM who wants to run a campaign where the PCs reincarnate, bound together by karmic ties (which of course is why they all are reunited time and again,) would do well to read a book or two by Michael Moorcock. Most of his heroes – Elric, Corum, Dorian Hawkmoon and others – are incarnations of the same Eternal Champion.
The drawback to such a campaign is that the players may grow jaded quickly. If a character will always be reborn, where is the danger? On the other hand, since the PCs will never truly die, the GM won't have to pull his punches. The PCs don't have to be the only ones to reincarnate, either. How do you handle a foe that will always come back, no matter how many times you kill him?
Immortality brings its own set of problems to a PC, and to the GM. First, in most worlds, is the attention of the non-immortal majority. An immortal must keep his status secret. Otherwise, he may well be accused of practicing black magic – true or not, depending on the campaign – and have to face a mob out to burn him at the stake. Worse yet, this will repeat any time the PC stays too long in the same place.
Other hazards include normal people, perhaps very rich and powerful, who would like to be immortal too, and stop at nothing to learn the secret. The GM may rule that all immortal characters automatically have at least a 20- or 30-point Secret disadvantage. To keep his secret the PC may have to change his identity every decade or so. In a low-tech world this is probably not too difficult, but in a present-day or science fiction campaign, especially a cyberpunk one, it may be very difficult.
Someone who lives for a very long time could easily become very, very rich, at least in theory. A few silver pennies well invested could grow into a fabulous fortune in just a century or two. Fortunately, it's not quite that easy. First of all, a PC will be able to take little property along when he changes identity. It will be tied down in land, ships and so on. Often he can take no more cash than he can carry.
An immortal might of course write a will, leaving his worldly goods to himself. But this poses some interesting problems too. How can he reclaim his possessions without being recognized by anyone that he knew in his old identity? Even if he does get away with it, GMs may impose a stiff inheritance tax. There are other ways for GMs to control PCs who are too interested in moneymaking. These include taxes, bank robberies, burglaries, taxes, floods, famine, taxes, shipwrecks, revolutions and even more taxes. GMs, be inventive! (But don't be unfair! If someone really wants to play a multi-billionaire and pays the points to do it, find a way to make it work in the campaign.)
Let's give some small consideration to all the little accidents PCs can have during the course of a campaign. Just how immortal should they be? The Immortal advantage includes Regeneration, Regrowth and Immunity to Poisons. Will this make the PCs too tough?
On the other hand, PCs who just have Unaging might find themselves literally dying piece by piece during the course of the centuries. Considering the realism of the GURPS combat system, this is not unlikely. GMs should pre-plan for this kind of thing. If the PCs' abilities do not include Regrowth, then some other way to replace lost limbs, magical or technological, should be available. Few players will want to drag a one-legged, one-armed, half-blind cripple down the centuries. But remember that just because something is possible, it doesn't have to be easy!
A successful Immortals campaign must be truly epic in scope. It will take place over a long period of game time, and there should be plenty of room for PCs to develop and change. The point level of the characters will rise dramatically during the campaign. A campaign may start with 100-point PCs and end with characters worth 1,000 points, or even more. The campaign must change with the PCs, to keep the challenges suitable to their abilities.
Therefore, the Immortals campaign must be planned very carefully by the GM. What is the time span of the campaign? Hundreds of years? Thousands? Is the immortality magical or scientific in nature? Will the PCs have Immortality or Unaging advantages? Will they have to rely on drugs, bio-electronics or magic spells?
What about earning character points? Will the PCs gain points between scenarios? If so, at what rate? It seems reasonable that a PC that is several centuries old will have abilities ordinary mortals can't match. Can PCs gain new advantages with time, after character creation?
Let us go through the steps of creating a background for an Immortals campaign. Not at all by coincidence, it is the background I have used for a campaign for more than eight months now. Or a thousand years, depending on your point of view.
I decided to use a semi-historical setting for two reasons. First of all, I wanted easy access to background material. There are several GURPS supplements that come in very handy and I could always get more information by going to the local library. Second, I wanted to make the long-term focus of the campaign to be the PCs' immortality itself. Why are they immortal? How can they be? By putting the PCs in a world already familiar to the players, their strangeness became more emphasized. I wanted the campaign to run for at least a thousand years and climax in our present, give or take a century. Searching for a starting point, I finally decided on 455 A.D., the year the Vandals sacked Rome. This gave me the opportunity to catapult the PCs right into some heavy duty adventuring.
Here I decided to use a little deception on the players. Naturally, they believed that there was magic in the gaming world. How else could their characters, all Roman citizens of 455 A.D., become immortal? To make the climax of the campaign a bit more of a revelation to the players, I decided to skip the magic and have a (pseudo-)scientific explanation for their immortality instead. This had an added benefit. Since the players believed it was a magical game world, the PCs would act from that assumption. In short, the PCs would start wonderfully, and very realistically, superstitious. (They still haven't caught on, after a thousand years, though some of them have begun to get a bit suspicious during the latter centuries.)
The PCs are descendants of aliens whose spaceship crashed on Earth thousands of years earlier. Alien genetic science gave the PCs their Immortality advantages. But how to preserve the mystery? And why don't these aliens rule the Earth, after so long? It was obvious I needed something to keep this alien race in check. I did it by introducing another race of aliens, shorter-lived, but with great psionic powers. Since these aliens were not immortal, they'd lose their scientific knowledge over the centuries. Eventually they came to view their own psionic abilities as magical.
Two great spaceships fought a battle in our solar system. Both ships were wrecked and the survivors stranded on Earth, where they continued to fight. If these two races fought it out for thousands of years on our planet, wouldn't there be some kind of record of it? Probably. And there is! I centered on old Celtic mythology as the basis for this background, because Celtic gods used lots of devices that could easily have been scientific in origin. I also wanted the PCs to find some of these devices over time, such as "magical" swords that were really high-tech monomolecular blades.
