One or more of the main characters is the reincarnation of someone from the past, and they are forced to live with the effects of their previous incarnation's life, loves and choices. A device seen in some Shōjo (Demographic) stories, often allowing for a "destined love that survives death" plot element. Also used for a "duty that survives death" plot as well. Sometimes allows for Time Travel to previous incarnations in the form of Visions of Another Self.
Usually, just like an Identical Grandson, a reincarnated person looks exactly like their previous self, unless the contrast is used for some irony — i.e., a pair of lovers being reincarnated as the opposite genders. Roles can change as well for dramatic effect. The Woobie might be reborn as The Hero, a villain finds redemption as a florist, but the bickering Vitriolic Best Buds are still at it!
When it's used in a Western series, the greater religious aspects are often ignored. It's common for the reincarnated character to have some form of Past Life Memories, though Resurrection Sickness may set in with the flood of new thoughts. May manifest only in Dreaming of Times Gone By.
If you're looking for a reincarnation that occurs over the course of a series, see Back from the Dead. If a character explicitly has the power to reincarnate every time they die, it's Born-Again Immortality.
If you're looking for a Flash game about demons recapturing escapees from Hell, go here.
Can be confused with and is often incorrectly interchanged in fiction with the concept of resurrection: A dead person comes back from the dead in the same body (perhaps complete with a Mortal Wound Reveal) and their original spirit. (A specialty of Jesus in Christianity.) Reincarnation's formal definition is the return to the land of the living with the same spirit but often in a different form than the same body you left behind (as a man rather than a woman, a flea, a sunflower...whatever.) That's the principle found in Eastern philosophy, such as Buddhism. And even then, in Real Life it gets complicated; in Eastern thought, just because one's "pattern" shows up again does not necessarily mean it's "you." (Although many Easterners do believe that.)
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Anime & Manga
Kagome in InuYasha. Thanks to Time Travel and a little magic, she co-exists with the person she is a reincarnation of.
Tuxedo Mask and all of the earth's senshi aside from Chibi Moon in Sailor Moon. In the manga, Sailor Pluto dies in the future, then reincarnates backwards in time so that her present self can still guard the Time Gate while still helping out. Justified because she was the guardian of the Space-Time Corridor/Gate, a place where Canon already explained that the time doesn't flow, so she could reincarnate in any time period.
Setsuna in Angel Sanctuary. The reincarnation may share some similarities with Alexiel but is not exactly alike each also it changes gender randomly.
In the manga, it's revealed that Sara is a reincarnation of Gabriel.
Dragon Ball loves this trope: Piccolo being the reincarnation of Piccolo Sr. and Uub being the reincarnation of Kid Buu. Interestingly, both of them are good guys, are reincarnations of Big Bads who had epic fights with Son Goku and both had a "rematch" with him in a Tenka'ichi Budokai.
Piccolo Jr. took longer to befriend Goku, because he actually remembered his past life; while never as evil as his previous self, Piccolo Jr. was initially quite ruthless and went through a somewhat prolonged Heel-Face Turn (fueled by two Enemy Mine arcs in a row, and Goku's son as a Morality Pet) after his defeat. He also looks the same as Piccolo Sr. because in addition to being his reincarnation, he's also his clone.
In Uub's case, Goku openly wished that Kid Buu would be reincarnated as a good person as he destroyed him. King Yemma heard the wish and had Kid Buu reincarnated as Uub.
Several major characters in Yu-Gi-Oh! are reincarnations of people from ancient Egypt.
Seto Kaiba is the reincarnation of Priest Seto.
Yugi and Bakura Ryou are the modern-day reincarnations of Pharaoh Atem and Tozokuou Bakura, respectively.
Priestess Isis and Ishizu Ishtar.
The filler Orichalcos arc adds the implication that Yugi, Kaiba and Jou are also connected to the Knights of Atlantis.
Yu-Gi-Oh! GX also features reincarnation, in that Judai/Jaden is the reincarnation of The Supreme King.
Himeko and Chikane in Kannazuki no Miko are the reincarnations of the priestesses of the sun and moon.
Eriol Hiiragizawa of Cardcaptor Sakuraand in the manga, the main character's father as well is the reincarnation of Clow Reed. In fact, Eriol's whole purpose in existing was to continue Clow's plans after Clow's death.
It's a major theme in most of them, especially Houou (Karma in the U.S.), but it's actually a key element of Sun's unorthodox plot structure, which keeps flipping back and forth between past and future, with each time period being presented as the protagonist's "dreams". The truth, of course, is that these are two different lives lived by the protagonist, and both the past and the future scenarios are mirror halves of a tale of love, betrayal and redemption spanning centuries, in addition to setting up some of the events seen in the previous volumes.
In Elfen Lied manga epilogue, the twins, young friends of Kouta's daughter, are implied to be the reincarnation of Nyu and Kaede.
