Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Fear and Trembling and Dungeons

I had an epiphany recently.  Let's say you're kicking off a new game (a heroic age, bronze age campaign).  When laying out the gods and the cosmology, do you choose option A or option B?

Option A:
The gods live up on Mt Olympus.  You go to Hades when you die, but good folks can go to the Elysian Fields.  The earth was created by Gaea out of chaos.

Option B:
Your people believe the gods live up on Mt Olympus.  They believe people go to Hades when they die, but good folks can go to the Elysian Fields.  Your people also believe the earth was created by Gaea out of chaos.

Big difference.

Should players be given Absolute Truths™ or should they be left with ambiguities?  When they hike up to the top of Mt Olympus and realize it's just a big hunk of barren rock up there, no marble palaces or golden thrones in sight, what happens next?  "We must not be worthy, so the immortals have hidden themselves from our unworthy eyes".

What happens when they run into Norsemen, or Babylonians, and they get told that their "gods" are just a bunch of demons?  The real gods, led by Odin, created the world out of Ymir's carcass.  Or was it Marduk that formed the world out of the body of Tiamat?  Now get ready to die, you Zeus-worshipping heathens...

I realize some folks want their fantasy to be a different type of escape - they want their game to be Narnia, or Middle Earth, or the fantasy Europe of faux-Christianity vs ultimate Evil;  these folks want absolute truths, they want clear battle lines of good vs evil…  they want the world to make objective sense*.

But in a D&D game emulating sword & sorcery and weird fiction  - what a great opportunity to add elements of fear, doubt, dread, violence, and horror!  Keep it ambiguous, keep it unknown.  Keep it real.

Kierkegaard would be proud.  Oh - and I may have just solved the problem of the cleric, too.  For myself, at least.

*In the interests of full disclosure, Gothic Greyhawk is very much a faux-Christianity, law vs chaos, kind of place; the Black City setting will be the weird fiction place with ambiguous deities and angst.


  1. I actually wrote a diatribe about religion in RPGs on my blog for Synapse here:


    Even though it was about Errant, my retroclone, because it was posted before there was a blog for Errant. Funny how things work out like that.

    I need a DeLorean!

  2. How about a less binary Option C:
    Option A appears to be true--but so does option A of the Babylonians, Norsemen, and everybody else. And Odin claims to have created the world out of Ymir's carcass, and the Greek gods say it was the Titans did it--and both have some evidence to point to back them up--but who's ultimately telling the truth, or are they all, from a certain perspective?

    Now that's ambiguity.

  3. I'm all for there being an Option C... as long as I never share it with the players. If they want to play anthropologist or archaeologist, that's fine - could add some cool stories. "Our big guy Zeus is kinda like your big buy Odin who is kinda like Marduk... they all live in the sky and toss lightning... maybe they're all the same dude after all?"

    That'll be my way to reconcile the impersonal godlessness of weird fiction with religions in D&D - let all the cultures of the world have their belief systems, and present them just like that - as beliefs, not truths. Keep everyone guessing. And who knows why all these clerics have powers, anyway?

    @Greg - I saw your post - I agree that mechanical benefits have cheapened the cleric role over time. After shopping, I went to the temple, learned the handshake, got the hat, the jersey, the little pennant on a stick, go team Apollo go. Now I use a bow and have a nifty light spell. Let's rock.

    Then again, we're using a house rule that does away with weapon restrictions anyway (it's part of the LOTFP base rules for clerics).

  4. If you want a traditional pantheon or monotheistic god, I'd go with option B. With the Absolute Truth (tm) and omnipotent, omniscient gods, there could be little religious strife except for the strife between gods. But factional and sectarian wars between the believers of the same god would add so much fun to the game... So make gods more obscure and distant, their word cryptic and unclear... And open to Mortal interpretation!

    Another option (option D) is to use a more animistic cosmology, with a HUGE number of Spirits (or Minor Gods) actually existing in the world, and that being the fact. BUT no such Spirit is omniscient or omnipotent; and many conflict in interests. In a sense, this turns your gods into NPCs that the PCs can interact with personally rather than just football stars.

    For a bronze-age world, you might want to get rid of alignments and make gods (or spirits) more fickle and petty; gods can be in a good mood or could be VERY angry, and then you have to appease them or suffer their wrath!

  5. Here's how I do it - "Option D" - the gods are powerful and dangerous spirits, who dwell in some higher (or lower) realm. Their origins are unknown and their outlook is alien. If you know the right rituals and favored sacrifices, you can gain the patronage of these beings.

    I call this approach "small gods." There are many gods, each narrowly focused on a specific interest. There plots are inscrutable, their mythologies deliberately contradictory. They make no claim to have created the universe, or its inhabitants.

    I take a lot of my inspiration from Morecock's Elric. In those stories the lords of law and chaos are powerful and otherworldly, but even they do not know the ultimate truth, or even if such a thing exists.

    Sometimes it is

  6. Option E: Anything someone worships is a God. This especially helps if you want Gods that can be killed, dead-dead. They may or may not have kewl powerz they can utilize or bestow. Sorta like the 'Mythos' with 'Mythos' creatures, Elder Gods, Outer Gods, Other Gods, etc... Sometimes 'It' is just a Giant Toad, sometime 'IT''s not... Helps to keep 'em guessing. Propitiating crazypants deities is an awesome roleplaying experience, from what I've seen.

  7. A good horror campaign starts out with the players having absolute faith, then comes with the sights, sounds, and clues that challenge that faith as the game progresses. Witness the Cthullu mythos’ dark secret that we are not creatures of a good god, but mere playthings for ancient evil.

  8. @imredave - i agree, if the players go along with that approach, it can add a lot of interesting roleplaying when the 'truths' are eventually revealed.

  9. @imredave:
    The 'Mythos' is not a coherent whole outside of Call of Cthulu.(Heavily influenced by the stories of August Derleth, with Good vs Evil Cosmic Entities, recurring heroes, and of all things: a Cthulu Family Tree!) I mean HPL isn't even the sole source,(Lumley, CAS, REH, Lord Dunsany, Robert W. Chambers, etc...) and Cthulu is hardly the central 'character' in the universe, contrary to popular belief, it seems. Plushies? Really?

    And 'evil' is an irrelevant label for beings who are as dismissive(or less) regarding human life as humans are to (occasionally beneficial) germ life.

    The 'reveal' could be devastating to people with a certain worldview, others would be unsurprised, maybe even elated to partake in true Spencerian Selection, if you will. Interesting to see which, in an Abominable Fancy way.

  10. I decided that my game's home city has the religions of lots of different worlds, so if the players want characters with a specific religious belief they can have it.