Thursday, May 27, 2021

Killing Gods, Part 2

Man, I've got a half-dozen Real Life Important things on my plate today and if I don't get this damn post started, I don't know that I ever will. SO, without further ado, let's get down to the deicide!

The first god I ever killed in D&D was Thor.

To be clear, I was DM'ing at the time, not playing, but I am far more responsible for Thor's death than any of my players. In fact, I'd go so far as to say I was absolutely responsible. This was circa age 10 or so, on the playground, which meant we were still only a couple years into D&D play; at the time we had not yet discovered there was separation between editions of the game, and I was running my game with a combination of B/X and the AD&D Monster Manual and (occasionally) the DMG. My buddy had just acquired a copy of Deities & Demigods (the post-Moorcock/Lovecraft version) and we were anxious to put it into play. Since one of my earliest PCs in the game had a rather high-level thief who had no problem whupping up on normal challenges, I figured Thor would be the perfect encounter to put the dude in his place.

Dead duck
Now, I can't remember the exact circumstances of the scenario (this was some 35 years ago) but I can remember the outcome: Jason managed to piss off Thor (probably after I had pissed off the PC), whereupon Thor used Mjolnr to hit the thief with a 100-die lightning bolt. The thief's ring of spell turning reflected the bolt, Thor failed his saving throw, and was utterly disintegrated by the thing. If I remember correctly, Sneakshadow looted the thunder god of his mystic hammer, but I am 100% certain he never wielded the weapon (he was a thief after all, and rather small in stature for a human). 

I can also recall, later, reading the ring of spell turning description in the DMG and its specific stipulation (unlike the Cook Expert set) that magic item powers could not be turned and thinking: "darn, I screwed that up!" However, at no point do I remember thinking to myself, "hmm, maybe I should not have sent a greater god to fight a player character."

Deities & Demigods isn't a Monster Manual, but it's written like has alphabetical entries for gods, each with a little illustration, a brief description, and a stat block. This is the exact same setup as any of the AD&D monster books. I'm sure I never even bothered to read the instructional text at the beginning of the book (explaining 'this isn't a Monster Manual') because I can remember reading all that for the first time (and loving it) after I purchased my own copy of DDG later in the form of Legends & Lore, sometime around age 11 (i.e. in 1985, before my 12th birthday). By that time, Jason had become a "Born Again" Christian and was no longer allowed to play D&D...though, perhaps, if his mother had been aware of his history with destroying pagan deities, she would have relented a bit.

For a kid to make such a mistake is pretty understandable...even older players can probably be forgiven for making lazy assumptions when confronted with a book with a similar format (and thus skipping over the pertinent parts of the introduction). The DDG was written the way it was to update the prior OD&D supplement Gods, Demi-Gods, and Heroes (Supplement IV) for the "Advanced" D&D format, and it is a decent emulation of the style in which Supplement IV was presented. So why did authors Rob Kuntz and Jim Ward provide god stat-lines when ambitious players were certain to treat them as challengeable monsters? The answer is in the Foreward to GDG&H:
This volume is something else, also: our last attempt to reach the "Monty Haul" DM's. Perhaps now some of the 'giveaway' campaigns will look as foolish as they truly are. This is our last attempt to delineate the absurdity of 40+ level characters. When Odin, the All-Father has only(?) 300 hit points, who can take a 44th level Lord seriously?
There it is: the book was meant to be a crack-down on what was deemed to be some of the "excesses" (as they saw it) of certain campaigns. By providing statistical representations for both literary heroes (Elric, Conan, Vainamoinen, etc.) AND the gods of various pantheons, D&D players would have a scale of comparison against which to measure their own characters and campaigns.

Which, I suppose, could be an admirable goal...if D&D wasn't a completely different animal.

