Monday, November 9, 2020

Gods of Krynn

In looking through the Dragonlance material, I find the thing"problematic" in its relationship with and treatment of gods and religion. Which is a little ironic, given just how IMPORTANT the whole concept of divinity (and its role) is to the unfolding story.

Let's review for a moment: like many "vanilla" fantasy settings, DL has the usual, trope-riddled pantheon of multiple gods of various alignments (good, neutral, and evil) connected to their various spheres of interest (magic, farming, war, elves, etc. ad nauseam). As per standard D&D, these various powers grant spells to their most devout followers (clerics) whose job it is of "spread the good news" to the peoples. Well, at least the followers of the good deities. The neutral deities (like Gilean/Astinus or the dwarf god Reorx) appear to be more "take it or leave it" types with no interest in proselytizing or drumming up interest in their worship. And the evil deities' clerics are more bog standard villains of the Evil High Priest variety (i.e. mustache twirling villains who, if anything, appear to be jealous of sharing their power and standing).

[with regard to this treatment of neutral and evil deities, you need to remember and consider the context of the setting. Dragonlance was originally written and developed for 1st edition (pre-Unearthed Arcana!!) AD&D. In AD&D there aren't any "neutral" clerics (only druids, which Dragonlance doesn't appear to have). And as for "evil" clerics, there is only ONE named in the entirety of the original trilogy (Verminaard) and he gets disemboweled in the first book. The adventure modules have more (including Verminaard, who is supposed to survive through most of the series), and even changes main bad guy Ariakus from a wizard to a cleric]

[it's also worth noting that pre-UA did not allow non-human player characters to become clerics, with the exception of half-elves and half-orcs. Since DL dispenses with setting-specific IP, there aren't any Tolkien orcs (nor half-orcs) in the game, and half-elves are portrayed as extremely rare (there's only one - the protagonist, Tanis - and he's a fighter)]

Where DL gets credit for changing the "standard trope" is making a post-apocalyptic world where "true clerics" have disappeared from the world. The gods have literally abandoned the people (no more spells for clerics) which has made for a rather grim and perilous fantasy world. Reconnecting the people with their gods is a major plot arc of the novels.

*DEEP BREATH* Now, I have written about this "subversion" before, and some of the reasons I find it problematic...I'm not going to rehash those here. Instead, I'm going to talk about more underlying problems to the world building; things I feel I need to address before any sort of reclamation project.

First, let's talk about clerics specifically: just what the heck are they? What do they represent? Look I realize Dragonlance is the fantasy equivalent of space opera (where explaining FTL travel, for example, isn't important or integral to the story being told), but I've grown beyond the point where I can be satisfied with "it's just D&D; there are clerics" as a definition. No. Clerics and their faith and the gods are MAJOR POINTS OF THE SETTING (in both the novels and the adventure modules!); I can't just "write them off."

So just what do they do? What are they for? the novels, they appear to fill the same role we see priests and preachers of our modern world: they counsel people and lecture people and comfort people and help guide people to positive life choices (and again, please note this is only with regard to good-aligned clerics). They have temples where they live and worship and pray, though they also do "outreach" to other parts of the world/environment. Villages and small towns have lone clerics and small churches around whom the entire community congregates; larger towns and cities have larger places of worship and multiple options of faith: whether you're talking pre-Cataclysm (note the descriptions of Istar in the Legends trilogy) or post-Cataclysm (see the Seekers of Haven in DL1). Despite being polytheistic, it's still comparable (i.e. recognizable) to our churches of today.

Except that this is D&D. That's not what priests...well, They go out on adventures. And while Goldmoon and Elistan (in the modules) are going out on adventures, it's under the thin guise of spreading the gospel of the True Gods (i.e. the ones that grant powers). While practically speaking they're offering medic and undead crushing skills to an adventuring party, that's not the fluff and fiction of the setting. What they should be doing (and what they are doing later in the novels) is ministering to the Faithful in a non-combatant fashion. Adventuring clerics are a strange abnormality in the Dragonlance setting. Even Lady Crysania (from the Legends trilogy) only accompanies the twins on their adventures unwillingly; she'd rather be doing the work of growing the newly established church on Krynn (and, in fact, returns to this work at the end of her "adventure"). And it is precisely because of her devotion that is given as the justification for her (high level) powers as a cleric.

