Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Gods as Monsters

There's a neat article from a few weeks back about polytheism posted at “The Tao of D&D”. It's a bit long, but a lot interesting, so worth your time.

One of the philosophies espoused in the article is that the gods should be great and powerful beings who "can smash a PC, or kingdom like a bug", far beyond the “glorified monsters” they appear as in Deities & Demigods. So where did Messrs. Ward and Kuntz come up with the idea of the gods as creatures who should have stats and could be defeated in combat?

Probably from the myths themselves.

These myths are hardly consistent when it comes to the powers of the gods. Isis could flood the Nile with a single teardrop, but had to spend time disguised as a common, mortal nursemaid in order to rescue the body of the murdered Osiris. Yep, murdered, as in slain, as in reduced to 0 hit points (or -11, depending on your house rules). Osiris was lucky; he got resurrected. Poor Baldur wasn't so fortunate and ended up staying dead.

And Baldur was hardly unique among the gods and their brethren. Zeus slew his father and imprisoned the other titans. Tiamat was dismembered after her husband was killed (arguably in self-defense) by their children. Heck, the entire Norse pantheon was doomed to die in battle against monsters and frost giants.

Dying and torment were not unknown to the gods. Nor were they omniscient. Odin lost an eye and hung for three days from Yggdrasil, the World Ash, to earn the right to drink from the Pool of Wisdom and learn the making of runes. Thor was fooled by illusions. Ares was driven, screaming in pain and horror, from the plain before Troy by Diomedes.

Having said all that, I think most folks will get more mileage from the system outlined in “The Tao of D&D” because it tends to agree with people's default assumptions. We tend to think of gods as mystical forces rather than flesh-and-blood creatures, and we assume the relationships our characters will have with the gods will be distant, obscure, and personal, rather than matters of civic duty, akin to jury duty and paying taxes. If you're going to do something other than that with your deities, you should probably make them central to the campaign and its themes, as was done in the Dragonlance campaign.

Art Credits: Frederick Arthur Bridgman, Bertel Thorvaldsen.

8 comments:

Oddysey said...

Hm. Distant and mysterious gods strike me as more medieval, too, even if there's a whole bunch of them, whereas the slightly more mortal-level ones you describe would fit the tone better in an ancient game. More pagan.

Did you specifically consider this distinction when you set up the gods in your current setting? They're pretty much anything but distant and mysterious, but then they're also front and center so far as the game goes.

trollsmyth said...

Yep on the pagan vs. medieval, though the transition was a gradual thing, often with saints and fey taking the place of the old pagan gods for a while.

And yes again for the gods in Doom & Tea Parties. I was purposefully going for something more mythological than theological. Having the gods and their interests front-and-center is a natural outgrowth of my top-down design style, too.

kaeosdad... said...

I'm a fan of gods being able to bleed in the D&D world. I figure, that once player characters gets into epic levels why wouldn't people begin to start showing signs of worship, by the time the pcs are high epic levels you can be damned sure they are considered as gods to the common people, especially if the pcs have performed fantastic acts of great good or evil.

I figure that in the D&D world the gods are just high level pcs that obtained great powers and possible immortality.

Great article btw with cool examples!

Ragnorakk said...

I thought I'd leave a link to a discussion on ODD74 - it is really one of my favorite threads there, and germane to boot! (though it's about ODD + Supplement IV):
http://odd74.proboards.com/index.cgi?board=supplements&action=display&thread=995

1d30 said...

Verification word: Raicid. n. The much more fashionable sister of El Cid.

As far as I've read, I think the instances of the gods being injured by mortals happened when the gods wanted to directly interfere with the affairs of the mortal world. Almost as if their divine potency was reduced, tainted by their distance from say Olympus.

However, the Roman gods weren't omnipotent, and certainly could fight amongst each other. And in that conflict some were stronger than others. But when infighting up above everything else, mortals didn't have an impact on them.

In the Forgotten Realms, anyone without a deity who died would find their soul snared on the Wailing Wall, where the souls of unbelievers remained for eternity in torment. If you had a god, that god would take you to an afterlife of some kind. All gods have the ability to save you from the Wailing Wall; it's not mentioned if other beings have that ability but it doesn't seem so. A high-level Magic-User can't use a Wish to escape it, it seems.

Second, deities grant spells to Clerics. Magic-Users get spells anyway, but that's obscured by the fact that many Magic-Users worship the god of magic. But there's no reason why an atheist or agnostic M-U should be denied spells. M-U spells are secular. Again, it's not clear if non-deity beings can grant spells, but all deities can.

Third, all deities can project an avatar. A M-U can use Project Image, and perhaps a higher-level version wuold perform the same as an avatar. But it's unclear if other creatures can project avatars or follow the same restrictions as gods.

So it seems like all FR deities can save you from the Wailing Wall, can grant spells, and can project an avatar. But are some of these consequences of being a god, or are they what makes you a god? If you strip these three from a god, is he still a god? More importantly, if you gain all three do you become a god?

If the difference between a god and a mortal is a short list of special abilities, I'm not sure why a demigod should be unkillable yet a superpowerful dragon should be a monster. But if godhood is a threshhold you cross, and all these powers are obtained upon crossing, then immortals are fundamentally different from mortals and there's no reason why they should be killable.

In the FR Time of Troubles (which I cannot disparage enough), the gods were thrown to the mortal world with only the powers of their avatars. They could be killed by mortals. But this seems to be a revocation of their divine spark, which by consequence strips them of all godly powers.

Does this mean before they were gods, they were powerful mortals? It suggests that the statistics in the old Legends and Lore / Dieties and Demigods should actually be for the avatar, or for the god walking across the mortal world. If you encounter him on his home plane, not only are you out of your element but he is firmly entranched in his own. It would be like the difference between you fighting a shark in the desert, or at the bottom of the sea.

kaeosdad... said...

@1d30: nice summary! I really like the explanation of gods being less powerful because they are out of their domain of power or projecting an avatar of themselves.

I guess it depends on how you'd like to run your game, but I always get this one question in the back of my mind when I think of high level PCs: What's to stop them from posing as gods once they reach a high enough level of power yet has not crossed the threshold of godhood?

This would be especially likely in a campaign setting where the world is mysterious and people are superstitious and ignorant, the gods may either be distant or dead even so the pcs could totally become gods muahahahaha!!!!

Edsan said...

I figure that in the D&D world the gods are just high level pcs that obtained great powers and possible immortality.

Actually this was the premisse of godhood in the BECMI/Cyclopedia version of D&D. The word "god" wasn't even used. All those high-powered beings where known as "Immortals". And there where rules for PCs to achieve Immortality, two boxed sets and a book to be precise.

Even the immortals who where so old they could not remember any mortal life *assumed* they must have been a mortal in some farway past.

Heck, there was even a natural mutated Tyranossaur that achieved sentience and became immortal.

Of course, this had 99% more to do with Angry Mother whitewashing than deep phylosophical thinking abot the nature of deities in the D&D game. The same kind of thinking that got rid of Demons, Devils and Assassins.

Matthew James Stanham said...

Yep on the pagan vs. medieval, though the transition was a gradual thing, often with saints and fey taking the place of the old pagan gods for a while.

There are various strata involved in the Pagan/Christian conception of deities. However, even in the Illiad Zeus is depicted as having more strength in his little finger than all the other deities combined. The "supreme" deity in Pagan pantheons is very often analogous in terms of power to the Christian God.

This is much more clearly the case in post Christian Pagan theology, where Zeus is sometimes held to be one and the same as all the other deities, they merely being reflections of his divinity.