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Bag o' Nifties: Tricks for GMs

Immortality Part One - Creating Characters Who Cannot Die

by Dan Pond
August 22, 2001  

The Problem

Okay, so this edition isn't so much to address a problem as just to parade a bunch of Nifties around. They may seem twinky at first, since they have to do with becoming invulnerable to injury an' all, but Part Two will include plenty of nasty countermeasures to toss right back at your twinky players. Turn about is fair play. So, for the sake of needless tradition, let's call character mortality a "problem" in need of "solutions." There, now I can use my usual format. Woo hoo.

For the All Worldz project, I wanted to create a set of Great Societies that each had an interesting thought experiment at their core. Since I've always thought the problem of running a civilization populated by people with virtually limitless lifespans made a fascinating thought experiment, one of those Societies became the Immortals. These people have fully embraced the genetic, nanotech, and magical methods for eliminating age and restoring the body. They tightly control their population and are constantly on guard against cultural stagnation... or so they claim.

But when you have a virtually unlimited span of years stretching out before you, it's easy to get a little paranoid about accidental death. So, the immortals have also embraced a number of genetic, nanotech, and magical methods of shrugging off physical injury. Below, I'll present four of the more interesting ones. Next month, I'll analyze each for exploitable weaknesses. Fun and fun.

Solution 1: Liquid Flesh

One of the oldest and most primal rules of magic is "Like Produces Like." Wavelike tattoos drawn all over body exploit this sympathetic principle to make the body's soft tissues flow around physical injuries. Lacerations, abrasions, and punctures seal up as quickly as they're opened. Blunt trauma is pretty much a non-issue. The flesh changes shape instantly to compensate for any alteration.

Of course, Liquid Flesh provides little to no protection against disease, corrosion, or fire, but relatively few people meet their maker via such exotic fashions. If drawn incorrectly, the patterns can also cause the skin to simply flow off the body, so supportive runes that mitigate and control the effects must also be inscribed. This is definitely not a body modification you want to make on a discount budget!

Personally, I like Liquid Flesh because it creates interesting mental pictures. For example, when a character falls from a significant height onto a hard surface, their flesh "splatters" off their bones, then flows back into place. Swords slice right through the meat until they bite into bone; if the swing stops there, skin and muscle flow back over top of it. This stuff would make great FX shots :)

To put some rules flesh on this in-character skeleton, you should simply not make players deduct Health Levels, Hit Points, or what have you from their characters' total when they suffer acute injuries. There's not much else to it. Oh, and some of the injuries that Liquid Flesh isn't so good with (i.e. Fire and Corrosion) can scar the tattoos and render them inoperable. You should adjudicate such mishaps the same way you deal with damage to equipment.

Solution 2: Regeneration

Truly advanced genetic engineering opens the doors to truly amazing biological capabilities, things that no naturally occurring life form would ever evolve. One of the first that most scientists explore (along with enhanced strength, of course ;) is accelerated tissue regeneration. Regen (doesn't it roll off the tongue better?) overcomes normal cell growth speed limits by preserving every cell's ability to reconfigure itself as any other cell. (Fetal cells all possess this ability, but lose it early in the development process as cells divide and specialize.)

Also used in shapeshifting systems, this adaptability allows the body to grab cells from uninjured areas and use them to restore damaged ones, regardless of what types of cells they are. It is most useful against small wounds, like cuts or punctures, because it makes is easy to repair arterial walls (thus preventing blood loss), seal breaches in the skin (preventing infection), and get muscles back in working condition quickly. It's also useful in avoiding crippling injuries like blindness, crushed joints, or ruptured organs; normally, these are parts of the body that never heal. Not so with regen.

But this isn't magic, it's biology; regen is always limited by the total amount of mass in the body. Even regenerating a single limb will stretch the internal resources of most humanoid beings, assuming you can't simply reattach it. Unless you're willing to wait long enough to gain the needed mass via normal digestion, you'll have to get a feed of undifferentiated cells to pump into the affected area. And if you've already depleted your own reserves, it may be impossible to recover from a final, fatal injury...

Typically, RPGs have dealt with regeneration by giving characters back a set number of Hit Points (or Wound Levels, or whatever) each round (or turn, or whatever). To reflect the conservation of mass problem, set an upper limit to the total number of Wound Points (or Hit Levels, or whatever) a character can get back in this way before they have to eat, get a cell feed, or otherwise ingest more mass.

Solution 3: Undeath

Biology animates the body via an intricate dance of tightly integrated metabolic processes. If this dance ever stops, either through a gradually slowing of the tempo or a sudden cacophony, the body dies. But in settings with reasonably powerful magic, biology isn't always the best way to go.

