Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Cleric and the Faith Part III: D&D Pantheism

The most common method by far, I think (based on a completely unscientific method of pulling this statistic from my ass), of dealing with clerics, priests, and "the powers that be" in the standard fantasy role playing game, and especially in D&D, is to throw up a whole plethora of gods and godesses. Sometimes, it's a customized set of home brew gods that, for some reason always seem to feel exactly the same as every other set. There'll be Zabril, the god of death, an evil cuss who wears a black cloak (white if you're a Japanophile) and carries an appropriate weapon. Then there's Aborath, god of goodness and chivalry who appears as a white knight in shining armor who expects his clerics to bring his light into the darkest corners of the world by dint (and dent) of a mace. There'll usually be some kind of draconic god, like maybe a five headed dragon with all the colors . . . And that's all fine and dandy, but it feels most of the time just like every other variation on the theme. Every other hackneyed and half assed D&D world. And yes, I'm aware of the irony, why do you ask?

Another common use is to recycle gods from our own various mythoi, usually the popularized versions found in modern textbooks, or possibly Bullfinch, throw them all in a blender and hit "frappe." Set is the god of evil and death, Odin is a god of good and battle, Zeus is the king of the gods, and Quetzalcoatl is the god of civilization. It's all amusing, familiar, and more than a little eerie in a way to see so many of our own cultures mashed together into some frankenstinian amalgam, and it's only occasionally that somebody seems to "get it right" so to speak. It's only very occasionally that we see an Odin who is based more on his representation in the Havamal and the Sagas than on Gary's take on things.

Again, nothing wrong with it, but not where I want to go really.

Maybe it's the recent influence of HP Lovecraft on my brain, but it seems like the concept of personal and aligned deities (i.e., Shazaam the LN god of stain removers) are somehow limiting. It makes them seem like nothing more than especially powerful entities and, in some cases, they are exactly that: merely very powerful beings that started out as mortals. If the gods are nothing more than very powerful beings, then they become fodder for the swords of adventurers. Of course, this is a time honored tradition in both old and new schools of play, but it's always struck me as particularly stupid to reduce gods to that level. Gods are to humans (dwarves, elves, trolls, pixies, etc.) as humans are to bacteria, but only in comparisons of various "power levels" so to speak. They are not merely higher forms of life or even personal and sentient beings properly speaking.

In this view, the gods are, at best, the semi-sentient amalgam of the energies poured into a concept. The god of death, for instance, is not a being as we would imagine one, but the summation of all the energy spent worshipping death, advancing death, protecting death, fighting death, and so on. It is the energized and motile concept of the extinguising of life, neither good nor evil nor even neutral. It is incapable of morality in the mortal sense of the concept and to attribute sentience to it is missaimed.

The character of the worshipper is determined entirely by that worshipper and not by any dictate from the godhead (such as it is). Thus, a lawful evil congregation of the god of Death may show their devotion by decideing to bring "Death's Gift" to every living being in the world via a convoluted magical ceremony involving world spanning plots. A chaotic good worshipper may show devotion by helping fight against premature death and unnatural death: fighting the perversion of Death. A neutral congregation may take vows never to interfere one way or the other in the termination or preservation of life, but devote itself entirely to providing moderate comfort in the final passage, a hospice of sorts. In the end, the worshippers are reflections of various aspects of Death, and consequently Death itself is a reflection of the ideologies of its worshipers.

Each god would have clerics with a different assortment of available spells, perhaps each church as well. The spells available would reflect their mission and ideology.

I realize that this entire concept is wonky at best and absolutly bird brained most likely, but I think it's one that's supported by the supposed D&D mythos of AD&D 2e that I wanted to jettison a while ago. At the very least, in the Planescape books, the reality of the game world is shaped by the beliefs of its inhabitants. Thus, if somebody actually believes it, and believes in it strongly enough, it can come true. Belief is what causes entire towns and cities to slide from the Outlands into the Abyss, and, seemingly, the creation of deities.

I think the idea is an interesting one, and leads to a lot of infighting between various churches as they strive to achieve the "one true version" of their respective religions.

Somebody tell me I'm not absolutely mad?


  1. You're not in the least bit mad. The games I ran in high school were based on this notion. (These were games that kinda straddled 1e and 2e.) I left it behind in college because I wanted something that felt a bit more like the Norse sagas where Odin's always wandering about, stirring up trouble and bothering old farming couples for a bite of pie and some ale. But as you point out, it gives you all sorts of fun ways to play with things. For instance, if you assume that every god is a manifestation of the energies of creation, it explains why all clerical powers operate the same way, no matter if you're worshipping Glug, god of Drowning, or Millie, goddess of Dairy Products. It allows you to have a god for nearly everything, as well. If people come to worship pop music, for instance, a god may be fashioned from the ether by their adoration. And it also means that exactly which spheres your cleric acquires may depend more on how you worship a god than which god you worship, such as you touch on in your alignment comments. Lots of fun to be had with these ideas.

  2. That's the kind of idea that I've had, where everybody worships pretty much anything that strikes their fancy from Abythmas, Lord of the Sun to Pithco, god of shiny pebbles. The issue then becomes one of whether or not I start writing up faiths for every possibility, or if I just stick to a "top ten list" or something.

    Plus, it has the chance of edging into the truly silly at times. I have images of a group of cultists bowing at the feet of Simon and worshipping via American Idol procedures. Either that, or the chick from The Weakest Link a few years ago: "you ARE the weakest cleric, goodbye!"