In Princess Tutu, Fakir is revealed to be a knight from a fairytale "reborn" to protect his prince, who escaped from the story after the writer died before he could be completed. In the first season, he constantly struggles with trying to live up to the Knight while not having the same end (being torn apart by the claws of an evil Raven). In the second season, he slowly begins to give up on the role to take on his true calling as a writer...of the reality-warping variety. He has a birthmark that looks like a scar from the wound that killed the knight to confirm his identity.
The three younger knights in Prétear are implied to be reincarnations of three knights that were killed during a battle—we see the knights in flashbacks, and although their faces are always obscured they have the same outfits and hair.
The plot of Please Save My Earth revolves around this, and includes a female character who reincarnated male in order to be able to have a happier relationship with the reincarnation of the man she had unrequited feelings for, and two characters who reincarnated into look-alikes of each other. Except for one example, they don't look like the characters they reincarnated from.
In one of the final episodes of Sister Princess, sorceress Chikage reveals to her brother Wataru that they had been lovers in a previous life.
All of the high school warriors in Ikki Tousen are reincarnations of the main characters in Romance of the Three Kingdoms. A lot of them wound up in perky girl's bodies, which doesn't seem to affect their bloodthirstiness — or their names — in the least. Of course, one wonders why some of the greatest strategists in Chinese history would bother fighting over the control of Japanese high schools in the first place.
In Otogi Zoshi, set in feudal Japan most of the cast got killed by the middle of the anime. They reincarnate in modern Tokyo. Main characters kept names and basic appearances, but changed haircuts as to be more modern. Not everyone was lucky enough to get reincarnated as humans, through - one of their opponents seems to have become a cat. Or maybe just got a cat named after him.
Three of the four main characters in Saiyuki are reincarnations of gods who died protecting Son Goku (the fourth character).
The main antagonist of Immortal Rain is a soul that has been repeatedly reincarnated over the history of the Earth and remembers every single life leading to some... major mental issues and sparking the plot of the series.
The lesser-known manga Kagerou-Nostalgia is based entirely around the idea of reincarnation. Six heroes are reincarnated as teenagers in order to try and take care of some unfinished business. Given the nature of the setting this sucks for them.
Bleach. When human beings die in the Land of the Living their souls go to the Soul Society (unless they change into Hollows) including Ginjo, Tsukishima and Giriko where they'll either be normal residents of Soul Society until they die again or become shinigami. Eventually they're reincarnated back into the human world.
Gate 7 is a Urban Fantasy about characters of Sengoku era's reincarnations fighting to find the most powerful Oni of the world.
The main basis of Bokura no Kiseki. Not only is the male protagonist, Harusumi, the reincarnation of a princess, Veronica, nearly everyone in his high school class is the reincarnation of someone who was in Veronica's castle when it was invaded and destroyed by a neighboring country. According to the mythos of Veronica's country, all people killed by magic will be reincarnated.
In Anohana this is the reason why Menma wants to fufill her original wish. Once it is fufilled, she can be reincarnated and can once again belong to the same physical world where her friends are.
In Nobunagun, the main characters are all reincarnations of important historical figures and are given weapons based on that person's actions and personality. The main character Shio Ogura is a reincarnation of Oda Nobunaga and inherits his love of guns by wielding a gigantic mini gun that fires ammo bigger than her torso.
Everyone in Spirit Circle. The protagonist's first life, Fortuna, caused a disaster that makes him and Koko's soul keep getting reincarnated over and over as enemies. In each reincarnation, they met and befriended many people, and the bond also caused them to keep getting reincarnated around them. In their current life as Fuuta and Kouko, the most prominent characters are all now their close group of friends.
At the end of Part 1 of Dance in the Vampire Bund, Alphonsesacrifices his reputation and his life to save Mina and the Bund. His one wish is to reincarnate into a flower for Mina (whom he's been in love with since childhood) to wear in her hair for a few hours. He gets it.
In Naruto, the titular Character and Sasuke are revealed, somewhat unsurprisingly, to be this of the younger and elder sons, respectively, of the Sage of the Six Paths. Likewise, Hashirama and Madara were their previous incarnations.
Most of the cast of Camelot 3000 are the reincarnations of characters from Arthurian legend.
One of the more significant changes in IDW's incarnation of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is the role reincarnation plays in their origin. The turtles that became the TMNT, it turns out, were the reincarnations of four Japanese brothers murdered in ancient Japan. Splinter, who like in the original incarnation is a rat-turned mutant, is the reincarnation of Hamato Yoshi, their father, who before being slain prayed for a chance at revenge on their murderers.
Has been used as a plot point in DC Nation when it comes to the founding Titans. Dark Angel kidnapped Donna Troy to use as an experiment, sending her through Hypertime in a series of "short, unhappy lives." However, as Donna's incarnations lived, she found other souls with a similar spark to them, and acted as a kind of magnet to keep bringing them together through the centuries and lives.