[per the Dragonlance Adventures sourcebook, Crysania is 14th level(!!), despite a complete absence of adventuring experience]

But that (defining clerics, distinguishing their priesthood, and explaining their role as adventurers) is only part of the problem. The other parts are the actual lack of religion and ritual (kind of an important part of any pseudo-medieval setting) and the way DL treats polytheism in general (i.e. not really how polytheism worked in ancient times). Regarding the latter (a discussion on polytheism), I'd direct readers to Bret Devereaux's essays on the subject; they make for excellent reading and a decent enough overview. To me, Krynn's religion more resembles a medieval Christian theology with minor gods in the roles of the saints...nice, but not especially important compared to Paladine/Jehovah (I suppose, in such an analogy, Mishakal would be Mother Mary). 

Which is all the more crazy when you consider Krynn's gods to be literal, active beings walking amongst humans (Takhisis has been physically manifest in the world more than once, and Paladine walks around in disguise much as Odin does in the Norse sagas, while the immortal Astinus, purported to be the god Gilean, is living and scribing in Palanthas, easily accessible with anyone with the right credentials)! The gods of Krynn are VERY manifest and VERY real, and thus do not even require "faith" for belief...and, yet they're treated fairly contemptuously in many regards (though I suppose not much more so than one would treat a "divine emperor" living in a far away capital).

Fall on your knees.
In fact, pretty much the only portrayal of clerics I find "authentic" in the Dragonlance books is that of the evil clerics, especially in the form of the dragon highlord Verminaard. Not only does he exhibit the traits of the D&D class (wearing armor, bashing folks with a morning star, using his magic in combat), he also exhibits a devotion for and communion with his Dark Queen; one could certainly envision him performing sacred rites to Takhisis in Pax Tharkas, when he's not out trying to drum up worshippers (as he does with the Seekers of Haven). I'm a bit bemused that the character is killed off in the first novel of the series (via a deus ex machina!) when, as an NPC, he figures so prominently throughout the adventure modules...Verminaard is one of the characters meant to be kept alive with the Obscure Death special rule. 

But, heck, even the draconians feel more worshipful and subservient to their gods (worshipping a dragon effigy, for example). Sure, Paladine might eschew ritual and reverence (he says something to that effect in the third book, if I remember correctly), but his priesthood's rather casual treatment of religion seems at odds with, oh say, the construction of huge temples and edifices to his glory (or the glory of the other gods: Mishakal's temple in Xak Tsaroth, for example). Such buildings require copious amounts of resources in pre-industrial societies, don't they?


I guess, right now, I'm just sitting in a place where I feel it's not enough to say "the gods of Krynn move in mysterious ways." They're NOT mysterious. They literally walk among the people of the world, interacting and directing them. One of them (Takhisis) wants to enter the world with all her forces of the Abyss and "conquer" it (though to what purpose is a little obscure)...and it's not the first time she's undertaken the task. 

[ me, anyhoo...that this the DL setting also includes such iconic MM personalities as Demogorgan, who appears in the Roger Moore-penned Tasslehoff story "A Stone's Throw Away" (Dragon #85). Perhaps, Takhisis is annoyed with demonic competition and wishes a plane of existence all to herself?]

I like the religious overtones and themes found in the DL-verse; I really do. I think they should be present in any campaign set in Krynn. However, even as I think the "quest to return the gods" can and should be detached (as a plot/story arc) from the player characters, the overtones and themes should be more ingrained into the setting...there should be more intensity. The "perceived abandonment" of the gods should probably be changed to ACTUAL abandonment; bringing them back may require an atonement on behalf of wayward humanity. Maybe. But that makes for a pretty dark campaign (one where most folks are in state of despair and hopelessness) it doesn't wash with the presence of divine soldiers (Verminaard, etc.) in the service of the Dragon Army.

*sigh* More later. Next I'll be talking about the whole "steel pieces" thang.


  1. Thought: what if the 'gods' of DL, rather than being the equivalent of Jehovah and the saints, were the equivalent of the Nephalim. They were powerful, very active, very present (they interbred with humans)...and they helped draw people away from the True God. Thus, the building of massive temples could be explained by a lost memory of how religion should be without understanding...because they don't really understand who it is they are supposed to worship. Thus, the "quest to return the gods" would be a quest to find the monotheism of the ancients before the descent of the Nephalim.

