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


  1. In Dragon #77, there was an article titled "Elemental Gods", which presented the idea that the gods of a world could be presented as something other than the typical RPG idea of super-powered people. Basically, the idea is that appearances of deities in the campaign should be rare at best, and pretty much nonexistent. The article advocates a particular cosmological scheme, but the general idea can be useful. In that kind of world, an appearance of deity in a form other than the spells cast by clerics ends up being a matter of campaign-shaping proportions, marking significant moments in the ongoing history of the setting rather than passing moments in the PCs' stories.

    That said, in such a system, it's likely that the PCs will never encounter the gods directly. They might not even see them in the distance. They might meet the gods' messengers, though.

  2. About clerical duties, I tend to impose on clerics a list of randomly determined prescriptions, some purely cosmetical (must shave his head, cannot wear a distinct color), some having a real impact on the game (restriction on edged weapons is a classic, but also things like "cannot travel more than xx steps a day", "forbidden to sleep in a dungeon", etc).
    I heavily borrowed on ritual prescriptions from antical cults, wich somewhat seemed somewhat absurd and note even "thematically accurate" with the portfolio of the deity. For instance, the Flamine of Jupiter, in ancient Rome , was forbidden to travel on horse, to wear a knot on his clothes, to wear rings, to eat raw meat, etc.

  3. Runequest has a great system for handling gods and the churches (or cults as they call them) of the gods. Each cult has very specific requirements to join as member, no just for clerics, either. Plus they have specific benefits of membership which can range from special spells or skills the cult teaches to room and board at temples, etc. Non-cleric members of a church can even get one-use spells. Finally, each cult has a 'spirit of reprisal" which is sort of the church enforcer to punish it's enemies or traitors.

    1. I always use this kind of guidance, even in my non-RQ games.

  4. A more radical approach is to abolish clerics altogether. Then merge your spell caster classes together, eliminate a few spells which might cause awkwardness like Detect Evil, Augury, Identify, Detect illusion, Know Alignment etc and Gods become the mysterious off stage entities they really are regardless of whether your spell caster's power source is arcane, natural, divine etc. Gods should be mysterious and designs that are nigh impossible to understand by mortal beings. My PCs never encounter Gods but sometimes see effects of their weird actions or get a glimpse of a divine servant doing something strange, corrupting, restoring, changing etc.

  5. I follow the implications of the 1974 D&D rules on this. Clerics are all lawful, and they are all basically Orthodox Catholics from western Europe in the late first millennium. I don't get into any specifics, but "that sort of thing" is assumed to be in the background.

    Anti-clerics are all chaotic, and they are all basically devil-worshippers. Again, this is mostly kept in the background.

    As per the older printings of the original rules, there are no neutral clerics.

    The above set-up makes things easy: Your cleric worships The Man Upstairs, and your party is after the Evil High Priest of Old Scratch.

    1. There is neutral clerics, but they cannot reach higher levels than 8th, if I remembre correctly.
      I suppose they are those priest who were into religion just for the profit. their lack of engagement precludes them to attein a higher order of sanctity

  6. Playing in Greyhawk, I've used the Greyhawk calendars for feast days. Some characters have performed services for different local religions on those days. Also, I've thrown extra powers to enemy clerics on their feast days - though the players, aware though they were of the calendar, might not have caught on.
    I've also required one cleric to change his god. When he needed to be raised, the only cleric with the spell was of another god - compatible but different. That was a fun scene to role play.

  7. My main take on this is almost identical to Geoffrey's but a bit more fleshed out.
    [keep in mind I am a Catholic theologian in Real Life]
    LG, NG, and CG clerics are Catholic -the Cleric class belongs to one of several orders that I made which may have distinctive dress, behavior and iconography. Diocesan priests or 'priests who run parishes' are represented by an NPC only class.
    NG clerics are 'a bit outside the norm' and CG clerics are 'schismatic' [indeed, the stress between Dwarves and Elves in my campaign is largely about the very Orthodox Dwarves not liking the Schismatic Elves and vice versa].
    LN and CN clerics are essentially 'devoted to a philosophy' and are restricted to spells of 5th level and below.
    N clerics are Druids.
    All evil clerics worship Demon Lords, Princes of Hell, etc and are limited to spells of no more than 5th level *in general* - certain Princes, etc. can grant up to 6th and in special circumstances they can even have 7th level spells.

  8. The proper "old school" approach is to treat gods as simply dangerously high level monsters, super heroes, cult inspirations and occasional patrons. This is in keeping with the inspirational literature like Lovecraft (Cthulhu gets run over by a steam boat, vanishes), Moorcock (Elric and Corum load up with magic weapons and go god hunting...), and the Pratt/Fletcher Harold Shea stories (the heroes rub shoulders with Thor and Loki who are powerful but not awesome).

    The "gods must be awe inspiring and super powerful" is a post-Old School innovation but doesn't really fit with the old school mentality.

