In the Strange Tales of Songling book, I talked about ventures into hell and escape from hell campaigns, something I was increasingly using the setting for by the time the game was complete. I have been planning another Strange Tales of Songling campaign, and this time it is going to start in the afterlife. The details of the campaign are emerging slowly over the course of research and re-reading Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio. My thoughts on it are being put up on the podcast (see the links below for the current episodes on it).
In order to do this I need to map out some kind of hell-scape for the characters to adventure in. I want it to be inspired by the source material, by real world mythology and religion, but also need it to be gameable. One downside to this kind of setting is it can, at least in my experience, lead to very unnameable scenarios. This is particularly the case if you lean heavily on 'setting tourism', which can be tempting. So I am going to have to elaborate on things simply to make it function for the purposes of adventure.
My starting point is the ten courts of hell. Each of these is governed by a magistrate who passes sentence. The idea is more like a purgatory than hell, where you are cleansed of your sins through punishment so you can be reborn. I have some books on the Ten Courts of Hell, including a translation of the Scripture of the Ten Kings. Like I mentioned in the Strange Tales of Songling book, I am also taking a page from Chang Cheh's Heaven and Hell, which has always stuck with me. I will also be drawing freely on Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio as well for ideas.
One thing I need is to make sure each court can function well as a place for the players to adventure, but in the context of undergoing purification for the next life (and in expectation of judgment for what that next life will be). I have a number of ideas, all laid out in the podcasts below (just note they are evolving). Two key ideas I want to talk about here are how I plan to deal with levels, and rebirth.
At first I was going to have characters start at level 1 in hell. But since this is supposed to follow the deaths of the characters in the real world, I felt it might make more sense to start them at level 10, and have hell be about all of their levels and abilities slowly being stripped from them as they undergo the process of reform. The abilities reflect their attachments to their prior life. I kind of like this idea. It is a little weird, since the goal is to get less powerful, and it is also strange in that it will make the campaign harder as it goes rather than easier. I am still figuring this out exactly. Since it is hell and you can't die, I figure when characters do die, they go to one of the tortures while the rest of the party adventures. There they lose their level and something else as a product of the pain. Characters who make it through the court level without dying would only lose their level (whereas the character who is tortured may lose a level but also have to adventure through the rest of hell without sight).
For rebirth I have gone through a number of possibilities. One challenge is whether to do it individually or collectively. I won't get into that here as I am still mulling it over, but it will make a big difference in terms of how this is all executed. The first idea I settled on was to have the players judged in their journey through hell then that shapes what they become in the next life. That can indeed work, but one problem with it is, what is the future campaign-wise if they become a carp? I still want to retain this idea in hell itself (I will talk more on that below). Now I am leaning on the following: their journey and judgement in hell determines what campaign follows. Basically any game or system is on the table, it just needs to align with the judgment. So maybe really bad characters are reborn as adventurers in a Call of Cthulhu campaign, or reborn as Vampires in a Masquerade campaign. I might reward characters who do well, by allowing them to be Sertori in a Sertorius campaign or a supers campaign. Obviously whatever the next campaign is also needs to be something people want to do, but it is an interesting way to mix things up. And the idea is they would make their new characters as extensions of their old ones, just reborn (a bit like Cloud Atlas, with characters going from genre to genre in each rebirth).
One idea I like is the players changing in their travels through hell, by way of torture, moral purification and moral decay. I like the idea that they can slowly turn into monsters the more they fail to let go of their attachments and the more they hold onto their sins. I don't quite know the details yet, and again this isn't a new game I am making so I want to go light on the kludging, but some kind of corrupting or benevolent mechanic that reshapes the character during their time in hell. This won't necessarily translate into what they become in the next life, but it gives them some indication, and characters who fail utterly, becoming terrible creatures, won't escape.
I should say that this is not something I am doing for publication. If it works great and I really want to publish it, maybe down the line that would be possible, but for now this is just for my own game group. Likely I will be posting material here though, so people can use it if they like the idea.