One of the things that I like about doing discrete campaigns with a beginning and an end is that you can add variety by doing something different the next time. If you just finished a campaign that was full of high-tech gadgets and intrigue, maybe you want to simplify things and go stone age. If it was gritty and realistic, maybe you make the next one full of sorcery and mystical creatures. So what do you do if you run two campaigns in a row where all of the player characters die? You create a setting with indestructible PCs.
A Change of Focus
In the particular setting that I created, the PCs were all roughly 500 years old, and were basically demigods. Think Hercules or Achilles instead of Zeus or Hermes. This results in a peculiar mix of scope for the story. Everything that happens is intrinsically epic – they’re gods. If they get in a fight in the middle of a city, they’re going to cause massive damage. They have the power to single-handedly win wars and destroy civilizations. At the same time, nothing that happens really matters all that much. For example, look at the Illiad (the Trojan War). 10,000 ships from Greece land at Troy. The gods take sides in the battle, influencing the events. The two armies fight for 10 years, resulting in the deaths of countless soldiers. From a human perspective, it was the largest event for a thousand years, changing the history of civilization forever. For the gods? It was really just a momentary distraction. None of them died, or really gained or lost anything meaningful.
This is a tricky balance. If the story is one where a menacing force threatens to destroy the world, your players are likely to be apathetic. They’ll survive, and everybody else was going to die eventually anyway. The only thing that is really threatening to a genuine immortal is boredom. The elf/vampire/god that is bored of life and ready to die is a recurring theme in fiction and mythology. Methuselah wasn’t gifted with eternal life, he was cursed with it.
The immortals that are happy are the ones with hobbies. So let’s say that you were a demigod that was going to live forever, and you kind of liked boats and sailing. After a century or two, you’re probably the best sailor that’s ever lived. Somewhere along the way, you find this little tribe of fisherman that you kind of like, and you help them out from time to time when you feel moved to do so. There are some other tribes that you find kind of annoying, so you kill them on sight, like roaches. A couple of generations go by, and you’ve basically become Poseidon, even if you didn’t set out to do so.
Along the way, your pet tribe of sailors has become just that, a pet. It’s something that you love and train and groom. You develop a strong emotional attachment to it – and since you don’t really have any other driving forces to motivate you, it’s pretty much the only thing in the world that you care about. For immortals, the hobby is their life. So if you’re a GM running a campaign with player characters that can’t die, how do you motivate them? You make sure that they have hobbies to endanger.
This can be a really tricky adjustment for the players to make. Your players, presumably, are both humans and mortal. They care about food, water, and shelter. They care about money and things and the lives of those they love. It’s a complete change in mindset to think like a god – to say “well, all of these people are going to die, but my temple will get completed, and that’s what’s important in the long run.”
Unstoppable Force vs Immovable Object
If your PCs are immortals, effectively gods, then who do you use as their opposition? Other immortals, of course.* Or at least enemies of an equivalent power level. Partially this is out of necessity – you don’t want an antagonist that your players can mow through in the first few sessions. It’s also a factor of the scope and motivation concerns addressed above. In the same way that you wouldn’t pit a scrappy bunch of street kids against Doctor Doom, or the Justice League against a low-level mob boss, you need a bad guy who cares about similar things to the protagonists.
In the campaign that I ran, all the PCs were in the same extended family, and the bad guy was an elder family member that had been expelled and erased from the history books. He just wanted to get back in the family, and get a little revenge on those that had kicked him out. It’s a small, almost petty motivation. In execution, it involved/required a thousand years of scheming and creating an army that killed thousands of people. This is the sort of duality of scope that I talked about above.
The best thing about immortal PCs, and bad guys who are at the very least highly durable, is that you can stage some epic combats. Ben was a player in that campaign, and he took full advantage of the ability to get dismembered. His PC had a leg cut off, had every bone in his body broken, and got eaten by a giant – on purpose (it seemed like a good idea at the time). Additionally, when your PCs can get beaten with non-lethal consequences, it’s a lot easier to utilize the trope of getting trounced by the bad guy in the first encounter, and then coming back smarter and stronger the second time.
Killing the Unkillable
“But wait,” the savvy and faithful reader asks, “didn’t you say just a couple of weeks ago that it was important to have PCs that could die?” Nothing gets past you guys. And in fact, that principle still holds true here. Even an immortal has things that they fear. It doesn’t really matter if you can’t die if you spend the rest of eternity with your flesh roasting at the bottom of a volcano, or if you’re trapped in a cage at the bottom of the ocean. Once your players have gotten comfortable with the idea that they can’t die, it’s fun to introduce the second act twist where there is some weapon or ritual that can kill them. Suddenly the possibility of death, a constant backdrop to traditional campaigns, gets brought to the forefront. Ironically, the best way to make your players really think about and fear death is to give them characters that can’t die.
*Now that I think about it, it would be kind of cool to run a campaign where the PCs where immortal, and their nemesis is a Lex Luthor-style mortal who’s just really clever and wants to rid the world of these gods. Depending on how well-behaved the PCs were, it could bring up some interesting questions about who the heroes and villains were in the story.