Undeath is a state in which the body's normal, metabolic processes have been replaced with spells of animation and preservation. Undead characters have no pulse, but do not bleed. They have no respiration, but cannot suffocate. They are cold to the touch, but will not freeze to death. It is a trade-off, but one that many sentient beings are more than willing to make.

Depending on the tone of the game, the spells necessary to perpetuate unlife may require sustenance of their own. This is where you get bloodsucking vampires and soul-stealing liches. Or they could come with their own magical limitations and drawbacks, like aversion to holy places or vulnerability to specific kinds of damage (decapitation, fire, sunlight, silver, and so forth). Some infernal spellcasters might even demand ownership of your soul. These kinds of requirements can be used to produce the comfortable cliches of the horror genre or totally new characters with unique Achilles' Heals. Have at!

Of course, the twinkiest undeath body mods will always been the ones with no strings attached; the ones that will let you get hacked into tiny pieces and keep on tickin' until a minion manages to sew you back together. In essence, the character becomes the Timex of the animal kingdom. At first blush, most players would probably consider this a damn fine deal, but clever enemies can use it to make your unlife a living Hell...

The in-game effect of undeath is that the character simply does not die. Period. You could be stuffed in a blender and pureed into millions of tiny, gluey bits and still those bits will remain animated and preserved. You won't be able to do much besides but sit in a soggy pile, but at least you're immortal. (Perhaps I'm getting ahead of myself ;) Of course, you'll have to come up with rules for any special limitations on a case-by-case basis, but common example might include paralysis (stake through the heart), crippling fear response (should just be role-played), or breaking the Undeath spells (character becomes mortal again).

Solution 4: Cybercells

Our last Nifty is a staple of many cyberpunk settings: Nanotech. Cybercells are nanites designed to inhabit a living creature, monitor its many systems, and make repairs as needed. They do their jobs via specialization, the same way that biological cells do. Each is a veritable pharmacopoeia of drugs and raw materials tailored to the type of tissue that cybercell works with, whether it be blood, nerves, bone, cardiac muscle, or any one of the many glands and organs that produce chemicals vital to life.

They coordinate their efforts via distributed computing: each is in constant communication with the others, sharing data and processing power. Individually, they are smart enough to give most physicians a run for their money. All together, they could put many supercomputers to shame. Not that they have any bandwidth to spare; sentient beings are mind-bogglingly complex systems and the cybercells monitor virtually every cubic milliliter. Some defective models put out enough heat just from computing that they raise their hosts' core temperatures a few, tell-tale degrees.

Cybercells can administer coagulants (to stop blood loss), pain killers (for obvious reasons), stimulants (to counteract fatigue), antibiotics (to fight infection), corrosives (to remove foreign objects, like bullets), just as examples. They can also mimic just about all of the body's own biological signals, from neurotransmitters or adrenaline to fat-burning chemicals or growth hormones. Some people even get cybercell upgrades for producing recreational drugs directly within the brain, though most such upgrades also include counter-agents that can reverse the effects on demand. In many places, these upgrades are very illegal.

A character with cybercells should never go into shock, so if your game has rules for that, forget 'em. They should also be immune to most diseases, parasites, and the effects of exhaustion. They can even go without sleep for extended periods, so toss those rules out. The only new rules you'll need (until next month's article, that is) are for tissue repair. Like regen, cybercells allow players to regain Health at an accelerated rate. Usually not quite as accelerated as regen, but much better than natural healing. Basically, you should give a character with cybercells 2-3 times as many Health Points (tm) as you give normal characters. (Of course, if this is isn't a hard science setting, you can always go nuts and just use the same rules as for regen, but then you get into the conservation of mass thing again. Whatever floats yer boat.)

A Note on Body Mods

Before we even get started with the chinks in these four suits of armor, I should point out some things your power-mad players should consider before strapping them on. First, and perhaps most obviously, is the expense. Having your entire physiology altered is not a low-cost proposition. Even in Immortal society, only members of the upper class have more than one or two of these body mods, and many of the lower class sentients have none at all. If you let a character start with one of these, they should have "independently wealthy" as a background trait. If they want to get one in-game, make them work for it!

On a less tangible level, there's also the moral and psychological impact of, saying, agreeing to have all your natural life cycles stopped cold so you can become one of the undead. Only the most tech-crazy cultures would be immediately comfortable with pumping their bodies full of nanites or having their genetic material radically altered. And that's not even mentioning the weirdness associated with having flesh that ripples and flows like water! If you're running a character-driven game, make sure to drive these issues home and have NPCs give the character tons of strange, disapproving looks. At the very least, law enforcement agencies will put immortal characters under immediate suspicion due to nothing more than their survival advantage in combat.

Next Time: Making Characters Who Cannot Die Wish They Could!

All Worldz: A Game of Interdimensional Civilization by ImEG Games

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Bag o' Nifties by Dan Pond