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If a rich ruler has trustworthy relatives, or even multiple lackeys (only one of which would need to honor a command to have them resurrected), why would they ever choose to pass on?

Since the only game mechanic I'm aware of is level-loss, which can be regained through adventuring, what are the game mechanics that prevent someone rich and powerful from just using those resources to rule forever?

I was thinking through ideas of my campaign and one was to involve the PCs in a succession dispute of a ruler who had died (no malicious causes). My thought was that Dear Old Dad was aware of how his passing might damage the kingdom's future when it occurred to me that he's rich so why not just avoid the fuss? In fact, why wouldn't MOST rulers naturally evolve to become adventurers as a simple way of living forever? It seemed like an interesting idea to create a kingdom or continent or even a whole world around. Am I missing some hidden downside?

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We could use some additional discussion of your assumptions here, as the modal cause of death for rulers is "murderhobos with class levels." Specifically, is your world a world where rulers of kingdoms are high-level adventurers, or is your world a world where aristocrats rule? –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton Feb 2 at 23:54
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Hey guys - this isn't a "brainstorm list of possible plot hooks why." Answers that are just "oh one cool made up reason is X" deserve burnination. –  mxyzplk Feb 3 at 3:37

8 Answers 8

It's Just Your Time...

They don't really have a choice but to pass on eventually. As the rules say...

You cannot resurrect someone who has died of old age.

So, yes: they have no reason to not live a very long, long life for whatever race they are and ripen to the oldest age possible. A human emperor could rule for over 100 years, defying every would-be assassin with life-giving magic. But no amount of resurrection can make you immortal.

So the answer to your question is: they probably wouldn't choose to pass on. But there is no choice. That's part of the curse (blessing?) of being mortal.

Note that keeping a mortal alive past their due date is outside of the scope of even a wish spell. As it says...

You may try to use a wish to produce greater effects than these, but doing so is dangerous. (The wish may pervert your intent into a literal but undesirable fulfillment or only a partial fulfillment.)


...But You Can Become Something Else

The one option open to them would be to embrace some form of undeath, such as lichdom. However, it's noted in the process of becoming a lich that the entity must themselves be a very powerful spellcaster to be able to create their phylactery, the requirements of which are as follows:

Each lich must make its own phylactery, which requires the Craft Wondrous Item feat. The character must be able to cast spells and have a caster level of 11th or higher. The phylactery costs 120,000 gp and 4,800 XP to create and has a caster level equal to that of its creator at the time of creation.

Note that becoming a lich is considered "unspeakably evil" (unless you're using some non-core source books like Monsters of Faerun, which contains "good liches"), so this would also be a substantial deterrent, regardless of the power level required to become one. This also ignores the basic philosophical argument of "is a lich the same person/creature as the one it was in life?" which is a bit outside the scope of this question, but something relevant to think about. It would affect other changed statuses as well, like if the ruler wanted to become an abomination such as a Worm That Walks or had someone try to rip them out of their afterlife plane as whatever kind of Outsider they may have become.


Reincarnate Cheese

Finally, as @SouthpawHare pointed out in the comments below, the spell reincarnate actually will allow the being to come back to life in the form of a random young-adult humanoid. The spell even notes that...

A wish or a miracle spell can restore a reincarnated character to his or her original form.

The spell still can't revive you if you've died of old age. But you could theoretically bypass this by simply hiring someone to murder you, committing honorable seppuku, or otherwise having a violent, non-age-related death.

So for a ruler who has basically limitless gold resources, it shouldn't be a problem to continually arrange for their own unnatural death, and then have a reincarnate and wish spell cast upon them to return them to their normal 20-something-year-old form. This could potentially allow the ruler to live forever, as long as he gains enough experience in his next lifetime to gain at least one level. If he keeps staying at 1st level, he will eventually run out of Constitution, per the following functionality:

The subject’s level (or Hit Dice) is reduced by 1. If the subject was 1st level, its new Constitution score is reduced by 2. (If this reduction would put its Con at 0 or lower, it can’t be reincarnated). This level/HD loss or Constitution loss cannot be repaired by any means.

They also can't be killed by a death effect or turned into Undead in the interim, or the reincarnate would have no effect. Of course at that point, you could in theory be resurrected normally since you didn't die of old age.