The Pony POV Series has an interesting version. When the G3 universe was created in an attempt to make a utopia, the G1 cast were erased from existence (likely along with others), resulting in the creation of Shadows of Existence (essentially an Empty Shell that is sent to Entropy's realm) while what happened to their Light of Existence (their soul) is unclear. When the G3 World has to be erased, Shadows of Existence begin to fuse with the G3 ponies to form new ponies that live on into the G4 world, effectively making several G4 ponies joint reincarnations of both G3 ponies and G1 ponies, and in some case, G2 ponies (as many G3 ponies were reformated versions of G2 ponies). Twilight is G1 Twilight and G3 Minty, Rainbow Dash is G1 Firefly and G3 Rainbow Dash, Rarity is one of Princess Rarity who is implied to be a reformated G2 Melody, and Pinkie Pie is one of her G3 self, Princess Rarity (having gotten a part of her during the final moments), and G1 Surprise. Most of them are actually descended from their G1 counterparts as well. From Recursive Fanfiction, Sherlock is G3 Story Belle's reincarnation.
Inspired by the Pony POV Series, past lives are very important to the plot of Nightmares Are Tragic At least four characters knew each other in earlier lives — some exactly as in the aforementioned series.
Pinkie Pie was formerly G3 Pinkie Pie, and is one of the last survivors of the World That Was Not, from which she derives her Reality Warper powers. G3 Pinkie Pie fought against and was slain by Cosmic Luna, who helped destroy her whole timeline. It is unclear to what degree Pinkie Pie remembers her old identity.
Twilight Sparkle was Age of Wonders stallion fighter-pilot and astronaut Dusk Skyshine, who was the husband of Moondreamer, which becomes important in triggering Princess Luna's Heel-Face Turn and starts Luna Fighting from the Inside against the Nightshadow. It's also implied that Twilight was also G3 Pinkie Pie's best friend Minty.
The first one, Souls Reborn, has the crew (East Blue members only) and various others being the reincarnations of the Konoha 12, the Suna Siblings, and Kakashi, in order to kill Orochimaru for good, who killed all of them one by one in their past lives.
The second one, D Reincarnation, has devil fruit users being reincarnated as ponies in Equestria (known as Devil's Reincarnations), with Pinkie Pie being the reincarnation of Luffy. They are combating against the Devil's Alliance, who are reincarnations of many of Luffy's past enemies who intend to overthrow Celestia and rule Equestria in their own intended image.
In the Bollywood movie Om Shanti Om, Om is reincarnated and looks exactly like he did in his previous life — complete with his tattoo becoming some sort of birthmark.
Dead Again: It becomes apparent that the protagonists are reincarnated spirits of murder victims. It turns out he was she and she was he in the previous incarnation. They're identical to their former selves, too.
The romantic comedy Chances Are has a reincarnated man romancing his own widow.
In the movie Made In Heaven, the protagonist drowns after saving some people. In Heaven, he meets his One True Love. She incarnates for the first time, while he begs Emmett (who specifically says he is not God) and is allowed to reincarnate early to try and find her.
In Fluke, it starts with the main character being reincarnated. It turns out that anyone who dies gets reincarnated - including Rumbo, who'd not only died before the start of the movie, and had been reincarnated as a dog, but then later dies and is reincarnated as a squirrel.
The Mummy Returns makes use of this; O'Connell is the reincarnation of a member of the medjai, Evie is the reincarnation of an Egyptian princess, and Imhotep is brought back by the reincarnation of Akh-sun-Amun.
In the Albert Brooks comedy Defending Your Life people have to go before a panel of judges and prove that they're enlightened enough to move on to Heaven. If they fail to do that, they're sent back to Earth to get it right the next time.
The Return of Hanuman is quite different as it doesn't involve death (but quite common in Hinduism); the main protagonist Maruti is the reincarnation of Hanuman.
A recurring theme in Cloud Atlas (though it is left ambiguous whether it is real). Also an explicit belief of the Valleysmen in "Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After", of the Buddhist priests in Sonmi's era and of the Moriori. Luisa doesn't believe in it at all.
Sid and Irv make a deal that whichever one dies first will contact the living one from the afterlife. So Irv dies. Sid doesn't hear from him for about a year, figures there is no afterlife. Then one day he gets a call. It's Irv. "So there is an afterlife! What's it like?" Sid asks. 'Well, I sleep very late. I get up, have a big breakfast. Then I have sex, lots of sex. Then I go back to sleep, but I get up for lunch, have a big lunch. Have some more sex. Take a nap. Huge dinner. More sex. Go to sleep, and wake up the next day." "Oh, my god," says Sid "So that's what heaven is like?" "Oh no," says Irv. "I'm not in heaven. I'm a bear in Yellowstone Park."