The PCs became Sidhe, or Tuatha Dé Dánan, as they are also called. The classic enemies of the Tuatha Dé Dánan, the Fomhoire, fit the bill as powerful psionic aliens very well. I decided to make the Fomhoire an alliance of several alien races, because according to Celtic mythology, Fomhoire can vary greatly in appearance.
To make a long background story short, both sides lost the war on earth, and went into hiding from each other. The PCs were brought up by human foster parents after their real parents were killed in a Fomhoire raid.
I decided that the PCs should have the Immortal advantage. It would be a tough campaign, and the PCs would need the edge provided by Regeneration and Regrowth to survive. To give the players a (very) subtle hint that their powers might be scientific, rather than magical in nature, I imposed a slight limitation to their regeneration. For every 8 HT points they regenerate, they lose one fatigue point. The Fatigue won't be regained until they eat something to get more energy. This also means a character could actually faint from regenerating massive damage.
Since Immortality includes immunity to poison, and alcohol is a poison, the PCs can never get drunk. Nor will they develop a nicotine habit, when tobacco becomes available in the campaign. (One PC spent almost a century in futile attempts to get stoned.) However, I decided that various skin and eye irritants, like lacquer powder or tear gas, would work on them, though with somewhat reduced effect.
I also decided to let the PCs gain new advantages during the course of the campaign. The rationale for this is that the PCs should have the time to change and develop new abilities during the course of the centuries. Not every advantage could be gained, though. For instance, Toughness and Charisma could be bought after character creation, because they could conceivably be gained with time, but better physical appearance couldn't be. It is worth noting that since the characters have Regrowth, they can never have any form of cosmetic surgery. Nor can they ever have any form of implants, as these would be rejected by their bodies.
The cost to play an Immortal in our campaign was 150 points for the Immortality Advantage, minus 30 points for Secret (Immortal) and minus 20 points for Enemy (Fomhoire) (Powerful psis, with some ultra-tech science, appearing on 6 or less), for a total of 100 points. The players were given the usual 100 points to spend, and 45 points extra for disadvantages and quirks. This made the PCs 200-point characters. Of course, the players themselves didn't know the exact point value of their characters at the start of their campaign. They only knew that the PCs were, or could become, immortal, and that they had 145 points to spend.
I allowed the PCs 1/2 character point per year after the age of 50, to represent the experience gained in decades (or centuries) between scenarios. This would bring the PCs close to a whopping 1,000 character points in the 20th century. The way I planned the campaign, they'd need it!
With these high point totals, I thought it wise to limit the skill levels the PCs could reach, especially since we were using the cinematic fighting rules. Therefore, the maximum skill level is the basic attribute +10. This has proved to work quite well.
I allowed no points for practicing skills between scenarios. Even so, the characters gain many more character points between episodes than they can ever do while adventuring. Sticklers for rules may call this a Bad Thing, as it upsets much of the idea behind the character point system – but it worked. The effect was that we had PCs that could really change, and grow, with time. As the campaign developed, so did the characters. Now, after a thousand years game time, the PCs have personalities and attitudes that reflect their powers, age and experience. Most important, we have all had loads of fun, and will have even more, roleplaying the centuries to come.
All that remained was to get things moving. I put the PCs in Rome, then gave them an incentive to leave (the Vandals) and dropped a hint that they might find their true heritage in Ireland. Psionics and ultra-tech gadgets are relatively scarce, and always in the guise of magic.
The players have only recently begun to speculate about the nature of the "magic" in the campaign. All the better – when the revelation comes, they'll enjoy it more.
The Immortals campaign has been the best, most fully developed campaign we have played for years. It required a lot of both patience and planning, but has been well worth it. A lot of inspiration came from the excellent movie "Highlander," with Cristophe Lambert, Sean Connery and Clancy Brown all doing very believable portrayals of immortals. (Try to view the British version of the movie; the American one has a very bad rep. And forget about the sequel; it's awful.)
Have fun! May your PCs live forever.
Adams, Robert: The Horseclans books, about a few immortals in a post-holocaust world. There is a GURPS worldbook covering this series.
Farmer, Philip José: A Feast Unknown – Tarzan and Doc Savage are immortal due to a wonder drug, but it has unfortunate side effects. An underground classic.
Modesitt, L.E.: The Fires of Paratime – A whole society of time-traveling immortals.
Moorcock, Michael: All of the gigantic Eternal Champion Cycle, around 50 books. Read those about Elric, Corum and Hawkmoon first.
Rice, Anne: Interview With the Vampire, The Vampire Lestat, The Queen of the Damned – The most chilling vampire stories ever written. These immortals will scare you!
Saberhagen, Fred: The Holmes-Dracula File, An Old Friend of the Family, Thorn, Dominion – Dracula as a nice guy.
Shea, Michael: In Yana, the Touch of Undying – One man's quest for immortality.
The Amber series: Nine Princes in Amber, The Guns of Avalon, Sign of the Unicorn, The Hand of Oberon, The Courts of Chaos – A must-read. The immortal Amberite prince, Corwin, struggles to gain power in Amber and to defeat Chaos.
Jack of Shadows – Immortality through a form of rebirth. A very good book.
Today We Choose Faces – A family of clones achieves immortality through personality transference.
This Immortal – Genetic immortality with mythical overtones. A must for any aspiring immortal.
Lord of Light – Scientific immortality through personality transference.
Creatures of Light and Darkness – TL16 science fantasy. Several different kinds of immortal protagonists.
Copyright © 1997-2016 by Steve Jackson Games. All rights reserved.