With that said, while this follows the RAW (rules-as-written), it's my opinion that it violates the RAI (rules-as-intended). If I was the GM of this game, I wouldn't allow such a loophole. And honestly, it would likely infuriate the in-game gods as well (at least, the Druidic ones). Limitations are placed on mortal magic for a reason. (If you're playing in the Forgotten Realms setting, for instance, the gods still remember very clearly that whole fiasco with the Netheril Empire and the hubris of humans who thought they could be gods.)

Even if the GM isn't willing to modify the RAW, there is this nice little tidbit in the reincarnate text to have fun with:

A reincarnated creature recalls the majority of its former life and form.

(emphasis added)

One good cheese deserves another. Isn't that how the saying goes?


Post Script

I'm sure that scattered throughout the dozens and dozens of source books for 3.5 there are ways to break this and find some loophole to allow a mortal to live forever. As @BrianBallsun-Stanton asked, "[What] about polymorphing into an elan?" It's a good question, and I honestly had never even heard of an elan before he mentioned it in this thread.

A comprehensive analysis of every single possible trick a mortal being could use to try to live forever would create an entire reference book, and I'm unwilling to create one here. The notes above are intended as the "happy path" through the rules and rely mostly on the core rule books. There will always be some fringe cases in a system with as many out-of-control source books as 3.5 has.

Bottom line: the spirit of the rules is that a mortal being cannot live forever through mortal magic. It is impossible. And the game should be played as such. Anything else is the worst kind of munchkinism.

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Actually I think the phrase is "the cheese stands alone." :P –  Jason_c_o Apr 22 at 19:07
    
@KRyan It doesn't "follow right after several methods". It follows after one convoluted one. The other methods turn the user into a different kind entity rather than extending their mortal life. –  asteri Apr 22 at 19:31
    
@KRyan Perhaps you should elaborate on that in your answer, if you disagree about the intention of the core ruleset. –  asteri Apr 22 at 19:40
    
+ 1 for the well researched options, although there may be a variance in becoming a lich. I do not have a dnd -3e book containing the rules for becoming a lich, but in the Pathfinder Bestiary ,there is no xp cost in making the Phylactery, thought the rest of the costs seem to be the same. –  DraconeKing May 28 at 4:51
    
-1 for tone ("the game should be played as such... munchkinism"). Accusations of badwrongfun aren't good to toss around. –  Metool yesterday

Four forces conspire against this: Malthus, Lebensraum, Tainter, and the idea of "dead-man's shoes"

This answer is positioned from a point of system-pragmatism, due to the "answer" is that non-combat resurrection violates many of the genre tenets (see also: using Phoenix Downs on Aerith). Assuming that we don't care about violating genre, then we have to set many of the genre conventions aside and look at the tools the system offers us. Thus, our world (like that envisioned by the econonomicon) accepts the spells and abilities presented in the mechanics of the game as given and asks "what sort of world would result?"

Before getting into said mechanics, three answers spring to mind:

  • Dark sun
  • Elizabeth Moon's Herris Serrano novels
  • The blood war.

The dark sun series has its iconic "defiliers." A arcane caster's ultimate goal in that universe is to consume enough power to become an immortal sorcerer-king. Thus, in a world with very scarce resources, the elite become immortal god-kings and send the rest of the world into grinding subsistence level poverty.

Malthus posited that (roughly paraphrased) as the carrying capacity of the land increased linearly, and that the population of the land increased geometrically, bad things will happen:

The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race. The vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation. They are the precursors in the great army of destruction, and often finish the dreadful work themselves. But should they fail in this war of extermination, sickly seasons, epidemics, pestilence, and plague advance in terrific array, and sweep off their thousands and tens of thousands. Should success be still incomplete, gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the rear, and with one mighty blow levels the population with the food of the world.

Given scarce resources (which... is not necessarily a given in D&D, but we'll get to that later), and immortals driving population growth (if kings can do it, lords want to do it. When lords can do it, knights want to do it. ... and so on) a Malthusian crisis will be reached sooner rather than later.

The need to prevent overpopulation in a given kingdom, will inevitably lead to growth. Here, we face the ideas of lebensraum, and Tainer's catasrophies. For an absolutely fantastic treatment of this in fiction, I recommend the Herris Serrano series by Elizabeth Moon (especially the latter books) where the friction of immortality among the elite leads to... consequences.