    1. So all the Krynn deities - Takhisis, Gilean, Paladine - are Satanic forces seeking to tempt the PCs into damnation no matter which side they choose? That's pretty dark, padre.

      I should have probably pointed out that the canon of the DL setting (per the Dragonlance Adventures sourcebook), *does* have a sort of monotheism in the form of a "High God" who created the universe and all within it (including the gods worshipped by Krynnish mortals); this High God provided mortals with free will, decreed a balance to the universe (with good and evil both existing to provide contrast), and established a law of consequence for actions (with positive results for good actions and negative for evil).

      However, this High God is removed from Krynn (or, rather, outside the sphere of mortal knowledge) and thus is neither known nor worshipped; only the known gods who vie with each other...mainly in the form of good and neutral deities trying to prevent evil deities interfering with mortals...are knowable by characters in the setting.

    2. Dark? Well, yes. I thought that was the point...DL always struck me as dark fantasy because a world were there is no divine because that divine abandoned the world is dark. In my mind, using the Nephalim analogues is a way to make sense of out of all that darkness.

  2. No clerics because the people abandoned the gods never made sense to me. I mean everyone gives up even though there is literal proof. But its not even that big deal because clerics return in the first adventure. Just leave them in, change why the party needs the mcguffin disk and nothing changes in the adventure.

    I mean at least stretch it out to be the end of the third one.

    Also Shit, how long is the second trilogy after the first for her to hear about the return of the gods then to gain 14 levels with no adventuring.

    1. @ 7B:

      I started composing my response to your comment and realized I might just need an addendum post to address it.
      ; )

  3. I had a thought similar to Fr. Dave's when I read this. What if Takhisis is just the monster Tiamat, Paladin is just the monster Bahamut, Gilean is a Neutral aligned beholder, etc.

    Basically, the "gods" are just really powerful monsters, but not at all divine. Where do cleric spells come from? They claim from them but actually from somewhere else. Not sure how to square that, but I think it would be an interesting take on DL.

    Also, I'm enjoying these posts, since I went through a similar set of ideas about a year ago.

    1. Even when D&D isn't treating gods like monsters (as you suggest), it often treats gods like monsters (providing hit points and stats). The various god supplements ("Gods, Demigods, and Heroes," "Deities & Demigods," "Legends & Lore," the "Immortal" game) have all contributed to the destruction of the divine mysteries as far as I'm concerned...even though that probably was NOT the intention of the authors.

      Glad you're enjoying my musings. We'll see how long they last.

    2. I’m pretty sure Takhisis is Tiamat in 5th Edition.

      I wonder if Goldmoon would work as a straight-up cleric in B/X (as opposed to AD&D) spreading the word of the gods without access to spells at 1st level... then leveling up and gaining spells after the first main adventure. Though if memory serves DL1 is for somewhat higher level PC’s so I guess it would have to be reworked.

    3. @Jared:

      That is exactly what I'm thinking.

    4. Takhisis was Tiamat in 1st edition, just with a slight change.

      In the MM (or is she in MM2?), Tiamat is a powerful demon, but not a goddess. I was just suggesting keeping it that way as a variant.

      Anyway, I won't belabor the point.

      DL1 starts the PCs off around 3rd or 4th level, I think. But the BX Cleric with no spells at 1st level would work. And maybe they don't get spells at all until they perform some significant act for one of the gods?

      I'm not planning to go back to Krynn any time soon in my own RPG musings but I was thinking that a campaign set sometime before the War of the Lance (maybe 50 years or so) or in an alternate timeline if I want Clerics and dragons in the game from the start, in a completely different part of the world like Ergoth or some podunk section of Solamnia would be a good way to do it.

      There's a city ruined by the cataclysm that serves as a megadungeon, and other locations nearby, plus dealing with the various factions.

    5. Tiamat in the MM is Lawful Evil and the ruler of the 1st plane of the Nine Hells. She is thus still an evil extra-dimensional power, but different (*not* Chaotic, *not* demonic, *not" from the Abyss). Bahamut the platinum dragon (who would be the MM version of Paladine) lived in a plane "behind the Four Winds" or something (I don't remember and don't have my MM with me at the moment).

