Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Biggest Monsters of All

It causes much consternation and clucking of tongues when gamers point out that both Supplement IV: Gods, Demi-Gods and Heroes for OD&D and the fourth AD&D hardback, Deities & Demigods, are basically the Monster Manual on steroids. This also follows suit for the Judges Guild supplement Unknown Gods which follows the same basic format, and of course its OSR follow-up in Petty Gods. Each carries with it the implication that gods are fundamentally killable things.

Now, there are rationalizations, such as the idea that gods have "avatars" that appear in the mortal world periodically. That's kind of lame - you go through all this trouble, beat a god, and are told that you just killed something temporary and the god is still in its realm doing its thing. It smacks of cheap GM tricks, saving a favorite NPC and taking away player agency.

My own thought is that gods should be immortal but not invincible - therefore able to be killed. It should be hard, and for the most part it is extremely hard. That's the point: gods are tough but not impossible opponents. They get to "cheat" in all kinds of fantastic ways, because in no way should fighting a deity ever be easy, but I think it's a major violation of the source material, if nothing else, if you can't kill a deity.

Elric and the Eternal Champions kill gods. Gandalf slays the Balrog of Moria, which is technically one god killing another (both are Maiar, which are the equivalent of the Aesir in Tolkien's cosmology.) Gods sometimes go hang out on the Street of the Gods in Lankhmar, and if you wanted you could almost certainly kill some of the gods in Lankhmar (not the Gods of Lankhmar), in some cases possibly with a stout stick or a strong breeze. Lovecraftian entities are never clearly unkillable, although it may be extremely difficult for humans. Except for Eru Illuvatar in the Silmarillion, gods in the source literature are never actually theological in the medieval sense. So why couldn't they be killed, assuming you can pin them down to a fight? Not to mention the myths themselves; the deaths of the Norse gods is baked into the very idea of the Twilight of the Gods

It raises interesting problems. When the gods are killed, what happens to their clerics? Do they have to consecrate themselves to new deities? That could be an interesting problem, and a potential seed for an interesting adventure if a cleric has to go and save his deity's eternal life from an evil cleric or wizard. It also would be reflected in the worship of deities, as the ones who can't realistically defend themselves would have fewer clerics.

This really implies that D&D has a sort of Lankhmar-esque system of deities, where gods start off weak and grow stronger as they accumulate worshippers. Heroes at high levels might be able to tip the scales and themselves become gods (even without leveling from 1-36 twice as per Mentzer's Immortals rules). Becoming a demigod after a long and legendary campaign seems ultimately just; maybe even letting a beloved old PC come out to defend himself if challenged by future PCs...


  1. Thank you for an interesting and thought provoking article.

    I agree that slaying a god should be a possibility. It would obviously be a major undertaking but should be possible. But what a fantastic story it would make!

    Gods in mythology have frequently furthered their agendas through mortal agents and I an envisage numerous occasions where the PC's could be aided/tasked with such an enormous and exciting prospect.

    I am starting out in a BECMI campaign in September and look forward to the day (should it ever arrive) that my character can challenge the gods!

  2. Runequest had a system for becoming a god that started after you were dead. Your old party members could go around convincing people to start worshipping you as a hero cult. The more worshippers, the more power you'd accumulate and the more divine your aspect.

  3. In my mind -- and by extension my campaigns -- most gods are on par with an elder dragon. They're equipped with eldritch powers and could be eons-old, but they are not exempt from death if it comes knocking at the door. Most gods may be slain in glorious battle by other deities, sometimes (very occasionally) by a group of mortals.

    There are greater gods that are simply above and beyond these issues. They can never truly be killed.

    There are dead gods drifting in a kind of astral dream existence. They will eventually fade away, but it is not beyond the abilities of powerful magic-users to speed up this process.

  4. I guess this question of whether the gods are killable says a lot about a campaign setting (maybe stick that on the next questionnaire that lumbers around the D&D blogs).

    I like the prospect that gods start small and work their way up, exactly the way PCs do. I like the idea that a god's power is at least partially a result of their number and power of worshippers (perhaps also tied to the value and type of sacrifices). I like the idea that the spells a god grants are based on the types of sacrifice he gets - which means if he puts himself forth as a "sea god" he will tend to get oceanic sacrifices and thus gain oceanic powers to distribute. I like that two "sea gods" would then be at odds, because they're jockeying for maritime worshippers and the maritime style of sacrifices those people give. Kind of like "role protection" for PCs, but for the portfolios of gods.

    Because of those things, I like the idea of gods that have variable power levels and some of the lower god levels might be reachable by non-god PCs. Especially sneaking into the god's realm and exploiting some weakness they discovered, attacking en masse, after causing distractions and weakening the god's power base by slaying his Clerics.