Kingdoms will expand until they can expand no further, shedding plenty of commoner blood in the process. The horrible thought is: there is no difference between success or failure. In the case of failure, the kingdom dies. In the case of success, the kingdom pushes up against natural boundaries, becomes overpopulated, and dies. It is this inexorable requirement for growth (as the positions at the top aren't going away, but the population's sex drive isn't either, requiring that a canny elite create positions of power for ambitious youngsters to achieve over there.).

In order to combat the inexorable need for lebensraum created by population pressure (and ennui), we are faced with the final two forces: Joesph Tainter's social complexity theory and venting the ambitions of the ambitious.

Tainter posited that:

According to Tainter's Collapse of Complex Societies, societies become more complex as they try to solve problems. Social complexity can be recognized by numerous differentiated and specialised social and economic roles and many mechanisms through which they are coordinated, and by reliance on symbolic and abstract communication, and the existence of a class of information producers and analysts who are not involved in primary resource production. Such complexity requires a substantial "energy" subsidy (meaning the consumption of resources, or other forms of wealth).

By definition, societies with immortals at the top will be expansionist (or lotus-eaters, but we don't have the critical requisites for that sort of immortality in D&D). Successful societies will continue to have an absolutely atrocious gini coefficient due to the concentration of both cunning and power in those who have achieved immortality. For a terrifying look at the consequences of this line, take a look at Doc Smith's Eddorians (who handle immortality through division and then competing with their remaining selves in an endless lust for power.) The same series holds a (boring) counter example of the Arisians, themselves immortal but, as they are focused on exploring the mind, have no expansionistic tendencies.

Therefore, for the sorts of societies allowed by the mechanics of D&D, they will look rather more like Eddorians than Arisians, simply because if they looked like Arisians, there'd be nothing to actually do.

A non-immortal society will suffer proportionally higher breakdown of its complex institutions as their leaders die. This leads to change and the possibility for the non-catastrophic and local decrease in complexity as new organisations "eat the lunches" of the old, stodgy ones. With immortals with a high gini coefficient, that sort of in-built entropy will be sat upon until catastrophic collapse (See: Taleb's Black Swan of Cairo on risk suppression).

Thus, immortals will want their children to go over there and conquer. Which will work for a limited time until either the communication channels break down, overpopulation hits natural barriers, or the blood war spills over.

There is actually an example of an endlessly expanding immortal society in D&D. There are two: the demons and the devils. Both spawn endlessly, both have a very human lust for power, an infinite area to spawn in, and both have ambitious young. Thus, because they're not facing population pressure (due to that lovely idea of an infinite plane), they are facing generational pressure as the younger generations want the positions of the older. (Hence the term dead man's shoes. See "Dead wizard's pointy shoes" for a humorous treatment of the idea).

Therefore, be careful with this idea, if taken to its logical conclusion, the world wouldn't be a very nice place.

Still, that leaves the mechanics.

The most sustainable and affordable mechanism is the Last Breath spell (druid 4, for our purposes cast by a 7th level archivist to avoid any "natural" or "deific" condemnation) (Spell Compendium, p130) which:

Last breath restores life to a recently deceased creature, creating a new body for the returning spirit to inhabit. However, the spell must be cast within 1 round of the victim's death. This spell functions like reincarnate (PH 270), except that the reincarnated creature receives no level loss, no Constitution loss, and no loss of spells. The creature has -1 hit points (but is stable).

neatly avoids any losses whatsoever so long as death can be arranged easily.

This can be incorporated into a Magic Trap without too much difficulty, costing a tidy 64000gp. If I wanted to be evil about it, I'd incorporate liquid pain (BoVD) generation into the trap along with appropriate memory blocks such that the youthful person coming out the other end would have a few tidy vials of crafting xp. Setting that aside and merely presuming an honourable guillotine (call it 6 grand for the guillotine) we get an infinite use death-trap of eternal youth. At 70 grand, it's quite achievable for a number of budgets, especially as its cost can be amortised over a number of uses. One of these traps could trivially lead to an immortal nobility (saving assassination and other unfortunate ends) with the only pre-requisite being access to the device.