The first
"monster manual"

D&D didn't really seek to emulate/model a particular setting (with an implicit scale) nor, really, a particular genre of fantasy. Elric's multi-verse spanning adventures are very different from Conan's down-and-dirty conflicts, and both pale in comparison the the physical might displayed by John Carter on the surface of Mars. D&D sought to provide rules for creating fantasy adventures - and it succeeded at that! - but it never meant to constrain or limit the players' imaginations. Telling players three years after the fact that they were "doing it wrong" was a ridiculous attempt to put the genie back in the bottle. Scale should have been baked in from the get-go if that had been the intention, instead of assuming similar minds and attitudes...and who's to say the attitude wasn't similar anyway? Both Gygax and Arneson had plenty of "wa-hoo" in their own campaigns.

But back to the discussion: regardless of what one thinks about the outrageousness of fighting...and potentially slaying...divine entities, it is absolutely clear that the D&D game provides explicit rules for doing just that! At least up through 3rd edition (the last edition for which I purchased a Deities & Demigods book), textual instruction has been provided that enable DMs to run gods as encounters against player characters. Certainly, each edition to do so (OD&D, AD&D, BECMI's "I" rules, 3E) have made the prospect more and more daunting, giving divine beings ever greater abilities...and yet, the game has never simply come out and said "nope, can't be done." The gods remain ever vulnerable to mere mortals.

[forcing a deity to make a saving throw at all...even if the chance of failure is only the 5% probability of rolling a "1" on a saying that the being is as fallible as any human. 'To err is...' and all that jazz]

And as said, the D&D game supports this type of play. It's own fiction (I admit to only having read Dragonlance and the Gygax-penned Greyhawk novels) encourages this type of play. And multiple adventure modules from D&D's "golden era" (pre-1983) provide examples of how such play might be handled.

In a reasonable fashion.

And I guess that's the part that has (recently) found my prickly hide to be chapping...well, one part anyway. The unreasonableness of the encounters being given. Or...perhaps...not even the unreasonableness of the scenarios, but the disconnect I see between the game and the...the...

Hmmm. It's not "style." Or "fiction." It's more of an attitude or outlook. An orientation. Folks want to play D&D in a particular way, a particular fashion. Okay, that's cool...that's fine. It's still D&D. But then they want to have these god-encounters that aren't least not in the manner of the game as designed.  

Hmm...I'm having a hard time expressing this. 

Let me try a different way. I've heard people say: "If my DM put a wight in a first level dungeon, I'd punch him in the face" (or words to that effect). Okay, great...I get your point, and it's a reasonable one given the parameters of the game as written. Low-level adventurers don't have the abilities to confront such a creature. Low-level adventurers don't have the abilities to confront a LOT of creatures.

SO...why would you put a god or godling in any sort of low level adventure?

Halls of the Blood King (levels 3-5)
Palace of Unquiet Repose (levels 3-5)
The God That Crawls (levels 1-2)
Operation Unfathomable (levels 1-?)

There are others...of course there are others, there are always others. These ones just spring immediately to mind, and I'm too lazy to go hunting up others. 

[that's another part of the hide chapping: I've lost track of how many low-level adventures see players encountering godlike beings. It's become such a regular choice for scenarios, it could be included in Moldvay's list of standard scenarios (page B51) between "Fulfilling a Quest" and "Escaping from Enemies." Call it "Confronting Godling Made Flesh" or something]

An adventure that pits a party of 4th level characters against "The Lord of All Vampires" is not, to my mind, a reasonable execution of the D&D system as intended, nor is an adventure that finds a party of 1st and 2nd level characters accidentally wandering into the lair of "Shaggath-Ka the Worm Sultan." It belies the dynamics and expectations implicit in the game's design. Yes, I'm sure that some (like the authors of these adventures listed) would beg to I wrote previously, this is all my (strong) opinion. So, I'd imagine some folks (those I haven't hopelessly offended) are wondering what I'd put forward as a reasonable adventure involving a godling?

Q1: Queen of the Demonweb Pits.

Q1 is not, of course, one's only tussle with Lolth, the demon queen of spiders...she first appears in Gygax's own D3: Vault of the Drow as a god made flesh, dwelling incarnate in the lowest level of her chosen people's greatest shrine (although why she's there is never explained). To be sure, Q1 is a flawed adventure, but I've found it to be a very fun adventure in play, and a rather solid example of possible "god fighting" in D&D. 

