Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Worldbuilding - Pathfinder, Raise Dead and Clone Wars

From now on I decided to create a new column – Worldbuidling – where I’ll try to elaborate on setting construction and on ideas taken from the game’s structure, like classes, races, spells and mechanics. That retrospectively makes Divine Classes and Cosmological Considerations my first Worldbuilding post.

Here’s another random thought, born again of my tedious hours of study. This one is about a small detail of Pathfinder: raise dead.

It’s funny to see how everything in Pathfinder is built toward a dungeon-delving style of game. Of course, you don’t necessarily need a dungeon, but you got the idea. In no place that’s more evident than in Pathfinder’s magic. Albeit there are some oddballs here and there, most of the spells in the Core Rulebook are of a utilitarian mindset. They easily mimic technological and practical applications rather than mystical purposes – with clear examples like create food and water, secret chest, sending and the famous raise dead. (Actually in Pathfinder most spells deal with combat – a trend of recent editions of D&D and its variants –, but it’s still undeniable the influence of the game’s roots on the magic system: dungeon/wilderness exploration.)

You might be saying: Yeah, that’s obvious. So what?

The “what” is that many of us play Pathfinder/D&D in a style more reminiscent of a fantasy novel or movie instead of the game’s original goal. Because of this we’re constantly at odds with some assumptions that work perfectly fine if all you want is a good Old School game.

Take for example the raise dead spell. In which novel does that kind of magic is so vulgar and blatantly accessible? It’s hard to pick one. Even in over-the-top fantasy series like The Malazan Book of the Fallen raising the dead is the result of a deity’s direct intervention. Actually, we can even go further: is damn hard to find a novel where there’re clerics and divine spellcaster that work like in the Core Rulebook (even if I choose a D&D novel!).

The old pretext that “divine spellcaster of that level are rare” doesn’t convince me. Check the classes’ demographics at the Dungeon Master Guide for 3rd/3.5 Edition. The gold cost justification is also shaky – because it doesn’t really stop the priest from choosing whom to resurrect and when.

By the game’s logic most monarchs, rulers, nobles and important figures would ALWAYS be raised from the dead. It’s too easy to follow a deity’s ethos and most settings have a god for practically every type of alignment/behavior. Just in a few, like Iron Kingdoms, Vallus or maybe Scarred Lands the authors really created some clever complications.

So in a typical Pathfinder setting you can expect most wars to last practically forever (or just a damn lot more) because their military leaders and warlords will usually be easily brought back from the dead. Try to picture what would have happened if Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great or Julius Cesar were so promptly raised from the dead.

Most Gamemasters naturally create complications for that kind of magic in their settings or campaigns, as a way of dramatic balance to their stories. Usually it falls to the deities’ “unfathomable demands”. There are DMs that come up with special items or spells – I remember a magic poison from Monte Cook’s Book of Eldritch Might that created in the dead victim a permanent “spell resistance against resurrection magic”. Other prefer to place strange or unsettling effects on characters raised from the dead (I remember even a DRAGON Magazine article about this).

In my old Greyhawk campaign I created a variant of the hallow/unhallow spell that prevented the resurrection of any character of opposed alignment buried in that ground (traditionally a fortified temple). This resulted in adventures were the party was sent to retrieve the remains of a holy champion or king, stolen after his fall in a battle by Iuz’s or the Horned Society’s armies. I always found hard to create a spell or class ability that simply made resurrection impossible – as a rule I leaved that to artifact-level items or places.

In my Chronicles of the Seventh Moon campaign I just made raise dead a 9th level spell and removed resurrection and other dweomers. I also created strange social taboos around raise dead – for example, the Dru human culture of this setting believes that a person raised from the dead is “born again” and so must be given a new name and place in the society. Because the gods of Isaldar are dead, this arrangement works just fine for me.

Another idea I had some years ago (I guess after reading Green Ronin’s The Book of the Righteous) was of the Eternal War, a setting background element that can effortlessly be fitted in other scenarios. The Eternal War was a massive world conflict that happened in a previous age of the world (during its classical era if you like). This war never ended because heroes and champions on both sides were always brought back (imagine the Troy War plus raise dead; better yet, read The Worm Ouroboros). The ravages caused to the world became so overwhelming that the deities were forced to intervene – establishing that each mortal could be raised from the Dead Realms only once. Any other attempt was against the divine order (and forced the party to go planewalking into Hades or your usual Underworld, or to ask for the help of fiends). I thought at the time that this was a simple and logic explanation for limiting resurrection and still keeping most of the game’s tropes.

And what about the Clone Wars part of the post’s title? Well, from where did you think I stole the idea for the Eternal War? Oh, and I mean the “original” Clone Wars, those briefly mentioned in Episode IV and better developed in Timothy Zahn’s awesome Thrawn’s Trilogy (or in Leigh Brackett’s original script for Episode V).

May the Force be with you!