Three men arrive at the pearly gates but St. Peter says they are full - but they will have the chance to be reincarnated on Earth as whatever they want until room is made. The first says he's always wanted to be a bear. The second says he's always wanted to be an eagle. The third thinks and says "I've always wanted to be a stud." A week later the new rooms are ready and God walks up to St. Peter as asks where the three men are. St. Peter says "One is fishing for trout in a stream in Washington state, one is soaring through the Grand Canyon, and the third is on a snow tire in Alaska."
A key theme and plot point of The Memory Wars, by Paul Anthony Shortt, in which people known as "reborn" are able to draw on the strength and knowledge of their past lives to aid them.
In The Wheel of Time series, people who become legendary heroes are put on a special track of reincarnation, each life resembling the other and creating its own batch of legends. They hang out in the World of Dreams between lives and are forbidden from interacting with mortals. Everyone else is also reincarnated but are of less central importance to the pattern. The Dragon Reborn is unique in that everyone knows who he is a reincarnation of, when even those who have also lived past lives as great heroes cannot be identified and rarely discover this for themselves.
In Dragaera, reincarnation is a fact of "life." For instance, Vlad is a reincarnation of Kieron the Conqueror's brother, founder of house Jhereg, and Aliera is a reincarnation of his sister. This has the occasionally useful side-effect of allowing Vlad to use the hereditary amorphia-creation powers of Kieron's family, despite now being a different species.
This is the essential theme of Katharine Kerr's long-running Deverry series, which feature a "present day" plot along with multiple parallel flashbacks featuring previous incarnations of the same characters. Later books often include a chart to keep track of them all.
Subverted in that the incarnations tend to have different -occasionally drastically different- appearances. Usually a soul reincarnates regularly as one gender, but to balance experiences, will occasionally show up as the opposite, particularly if a incredibly strong desire fuels it: In one incarnation, Gweniver desires to be a mighty warrior. Her next incarnation is the male Branoic, who is very much that. And woe betide if the character cannot forgive even a vicious enemy; that hate can bind the two souls together as strongly as love. Salamander and Sidro avert this by forgiving each other, when they had good reason to hate; both at the time and in the past.
On Discworld, you are (possibly) guaranteed reincarnation if you die while possessing a potato, though not necessarily a human incarnation. The abbot of the History Monks also practices reincarnation, and in his second appearance (Thief of Time) is a baby.
You don't always have to believe in reincarnation for this to happen. Reincarnation just has to believe in you.
H. Beam Piper believed in reincarnation, and wrote a Paratimenovel examining what would happen if everyone had concrete proof it happened. (One fission bomb was dropped when the paratimers got involved. The general feel was "an interesting place to visit, but unless you can adopt a particularly accepting attitude towards your own death, you wouldn't wanna live there.")
The T'swa in John Dalmas' The Regiment also consider reincarnation a given, and their attitude resembles that mentioned in the Piper example above. Men who regard their own deaths as only a minor inconvenience can be very effective fighters. Reporter Varlik Lormagen adopts some of their ways of thought; a dream he has late in the book suggests that his closest T'swa friend, now dead, will be reincarnated as Varlik's son. And then the book ends with Varlik snuggling with his wife, evidently about to get down to conceiving his friend's next form.
I've Been Waiting for You is of the "past events play out in the present" subtype, but with a strong emphasis on Screw Destiny—the protagonist was one of the girls whose accusations kicked off the Salem witch trials, and she has no intention of repeating the slaughter. Everybody Lives, she redeems herself, and she even winds up dating the reincarnation of Giles Corey.
In An Elegy for the Still-living, Robin claims that he and Francis are reincarnations of Gilgamesh and Enkidu, and that they have died and been reborn countless times throughout the ages, possibly as other fictional characters who fall under some of the same archetypes.
In Warrior Cats, Cinderpelt is reincarnated as her own niece, Cinderheart, who was born at the same instant Cinderpelt was killed defending the mother from a badger. She was given a second chance at life because the first time around, she was caught in the villain's trap and injured by a car, preventing her from becoming a warrior. Cinderheart eventually lives Past Life Memories in her dreams, and realizes who she is.
In Elsewhere, in the afterlife, people are sent to "Elsewhere", where they age backwards until they become babies. They are then sent back to Earth and reincarnated.
Agrojag from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy has been reincarnated as many different things, and almost all of them died because of Arthur Dent. A rabbit he killed in prehistoric earth and made into a bag, a fly he accidentally swallowed, the bowl of petunias created by the Infinite Improbability Drive miles above the surface of Magrathea, an old man who had a heart attack when he saw Arthur Dent at a Cricket game, a bystander at Stavro Mueller Beta who got nailed by a laser meant for Arthur but he ducked, and a horrific beast who built a temple of hate to Arthur Dent only to be accidentally killed by him again.
The Incarnate Trilogy takes place in a world where everyone is reincarnated after death—except for the protagonist, Ana.