Note the high level: 10-14 is pretty darn high for AD&D. My very over-powered bard was something like 15th level (max levels for fighter/thief) when I tackled Q1, but the character's total x.p. was equivalent to a fighter of 11th or 12th level. 14th level spell-casters have close to 30 spells per day to play with (more, for high WIS clerics), and all such characters have a ton of resources, both magical and mundane, to draw upon. Attacking an arch-devil or demon prince (or queen) in its lair is a legitimate challenge for D&D characters that have otherwise grown too big for their britches.

Beefy monster
"Come on, JB, Sutherland's adventure is the height of're just being nostalgic here!" Not at all. Given sufficient time adventuring, PCs will acquire resources such that normal logistical problems no longer apply: the ability to create food and water. Bags of holding and portable holes. Magical mounts and constructs that can carry immense burdens, rarely (if ever) tire, and that can bypass obstacles by flying. Magical means of entry and egress - or escape! - including teleportation, passwall, word of recall. And, of course, the power to bring fellow party members back to life whenever it suits them. Some Dungeon Masters recoil at the thought of their campaigns getting to such a level, it no longer resembling a game of "scurrilous rogues" in running battles with lizard people while trying to hide a gemstone up their nostril. That's right: it doesn't. High level characters have graduated from such grubby affairs and require larger challenges to test their abilities.

Planar travel becomes an option at high levels, and rightly so...because other planes provide the opportunity for DMs to throw the greatest challenges at PCs. And I'm not just talking encounters with gods and godlings...on other planes, all bets are off with regard to what might be thrown at PCs. Different physics, different rules, screwing with spell effects, reducing or limiting magical abilities. Pocket dimensions and demi-planes provide all sorts of justifications for strange, non-book monsters and unique, fantastic treasures. Q1's problem (in my opinion) isn't one of steam-powered spider ships; rather, it's too many damn bugbears and coin piles...the adventure could be even weirder and stranger than it is (though the demonweb map itself is a rather beautiful thing). Talking about D&D's literary roots, Moorcock's Elric stories provide excellent examples of just how weird and messed up things get when you start skipping around the multiverse...and just how much trouble PCs can get into when their magic and magical items stop functioning the way they're accustomed to on the Prime Material plane.

But that's not low-level stuff. Elric is sometimes accompanied on his extraplanar adventures by low-level characters and (spoiler alert) things usually go very, very badly for them; insanity and death are both par for the course. Which is as it should be. Your high level party isn't going to get any positive results out of taking a small army of men-at-arms into the demonwebs, nor should they. Soldiers have their place in the D&D world, but planar invasions of a demigod's home plane ain't one of them. Such an scenario shouldn't be a place for any character with less than a million experience points. Literally.

Okay, that's enough for Part 2. Part 3 coming up!

[here's Part 1 and Part 1b for those who missed them]


  1. For everything else you might dislike, I think the way 4E handled the scale of these beings would be to your liking. Each of the three Monster Manuals had a single god-monster; Orcus, Demogorgon, and Lolth. In a system where the maximum level for PCs was 30, they clocked in at levels 33, 34, and 35, respectively, as well as being the "Solo" category of monster which had quadruple hit points and extra actions per turn. Lolth, being a deity unlike the other two, also got this sidebar:

