And Yet, It Does Move

Constructs, and Granting Life to the Inanimate

“They have a mouth but they do not speak; they have eyes but they do not see.
They have ears but they do not hear; they have a nose but they do not smell.
Their hands-but they do not feel; their feet-but they do not walk; they do not murmur with their throat.”

(Psalms, 115, 5)

“It’s Alive!”
(Mary Shelley, Frankenstein)

Since the dawn of the fantasy genre, wizards and warlocks have set their eyes above the heads of mortal men, towards the gods – from Tolkein’s Istari who were actually Maiar, through Arren who opens the door to the Realms of the Dead, to Raistlin who tries to become a god himself. And from all the acts of gods which wizards try to imitate, none are as impressive as the creation of life.
Classical fantasy literature, not to mention more than three decades of various roleplaying systems, divide this ambition to three distinct styles – distorting existing organisms, undead and constructs.

Distorting existing organisms is a general term used to describe all the processes, spells, incantations and curses that wizards can use to transform a living being into a different kind of creature. This category includes both specific creatures who were enchanted, like the prince turned to a frog until a princess kisses him or your next-door neighbor turning into a prowling wolf on full moon nights and entire races that were created by some magical way like Middle Earth’s orcs and trolls who were distorted by the Dark Lord until reaching their current form or Dragonlance’s Draconians.
But with all due respect to these monumental magical-biotechnological achievements, they still only alter existing life forms and do not create new life by themselves, so this article will not discuss such creatures.

Wizards can create undead beings in numerous ways, from animating skeletons or zombies, through curses that won’t let the deceased’s spirit rest in peace to directing these efforts towards themselves and turning into liches.
However, undeath is only a pale imitation of life, a sophisticated (or demented, depending on you point of view) attempt to undo the natural order of things and to give a new pseudo-life to something that had already lived beforehand. This article won’t deal with such creatures either.

Constructs, a term first introduced by D&D to the best of my knowledge, are all the inanimate objects animated or otherwise brought to life by some magical method, such as Golems. In this article I don’t intend to bother with rules or game mechanics of any sort, but rather to introduce and explain some concepts that you could then easily integrate in your campaign setting.

A wizard wishing to create a construct must first of all create it a body. This body can be anything from a broom, like in Walt Disney’s Fantasia, through the genre’s classic statues to huge Origami creations in an oriental campaign. The GM should rule whether the suggested body has any extensions it can use as limbs, and how they will be affected from its animation. The GM and the player creating the construct have quite a lot freedom here – Disney’s broom sprouted arms and used its hairs as legs, where as the GM could decide that even though the newly created gargoyle has wings, it’s too heavy to fly.

The second and more interesting stage is to actually animate the said body. And like in any other discussion or article about magic, the main question is how does the cosmology of your campaign setting work? Is life in your campaign world just a collection of metabolic actions, or is there something more to it – a soul? Where do these souls come from, and where do they go? And how can an arrogant and power hungry wizard influence them?

One of the most common options of the fantasy genre is that a mortal wizard cannot create life by himself, but he can use his powers to bind a living soul to an inanimate object, namely the construct to be. Examples are numerous and vary from the summoning of a demon or any other out-worldly creature and binding them to a construct or a magical item like Stormbringer‘s mechanics suggest, through using the souls of the dead, to stealing the souls of the living by especially evil wizards.
In most campaign settings, the ability to summon such a soul and bind it to the construct won’t necessarily grant control over it, which means the wizard will need additional spells or other means (such as bribes or threats) to ensure the construct’s cooperation. Another variation on this idea claims that the more freedom the bound soul is given, the more powers (both its own and the construct’s) it can command, and that the wizard must walk the thin line between empowering his construct to the risk of losing control over it.
Another issue to be addressed is what happens to the original body once its soul is stolen from it. Does the extra-dimensional body of that creature simply disappear from its home-plain, and would be recreated if the soul ever breaks free from the construct, or does it remain in suspended animation (or worse still – starts dying and decaying now that it no longer has a soul in it), and the longer the soul remains trapped in the construct the smaller its chances to return to its original body grow?
Additionally, the wizard should remember that he doesn’t operate in a world of his own, and the friends or servants of that extra-dimensional being might try to track down the wizard in an attempt to free their friend, or avenge his death.

Another option more commonly used in the creation of magical artifacts is that the wizard uses his own life energy to grant the construct life and powers, as Robin Hobb demonstrates brilliantly in her Assassin’s Quest. The more the wizard gives of himself, the stronger the construct would be – but the greater the price the wizard must pay.
And of course, there well always be the arrogant wizard who tries to cheat death by imbedding his entire soul in a construct. That wizard will discover that he is indeed immortal, but that he also might have forgot to give his statue a sense of taste, touch, or even an effective way of dealing with pigeons who believe he is no more than a portable nesting place.

The last option, the holy grail of any wizard, sorcerer, mage or any other reality-distorter is to truly create new life, to invoke new intelligence where there were only lifeless objects. Such actions are not free of repercussions – on the contrary. Besides the moral repercussions and the new duty the wizard must face, dabbling in actions usually reserved to gods might bring down upon him heavenly wrath. Literally.

This article first appeared in issue #21 of The Orc.