Also, I'd be remiss to mention that I took a lot of inspiration from this post at Power Score.
Now that we know what the Gods are up to, let's figure out what these mortals are, exactly.
Mortals in Ahneria were crafted in the image of their Gods. However, the first mortals came about because of an experiment: could you make a creature without a divine spark? The answer proved to be yes, and it revealed something interesting about the nature of Gods and what a soul is.
A soul is not a thing in itself, but more like a vessel. It is the thing that contains the spark of divinity. In the absence of such a thing, the soul gains the will to determine their own alignment. They aren't defined by their spark, though they can still interact with and affect sparks.
As long as the mortal exists as a free-willed creature, its soul lacks an alignment. In this way, the alignment of a character is the result of their intent to behave a certain way. In reality, they won't have an alignment while they are alive.
Note that this isn't true for all creatures. Most monsters are born with an alignment infused into them, meaning they are more like the immortals than mortals. The difference between a God and a monster is that the monster's bodies are able to be destroyed by mortal hands. A true mortal, on the other hand, is guided by nothing more or less than their impulses and philosophies, making them unique among the multiverse. In the terms of the game, these creatures are called "humanoids".
If a God or fiend has claimed a soul (which is usually only possible with the mortal's consent) their soul is marked with the sigil of that immortal, which draws it through a particular portal to a particular plane.
If a soul bears the Black Feather Brand, it is destroyed upon death.
After a soul is sorted into the Outer Planes, they become what is called a petitioner. In some planes, these are the lowest and most pitiful ranks, the manes of the abyss, the lemures of the nine hells, the soul larvae of Gehenna. Or, they become the foot soldiers of the plane: the holy armies of Mount Celestia, or the animal hoard of the Beastlands.
As a petitioner, a few things happen. First, you slowly lose your sense of self. Over the course of 200 years, you lose your memories, your personality, and your physical form. This leads to the varying levels of resurrection effects that clerics can cast - it requires more magic to recover an older soul.
- Revivify: 3rd level spell, time limit 1 minute. The soul has only just arrived at the outer plane.
- Raise Dead: 5th level spell, time limit 10 days. The soul has lost much of their physical form and must spend some time recovering.
- Reincarnate: 5th level spell, time limit 10 days. This spell circumvents the degradation of physical form by creating a new body for the soul to inhabit. Unfortunately, this process is random.
- Resurrection: 7th level spell, time limit 100 years. The soul has lost all of their physical form and much of their memories. Casting the spell transfers part of the soul of the caster into the target to make up for this, meaning the soul returns with its memories but the spellcaster suffers heavy penalties as a result.
- True Resurrection: 9th level spell, time limit 200 years. This spell is considered nothing short of a miracle. A deity intervenes, allowing a soul that is nearly completely disintegrated to return fully, at little cost to caster and target. Instead, the deity themself takes on the burden of the spell.
If they do happen to retain some sentience, they can begin to gather sparks of their alignment and gain power. Lawful planes usually feature a system of promotion, whereas chaotic planes often allow promotion if a creature adheres to the tenants of the plane particularly well.
The leaders of these planes are mostly the Gods whose sparks are aligned to the plane. However, some are notable as petitioners who rose so far up the ranks as to be counted among the leaders of the plane. The most infamous examples are likely the current roster of demon lords. With a few exceptions, they rose from the mud of the abyss and overthrew the previous Lords of Chaos which ruled over the plane.
So if the souls of mortals are whisked away to the outer planes, then what are all these undead still around here for?
Well, that depends. A particular undead creature is caused by a particular effect, and there are many such effects that can lead to the phenomenon of undeath.
The most common way to create undead is for a necromancer to infuse a body with energy from the Shadowfell or the Abyss. Energy of the Shadowfell can be summoned by the Animate Dead spell. Abyssal energy is more difficult to access, requiring the powerful Create Undead spell.
An Animate Dead spell summons Shadows to inhabit corpses (to create Zombies (MM pg. 315)) or piles of bones (to create Skeletons (MM pg. 272)). The Shadow loses some of its power, but the spell forces the Shadows to become subservient. Lesser Shadows can be summoned to create Crawling Claws (MM pg. 44), or a more powerful Shadow can be summoned into a wizard's corpse to create a Flameskull (MM pg. 134).
On the other hand, there are several undead that form due to the Abyssal energy used in a Create Undead spell, or in a location that is somehow connected to the Abyss. Ghouls (MM pg. 148), Ghasts(MM pg. 148), certain Gnolls (MM pg. 163), and Mummies (MM pg. 227) are all products of Abyssal energy infusing a corpse, either accidentally or purposefully. The process of creating a Mummy or Mummy Lord is actually an ancient, ritualistic form of the Create Undead spell, practiced by long-lost civilizations.
Sometimes, a soul dies with a strong enough bond or ideal that they choose not to pass into the outer planes. These can come in many, many forms. A creature with an unfulfilled bond becomes a Ghost (MM pg. 147). A creature who kills itself while its soul has been placed in a Phylactery becomes a Lich (MM pg. 202) or Dracolich (MM pg. 83). A Naga bound to guarding a single location can persist after death, becoming a Bone Naga (MM pg. 233). A creature wrongfully slain can become a Revenant (MM pg. 259). A Beholder can dream itself into undeath as a Death Tyrant (MM pg. 29).
However, barring these greater powers affecting a soul, souls sometimes are simply prevented from passing due to odd coincidences of magic: an area infused with dark energy, a spell cast to prevent the soul's release, or some barrier (such as a Hallow spell) preventing the soul from travelling away from the material plane. In these cases, most souls become Specters (MM pg. 279), frustrated and angry that they cannot move on.
In some cases, particularly evil souls might become Will-o'-Wisps (MM pg. 301) instead. These creatures retain intelligence and even personality, and are too powerful to be summoned by Animate Dead. However, a Create Undead spell can summon them into a corpse, creating a Wight (MM pg. 300). This process is occasionally performed by powerful necromancers, but is routinely undertaken by various Immortals of Undeath, such as Orcus of the Abyss.
Finally, sometimes the powers and magic combine. A soul that has been promised to a dark power but is unable to pass on might undergo a transformation into a Wraith (MM pg. 302). In this instance, the soul vanishes completely, becoming essentially an elemental of the Shadowfell, gaining the powers of Shadows and the ability to prevent souls from passing on, creating Specters of its own..
For many religions, the doctrine provides a path to become a petitioner and serve an Immortal after death. Mortals find comfort in this thought, that after they die there will be at least one part of them that continues on. To be prevented from passing is a fate that no mortal wishes. Thus, though all undead are treated with revulsion, those who failed to pass on have a special place of fear in the hearts of mortals.
Using This In Your Game
- Figure out how souls work in your world
- Explain alignment: how does it work for mortals? For Immortals? For the PCs in particular?
- Who judges the souls? Are they benevolent?
- How do the resurrection spells work in your setting? Why are there time limits on them?
- How does undeath work in your setting? Are there different kinds? Who causes it?
- How do people see death and the afterlife?
Thanks for reading!