    When Lolth drops to one-quarter of her hit points, her mind leaves her body and she is unable to assume physical form for a time. This discorporation usually lasts at least a few months, and it can last up to several years. During this time, Lolth's power is weaker, but it is far from negligible.
    If PCs wish to truly kill Lolth, they must fulfill one or more conditions specific to her. This could require destroying her most prominent temple or finding an artifact that can deliver the killing blow. If the specific conditions are satisfied, Lolth cannot discorporate and instead remains present. Here are some sample quests.
    Loom of Fate: Hidden in Nath Seldarie, Corellon's palace in Arvandor, is the Loom of Fate. Once used by the Spider Queen, this artifact can be used to rearrange the threads of Lolth's destiny. Corellon keeps the artifact safe from Lolth but fears to use it.
    Egg of Lolth: Finding and destroying the Egg of Lolth, an ancient and mysterious artifact, can seal the gates in the Demonweb Pits and prevent the goddess's escape.
    Lolth's Prison: The adventurers must travel to Lolth's Prison, a demiplane beyond the Demonweb Pits. There, they must destroy the Bone Colossus to recover the pendant of truth. Holding this relic before Lolth prevents her discorporation.

    1. Um, no.

      And to be clear, before you think I’m dismissing your comment out of hand, there ARE things I like about 4E’s design (based on a read-through remains the only edition of D&D I’ve never played). I just don’t think it’s “D&D” and (thus) isn’t really pertinent to the discussion.

      I’ve said before: 4E is it’s own game. It probably could have been marketed (successfully) as it’s own game. But WotC wanted to cash in on the brand name (and they did) and the rest is history: the discontent, the rebellion of the fan base, the fast exit of the edition, the termination of designers...and let’s not forget the “jumping ship” to OSR and Pathfinder and the scrambling to craft 5E and regain market share. your point: in this particular regard, 4E is much like a different system (I’d draw an analogy to WoW, but others might differ) that is attempting to emulate (that is MODEL) the original AD&D game for its own system. Perhaps a bit like trying to run a dungeon crawl using Apocalypse World.

      And the PROBLEM with that (as I see it...others may not consider it a problem) is that it misses out on the power and glory of the original D&D system. 4E aficionados see a tight means of scaling an epic boss fight, with flavored “quest goals” to add a story element (or simply an excuse for additional thematic combats/battles).

      Um, no. That’s not what D&D is about. F**k that noise.

      But, hey. Thanks for the comment anyway. Sorry I’m a jerk.

    2. That was the reason for me prefacing it with "for all the other things you might dislike" - the hope was for you to consider the handling of demon princes and gods in isolation from how you felt about it not being the same game anymore. Because looking at it from an outside perspective without all your personal baggage, it pretty much ticks all your boxes.

      In order to challenge these beings, a group of PCs must be powerful enough to ignore logistics, teleport, travel the planes, casually raise dead party members, deal with hostile environments that might change or limit their capabilities, might be outright hazardous to their health, or both, have extensive magical might at their disposal (both spells and items), operate together like a well-oiled machine. That's a fairly direct paraphrase of your paragraph that begins next to the picture of Lolth and part of the following paragraph - and also a very apt description of a 30th level party for 4E; or a BECMI party in their 30s, for that matter, which is an edition that I personally believe the 4E designers took a great deal of inspiration from.

      As for your gripe about "flavored quest goals" - take it or leave it, but to my mind, if liches have phylacteries and greater demons have amulets, it only makes sense for gods to have similar countermeasures against true destruction.

    3. Hmm...I'd argue those creatures named have need if phylacteries and amulets BECAUSE they're not gods.

      RE 4E's similarity to BECMI:

      Not a huge fan of BECMI either. But there's no way I'd compare that edition's play, even at high levels, to 4E play (or, for that matter, to 1E play, which is the subject at hand). A BECMI immortal (from "I") is so powerful in comparison to a mortal (the "BECM") that no party should EVER take one down, no matter how "well-oiled" a "machine" the party is.

      RE "Fairly direct paraphrase", and you seem to have missed the point. MY point is that high level characters need challenges that stretch them, given the depth of their capabilities, and extra-planar jaunts have the potential to provide that challenge based on their being "off the reservation." That's different from saying godlike beings/monsters have been created specifically with the purpose of overcoming the abilities inherent in high level characters.

      It's a difference between saying the players "CAN" and the players "MUST."

      PCs should feel good when they defeat a challenge through an earned ability (a high level spell or found magic item, for example). A game system that removes player abilities or requires them in order to "maintain challenge" is a CRAP system working to de-protagonize the PCs.

