Last week writing for the RPG Blog Carnival I touched upon ways to use reincarnated characters in your campaign. One of the subjects I didn't handle was what happens to your character when you change bodies. What skills do you remember? And into what kind of body can you come back?
Of course it all depends on your school of thought. And what you can use in your game. Figuring Gygax might have written something about it, I decided to look up the Reincarnation spell in the old Players Handbook. But it doesn't tell much. It's just a random table for the race the new body might be, and a note that the new body appears in 10-60 minutes. It doesn't tell about skills left, power level, memories, age, or even hit points. Seems the spell was meant more as a gimmick than it was to be used. Few ideas there. Have to do this on my own.
Whenever a hero reincarnates, I think there's a few questions to answer. Gender and race (if at all human), skills remembered or not, and memories retained or not. And for all how fast they return, if at all.
The Buddhist Monk and the Ant
Some monks, it is said, refuse to kill even the slightest insect, because the insect might be a reincarnation of a human being, or become one later. Maybe that's true. But except for half a session of gimmick, it's probably not interesting to play an ant. For game sake it's best to assume all reincarnations of humanoids are into humanoids. So elves might become humans, and humans might become orcs, orcs might reincarnate as half-elves. Whatever you prefer for story and effect. Maybe full elven bodies are less available, but heroes are heroes, and heroes are special over many incarnations.
Past life I was a Woman
Or a man. And now vice versa. Or past life I was a bigoted master, and now I'm a colored slave. Or the other way around. The idea of karma says that you try to learn from past experience, and past lives. Perhaps as a cosmic or self-punishment, probably just as a cosmic or personal lesson and learning experience. Whatever your philosophies on this, stories become more interesting if the new character somehow contrasts with the old one. Both as player and as GM you can help decide what happens here. Don't be scared to experiment!
I don't know where I learned this, It's like I always knew
If all characters remembered every skill they learned in every past life, they would be like gods. And maybe they are. But if you go this way, no holds barred, your campaign will soon be either heavily unbalanced, or skill level will mean little because everyone is level infinite anyway. So for game purposes alone, reincarnated souls should forget. From a Karma point of view, if you wouldn't forget, you wouldn't be able to learn something new. So, it's probably best to drop all former skills, and build an entirely new personage with new skills and experience.
But on the other hand, remembering some of the skills or specials may give an immense kick. It gives a character more sense of continuity, and a mystic quality. Especially if remembering parts of your past lives is not common.
In game terms, you could accomplish this by giving a few “talent” skills to the new character. And if the old skills were those of a magic user, but the new persona is a warrior? You could give the warrior a few innate magick talents, or cantrip-like powers that have to do with what the mage once did very well.
The Virtual Immortals
But reincarnation itself, or remembering your past life, could also be prerogative of an elite cult. Maybe they could arrange that you would not only be reborn in a new powerful body, or powerful family, but also that you would really remember your skills. Or eventually remember most of them, in effect losing only a few levels of what you could do before. Or temporarily lose all of them, but rebuild them much faster (perhaps a level a week). This would make for a scary, godlike elite that might work for both the good and bad of mankind. Or elfkind. Or orcs. And so on. But making this a common effect for your heroes would leave a strong mark on the whole campaign and the world. Maybe it's preferable to leave such an old cult as a legend, and a great treasure to attain. Something to work for.
Yes, I remember, I was a half-elf courtesan then
Those memories that are not skills, but just knowledge and... memories are another matter. It's certainly too much work to work out all past incarnations and add them to your character description. But it can be a very cool story device if you can use memories of past lives. Especially once the players know their character is a reincarnated version of a former character, you might allow them to use their past life knowledge to pursue their former goals. This might be complete knowledge, or it might be somewhat fuzzy. Because there's a difference in knowing there is a trap somewhere, or that someone killed you last life, or feeling it is dangerous – or that you intensely dislike someone for no obvious reason. Whatever you decide, be specific about it escpecially as a game master, and don't be afraid to change your stance if you find it would help your game. Memories tend to fade and pop up anyway.
Have fun with your reincarnated heroes, and see you next issue in what it might mean for your (fantasy) society if people remember.