  9. More seriously, I agree with Hedgehobbit that Runequest is an excellent model (and one D&D drew inspiration on, I think, from A&D 2nd edition on). One thing RQ provided was a reason for characters OTHER than clerics/priests to choose religions, which D&D often does not as much. What if a cleric's beneficial spells only worked if you were a follower of that religion (and up to date with tithes/sacrifices) - though in a polytheistic setting you could worship more than one god, if they were compatible.

  10. Isn't your campaign about Western Europe? So the gods will either be high level heroes like Thor and Wotan for the pagans, or YHWH for the Jews, Christians and Muslims.

    There is much to say on this topic and I have no time. I'll be back to add more.

  11. You could, in fact, act as a go-between for your clerics and their gods. If a cleric is a Norse-inspired pagan, he could be a Thor worshiper, but more likely, he'd be a Norse god worshiper. If he was a Latin Pagan, would he serve Jupiter, or would he simply serve "the gods?" Would he ask Mercury for healing spells and Mars for smiting spells? If so, that presents a pretty interesting dichotomy: The polytheistic pagans versus the monotheistic religions. That could be your Chaos and Law right there: Chaos represented by the pantheons of gods attempting to thwart, usurp and seduce one-another while some cray humans try to get their attention and ask for stuff versus YHWYH the monolithic, omnipresent, omnipotent God who had a more direct connection to his followers individually and corporately. Interesting: polytheistic priests are just trying to get someone, anyone, on the phone while monotheistic priests have to carefully watch their every move because they are under constant scrutiny. The advantage for the monotheists is that their prayers are always heard, and their petitions carefully considered.

    Note that Jehovah does not really deal directly with lots of folks in his mythology; he uses angels, burning bushes, talking donkeys, and so on. The OT idea was that if you saw God, you died, even if he was just dropping by to say "hello." Priests of Jehovah knew good and well that they did not want to come face to face with him in his glory. Finale of Raiders, anyone?

  12. I never understood the point of choosing a warrior priest and not bothering to specify a god you worshipped. It's like the player wants the spells but none of the trappings or flair.

    I do however find spell-using clerics weird now. Like in LotFP, why do they even exist? If magic is fucked up and a crime against the natural order, why do you also have spell-wielding priests, who have suspiciously practical healilng abilites? Are they cultists, worshiping Elder Ones? No, not really. Why use fantasy deity worship in basically a horror game? Sure, if you go full Moorcock that could make sense, with deities and demigods bound to either Order or Chaos, but that seems dangerously close to my teenage years with 2nd Edition Forgotten Realms and not very Lovecraftian. Clerics are not like witch hunters in WHFRP either. Do clerics only exist for game play balance? For healing wounds that incur in a D&D game?

    1. The original OD&D cleric was directly inspired by Van Helsing, the vampire-hunting "cleric" from Dracula. It's definitely a role that has a place in supernatural horror, where there's usually an implied or explicit struggle between good and evil somewhere beyond the purview of mortals. There are plenty of examples of clerical style characters in that horror genre. Even a pulp witch hunter style character like Solomon Kane has a priestly background. I find it's only when you set the game in a materialistic cosmos (like that described in HP Lovecraft's later writings) where a spiritual cleric serving a beneficent deity no longer fits the overall theme of cosmic alienation - and at that point, you can keep the source of the cleric's abilities vague or unexplained.

    2. That's fair.

      I suppose the cleric can used well by either mixing good intentions with strange abilities (Christian priest who uses weird pagan spells that actually work) or using religious zeal to affect the world supernaturally. You can also blur the distinction between what the cleric can do unaided and what their presumed present god is doing through the devout follower ("where do these powers come from, really?").

      Concerning your question about how to use gods in a game, I do think, despite my glibness earlier, that Moorcock's treatment of the deities in the Swords trilogy can be useful. They can be either petty/totally egotistical or alien. Even the gods of Order in the trilogy are fuckers. The books show nicely that gods are of differing size and importance, and temperament. The difference between a powerful wizard and a low level demigod is sometimes unclear, especially when mages are often on a course towards attaining supreme power through illegitimate, unholy means (ie magic). Sure, that could in one sense turn a demigod into another high level encounter but they can at that level be somewhat relatable (and the weaker a demigod, the more “human” it is?).

      I think most deities can be made into a mixture of an unknowable, alien being and a super intimidating NPC. I would use them as sparingly and treat them much the same way as a Deep One or an Elder God in a horror game. Have them around but do not involve them too much in the campaign's plot. The gods are present in their cleric's lives and empower their followers in small ways but they could give two shits about the players’ plans or ambitions. The players are beneath the gods' notice. If a god actually "appears" it could be awe-inspiring and/or horrifying. I think that gods should be treated either unknowable/alien, or as really immature, Ancient Greek styled supreme beings who would as soon as eat you as give you influence and power. The whims of the gods are terrible.