      But maybe I'm confusing 4E with 5E.

  2. Hah! I had missed this. I agree on you selecting Q1 as a good example of a scenario where taking down Lolth can be tackled fairly straightforwardly, and you rightfully excoricate Palace of the Blood King because the Vampire Emperor of the Multiverse should not be taken down by a low level party using elementary trickery or an NPC henchman.

    God that Crawls is a little bit of a cop-out because the entity is not a deity, merely a monster worshipped as one by supersititous villagers. Despite this, it is far out of the characters league. The whole point of the adventure is that St. Augustine must be evaded, not fought directly, as a type of survival horror.

    Now Palace, as previously mentioned, does not have deities. It has, absolutely, the re-animated corpse of one. Its 20 HD and it regenerates. Its an almost unstoppable terror meant to be evaded, or lured into one of the Palace's many other hazardous zones, or possibly taken down with monstrous loss of life and the help of two factions.

    Operation Unfathomable I'll have to check out.

    1. I'm surprised you haven't seen Operation Unfathomable. It's pretty good stuff...though more gonzo than I like for a long-term campaign.

      I understand that Diorag is undead, but if "its flesh may only be pierced by weapons that can slay deities" isn't that kind of the same thing? And while Uyu-Yadmogh is technically mortal (?!) he's no slouch either. In fact, he feels a bit like a personification of death.

      Is U.Y. as beefy as a demilich? Maybe not (maybe yes...he IS active after all)...but Acerak was originally meant to be tackled by characters over level 10, not levels 3-5. And, sure, tackling him isn't necessarily the point of the adventure (though THAT's debatable, with adventure hook #3)...but PCs tend to be an active bunch, prone to trying "clever things" in order to "win."

      I don't know, man: I get that "Old School" play includes knowing when to run away, but I sure seem to see a lot of adventures being published where running away is the main crux of the thing. Where the best tactic (i.e. the one that does NOT lead to "monstrous loss of life") is one of avoidance. And I really don't want to instill that kind of attitude in my players...I'd rather they have a 'fortune favors the bold' mentality.

      But this is stupid: I sound like I'm trying to tear down your adventure and that's REALLY NOT my objective. You and Sholtis and the others are doing good work...nay, GREAT work!...and you adventure writers deserve the praise that's been heaped upon you (just as WotC's current crop of designers deserve the scorn heaped upon their heads).

      My next post will be a POSITIVE example (as I see it) of an adventure that most assuredly isn't from 1981. In fact, it's from 2020 and is one of the best things to have come out of that damnable year (aside from a better presidential administration).
      ; )

    2. Hahaha I am not arguing with your personal taste :P

      I think we agree that scale and power curves are important in a game, so examples like Halls of the Blood King that break that progression provoke irritation.

      For Diorag, essentially a god zombie, I feel he is appropriately strong so the PCs can't just face him head on, but he is also not so strong that escape is the only option. Instead he has to be outsmarted or nullified using some other manner, and that's a DnD tradition going back to Ravenloft, Kartoeba in B10 (speaking of 'gods') or the hill giants in the hall in G1.

      But...I think it is good to point out annoying trends when I see them and having overpowered monsters as a gimmick appear everywhere would probably annoy me too.

      I look forward to Part III.

    3. Right on.

      RE "DnD tradition going back to Ravenloft, Kartoeba, etc." "D&D tradition" is a little older than I6 and B10. And I've seen plenty of standup fights in G1 (with the players surviving). But...okay.
      ; )

  3. I agree with much of what you've written here. It has been my experience that creating adventures for high level characters is more challenging than low level. It's a matter of creating appropriate challenges. I very much in agreement that creating adventure locations where the characters must have high levels just to get there or operate in the location is a big part of that. My players killed a demi-god in my most recent campaign. He was mortal made immortal and he was the only one in the campaign setting. He also had the stats of Yama from the AD&D Deities and Demigods book. It was the last adventure of a long campaign and felt like an appropriate way to wrap it up.