Wednesday, August 30, 2023

Retrospective: Dungeons & Dragons Immortals Rules

In the early days of the OSR, a common topic of discussion was D&D's endgame. Both OD&D and AD&D assume that player characters, when they have achieved higher level, will settle down to rule baronies and become movers and shakers within the campaign world. There's little disputing this, since even a cursory reading of the rules reveals that this was clearly the intention of the game's creators. Unfortunately, neither game provided much in the way of explicit rules or even guidance on what this intended endgame would look like in practice, which no doubt contributed to its loss

It wasn't until the release of Frank Mentzer's Companion Rules boxed set in 1984 that D&D players were a clearly stated version of D&D's intended endgame, however inadequate one might judge it (I personally liked it, but I recognize that not everyone feels the same). However, for reasons I've never understood, the Dungeons & Dragons game line, starting with the beloved revisions of Moldvay, Cook, and Marsh, was obsessed with the number 36 as the highest possible level attainable by a character. That's why Mentzer followed the Companion Rules with the utterly pointless Master Rules: to fill in the level progression gap between 25 (the top level of Companion) and 36, the inexplicably Highest-We-Mean-It-This-Time level for D&D.

Given the vacuity of the Master Rules, one might be forgiven for thinking Mentzer had finished with his revision, having provided rules coverage all the way up to the lofty heights of Level 36. You'd be mistaken, of course, because Mentzer had one more trick up his sleeve and it was a doozy. 1986 saw the release of the fifth and final boxed set for Dungeons & Dragons, the Immortal Rules. As its title suggests, this set focused on characters who had achieved, in the words of its preface, that "most ambitious of goals – Immortality itself." Now that's an endgame.

I should immediately note that becoming an Immortal is not the same thing as becoming a god – or at least not exactly. The Immortal Rules appeared during the "angry mothers from heck" era of TSR, when the company was doing everything it could to avoid giving offense to Middle America. That meant eliminating or scaling back anything that skirted too close to religion or religious belief. Hence, Immortals, though they "oversee and control all the known multiverse," are explicitly not its creators. More importantly, Immortals do not seek – or receive – the veneration or worship of mortals. Instead, they have their own goals, which largely consist of exploring and understanding the mysteries of the multiverse and its infinite planes beyond the Prime.

The rules governing Immortals are clearly derivative of those in Dungeons & Dragons – there are, for example, still six ability scores, armor class, hit points, etc. – but most of them have been thoroughly re-imagined or re-contextualized – so much so that they're scarcely the same game anymore. Most importantly, a character accumulated experience points are converted into power points on a 10,000 to 1 basis and those power points are used by the player to purchase talents and abilities for his now-Immortal character. As an Immortal learns more about the multiverse, he acquires more power points, just as normal characters acquire XP. These new points can then be used to buy new abilities and to advance within the Immortal hierarchy. 

What Mentzer has done here is effectively turn D&D into a more freeform point-buy system that is wholly unlike the class-based structure of "ordinary" Dungeons & Dragons. I remember, when I first read the rules, shortly after they were published, just how odd it all seemed to me. Now, to be fair, I had absolutely no idea what the Immortals Rules should look like. For that matter, I wasn't even sure that there was much point to rules for player character immortality. All I can say is what I expected and that was something similar to the D&D rules of levels 1–36, though at a greater scale.

That's not say that what Mentzer does in the Immortal Rules isn't interesting, because I think it is. He clearly had a strong idea of what Immortals were within the cosmology he'd created for the game and, knowing that, the kinds of powers and abilities they should possess. Then, as now, the question is one of why? Did anyone really want these rules? Did anyone ever use them in play? I certainly never did. I read them a couple of times and then largely forgot about them – not because they were badly done but because they scratched an itch I'd never had. Re-reading them in preparation for this post, I can't help but think that the Immortals Rules existed only to fulfill some vague sense that D&D had to include rules for immortality eventually. 

I suspect my own interest in the Immortal Rules might have increased considerably had Mentzer done a better job of fleshing out just what Immortals did. He talks a lot about exploration of the multiverse and of learning its secrets, but, aside from a few small details here and there, he doesn't provide any practical examples – in a way, recapitulating the problem of D&D's original endgame. It's a shame, because I think there might have been room for a wild and woolly multiversal game at the pinnacle of D&D's level progression. That's certainly in keeping with some of the stuff with which Gygax had long been toying, so it's not in any way alien to Dungeons & Dragons. 

Mentzer's reach exceeded his grasp with the Immortal Rules, which is no crime – but it is a disappointment.

16 comments:

  1. Notice how close these ideas parallel "End Game" ideas for MMORPG video games.

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    1. Not at all. You mean?

      The endgame in an MMORPG is usually just to clear high-level dungeons and fight bosses over and over to get the best possible treasure. The same stuff you were doing at low levels, but with bigger numbers. PvP optional.

