Monday, September 20, 2021

Scripture & the Megadungeon Part 6: Becoming Immortal

As I have perused the OSR corner of the internet over the years, there seems to have been a significant number of folks who owned some version of BECMI back in the day. I was not one of them. I did buy a .pdf of the Rules Compendium for $4 before WotC panicked and pulled all their .pdfs offline during the internecine edition wars when 4th edition was first released. I bought it out of curiosity and have subsequently never used it. Although it does expand upon B/X (my favorite BTB edition of D&D), I find the three column layout to be an eyesore and I have never really been interested in playing much beyond 9th level anyway. So, I never saw the need. Until now.

As I have been delving into how Scripture would inform D&D, especially in the form of a megadungeon, I have been confronted with the distinct possibility of having immortality as an end goal. In St. John’s Apocalypse, the Evangelist describes a vision of the Heavenly Temple and the throne of God:

He who sat [on the throne] was like jasper and a sardis stone in appearance; and there was a rainbow around the throne, in appearance like an emerald. Around the throne were twenty-four thrones and on the thrones I saw twenty-four elders sitting, clothed in white robes; and they had crowns of gold on their heads.

The significance of the number twenty-four can be found in the tenth chapter of Genesis, Deuteronomy 32:8 and the account of the war in heaven from the twelfth chapter of Revelation. I won’t bore you with a quote from Genesis, since it is the genealogy of Noah and consists of a bunch of names — seventy-two of them. Each of these names correspond to one of the nations mentioned in Deuteronomy:

When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he divided mankind, he fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God.

The term sons of God refers to the angelic and divine beings that sit on God’s council. Therefore, God’s council has 72 seats. In describing the two sides in the war in heaven, St. John notes that one third of this divine council fell with the devil;

…behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and cast them to the earth.

Note that one third of seventy-two is twenty-four. These twenty-four elders are twelve patriarchs from the OT and the twelve apostles from the NT.

Given that numbers in Scripture are often more symbolic than concrete, that seven is an ideal number, and that larger numbers like seventy-two can be understood to mean simply a lot, the image here portrayed by St. John is that of Christ replacing the fallen angels on His divine council with saints from both the OT and NT eras.

In other words, Mentzer’s project to allow PCs to reach for immortality has its place in the game, at least from a Scriptural point of view. Unfortunately, the path that Mentzer lays out is extremely difficult at best. There are three Prerequisites: 1) Select a Sphere of Power that the PC wishes to serve 2) Find an Immortal sponsor and 3) Reach 30th level.

It is this last prerequisite that has always put a damper on things. I have never seen any PC is any campaign I have ever played reach higher than 9th level. To echo James over at Grognardia in a recent post about how 1e Dieties and Demigods handles the same idea: why bother?

Interestingly, DDG is much less dogmatic about the level necessary to reach immortality:

the character in question must have advanced to an experience level that is significantly above and beyond the average level of adventure-type characters in the general campaign. (This includes all such non-player types as military leaders, royal magic-users, etc.) For example, if the average level of characters in a campaign, both player and non-player, is around 5th level, then a candidate for ascension should be something like 9th or 10th level.
Given that monster stats of “adventurer-type humans” in B/X range from only 1 to 3 HD, this significantly lowers the XP threshold for PCs to aspire to the status of an immortal. It also makes sense narratively, given that 5th level M-Us get access to 3rd level spells and 6th level clerics get access to 3rd and 4th level spells. The introduction of spells like Dispel Magic, Fire Ball, Fly, Water Breathing, Cure Disease, Neutralize Poison, and Remove Curse have a significant effect on a campaign world. 

The other two prerequisites from Mentzer offer no real obstacle from a Scriptural POV. There is only One Power — God. In the Orthodox Church, nations, families, and individuals all have Patron Saints. Thus, every PC would practically start the game already having fulfilled two of the three prerequisites. This, then, only leaves us with how a PC attains what Mentzer calls immortality and what the Church calls sainthood. 

Fortunately, the history of the Church gives a very simple answer: the vast majority of canonized saints have all experienced death. Indeed, the category of saint that has more exemplars than any other is that of the martyr.

Saint Sebastian

Thus, the immortality that Scripture offers to the PC in a setting where much of action takes place inside a megadungeon is not the same immortality that Mentzer or the DDG talk about. Rather than trying to climb the heights of the heavens by sheer will (how else can I describe a campaign that lasts long enough for a PC to get to 30th level?), the player is given a viable option when faced with the possibility of death. Normally, (at least in an Old-School campaign where character deaths are a more common occurrence) a player who has played a PC to 5th level or higher has learned caution and to have a healthy instinct for self-preservation. While admirable in context, the end result is that the game disincentivizes heroic deaths — especially if spells like Reincarnate and Raise Dead are either unavailable or difficult to come by. While one of the most iconic scenes in fantasy is Gandalf telling the Fellowship, “Fly you fools!” and letting go, such acts of self-sacrifice are few and far between in FRPGs, at least in my decades of experience.

If, however, there was a mechanism by which a player might be rewarded by having their PC become a local saint in the campaign world, the choice to die gloriously in order for others to escape or live is something players might actually do. In long-term play, such choices would allow players to start building chapels to their fallen comrades, discover new spells associated with these new saints, celebrate feast days and thus have a character death have as much effect on a campaign world as PCs getting to 9th level and carving out a kingdom of their own.

The important factor here is player choice. One of the benefits of sandbox campaigns with tent-pole megadungeons is the fact that there is not only an abundance of player choice, but plenty of opportunities to encounter creatures well beyond the capability of PCs to defeat. Along with treasure (spent) being the primary means of gaining XP, a glorious death resulting in sainthood gives players another option about how their PC affects the campaign world.

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