"Believe in something for another world, but don't be too set on what it is, and then you won't start our that life with a disappointment."
(Will Rogers, The Autobiography of Will Rogers, 1949)
Death and adventuring have gone hand in hand form the days the very first fighter and wizard crawled through a dusty dungeon looking for princesses to save.
In roleplaying games, and especially in the fantasy genre, death doesn't have to mean the end of the road. In lots of cases, death can actually be the beginning of a new chapter in the characters' adventures. In this article I'll try to inspire you with some ideas you could use for your adventures from the other side of the grave. As in all my articles, my goal is to stimulate your interest and to set down a fertile soil for your ideas to grow from. I don't presume to cover the entire subject of death, which is as vast as life itself, if not more.
As always, before you get all inspired and sit down for a sleepless night of writing, you must decide on the cosmology of your campaign world. Questions like whether people actually have souls or are they defined only by their physical existence, what the relationships between the various gods are, do they even exist or how the various planes interact may not be important to the everyday management of the campaign, but they become paramount once you start dealing with the realms beyond.
The question what happens when you die has troubled philosophers and religious scholars from the very day philosophy and religion were invented, and should probably trouble us GMs too.
In the model classical fantasy offers, every man (or any other sentient creature for that matter) believes in some god, and when his days on Earth are over, he returns to the embrace of his god and to an afterlife in a plane of existence designed according to his god's vision. The various mythologies are full of examples, beginning with the Nordic Valhalla to The Endless Hunting Grounds in the myths of the Native Americans. In many cases, the afterlife in these mythologies takes on a duel form, offering heaven to the saints and hell to the sinners.
This concept can offer countless gaming opportunities if taken one step further, and maybe sideways.
First of all, remember that not everything you believe in must be the truth. Even if the stories about a specific god and his acolytes actually took place, they probably changed and evolved over the years, having each storyteller slightly add to them and slightly modify them to better adhere to his own philosophy and the common beliefs of the time. By the time the story reaches the character's believing ears, they will be left with only a small grain of truth, if any at all. Try to imagine the amazement of the characters that die heroic deaths and go to The Hall of Heroes, where they expect to rest forever, but instead find themselves drafted to The War God's army of souls, destined to fight over and over at his service till the ultimate victory over the rest of the pantheon, a victory that could never be achieved?
And even if all the stories are true, and the characters actually go to a heaven designed by their god, it is only natural for humans and members of the other short-lived races to grow bored and seek out new thrills and adventures. After all, even nectar and ambrosia grow old eventually. And what then? How do you explain to a god that the paradise he created for his devoted believers is not all that they had hoped for, and that they want to leave?
Another interesting angle on the "don't believe everything they tell you" concept is the decision who goes to heaven and who to hell. Here too, it is very possible that the legends have been miss-told over the years, and the devoted acolyte of Riroks, the Dwarven God of War, who dedicated his life to eliminating the Elven heretics who prefer the tree-tops to the darkness of the caves, might discover that Riroks abhors the murder of the defenseless, even if they are Elves. That saint in his own mind could very well find himself slowly roasting in purgatory together with the worst sinners.
Another interesting angle to explore is the perception of the various gods by their believers, as I presented in my article The Gods Go to War. If the same entity has several different manifestations in the eyes of different people (like Morpheus, Kai'ckul and The Dream Cat are all manifestations of Dream of the Endless in Neil Geiman's Sandman), its heaven could also have several different manifestations, or stranger still - perhaps all it's different believers reach the same place and receive a minor cultural shock when they discover they aren't alone in the world.
Another motif that deserves thought are the immortal creatures of the gods, like Angles, Jinnis, Effrits or Valkiries. According to common belief, they too are the denizens of the same heaven. How would they treat "the new next-door neighbors"? And how will the souls of the mortal treat the immortal souls who were granted entrance to heaven simply by being created?
The potential for story ideas is infinite, from diplomacy and intrigue from the other side of the grave to a full scale war to conquer the afterworld.
And speaking of wars, cultural and religious wars can be a splendid base for scenarios or even full campaigns (and again, I am forced to refer you to the article The Gods Go to War).
A full scale religious war that wrecks havoc in the mortal realm will undoubtedly affect the celestial realm too. It is very possible that the war will spill over to the afterlife and the denizens of heaven will find themselves in war with the dead believers of a different deity, who's realm suddenly appeared next to their own. And the events could be even stranger if a merging of elements occurs, and the pure souls suddenly find their realm has grown massively, and creatures and places that where never a part of it appear out of thin air.
As I said at the beginning of this article, the ideas I've touched here are just the top of the iceberg. In this article I haven't covered situations like reincarnation or various intermediate states between life and death, which I hope to cover soon in follow-up articles. If you finished reading this article with more questions than answers, my work here is done.
This article first appeared in issue #13 of The Orc.