How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Immortality
The fancy-pants eladrin across the bar had somehow mastered the art of sipping his fey wine with an elitist tone. He's what I call "sissy tipsy," which is the best you can get out his kind, and it got him talking. Unfortunately.
Behind my talkative bar patron, the door opened, sending a breeze in to dilute the flower-scented toxic air rolling off the eladrin. My stuffy nose felt a bit of relief at that as I recall. However, that's when I also noticed that a weight of unearthly stillness accompanied the presence of the person -- no, an adventurer -- standing on the threshold. His pale skin reminded me of an early winter frost, cold and unmoving in the wind. A subtle glow appeared to brighten the room as the stranger with the angelic visage approached us, his face calmly serene and full of purpose. A stray thought almost made my expression change: This is what they practice -- making dramatic entrances?
The eladrin across from me turned his head, finally catching on that I hadn't been listening. By that time it was too late, of course; the radiant stranger lifted him one-handed and hurled him with a bone-cracking thud against the wall. Looking down at the eladrin as the tipsy fellow drunkenly tried to figure out why his fingers seem to be bent the wrong way, the stranger muttered something.
"Soveli Behirsta, that was for your tree-sucking great-grandmother and that filthy pony she used to ride around on."
He went on, but I still have trouble wrapping my head around the sheer volume of curse words that flowed forth from his barely moving tattooed lips. If I hadn't known better at the time, I'd have said that this stranger's performance was what it sounded like when the gods themselves profane.
I'd fallen into a reverie of sorts, bemused by the sound of so many interesting words used in imaginative ways, when I rather suddenly found the stranger's frozen mask of a face inches before my own.
"Whiskey. All of it. Now."
As I poured his fourth round that day, I began to suspect that this adventurer was not and will never be my guardian angel.
Sugar and spice, and everything nice…that's what little devas are made of.
Devas suffer from a tragic flaw you don't see addressed too often: They're immortal. As cool as that sounds, you and I have heard too much Twilight dialogue and watched too many Highlanders (there should have been only one) to know that to be completely true. They will die a thousand times. Everyone they know will crumble to dust and there's nothing they can do about it, beyond hitting level 30 and starting over again (a particularly deva-ish thing to do). Well, unless they're gutstomped by a rampaging bulette or treacherously backstabbed by an eladrin princess along the way. Devas are a bit like Dr. Who without the British accent and robot dog, really. They just keep coming back to have more adventures.
That's the topic of discussion today: what being immortal really means in a fantasy setting and how it can all go horribly wrong. We'll also touch on some novel roleplaying approaches for a race that has a reputation for being Mr. or Ms. Goody Two-Shoes.
Obviously, we're going to be flexible on the canon regarding devas not remembering too much about their past lives… or at least be a little particular in what they might remember for the sake of drama. Think of it as that old chestnut (or trap) of hyper-focusing on one aspect of a race or class. Elves live longer, tieflings have demon blood in them, rogues are morally bankrupt. We all know folks like this in real life… choosing one aspect of themselves to somehow create a crazy stereotype for, well, themselves. It's never pretty in real life, but it's a classic move in Dungeons & Dragons.
Back to our angelic friends. We're going to put immortality and reincarnation under the looking glass and hope your DM is cool with a little self-determinism. Fun's the name of the game. That's easy to forget -- particularly when your dice decide they hate you.
Right out of the gate: All devas are quitters. Rebels, even. As holy and pious as they are, they each abandoned their gods for their own reasons. Those reasons might have been good reasons, but they still just walked off the job without 30 days notice.
Not to get too biblical, but deva are pretty much angels who got themselves cast down. (Then again, it doesn't get more biblical than that.) Do their old patrons hold a grudge? Luckily or unluckily, chances are a deva doesn't remember the reason for them filing for divine unemployment. Do they have regrets? Does not knowing what they gave up to become adventurers eat at them at night? Do they lose themselves in the world doing things they've done a thousand times before but they don't remember?
All this combined with forgotten memories of a thousand lifetimes and you've got a tragic character who might be second-guessing everything he or she does and has done before… it could almost be paralyzing. Madness or depression could sink in. Is lithium or Prozac an alchemical potion in D&D? Because a deva might just need it.
Even worse, death isn't the way out as it might be for another character. Imagine if every time after Mario gets set on fire by Bowser, you forget how to play that video game and have to start all over again. In more dramatic terms: that loved one you care so much about might be forgotten completely when you die. What's worse: to lose those you love or to forget they ever existed? Eerie, right?
We're getting into a bit of the dark side here, and while there's a time for that, let's look at some of the fun, lighthearted ways to keep immortality fresh (since I'm starting to bum myself out). I promise it'll be more amusing than me forcing you to imagine the death of your loved ones.
Character Option: All your classes are belong to me.
If you're playing D&D, you're surrounded by all sorts of colorful characters in the shape of your fellow adventurers. Do you learn from their careers? Or are you one to try everything in the world yourself at least once, thus making yourself a completionist of sorts? How long does it take a deva to get sick of wizardly robes and magic implements? (Hell, I get bored when I eat the same thing more than two times in a row.)
While it's not always optimal by their stats, there's a good reason for a deva to play any given class: It's something new for them. Sure, you can go with a hybrid character since your last few incarnations were all wizards and invokers, but even odd choices make sense. If a deva is really desperate to not follow his or her own footsteps, why not let a little rage into his or her heart and go barbarian? Sell your soul to dark forces and become a warlock? (This raises an interesting story hook option: If you're immortal, is your soul a "loaner" to said dark forces…or will further incarnations have to fight back to reclaim it?)
