photo by simonse
Physical immortality is a common concept in the two major realms I write about in this blog: speculative fiction and tabletop roleplaying games. A hero reaches a certain point in his career when he attains demigod status, and is thus immune to death by aging or natural causes. Vampirism and many other supernatural diseases and creatures are also ageless. But Tuck Everlasting must have taught us something: immortality cannot be all pluses. Consider, when roleplaying or writing an immortal, that certain aspects of this person must be very different.
Memory: as citizens of the world of modern medicine, we know something that medieval fantasy goers do not; the human mind can hold so much before deteriorating. Alzheimer’s to me is living proof that we were not biologically meant to last beyond 80 years. Now multiply that by three. This does not make a very convincing hero. Does whatever power immortality comes from in your world also grant the mental capacity to cope with so many memories? One would hope so. But even still, it is something to consider. Those who are immortal easily have enough time to live multiple lives; to follow one path, then repent, then sin again, then forge another path anew. In the dawn of a fourth “lifetime” could this hero possibly still recall the deeds of her first? Or are they simply like the tales we as mortal humans “recall” of our toddlerhood; moments reconstructed as memories merely from being told and told again so many times?
Mind: a person who can live for hundreds of years has the potential to gather an unprecedented pool of knowledge and skills. Imagine someone who has dedicated 300+ years to the craft of weapon making, or even specifically: katana crafting. His weapons would be beyond “master work”, a simple +1 could do them no justice. Even if he is plagued with any degree of memory loss (see above) his muscle memory would be so solid that he could make a “master work” weapon without much attention at all. Surely that length of time spent reading books would only take a small dent in our world out of the amount of writing “out there”. But at the same time, no other mind could possibly comprehend the concepts an immortal would be brewing on any given moment, concepts steeped in thousands upon thousands of books by the greatest mortal thinkers to ever live.
Body: the mortal body deteriorates at a rapid rate when the Hayflick limit is reached (a lofty concept, I know, but check out this episode of my beloved Radiolab for a layman’s rundown). The only thing in our world we can (theoretically) turn to, the “immortal” jellyfish, isn’t much help. Our great immortal heroes wouldn’t be so great if they reversed aging and started over again… If, in theory, a humanoid being becomes immortal, how would that affect his physical makeup? Would he cease to age? Would he transcend the physical form? Or would he have so much control over his own chemical makeup that he can ultimately choose how old to appear? It all depends on how your world works.
Personality: I would like to think that being ageless would breed within that person’s personality extremism. How could any mortal comprehend what an immortal is feeling? As Warhammer 40k‘s Eldrad Ulthran once said: “What do Humans know of our pain? We have sung songs of lament since before your ancestors crawled on their bellies from the sea.” Everyone else is but a child, if that, to an immortal. Does that breed arrogance and pretentiousness, bottling everything up since none could ever be “worthy” of such a being’s presence? Or does it breed an uncontrollable need to teach, to impart the mountainous knowledge gained in the endless years of immortality? It depends on the character. And of course, upon the setting.
Culture & Society: in a world where immortals do exist, what impact is made upon culture? Do mortals feel hopeless and worthless, mere insects who will wither and die without a chance of notice by an immortal? Or do they feel blessed to have the guidance and protection of such a supreme power? Do they worship the immortals as living gods? An epic level character, a “hero of prophecy” practically is one. Of course, this would differ greatly across social strata. The poor, who would likely be far distanced from one who has been able to spend multiple lifetimes amassing her fortunes. Perhaps though, so could the rich? By the mere existence of immortals, the very fabric of society changes. Could history ever repeat itself if there were those leading it who still remembered the mistakes of the past? Or would such power corrupt so fully that a society ruled by an immortal is ultimately plunged into a dark age, as is the case with the rule of Mistborn’s Lord Ruler? Or perhaps the immortal leader would follow more along the lines of the stubborn and unforgiving (though not truly evil) elven lord Thingol of Middle-Earth?
Of course, many more possibilities exist. Just some things to keep in mind and to spark those imaginations.
How do you portray immortality in your writing and GMing?