Cloud Atlas pretty much takes this trope and has a field day with it, in which its protagonists are all linked by a Comet shaped birthmark and similar circumstances.
In Shadow Grail, many characters are reincarnations of figures from Arthurian lore. For example, the main antagonist is Mordred reincarnated.
In the Heralds of Valdemar series, all Companions (except the Groveborn) and some Heralds are the reincarnations of previous Heralds. There are a couple exceptions to being reincarnated as a Herald or Companion, however, as when Vanyel's Lifebonded partner Tylendel died, he got reincarnated as the Bard Stefen. The Firecats of Karse are the reincarnated spirits of previous (good) Sons of the Sun (except presumably the Firecat that Bonded with the first Son of the Sun).
Lois and Clark had an episode with Superman and Lois Lane as reincarnated lovers (explaining that Superman's soul was from beyond time and distance), and had them time-travel to their past-life bodies to undo an ancient curse.
It even hits the soap operas: one 90's Brazilian soap titled A Viagem, based in spiritist theories, has the main couple being lovers from their past lives, and they fall in deep love again in their actual incarnation. The little fact that they die midway the story didn't stop their affair, as they encounter eachother again in the afterlife by the force of their love.
Speaking of soaps, the original Dark Shadows used this trope heavily, along with every other excuse they could think of to keep casting the same actors in different time periods and dimensions.
The premise of Mada Koi wa Hajimaranai, a dorama series from 1995, where the story revolves around a pair of reincarnated lovers from 200 years ago, and whether or not they'll get together this time around.
Xena: Warrior Princess does this a lot, including a very funny episode where an obsessive Xena fan (played by Lawless) turned out to be the reincarnation of Joxer.
The Minbari of Babylon 5 believe in reincarnation in a semi-closed system where the same pool of souls is constantly reborn. This is a key plot point in several ways.
In The X-Files, the concept of reincarnation was used in several episodes.
In "Born Again", a murdered cop was reincarnated as a little girl who was a bit of a Creepy Child. No wonder, she was channeling his desire for revenge because his murderers were not punished.
In episode "The Field Where I Died", Mulder comes to believe that he was married to a female member of a cult in a past life, and under hypnosis claims to remember not only her but Scully and Cancer Man as reincarnated friends and enemies respectively.
The character who swore revenge came back as a fly in "The List".
In Red Dwarf, Arnold Rimmer claims that in a previous incarnation, he was Alexander the Great... -'s Chief Eunuch.
On Green Acres Eb is missing, and a stray dog shows up. Naturally Lisa thinks the dog is Eb "reincarcerated" ("reincarnation" means when you come back as a flower).
Played for laughs in an episode of Round the Twist, where Linda hypnotises her brother back into a past life in the hope he'll better be able to complete his do-it-or-you're-suspended homework. When his previous incarnation starts trashing the house, she hypnotises the baby she's sitting to his previous life as a wrestling champion, only making things worse. Ultimately its the once Oxford University professor, their chicken, who helps them complete their homework.
Turned up occasionally in Charmed. One episode reveals that the sisters are all reincarnations of their own ancestors. Due to Time Travel, Paige once got in a fight with her own past life. The "looking exactly like your past life" thing is explained to be due to their "souls recognizing each other", making them see each other as their current selves during a past-life regression.
Implied in 7Days. One episode had a villain with a birthmark under one eye. He got killed, and the episode ends with a shot of a newborn baby with the same birthmark under his eye.
JAG: In "Survivors", a Marine colonel believes his young son to be the reincarnation of a war buddy who died in The Vietnam War. The ending is left ambiguous whether this is true or not.
While not a supernatural series, one episode of Criminal Minds dealt with an Unsub who developed a fascination with reincarnation after learning from his abusive grandfather that a mortally wounded serial killer was placed next to his pregnant mother in the emergency room before she died when he was five years old. Convinced he was the reincarnated form of Smith, the Unsub killed anyone he thought were the reincarnated forms of the killer's victims, leaving behind a sample of animal hair and maggots so that the victims never take their revenge by coming back in animal form. Intending to let himself die in the presence of a newborn baby so that he could be reincarnated, the Unsub nearly gains victory until the baby is taken away and the container holding is larvae spills over his body.
Ronnie Lane's "Stone" aka "Evolution" tells of a different birth (first person) in each verse.
The song Gonzo sings in The Muppet Movie, "I'm Going To Go Back There Someday" can be interpreted as being about reincarnation.
In Dream Theater's Metropolis, Pt. 2 album, the protagonist discovers that he is the reincarnation of Victoria (the girl he has visions of) and the Hypnotherapist is the reincarnation of Edward, who murdered Victoria.
Parodied in "Fredrickism", a skit by Hudson And Landry about a Scam Religion. When asked if Fredrickism believes in reincarnation, founder Freddie Schultz says they don't need to: if you follow all 26 Commandments then you never die.