      Having actually used Tiamat in my original D&D campaign once or twice, I remember being slightly annoyed by the DL "variation" on her character, back in the day...though, strangely, other things (like the switch from halflings to kender) never bothered me. I got over it eventually (novel/setting does not need to equal game, after all), but these days I think I find it an interesting quirk of DL, because the Hickman's seem to be working off an OLDER paradigm of D&D.

      The Chromatic and Platinum dragons, neither of whom bear the names found in MM ("Tiamat" is the name of a Babylonian creator god/demon who never resembled a 5-headed dragon before the D&D association), is first found in the Greyhawk supplement. She is the CHAOTIC queen of all chaotic dragons...there is no "evil" alignment in OD&D. But a LOT of early Dragon Lance seems based on OD&D + Greyhawk: the classes of the heroes (fighters, a magic-user, a cleric, and a dwarf) with a half-elf fighter as the leader, for example; the simple good-neutral-evil (Law-Neutral-Chaos) axis for another.

      Regarding "dungeons" in the setting: there are plenty because of the Cataclysm, not the least of which is the ruined city of Xak Tsaroth. But I like the added pressure caused by the advancing dragon army...maybe. However, I'm considering "compacting" the timeline of the original setting (setting it 100 years or so after the Cataclysm instead of 300+).

  4. My rewrite on the religion and Cataclysm is... There is no high god. Krynn is created by a random convergence of all the planes. Various deities that are "near by" the convergence point in their own planes take the opportunity to claim some real estate. Having gotten their foot in the door before the convergence passes, they are able to maintain a connection. But there are some powers that value nothing, like Tharizdun, Azathoth, or Chaos. In this case it's Chaos that has gotten a bigger advantage and has a larger presence. The other gods know they can create nothing while Chaos can destroy it on a whim. While the other gods would like to have the world all to themselves, they cannot kill Chaos, nor imprison it alone. So they must make a pact. A pact of non-interference. They work together to contain Chaos, but before doing so, Chaos creates dragons. The gods create the other races by negotiation with each other. The gods do receive worshipping energy from other world's as well, but that doesn't mean Krynn is insignificant. It's not unheard of to become a dead god. The powers of entropy have ended many a world. So, follow most of the written history as is. Then to the Kingpriest. His power becomes capped, because the gods of Krynn aren't looking to allow a Mystara situation. So he discovers the origins of dragons. And that discovery allows him pray to Chaos. And instead of him getting punished by the gods it is Chaos that taps into the mind of the Kingpriest. The good prayers and worship are allowed through, but the darker more ambitious plans and demands are intercepted and channeled to Chaos. And just like any wish can be twisted, Chaos is more than happy to see Krynn obliterated, so using the Kingpriest's desire for all "evil" to eliminated, Chaos uses the Kingpriest as a conduit from his prison, Chaos starts to channel himself into a meteor/mountain/asteroid. Even the evil gods do not want total destruction, but by the time all the gods find out, it will take all their power that they have and have given to their clerics to stop it. The story of Soth remains the same, because Takhisis sees the Cataclysm as way to take the lions share of worshipping. The gods cut the conduit, with Chaos, but Takhisis lets one cleric stay behind. By leaving one powerful cleric behind, instead of total destruction or total salvation, there is the Cataclysm.
    I don't like that all the dragons were sent away with Huma, but I do like the kidnapped eggs story arc (maybe not all the eggs, but a lot). Even the evil dragons like the gods to be at a distance, they want to be the ones to rule, and Takhisis knows this. Ariakas plot to summon Takhisis is even a secret to the dragons and other highlords. The evil dragons are mentally manipulating the highlords (except Ariakas) to do the conquering for them. Ariakas is getting the evil dragons to help his plot by going along with it while he searches for Berem to complete the summoning.
    Most other stuff stays in place fairly well. I also introduce level capped areas, kind of like magic dead zones, but all aspects of character level and monster ability get capped... Another effect of the initial god negotiations.

    1. Huh...interesting. So "Chaos" is its own god/power (like Tharizdun and Azathoth)?

    2. I think it works well. It also provides the impetus to keep the others working together

    3. Yes, also, it makes more sense than having good gods dropping a mountain on top of innocent children because one megalomaniac chump is telling them what to do.