Last two issues for the RPG Blog Carnival I wrote on how to reincarnate player characters in your campaign. Or at least how you could go about it. This time I'll touch upon what happens to you society, if people would start to remember that they were here before. And what you could do with that in your campaign setting.
What happens all depends on three things. One is whether people reincarnate, and how commonplace it is. The second is how many people believe or rather know that reincarnation takes place. And the third is in how far you can influence where and how you reincarnate. Think these over before you decide how you incorporate past lives into your fantasy society.
Just Freak Memories
You could decide that being born into a new body happens only in very special cases. That's it's a freak accident. Or just for certain souls who are bound to this world. That only the son or daughter of a god can be born again. Or one touched by the spell of a powerful wizard. In that case, it's little more than a gimmick for your campaign. Maybe people have an opinion, maybe the church calls it witchcraft, but that's basically it.
We all are One
Or you could decide that we all reincarnate, all the time. That we travel from body to body, life to life, and experience to experience. If the people realize that this is so, they might also want to take better care of their world. And better care of their fellow man. Because you personally might be born anywhere, and you are stuck in this world, so you'd better make sure it's as close to heaven as you can make it. And as ecologically sound as you can make it. Because if you blow up your world or poison it, you'll be back to reap the bitter fruits too. Actually, most Christian values (or other religious or humanist ones) would come rather naturally. They wouldn't just be moral, but actually practical necessity! Because then we all are one.
But All was Forgotten...
Yet if we all reincarnate, then we don't have to remember. Or at least not directly. And then remembering may become dependent on whether we take fleeting recognitions and vague memories of past lives for truth. Suppose the religious dogma does not recognize reincarnation. The church might state that we cannot be reincarnated while in actuality we are. Or the dogma might state that most of us are not supposed to remember, because we were sinful in our past lives, and now we have started with a clean slate. So we could remember but it were wrong to do so. Heroes and others who would have memories would have to be careful with what they told others about it. It would be a secret. Like it would be in our own society, even if the religion in our case would be exchanged for a scientific dogma. But if the heroes could share their memories, with fellow heroes, or with secret organisations of people who know... then there would be many alleys for adventure.
The Secret Order of the Continuous Resurrection
Because if you would not only be able to remember your past lives, but also make sure where you would be borne next, this would give virtual immortal powers. Suppose such a group exists in your fantasy world. A group of wizards, akin to such secretive organisations as the Freemasons. Or a group of mother priestesses, like the Artemisian cults, or even an order of the Mother, the holy Soul and the Borne Childe. Suppose such a group would bring back heroes, powerful people, either for good or bad, back in to this world – but remembering their past powers, knowledge and lives. Or maybe there are various of such temples of reincarnation, fighting one another in a secret (or open) feud. Such a feud would continue over ages and might spark whole wars. Wars only those who remembered would understand. Or think to understand.
Enough possibilities. Dream on them. And use what you will in your coming games.