That's the fun thing with deva…you can make a totally nonsensical class choice and, well, it makes sense. If that itself makes sense.
You know what? Nevermind. Let's move on.
Character Option: You're so vain, you probably think this song is about you.
Just as a quick aside, let's turn to the notion of a bard deva. Sure, as a bard you can multiclass as much as you like (oh no, mechanics!), which makes the completionist happy, but more importantly you can wander the earth singing songs…about yourself. Bards are the narrative lynchpin for creating legends and oral histories, so why not leave a string of tales and anecdotes as clues for a later incarnation to hear? Using the world to back-up your own adventures so you can hear about them later isn't only vain, but it's a way to send messages to yourself. What deva doesn't want to know where he or she has been before?
Character Option: "Apparently I can take it with me when I die!"
A lot of adventurers have extra weapons lying around just in case something goes wrong (with "wrong" being in the shape of a rust monster, maybe). Nervous investors bury their money under the back porch. What if a deva buried stockpiles of extra items to help out future incarnations? Think about it in terms of time travel movies. Chances are that a deva will eventually visit the same place twice. It's really up to your DM how much you can exercise this notion, but the idea of a deva who's left secret packages all over the globe isn't too crazy an idea.
Of course, the invariable extreme here is that a deva has a will that bequeaths all his or her estate…to himself or herself. Naturally, the new incarnation doesn't remember this, so it might be some time before he or she can cash in, but you have to admit it's a unique story hook. A deva arrives in town to find out not only that he or she has been here before, but old messages from an earlier incarnation are waiting -- and not only that, but forgotten enemies also have a second go at him or her.
This can, of course, spin back the other direction; a deva's past deeds might have earned him or her such a reputation that he or she has enemies without even knowing why they're enemies. Even worse, devas can, according to the "Ecology of the Deva," sire kids with other races. Imagine visiting a new village to find out you've been the worst deadbeat dad or mom in all of Eberron, just because you didn't remember that you left kids behind you. On top of that, if you do reclaim your old possessions, does that mean your previous incarnation's debts are now your problem? Death and taxes? Nope, just taxes, apparently.
These are all fun ways to flesh out what being immortal means to a particular deva. Maybe they embrace it, capitalizing on their ability to always return in some way. Maybe they revel in the happy ignorance of not remembering. Really, it depends on the deva. That said, a constant struggle exists within the heart of each one.
The Dark Side
Take a look at the deva story. You'll find a contradiction in the "all devas are naturally good" aspect of it. Sure, they're the only race in the game that is officially "born good." Inherently good or not, a deeply motivating factor is at play here: fear.
Devas might just be good because they are punished severely if they stray from the path. Devas know that if they go to the dark side they stop being devas and are reborn as rakshasas. Sure, they become evil but really…would you like to be covered in fur and have your hands work the other way around? (If the answer is yes, then I am frightened of you and your fetish.) You'd also become a citizen of India -- unless the following 1st Edition Monster Manual quote is not still true in the game: "All Rakshasas are from real-world India." But I digress.
The point is, despite becoming an inherently evil (and inhuman) race, the deva-turned-rakshasa is now more powerful. While rakshasas do indeed reincarnate in a similar fashion to the deva, a notable exception exists: They keep their powers and all their memories. In other words, they don't hit the reset button when they bite the big one. Rakshasas hold grudges, often coming after those that killed them and continuing whatever schemes they had going on when they passed away. To a deva struggling with his or her constant cycling existence, this could definitely have a dark appeal.
Some lore states that rakshasas can be killed forever if you do it in just the right way. Does that suicidal lovesick deva become evil because he sees that as the only way to move beyond the immortal coil? Or does a deva turn to the dark side as the only way to never forget that special lover who means the world to her? Good intentions can often go awry with dramatic characters. Look at it from the lovesick deva's perspective: If drow, gnolls, and minotaurs can overcome a racial predisposition to evil, why couldn't he do the same once he went rakshasa?
Legends (and D&D lore) say that rakshasas who do good can become devas, after all. This does make me wonder if proud rakshasas have daily regimens of evil to meet the minimum requirements to keep the deva disease away, but that's a tangent for another time. So although devas are good, if they don't do good they might stop being devas. With their fractured memories, devas can't be sure how it works, living in the fear of losing their identity for an eternity by making the wrong decisions. I don't need to spell it out here but the angelfolk have a lot of good vs. evil pressure hanging over their heads. And with pressure come the cracks in the angelic image of the deva.
In the end, take my ramblings with a grain of salt. Maybe devas are all saints in your campaign and have "resist 10 all psychological problems." Just remember, though…you can find TV shows and books all about saints and their dark sides out there. Despite the keywords or the race on your character sheet, all characters, devas included, are often flawed by being just a little too human. Until we teach our pets to roll dice and keep track of initiative, humanity is kind of the default, no matter what kind of character we play. For the deva, the more you think about it, the more half empty that Holy Grail of immortality seems to be.
The question of "Who wants to live forever?" might really be "Who wants to be in therapy forever?"
And with that, I think I need to go watch a webcam devoted entirely to kittens. Who knew angels could be so gosh darn depressing? But hey, that's what good roleplaying is all about. Well, sometimes.
PS: Thank you, Queen, for getting the Highlander song stuck in my head. It'll be there for days until it dies and is reincarnated as the Gummi Bear Theme Song. Reincarnating here and there, and everywhere.