Thursday, June 17, 2021

Killing Gods, Final Thoughts

There's a lot to write about deities and their place in D& much so that it would be the epitome of easy to allow this series to spiral endlessly down endless digressions. As such, I think it's time to bring it to a close; I'm sure I'll have the chance to revisit the topic in the future.

For ease of reference:

The initial impetus for this series was Prince of Nothing's (probably facetious) comment on an earlier post:
I think if you could manage to distill the right approach to portraying S&S style deities in DnD, complete with a few examples, you'd be doing the OSR a huge favor.
Never one to pass up doing a "favor" for the OSR (!!) I set out in my normal meandering fashion, throwing out the odd barb and jab as is my wont. While I despair of having distilled "the right approach" to the subject of S&S style deities, the series has at least helped me to distill my own thoughts. Here then is what I believe:

While D&D draws inspiration from the Sword & Sorcery genre, for long-term play it is probably best to draw parallels to long form fiction...which S&S ain't. S&S generally applies to short stories, dealing with a particular situation that a protagonist must face. Many of D&D's major influences (Leiber, Howard, Moorcock) wrote in this form...the books of Conan or Elric or Mouser are compilations of short stories rather than actual novels. A distinguishing characteristic of the novel is that a protagonist changes over the course of the book; such is not the case with the short story. Elric is much the same asshole at the end of the series as he is in the beginning; Bilbo or Frodo, on the other hand, are changed drastically by the course of events in their respective novels. D&D can be played like short fiction (i.e. in episodic fashion) but PCs that survive are forced to change by the very rule system by which we play (a 12th level wizard or fighter or thief bears no resemblance to a 1st level character with regard to capability or responsibility). 

S&S deities are reflective of the genre, i.e. they serve the needs of the situation at hand whether you're talking the mysterious entity encountered by Jirel in Black God's Kiss, Arioch's whimsical cruelty in Elric of Melnibone, or the soon-to-be-beheaded naga in God in a Bowl. Attention to continuity and coherence are of secondary importance to telling the story of the protagonist's particular adventure of the moment. For the same reason, there's no single particular way gods are portrayed in the S&S genre: Crom may be a mythical non-entity for all his appearances in Howard's work, while Death is an incarnate being in Leiber's Nehwon setting.

D&D, however, is meant to be played as a campaign over a lengthy (perhaps endless!) period of time, and thus a coherent cosmology is imperative to the setting, in order to facilitate the players' engagement with the game. If the rules for the cosmology shift constantly, depending on the needs of the DM's "story," it works to break the players' immersion and undermine their faith in the DM as a fair and impartial arbiter of the rules. 

And D&D has rules for deities baked into the game. Every edition I've played or read, with the exception of un-supplemented OD&D, has some version of "gods" inherent in the system, followed and worshipped by clerics (Mentzer's BECMI tries to take them out, but then adds the Immortal rules, many of which are named/modeled after the same gods found in historic religions of the world). Finding the "proper way" to portray gods in the game is a non-issue when the rules for modeling divinities are already hard-coded into the system.

Essential Reading
SO...if there is no specific S&S way to portray gods, and D&D already has rules for modeling gods in the game, and if (as I propose) the best way to play D&D is long-term with consistent attention to  setting cosmology (to allow maximum familiarity and, thus, immersion of the players), what then do I postulate is the best way to write gods into adventures?

