Monday, February 24, 2014

The Problems of Gods

"Of utmost importance is the relationship between cleric and deity…"
AD&D 1E DMG p39

First Edition has such a curious stance on the subject of deities.  The Dungeon Master's Guide proscribes quite clearly that each cleric should pick a deity, that the DM should develop a list of observances and practices for the cleric, and that the player needs to follow along.  The cleric's continued service is required to gain all their higher level spells.

When was the last time an old school game laid out observances and practices for the player's deities?  For that matter, how often do you even require a specific deity?  Maybe I'm just not paying attention to the campaign settings - or we've all bypassed anthropomorphic deities and created institutions and philosophies for the clerics in our games.  It seems preferable to pledging fealty to an ideal than an immortal super dude with cool powers and a fancy crib on an outer plan.

Of course, AD&D goes further than requiring a deity and some basic observances - it expects the DM to measure the player's behaviors and grade them.  Continuing that section from the DMG:  "The deity (you, the DM) will point out all of the transgressions, state a course of action which must be followed to retain good graces, grant the spells which the deity deems are necessary to complete the course (but never in excess of those which the cleric could normally use!) and pronounce anathema on the cleric until satisfactory redemption has been made."

Yikes.  The 1E advice turns the DM into a middle manager with the cleric player as employee.  Set some performance standards, hold regular performance reviews and coaching sessions, and be prepared to follow up that feedback with specific examples of the improper behavior!  I can’t really tell if Gary is joking here.  D&D really does prepare you for a job in the corporate world after all.

4E gave some behavioral advice for the players, too - things like, "You are a follower of the Death God:  you wear lots of black, have picnics in the cemetery, and carry a dog-eared volume of vampire fiction in your backpack…"  (I kid, I kid).  But the 4E approach did try to give the players a set of short and practical tips to act as role playing hints, without expecting the DM to grade their performances.  Progress.

The old Deities and Demigods Cyclopedia reinforced the focus on clerical behavior:  "Deities of all types, from the highest to the lowest, expect a great deal of work from their clerics in return for the power to perform miracles.  Clerics are expected to behave in a manner exemplary of the teachings of their faith."  One thing I really appreciated from that book is the focus on Divine Awe and Divine Horror - the fact that characters below 10th-12th level are likely going to be cowering in reverence or utter horror.  I never had a god appear in any of my AD&D 1E games back then, but I'd definitely take advantage of those rules.  So - it's not great that you (as DM) are expected to micro manage the behavior of the clerics in the game, but if a god needs to show up and slap a verbal warning or write-up on the malefactor, you get to throw down some overwhelming Divine Awe.

Has anyone seen divine encounters "done right?"  I can't think of too many examples in the canon.  There's that chance Iuz and St Cuthbert get involved in the later stages of original Temple of Elemental Evil - there's an encounter where they can show as part of an escalating supernatural conflict; once they appear, some powerful magicks are quickly thrown around to bolster the opposing forces, and then the two deities retreat to allow the mortals to settle their own affairs.  I always thought that scene was flavorful, but then the gods get out of the way and let the players get down to business.

These are the thoughts that are concerning me right now - how to put meddlesome, humanistic deities in the game without becoming "the dungeon master as middle-manager"; how to make the gods spectacular and awesome; how to have the gods act as meddlesome irritants without them becoming game-wrecking DMPC's like Time of Troubles or Dragonlance