The Freedom City setting for Mutants & Masterminds has The Scarab, a superhero who was originally the Pharoah Heru-Ra. Like Hawkman, he is destined to be killed by the reincarnation of the priest who killed him the first time, Tan-Aktor, who is currently Overshadow, the setting's Supreme Hydra Captain Ersatz.
The world of Exalted works under a system of reincarnation, with a person's "higher soul" entering into the spin cycle until it's abandoned all memories of its former life. However, the titular Exalted effectively receive another soul at the moment of their Exaltation, and receive flashes of the life the previous bearer led.
The Alchemical Exalted put a different spin on this: each Alchemical Exalt is created using a higher soul that has proven itself heroic in multiple lives. An Alchemical is basically a whole new incarnation, but incorporating characteristics (and potentially memories) of their previous lives.
Part of the backstory of Warhammer 40,000 is that in humanity's distant past, the first human psykers had the ability to reincarnate, allowing them to accumulate power and knowledge over several lifetimes to continuously protect the human race. However, as civilisation progressed, the Chaos within the Warp grew strong enough that reincarnation became increasingly difficult, to the point where it would have been impossible. The psykers decided to avert this disaster by committing mass suicide and all of them reincarnating into a single body. The person born from this became the God Emperor.
This explanation was canon in the early editions, but recently, its been changed to just one of many possible theories.
Lucius the Eternal, the Slaaneshi special character, is a strange version; whenever he is killed, his killer's body mutates and soul is removed until he becomes Lucius the Eternal.
The almost-forgotten Man, Myth & Magic was based on this. Aim of the game: Reincarnate at least once in every possible Character Class, and remember your incarnations in all of them.
KULT has both reincarnation and a heaven/hell system, a bit like Greek mythology (though rather simpler.)
Reincarnate is a spell in Dungeons & Dragons. It causes a deceased recipient to come back to life in a new body, often of another species (for instance, a human coming back as an elf or orc).
Pathfinder also has a prestige class of Reincarnation Druid in the Ultimate Magic core expansion. Once reaching level 5, the character will always reincarnate into a different race a day later. He or she will only stay dead if killed again within 7 days of reincarnating.
Fireborn actually uses this as a core mechanic, interestingly they do this by making you jump between your current incarnation and your previous ones.
It is actually stated in the source books of the game that Reincarnation is part of the draconic life cycle.
Yu-Gi-Oh!: According to a Gagaga Tospedia storyline, the "Dragon Rulers" grow to a certain size, expanding their regions of power against the power of the other Attributes. They perform a cycle of condensing and purifying their energy inside their bodies. And, when each of them reaches their limit, the "Dragon Rulers" unleash their power, and their body, which carried that power, reincarnates into the form of a younger "Dragon Ruler".
Daisy, the main character of On A Clear Day You Can See Forever, is actually the reincarnation of a woman named Melinda Welles, which her therapist discovers when he puts her under hypnosis. Inevitably he falls for Melinda.
In The Adding Machine, it's explained by Lieutenant Charles that souls get recycled until they're worn out, because it's not worth making one just to use it once. Zero has been there at least fifty thousand times before, and each time he went back he got worse.
Link and Zelda in every game are the reincarnations of the original Link and Zelda from The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. While Zelda is always reincarnated in her own bloodline, Link can be anyone, though somehow he always looks similar to his predecessors. Some Links are related by blood however. Link and Zelda are always reincarnated at about the same time and because they are cursed their reincarnation will cause Ganondorf or another evil force to attack Hyrule. However their reincarnation also comes with the powers of the Triforce of Wisdom and Courage, so they are usually, but not always, strong enough to force the evil they cause back. Their personalities can vary, but they usually don't. The notable exception is Tetra, who is the Wind Waker incarnation of Zelda; having been raised by pirates, she's a bossy tomboy. She's still a worthy carrier of the Triforce of Wisdom, since she's just as smart as all past Zeldas.
The entire main cast in Tales of Innocence. The main character, Ruca, was a general named Asras on one side of a war in Heaven dedicated to capturing the "Souseiryoku" and reuniting Heaven with Earth. Throughout the entire game, the characters explore the distinction between themselves and their past lives, with a climax in which Ruca discovers that two of the other playable characters' old identities betrayed Asras, and goes through a fairly explosive Heroic BSOD before having to reconcile his friends and comrades with the actions of their previous selves. In the end, he decides to go through with Asras' plan, with all of his allies (including some of Asras' old enemies) helping.
The point translates into gameplay, as every reincarnated person can assume their original form through a process called "Awakening", and each main character's Awakening is their Hi-Ougi.
Of course, the big reveal in Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow is that Soma Cruz is the Reincarnation of Dracula. The original Aria game left some wiggle room over what that meant, but the sequel solidified it.