With this immortal nobility, we have all of the necessary pre-requisites for a Malthusian collapse. Happily, strategically positioned magic traps of Create Food and Water (and prestidigitation to reflavour the food) neatly solve many logistical problems as well as agrarian problems, allowing the entire society (save for that subset of farmers producing "luxury food" to get along with other business.) Magic traps of Wall of Iron and Wall of Fire neatly produce infinite workable metal (if not particularly good iron, there will be plenty of it. Carbon is easy enough to come by, leading to the arbitrary production of steel.)

Therefore, this immortal elite's best use of the population is as soldiers (as crafting will be recruited by the immortal elite and turned into a part of the ruling class, there will be few, expert, immortal artisans overseeing massive assembly lines (sufficient commoners with aid another can do remarkable things to epic craft checks) churning out war materiel for the "young" immortals to use when conquering.

To answer your question: rulers that have themselves resurrected efficiently lead to world-spanning empires that die and leave behind remarkably well-stocked ruins for future adventurers to discover.

Or (as I have been reminded) you effectively get a galaxy (or solar system) of endlessly respawning people flying around space swapping bodies and fighting elder horrors. In that instance, go play eclipse phase.

I have also been reminded in offsite discussion that stable fictional societies do exist with immortal kings, The goa'uld and their sarcophagi closely mimic the guillotine of eternal youth (for practical purposes, at least).

To quote my friend:

Mechanically, the key is that the magic trap only avoids natural death, and the magic trap is in the "can't be bought with money" level of expense described in the Economicon. Unnatural death by people who don't want you to come back is still a threat, particularly in the context of taking-over-or-dismantling-the-empire. If people show up, kill your servants, and disintegrate you, you're mostly staying dead. Even if you come back somehow you probably no longer have access to your magic trap of I'm-not-dead-yet.

The non-mechanical key is a social and cultural structure where only the ruling class has access to immortality /and everyone else thinks this is perfectly right and proper/. Admittedly, this requires rather particular history and cultural development, but it's not implausible.

I would only add to that the other requirement is nigh-infinite habitable planets such that the (much slower, due to smaller immortal population) expansion is not contained by natural barriers.

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I am more familiar with D&D 3.5 than I am with Pathfinder, so this is answered with D&D 3.5 in mind.


The Described Scenario Is Very Specific

In the given scenario, the creature who is to be brought back from the dead has the following advantages:

  • Access to Magic
  • Good Game Statistics
  • Limitless Wealth
  • A Position of Power
  • Relative Youth
  • Trustworthy Lackeys
  • Unfinished Business

Those're a lot of reasons to come back from the dead. Seriously, just one of those reasons makes coming back from the dead an attractive proposition, but all of them combined? Few would choose not to return. This guy's got almost every advantage D&D has to offer.

Game Mechanics That Prevent Deadraising

Let's take away his advantages individually and see what happens.

Inaccessible Magic

If the ruler's feat Leadership didn't get him a caster who can perfom deadraising magic, the ruler's relying on his lackeys to find someone who can. If no one is available, he's gonna still be dead. Folks who can cast raise dead [conj] (PH 268)--that is folks who are at least level 9--are both rare and big deals. If they refuse to use their magic on the ruler, he's staying dead. Straight up.

Bad Game Statistics

Repeated short-term deadraising is a horrible cycle. Throwing yourself at the same dragon who just killed you is stupid, but sometimes, well, folks are. After being reduced to level 1 a creature starts losing 2 Constitution points for each raise dead. It's not ability damage nor ability drain; it's just unstoppable Constitution loss. Eventually the deadraised creature will have a Constitution score of 1 or 2 and be on his last go-around if he doesn't hurry up and gain a level--this is an adventure I'm anxious to see, by the way. It's the ultimate high-stakes escort mission.

Limited Wealth

If the ruler's fragile and dies frequently--maybe because he's trying to regain the levels he's lost from having died before--his constant use of deadraising magic will force him to start selling off the very gear he's using to adventure for even more deadraising magic. Further, the more often he must be deadraised, the more he depletes any descendants' inheritance and the more he depletes his resources. A kingdom can be backrupted after a few rounds of deadraising magic.