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  2. I felt that that D&D would have been better had it concentrated in going "wider" instead of taller-- releasing supplements that gave more options at lower levels (classes, spells, races, etc.) rather than provide options at the Master/Companion/Immortal levels. I don't think (in our B/X playing days anyway) that we ever got characters to those higher levels anyway, making those boxed sets more of an intellectual exercise than anything else.

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  3. Never had the boxed set, but we used the idea as kids that you could become a god by slaying a god. Since we have Legends and Lore and they had Hit Points well game on. But then we were 11 so đŸ€·

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  4. When my group got to Master levels, we couldn't really think of anything on our own to do so we went with the published adventure modules. I distinctly remember one of them being called "Five Coins for a Kingdom". There was another called - I believe - "Into the Maelstrom". Anyway, exploring the multiverse is what that module series was about, so I can't imagine doing it again once you attained immortality. And I thought the weapon mastery system introduced in the Master rules was awesome.

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  5. I think the revised Wrath of Immortals set that followed the Rules Cyclopedia did a better work, both in explaining the Immortals setting (though much was just a collection of immortals and metaplot from CM, M and I modules) and adapting the D&D rules.
    I guess 36 was chosen because it's a number of spiritual/esoteric significance as it is the number connected to the manifestation of the holy trinity into the real world.

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  6. Interesting post. I never had the Immortals box, and the only thing I still have left from D&D is the Rules Cyclopedia, which doesn't include the Immortals rules. But even the endgame there (becoming a sort of local lord, including rules for building a castle, maintaining your own domains, etc) felt more like a leftover from the original intent of OD&D as rules for running a wargaming campaign rather than a what it became later, running a roleplaying campaign. I also still wonder whether players (once D&D became a roleplaying game) ever ran the game up to that point or used those rules.

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  7. Is part of the problem with very high level D&D, "what do immortal murder hobos' aspire to"? Exploring 'worm-hole' mazes, defeating nebula sized dragons and ransacking the homes of the gods of space, time and probability? Or to get involved in the petty politics of Moorcock's Dancers at the End of Time?

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  8. I always thought they would have been better off starting with a mid-game. Have the players be the number two person in an organization instead of just jumping into boss. Then when the player is boss they have a different level of problems. Set it up so that if you jump a step like Conan and take over a Kingdom the game provides the ideas, but if you didn't go through the mid game you might be far less prepared.

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  9. I'm glad that you think that the Master Rules set was pointless, as I did too. The Companion Rules were close to being pointless for me, like bits left out of both the Basic and Expert Rules.

    The Immortal Rules however did intrigue me, in that I thought that they might be about Immortal Greek heroes like Hector, Hercales, Achilles or Odysseus and their interactions with the gods of Olympus. Alas, that wasn't the case.

    I see the Immortal Rules as a bit of a missed opportunity.

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  10. For a publisher that was trying to avoid the wrath of Satanic Panic-scarred middle America, I always wondered if it was a good idea to go with a flying loin cloth-clad Jesus on the cover....

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    1. Obviously not Jesus. Not a prominent nail-hole to be seen, his ankles aren't a shattered ruin, and where's the spear-hole Casca poked in him while he was hanging around? :)

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    2. Dude. Healing Spells? Plus, a 36 Charisma obviously makes stigmata HOT. ;)

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  11. Never bothered with the individual boxes beyond BE and barely used those, I was more of an AD&D guy back then. The Rules Cyclopedia saw more use (2e AD&D having been a bit of a mess) but Wrath of the Immortals pretty much sat on the shelf being pointless.

    Oddly, I really enjoyed playing a demigod in Epic tier 4e, but that was an enormously different setting and I had a really, really good GM. The guy certainly brought the 4e cosmology to life, and did a great job of proving 4e could do non-combat adventures too.

    And then he died during the COVID pandemic. Raising a glass to good memories and a great GM, Jack.

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  12. What's always kind of boggled my mind with this is the answer to what an immortal can do (well, if you want conflict) is obvious in later D&D: you go get involved in the Blood War. Whether fighting for one side or the other or just making sure it goes on forever and keeps the forces of evil distracted.

    Sounds like something that should've been revisited for Planescape, though it's completely unsurprising it never was.

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  13. My friend had the Master and Immortal rules, but we never played. And then by the time we might have been ready, we were off to college where AD&D 2nd Edition was the thing.

    On the other hand, I loved Wrath of the Immortals. The rules themselves saw little use, but the timeline of events became a rough basis for my campaign's timeline. Trips to the tavern became news gathering as the barkeep or a patron would fill the characters in on what was going on in the wider world (and tease a couple plot hooks). I also used 2 of the 3 adventures (mostly as written) because I liked the way they dove-tailed into the larger events.

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