Fae and Arasai (an Evil Twinrace) from EverQuest IIall go through this process, so long as their spirit bud remains intact in-between lives.
Disgaea 2: Cursed Memories: Rozalin happens to be having some dreams about a blood-smeared battlefield after her sudden departure from her luxurious mansion. These are actually vivid memories of her past life as the real Overlord Zenon. That life comes back to haunt her more than any reincarnation normally should.
In many Nippon Ichi games, reincarnation is a vital tool to power up your Player Mooks, you can even reincarnate the hero but he will still have the same form he did before reincarnating.
Reincarnation is a central theme of the Soul Blazer trilogy, for the hero and the many creatures he interacts with. Blazer is implied to have been reincarnated many times in the service of The Master (Deathtoll calls him a "creature that suffers eternal transmigration of the soul and cannot die"), and Will and his friends reincarnate and meet each other at the end of his journey. Terranigma's Ark has reincarnation play out for him in a horribly depressing way. He is fated to continue the cycle of death and rebirth; resurrecting one world and destroying the other; himself included, each time switching between Light and Dark. It's said that he has done this countless times in countless lives and will continue to do it countless times again.
Souls can be reincarnated in Afterlife, provided they believed in it before they died. This is achieved by chucking them through a glowing portal-nexus-thingy situated halfway between heaven and hell, which in turn is accessible by a special soul train.
Hieda no Akyuu from Touhou. It's part of her perpetual duty to record the history of Gensokyo. She will always be reborn into the Hieda line, with the downside of having a weak body that will only live for ten to twenty years. Her first incarnation, Hieda no Aichi, supposedly penned the Kojiki.
The series embraces Buddhist hells, so Reincarnation is actually an expected occurrence, though the series focuses on exceptional cases such as Mokou and Kaguya (the most perfect form of reincarnation in the series, but also the most impure) or Akyuu (who not only continues to inherit her predecessor's memory and is also born into the same family, but is fast-tracked through a process that should take an uncountable number of lifetimes).
Inhabitants of the Heavens possess a variety of Reincarnation where they can still "die," but will always come back into existence. Background says that Celestials typically have enough strength to fight back against shikigami, which is why they never get carried off to judgment.
Seems to be subverted in Rhiannon: Curse of the Four Branches, in which the villain evidently thinks all four women named "Rhiannon" are the same person reborn. But if he's right about that, how can the ghosts of the previous three Rhiannons all be simultaneously haunting the home of the current one?
Played straight even further with Hijiri in SMT Nocturne as he is the reincarnation of Aleph (Protagonist of Shin Megami Tensei II), he's forced to witness the struggle between order and chaos for all eternity.
In Silent Hill 3, protagonist Heather is revealed to be a reincarnation of Alessa, and the baby given to Harry at the end of the first game. There's also Cheryl, Harry's original daughter, who had half of the soul while Alessa spent seven years in near-death in the hospital.
In Agarest Senki 2, all three protagonists are the reincarnation of Chaos, leader god of darkness. The reincarnation happens after you play through the prologue of the game but you don't get to find out until the third generation.
The Ur-Quan Kohr-Ah in Star Control II believe in reincarnation. This is one way they rationalize their genocide of all other life in the galaxy: any life they take will eventually be reincarnated as a Kohr-Ah, so there's no permanent harm done. There's no evidence to show that this is actually the case, however.
The main plot of The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind involves the prophesied reincarnation of the ancient Chimer/Dunmer hero Lord Indoril Nerevar. Whether or not the Player Character actually IS his reincarnation cannot be known for sure. The player can wear Nerevar's Moon-And-Star ring, which is supposed to kill anyone who isn't Nerevar, but it is strongly implied that the Nerevarine might just be a convenient Unwitting Pawn for Azura to get her revenge on the Tribunal for defying her thousands of years ago.
Whether the Nerevarine is Nerevar reborn at the beginning or not, by the end of it, they most likely are. In the Elder Scrolls, it is possible to become one with another person or deity by following them and their role closely enough. Since the Nerevarine endures the same trials and essentially continues his unfinished business in his name, they likely do become him by mantling him.
Eastern Mind: The Lost Souls of Tong-Nou is about reincarnation. You have to die and reincarnate 9 times in the game, and three of your lives end instantly. There's no penalty if you do happen to die, either.
As can be guessed from the name, it features strongly in Reincarnation. Souls escaped from Hell return to their mortal bodies. The player is tasked with gathering proof that these "reincarnies" are still up to no good, then sending them back to Hell.
In Cursery: The Crooked Man, this is an important plot point that sets up The Reveal of the game: The player's sister Renee, is the identical reincarnation of the Crooked Man's fiancee. His cursed ring triggers her previous life's memories, including the final moments before her death.
AIR revolves around the descendants of a samurai and a psychic (who, incidentally, also happen to be said couple reincarnated over and over) searching for the reincarnation of the one they failed to protect. However, unlike many other examples, they look nothing like their original selves.