A Position of Powerlessness

"The soul has a general sense of how long it’s been dead, but doesn’t keep exact track of time," reads Complete Divine 129-30. "The soul also has a sense of which spell is bringing it back to life; it can tell how painful the return journey into a living body will be." This means if a ruler's body's dismembered and the only spell available to deadraise him is raise dead, he might choose to skip coming back because... that's unpleasant. Further, if it's been about 2 centuries since an attempted deadraising--which it can be with true resurrection [conj] (PH 296)--there's no way of knowing what the world's even like, so maybe staying dead will prevent eternal torment at the hands of relatives he slew. Or something.

Old Age

Curing old age is surprisingly easy in D&D 3.5. One simply uses the spell reincarnate [trans] (PH 270) instead of a raise dead. Such magic is even less expensive and, unlike previous editions, there's no chance of being reincarnated as a badger. The reincarnate spell creates a young adult body for the soul. The only problem might be convincing folks that you didn't, Buffy-style, come back wrong. If King Axebeard of the Mountain Dwarves is reincarnated as an elf, for instance, his people might struggle to accept his rule.

Untrustworthy Lackeys

"A soul knows the name, alignment, and patron deity (if any) of the character attempting to revive it and may refuse to return on that basis" (PH 171), but the soul doesn't know if the deadraiser is being browbeaten, dominated, or manipulated into doing the deadraising. The soul must believe that he's coming back to a situation wherein he won't just be killed again, his soul trapped, and his soul used as currency. It should be easy to sow dissent among lackeys to a master burning through so much of his resources just staying alive.

Finished Business

If the soul has no reason to return, it can say, "No, thanks," and stay dead. There are very few ways deadraise the unwilling.

Other Factors

Finally, there are a great many ways to make folks forever dead. A list of those is beyond the scope of this questions, but suffice it to say there are, like, 6 in core that trap living souls, trap the dead's souls, prevent the ability of deadraising magic to bring creatures back, hide information about the deceased, and so on that foes use to make coming back harder. A guy with these advantages has enemies. They will use such means.

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Well, a lot of people get kinda sick of living. Maybe they're old and infirm and without direct magical help there; maybe they've been alive long enough and have seen enough hard times that they would prefer to just move on to the afterlife. You usually can't just "retire" as king without causing a civil war, but there's plenty of people IRL that get tired of the position and responsibility and stress of power.

I think the more likely issue in the game world (Golarion, let's say) is not that THEY don't want to come back, but that no one else wants them to. You have heirs or other pretenders that don't want to wait any more. You have other power structures involved - most kings are not absolute dictators and the other nobles, etc. see opportunity. High level clerics don't grow on trees and tend to be part of the established power structure. A note saying "if you resurrect him, who's going to resurrect you?" is likely to be delivered in many places. Even in very Lawful kingdoms, there's the risk of a long time passing - so the king dies, his heir takes it up, and he's resurrected... 10 years later? OK now what happens, the new guy is supposed to happily step down? I can see the wisdom in setting the law up so that once the ruler dies, either no rez or even if they are they don't rule. Of course for a more Chaotic warlord-esque situation, that's more likely to come out in the personal loyalty/threats realm than the law, but it's the same human factors at work. Very few rules are so universally beloved that people aren't really happier to have them remembered with some lovely statues than to have their dumb high-taxing ass showing back up again time after time.

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There are no game mechanics that prevent it. You cannot resurrect someone whose time is up, but others have already gone through myriad ways around this. But this question isn't really about preventing infinite resurrections. It's about holding onto power across resurrections, and the rules are silent on this matter, because they are silent about holding onto power at all.

If we assume that inheritance and property law even remotely resembles that of modern/historical Earth, then you can't hold onto power across resurrections, because it transfers at the moment of your death and there is no mechanism to transfer it back. In the UK, this is called "the demise of the Crown": at the moment of a ruler's death, power is transferred to the ruler's heir, so that there is technically never a vacancy in power. In D&D terms, a king could have himself resurrected, but he wouldn't be the king anymore; that title would have already transferred to his heir. Indeed, all of his titles of nobility would have been passed down, and so the old king would essentially now be a title-less son of an especially high noble house: quite a huge reduction in status from before.