    Here's my question, assuming the above: do you think there should be some kind of sharp divide between an Immortal and a Mortal? Meaning two incredibly high-level Mortals could walk into a room and one of them does The Thing What Grants Immortality and the other one walks out and doesn't do it, and suddenly the first one is suffused with glorious light and the other is still some schmoe. Or does a Mortal slowly gain Immortal powers as he levels up, possibly as a result of gaining non-worshipping followers and retainers who transition into cult-of-personality adoration, and over the course of decades or centuries these grow until the PC is clearly a god?

    In the first answer, you could still have the new Immortal be relatively weak (like in BECMI). In the second you could call these nascent Immortals Heroes and then Demigods before they start in on the big league ranks (which ties in nicely to the old Deities and Demigods book).

  5. Also I just noticed that in the above Immortal regime, ways that groups of gods interact with each other is affected:

    Gods within a pantheon probably have things sorted out by now, so there's already a War God for example, and the War God is probably allied with at least some other gods, which means if you want to become the new War God and step on his toes you might find yourself attacked by several allied gods.

    A War God in one pantheon will need to compete with the War Gods of other pantheons.

    All the gods in a pantheon will probably be threatened individually by any monotheistic "All God" and that, combined with their shared interests, will encourage them to fight that "All God" vigorously. Similarly, an "All God" will consider the existence of any other god as encroachment on his portfolio: a worshipper of the Sea God in Pantheon X is giving sacrifices that could be going to the All God in Monotheism A.

    All "All Gods" would thus attract the enmity of all other gods - effectively, you're forcing their hands by claiming parts of all their portfolios.

    Thus we have the reason why two peoples would gather armies and wage religious war - because their gods are literally demanding it.

  6. OK, last one.

    Demigods seem like they'd be stamped out by bigger gods, just to keep them from becoming a problem later. So to avoid this, a Demigod can grab a portfolio that nobody else has (such as Flowing Waters That Are Not The Ocean), or some highly specific sub-portfolio (such as Tending the Forge) which probably requires the assent of the parent-god (in this case, Metal Craft or just Crafts in general). Or he could grab a limited region: in this case, maybe he's the All God of the Redstone Valley or something, remaining below the notice of the bigger gods on whose toes he steps.

    I think this fits the style of Demigod that's just barely above a local monster, such as a giant crayfish whose portfolio is This Here Lake, or a Demigod Galeb Duhr that has a portfolio of This Mountain Valley.

    Say that last Demigod managed to work his way up and gain the whole mountain as his portfolio. Now he might be noticeable by the other gods because of all those juicy worshippers. Will he make some deals and survive, or fight it out, or give up and lose followers until he's a little Demigod boulder outside a sleepy village again?

    1. Hmm. My inner classicist is piqued by this - as you may or may not know, this was totally how Roman religion worked. You had deities of this specific forest or river, or even of a specific house, that were worshipped by very small local groups. Sort of "micro-deities." Demigods would start off in this realm, and then the hour of danger is when they try to make the jump upward, and competing gods possibly try to off them.

      If you haven't read it, "Lean Times in Lankhmar" is a good model for how dangerous a god going upward can be. And also how much danger the gods who think of themselves as big shots can suddenly find themselves in.

    2. Love those books. Didn't know Romans had a "little pantheon" - that's cool. Guess it's time to scrounge around!

  7. I completely agree that there should be killable gods, and that this is supported by real-world literature. The first thing that comes to mind for me is Princess Mononoke, where not one but two boar gods die (not that that stops them right away) and the forest god gets killed, becomes an undead monster, and then comes back to life. You don't even need the rationales given above for "small gods" or tutelary gods; just think of the animistic belief that everything has a spirit. Spirits above some arbitrary power threshold are called "gods." So you don't need a newly-minted god looking for a valley to be god of; the valley just naturally has a spirit that may be worshiped, and interfere with the mortal world, and thus be called a god.

    I think a big reason for the backlash against killable gods is because of munchkinism... there are always people who want to "win" D&D, and they're going to try to push campaigns in a cheap, crude direction, and this will be especially offensive when it bumps up against religious or spiritual sensibilities.

    As hinted at in the Mononoke reference, though, I don't think killing a god should necessarily be clean or simple. It's not just that (for example) Bast has a bag of tricks up her sleeve; it's that killing Bast will drive all the cats in the world insane at once, for example, or all the subsidiary lion and panther and cheetah gods will go to war over her throne, or the Rat God will become ascendant and vast swaths of human civilization will become Lawful Evil, or the like. For that matter, dead gods could simply lie dreaming (a la Cthulhu) until the stars are right for them to rise again.


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