Sunday, August 9, 2009

Deities

Here's an interesting concept: gods. Most often, this shows up in fantasy gaming, where clerics have divine powers (often including the ability to cast certain magic spells) granted by their deities.

Most games don't give much thought to how exactly this works. Do these gods exist? If so, do they all exist, or do certain pantheons exist while others are simply the imagination of their followers? If more than one pantheon exists, how do they interact?

I think that the most elegant analysis of this conundrum is the cosmology created by Rich Burlew (ok, heavily borrowed by Rich Burlew from many already existing sources) for The Order of the Stick. If you read his entire oeuvre, you eventually learn that "in the beginning," so to speak, there were four pantheons of gods who created the world. Their inability to co-operate resulted in the slaying of the Gods of the West (based on real-world Greek gods; Zeus, Hera, Athena, Ares, &c.). The remaining pantheons (North, based on Norse mythology; Odin, Thor, Loki, &c. -- East, based on Babylonian mythology; Marduk, Isthar, Tiamat, &c. -- and South; based on Chinese mythology; the "twelve gods" include Dragon, Rat, Pig, Monkey, &c.) thus agreed to stay in their respective areas and not interfere directly in the regions of the other groups. This is why clerics are important; they can be the agent of their gods in other places. Later, the goblins and elves developed gods of their own too, who were grudgingly welcomed into the celestial realms.
Anyway, this is much better thought-out—and much more cohesive—than I've seen in the theology of any other setting. But it raises so many questions. For starters, most of the gods listed in the D&D player's handbook are not described as belonging to any specific pantheon, which makes me wonder: do these clerics belong to monotheistic religions? If not, where are the other gods? Or are the gods all part of the same pantheon? In which case, why do clerics only serve one god? Sure, servants of (for example) Aphrodite focus all their work to their primary deity, but they still believe in the others.

And the thing that bothers me most is this: clerics of differing deities don't ever seem to get into conflicts with one another. The cleric of Kord never seems to have a problem with being in the same party as a cleric of Ehlonna, and so forth. From my experience with real-world religion, that would be a totally unacceptable situation for any priest or other religious leader.

So this leads me to wonder a number of things. What about other genres? Why not have clerics in settings apart from fantasy? (Shadowrun, by the way, has come closest to this, with their "shamans," but still...) Why are there no clerics in a pulp adventure Indiana Jones-style game? What about the clerics in four-colour superhero comic settings? Wouldn't it be interesting to see a cleric in a wild west adventure?

Also, how do these powers work? If the gods actually exist, and you've resolved the issues addressed above, fine, but what if they don't? Is it just a fancy dress for normal magic? Is it psionic in nature? Is there something else at work?

I'd like to see some of these points worked out in a fantasy game at some point (actually, I have worked out what I believe to be a holistic basis for this matter in the GURPS Fantasy game I've designed, but I don't want to reveal that yet for fear of spoiling the fun for a group, should one ever arise that'd be willing to try this game). And I also think it would be interesting to see a Christian priest, a Jewish Rabbi, a Muslim Imam, a Wiccan priestess, and a Buddhist Lama joining a modern-day adventuring party and using their divine magic to further the mission of the party. Wouldn't that be something?

Yeah, ok, maybe it's just me.

Anyway. Something to think about. So think about it, and remember as always to

Game on!

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