The Big Bad in Tsukihime became a reincarnator as his own style of obtaining immortality, his mind/powers surfacing in one host after the other. His appearance/gender change freely with each appearance.
Aleksander and Alison from My Life In Blue have been reincarnated together many times over the ages, brutally dying every time.
In Something Positive, Silas was a minor character whose one gag (narrating things) proved insufficient to keep the creator from killing him off; he was later showed in Hell. However, eventually an "Old Familiar Faces" strip showed him alive again as a small child. He's popped up a few other times and is apparently a friend of Mike's son, Shazam. His entry on the cast page sums it up:
"He's the only person to make if off the dead cast members page and will remain so—proving that the only way to get a second lease on life in S*P is to be completely useless."
Off-White: All spirits are shades of gray, except that each species has a single White Spirit and Black Spirit to keep the balance between the other spirits. The White and Black Spirits can be reincarnated, but apparently they also can die a final death, one in which they don't rejuvenate. Apparently being eaten alive is one way for this to happen, going by what Skoll said.
In the universe of Jack, souls in Purgatory or Hell have the option of reincarnation and making another attempt for Heaven, which no one seems to want to leave for long. Though those condemned to Hell have to recognize their sins before they're allowed out, which is rather difficult given the delusions many are under and some of the punishments they are subjected to. And not everyone in Purgatory thinks a second chance is worth the risk of ending up in Hell.
Spacefaring paramilitary groups in Among The Chosen are Crazy-Prepared enough to have protocols for if a reincarnated former agent remembers working for them in a past life.
Sasha Hunter of Greek Ninja is in fact the reincarnation of Eli of Thrace, a mythological hero.
In the Avatar: The Last Airbender franchise, every time the Avatar dies, he or she is reincarnated. It isn't specified how many Avatars there have been, but it is implied that Aang from the original series is the latest in a long, long line of Avatars. It is also stated that if he is killed during the Avatar State there will be no more reincarnations. The Sequel SeriesThe Legend of Korra, stars Korra, the newest Avatar and the reincarnation of Aang.
It's eventually revealed in Korra that the original Avatar was a Street Urchin named Wan. He died ten thousand years ago.
Sometimes referenced by Hindu character Apu in episodes of The Simpsons. In one episode, as he's getting ready to hang himself, he looks at a "reincarnation chart" to see what he'll be in the next life. In a Treehouse of Horror episode parodying The Most Dangerous Game, he dies but immediately reincarnates as a rabbit.
Apu's reincarnation chart clearly shows that he was a cobra, then a tiger, then himself (little picture of Apu) and that his two next incarnations will be as an assistant to Lorne Michaels. "It's going to be a rough couple of lifetimes," he sighs.
In the Adventure Time "The Vault", Finn discovers that the mysterious ghost woman who has been haunting him was the guilt from when his own past life, a female mercenary named Shoko, befriended and betrayed Princess Bubblegum.
Transformers Prime: Supplementary material in Covenant of Primus reveal that the last member of the Thirteen, the original Primes, chose to enter the Well of AllSparks and be reincarnated as an ordinary Cybertronian. Said Cybertronian turned out to be Orion Pax. When Orion Pax was bequeathed the Matrix of Leadership, he regained his memories as one of the Thirteen, and subsequently retook his original name: Optimus Prime. Optimus chose to keep this fact to himself, and the only other 'bot aware of it is Alpha Trion, another member of the Thirteen.
Famous American general George S. Patton believed that he had been reincarnated several times prior to his "current" life. He even believed himself to be the reincarnation of the historical Hannibal.
Between ten and twenty percent of Britons with a "traditional" Western religious background (ie. not including Hindus, Buddhists etc.) apparently believe in reincarnation. note Source:Walter, T. & Waterhouse, H. (1999) A Very Private Belief: Reincarnation in Contemporary England. Sociology of Religion 60: p188
Ironically, it's been said there are more people who believe they were on the Titanic in a past life than there were actual passengers.
The Dalai Lama, who is believed to be living his fourteenth life as Tenzin Gyatso. Besides him, there were several thousands tulku (reincarnated lamas) in Himalayan regions and Mongolia.
A very famous instance of alleged reincarnation in the west is a boy named James Leininger, who's maintained that he's the reincarnation of a WWII fighter pilot named James Huston Jr. From a very early age, he could recognize small details in World War II aircraft and had recurring nightmares of being trapped in a cockpit of a plane that was shot down by the Japanese. He's probably one of the most compelling cases of someone believe to be a reincarnation, to the point of appearing in mainstream newsmagazine shows whose typical fare is usually not along the lines of religious or spiritual matters. Skeptics have not been convinced.
Michael Ende commented on this: "If all the women I know who believe that they had been Mary Magdalene in a past life were right, you could have filled a big house with them!"