Of course, the new king could abdicate in favor of the old ruler, but there is nothing saying he has to. He's the king, after all. He'll have his supporters, some truly loyal to him, others just looking for an opportunity to gain power over a new ruler, but they'll support him all the same until that happens. The old king will have his supporters too, though probably fewer than one might expect. Either way, civil wars get started over things like this, and empires tear themselves apart.

Undeath does not circumvent this aspect of things, because there is no instantaneous transition directly from life to undeath: you must die before you can rise, and as soon as you do, power transfers. This has not prevented the rise of undead rulers, but they typically have to get their new start by violently retaking their old lands from the new rulers, and this is part of why. Reincarnation faces similar problems.

Could a ruler create laws that allow him to retain the crown even after his death, preventing the inheritance problem? Yes, but not without the sorts of risks that these laws were created to prevent. Because the king still has to die before he can rise, this creates a situation where for some period of time, however brief it might be, there is no rightful ruler (because he is dead). During this period of anarchy, anyone might seize power for himself and declare the old laws invalid, and if he can hold onto power, that's that. When the old king rose, he would once again face problems between his supporters and those of the new ruler, and we get back to the problem of civil war. These laws were created because power vacuums are Bad.

Technically this is fluff, because it is part of established legal systems rather than written down in any game book. But we're talking about 3.5 and Pathfinder: all politics is fluff. There can be no game mechanics to prevent someone from ruling forever, because there are no game mechanics to determine who rules a land. But it is a set of rules in its own way -basic inheritance law- and it's a set of rules that games like 3.5e and Pathfinder generally assume will be used within the game world.

Unless your world is very young, situations like the ones I mentioned above have probably already happened. Empires rose, and fell, under rulers who tried to live forever. Inheritance laws were created as a response to that, in a way that wasn't so different from our own world's situation, even if the drama played out over larger time scales.

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Beside the well written answers above, there is another problem with the Resurrection spell or similar: divine casters do not cast these spells, they pray for their gods to work a miracle which results in the spell manifestation. But if that god does not want the spell to take form, there is nothing a divine caster can do to change that.

So basically if the gods decide that (for whatever reason) a specific person has lived long enough, no attempt at Resurrection, Reincarnate or any other divine spell can change that. Theoretically in some game worlds, even arcane power is derived from divine power (Forgotten Realms), therefore in extreme cases even arcane magic could be stopped.

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First, dead men aren't rich on their own, they rely on others.

Second, the classic ways for Kings to die IRL mostly involve the hands and axes of those others.

I'd say that in most cases (barring unfortunate accidents of well-loved rulers) the ruler doesn't get a choice - if he was slain as part of an insider plot to overthrow him, then the plotters would also plan to destroy the body, rob and/or incapacitate his allies (especially the ones who have spare 5k gp lying around), and eliminate the actual lackeys assigning to resurrect him - by threats, bribery, or having them as co-conspirators in the first place.

If he was slain as a part of conquest, then again, his wealth is also robbed and the execution can take ritual precautions to hamper resurrection.

In any case, if a ruler succeeds in being resurrected by some lackeys in a remote safehouse after such an event, it doesn't mean that he's a ruler anymore - he's a pretender with a very solid claim to the throne, but at the moment there's somebody else sitting on that throne surrounded by some army at his command. Game mechanics say that you regain your stats and character powers, but it doesn't mean that you regain your wealth and social powers, which is the main thing for a ruler. You can fight his way back to the throne, but that's not a sure thing.

The game mechanics are very simple. First, rules as written (for the common spells) require the resurrecting entity to have possession of the body, or a part of it. In the common death scenarios I describe, noone 'friendly' would have access to the corpse, ever. I believe burning or disintegrating the body and scattering the ashes in an ocean or another dimension is sufficient, and would be a simple and reasonable precaution for every important person killed that you want to stay dead. In a world where magical resurrection (or even talk with dead-bodies spell) exists, any plotter, assasin or executioner would know what's required for resurrection to be [im]possible, and act accordingy. This may turn into a battle of wits as the 'defender' and the 'killer' design elaborate and expensive magical countermeasures and counter-countermeasures to ensure possibility of revival / permanence of death.

Second, an expenditure of significant wealth is required, and after you've died you have very limited ways for you to actually have someone else to get and use huge amount of 'your' resources to resurrect you after you have been killed - since many characters would prefer having it for themselves rather than using them for you.

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