What exactly is the soul? No, I’m not getting all existential and metaphysical on you, I’m asking the question objectively and literally. You see, one of my D&D campaigns has this question of the nature of the soul as one of its key themes. More, it states that the answer is different for each race, and that this is the fundamental distinction between Elves and Humans and Dwarves and the other sentient species that inhabit the game world.
The question is one that’s always implicit – and usually ignored – in D&D. There are a number of spells that let you speak with the dead, there are ghosts and undead and other such creatures, and so on. That’s the very reason why I made this theme such a prominant element of the “Seeds Of Empire” campaign.
The campaign premise – so far as the PCs were concerned at the start – was fairly straightforward. The previous campaign set in this Game World established that there had been a mass killing off of the Gods at the hands of their enemies (a cross between the Greek Titans and Cthulhu’s Old Ones, called the Chaos Powers). That previous campaign dealt with the process of Divine damage control, in which the mortal races (personified by the PCs) were ‘invited’ to step up and seize the reigns of their destiny. They got to reassign Divine portfolios, alter the way that magic interacted with the world, and tweak various other aspects of the campaign world. Some of their choices were aimed at the big picture (with little thought as to what the short- and medium-term effects would be), and some were aimed specifically at establishing a new status quo in the here-and-now, with scant consideration of the long-term consequences of the decision – and none at all on how these various secondary and tertiary effects would interact with each other. Ostensibly, the second half of that campaign was about the transition and immediate consequences – only at the grand finale did it emerge that it was actually about how things got to this point in the first place (the PCs thought they knew, but didn’t). So, when the sequel campaigns started (and there are two of them running concurrently), the central concept was to explore the consequences of the decisions made by the previous generation of PCs.
One of the Deities that were killed off was the deity of Death. As a result, there was no-one to judge the dead, or to transport the souls of the dead to their final reward or punishment. It became, as a consequence, far easier to rise again as an undead. This was something that the players overlooked when rearranging the campaign mythos; they established the entire mechanism necessary for dealing with the newly-dead, but overlooked those caught in transit, who fell through the cracks.
At the time the Gods were being killed, they stopped answering prayers (the survivors were too busy surviving). The fringes of the Empire that was around at the time included an oriental society that had been partially converted, who believed in reincarnation. When the God of death was lost, their priests immediately discovered that the spirits of the dead were not ascending to judgement the way they should have been; and, in order to preserve the souls of their dead citizens, they began ‘storing’ them as undead.
Other groups did not have the same perspective, and reactions to the circumstances varied. Some went nuts, some tried to establish their own empires, some despaired. The kingdom of the undead were forced to call apon the resiliance of their undead to defend themselves. Having become adept at ‘returning’ people as undead, they then reanimated the bodies of their defeated foes for use as shock troops to protect their own, infinitely more valuable, undead.
Fast-forward a century to the current time of the campaign. Their faith has become corrupted by the ease of conquest with undead armies. I did an analysis of the impact on a medieval economy and society of having a vast number of workers who do not need to eat, who do not need to be paid, who can work for 24 hours a day, and who retain the mind and spirit of the original spirits, and (even allowing for reduced effectiveness) calculated it conservatively as making the resulting society equivalent to one of ten times the productive area, with 100 times the manpower to draw apon. The living now lead lives of absolute luxury, with no need to perform work of any kind; once they die, they begin earning the sybaritic life that they have enjoyed. Their society has evolved to consider what began as temporary measure as normality.
Enter the PCs, whose homelands have now come under threat from this incredibly powerful Empire. They have to defeat an enemy that cannot be overcome by force or arcane skill, and are now in the process of discovering what tools they have at their disposal for doing so. Success or failure will depend on their ability to argue with the Empire on the Empire’s terms – they will have to understand the religious and social philosophy that has made the Empire what it is today, and what those things were, and how the latter evolved into the former. Only by proving that the Empire has lost its way can they hope to undermine it internally to the point of collapse, and that is their only hope of victory.
Which brings me back to the question that was posed at the start of this essay. Before the Players can attempt to even dimly grope toward an answer, I – as DM – have to have gone before them, to pave the road with clues and an internally-consistant concept of the Empire and its theology that their characters can observe and interact with.
GMs should never be afraid of exploring the big questions in their games – but they have to first explore those questions in their own minds, both in terms of their personal philosophy (and what they are comfortable with in terms of game play – a subject I’ll discuss more fully another time), and in terms of what is inherantly implied by the game system and setting that they have already established. You can look to the rulebooks for the questions, but they are lacking (and sometimes contradictory) when it comes to the answers.
It’s these big-issue choices that ultimately distinguish one campaign setting from another, both directly and through the implications and consequences and trickle-down effects on smaller, day-to-day issues. Questions like “What is the soul?” and “How does magic work?” and “Does modern physics apply?” and “What is the nature of time?” and “How was the universe/multiverse created?” and “Are there other planes / other dimensions, and if so where did they come from and what keeps them apart?”. Collectively, these can be considered the Cosmology of the campaign, although what is usually considered a cosmology is only a small part of the scope of these questions.
These are the questions that natural philosophers (and the curious and learned) will grapple with, within the campaign. They may not get the right answers – they may not even find the right questions to ask – but their questions and discoveries will inform the rest of the society within the campaign, either directly or indirectly. Five minutes spent deciding these can provide the GM with years worth of adventure as the consequences and implications are explored.
PCs, by the nature, tend to be superior specimens. Why can’t the reason for that (in the long run) be a greater understanding of the way the world really works? It’s at least as good an answer as any other that I’ve found. So don’t be afraid to ask yourself the Big Questions; your game will be the better for it.