And, for this, I look to the early (pre-1982ish shift) adventure modules as my examples. Here are the conclusions I draw:
  • Gods exist, they are immensely powerful (by PC standards) yet still fallible; there is no "eternal Supreme Being" in D&D, that role being taken by the Dungeon Master, who creates the entirety of the campaign setting, including the gods worshipped by the player characters.
  • There are creatures that attempt to imitate and/or are worshipped as gods but who are not; likewise, there are priests that promote false practices and/or worship false deities. Such deceptions can be sniffed out by the simple fact that no spell powers are granted to these would-be clerics.
  • Being that the gods exist, they may be encountered by the player characters. Being that the gods' power is an order of magnitude far greater than that of the PCs, the way and manner of such encounters should be commensurate with the capability of the characters, as defined by the game rules. Having the gods (mainly) inhabit the outer planes is an altogether practical approach, as planar travel is generally limited to high level characters.
  • Divinities may still be encountered indirectly...through agents, avatars, and relics...even by low- to mid-level characters, and such encounters with divine forces often break standard rules (helping imply the immensity of the divinity's power). Examples include the chaotic chapel in The Keep on the Borderlands, the temples to the Elder Elemental in the Giant modules, the Shrine of the Kuo-Toa, and (of course) Lolth in Vault of the Drow. Being that D&D is a magical world and the PCs are bold adventurers, such indirect encounters may be more common than one might suppose...unlike actual encounters with divine entities.
  • Given the rules as written, PCs can kill gods. Doing so should be damn near impossible, which is not the same thing as "impossible." The consequences of such a deicide would be profound: the permanent death of Lolth would eliminate the Drow as a meaningful threat both above and below ground (and would probably lead to their genocide at the hands of the other Underdark species). Such scenarios should never be taken lightly, and are probably best suited as a capstone adventure to a campaign that is coming to a close. Definitely nothing I'd want to see for PCs below name level.
And there it is: the end of this series. Probably NOT as specific as Prince wanted, but still some guidelines to follow. And I honestly feel I've said about all I have to say on the subject...for now. Though, as always, I am happy to field questions, comments, and discussion.

: )


  1. I have shared your posts in a discord group I frequent. I will also do so on my blog, and add my commentary, as I agree with a lot of the points you have made. You have not dissappointed, a heroic effort!

    1. Appreciate the kind words, Prince. But I appreciate even more the idea for the series; it forced me to think quite a bit and crystallize my own thoughts on the matter (which have changed mightily over the years).

      I will say this: I am very content with my own conclusion.

      Thanks for reading.

  2. The ADD concept of deities from the DMG and Deities and Demigods was somewhat expanded in 2E Planescape setting. It added the idea that gods could run out of followers and divine power, leaving them to slowly die, their corpses floating in the Astral sea.

    In the spirit of the MCU and the current Loki show they also expanded the concept of a multiverse, with various campaign worlds all linked to the same upper planes.(This is mentioned in deities, they just added a mechanic for traveling easily between the various settings and the added conceit of making the planes the home and the campaign worlds the adventure sites)

    This would allow for variant versions of the same mythos, with Woten and Odin being similar, but different gods.

    I personally feel that the true nature of the gods is a major campaign secret that should be developed through play.Even high level clerics won't know for sure. Once established, however, and the secret is out, it has to remain the same, unless variants are introduced and the concept of multiple possible campaign worlds is also revealed.

    Playing in Dwimmermount, I stuck with the nature of the gods within that setting, but that does not mean that the more traditional d and d gods do not exist elsewhere on the planes. Without the multiverse variant option, this wouldn't make sense with my cosmology, which is more in tune with the traditional add view you describe well.

    1. I'm not familiar with Planescape or Dwimmermount...not enough to comment anyway.

      I WILL say that, funny enough, my current AD&D campaign (which I've been running for several months) COMPLETELY IGNORES all this stuff! Yes, that's right: I'm NOT a practitioner of what I preach! The gods are unknowable and unnamed (simply "lords of light" or "demons of darkness") and clerical magic is ritual received from initiation (much like MUs learning spells from a master).

      Despite "playing AD&D" I have been ignoring all this part of the game.

      And there's a good reason for that: my PCs are all low level (all are 3rd level or lower), and we've had more pressing concerns than dealing with the nature of the gods. Certainly none of them will be entering into combat with a divine being anytime soon!

      However, I wasn't kidding when I said I've learned something from this discussion. I very well may be adding DDG to my "staple" books (currently, I've only been using the Big Three + FF).

      RE Corpses Floating in Astral Sea

      That's very picturesque but I'm not sure I want dead gods in the Astral. I think it's pretty clear from the DDG that an AD&D god's level of power (demigod, lesser, greater) seems to be a matter of time spent "godding" and followers/worshippers. I think I'd just demote the power level of gods that lost their worshippers...down to the level of demigod (think the Maui character from Moana, living alone on his island). But that's just my initial thought...maybe with reflection, I'll change my mind.

    2. One of the cool things about running ongoing campaigns is that you can put off making decisions on even big secrets until they are fully cooked.

      I can't tell you the number of times that a player mused about something that was better than anything I could come up with, and it ended up being canon.

      Demotion and ascension of gods is a cool concept. Best Fahfrd amd Grey Mouser story dealt with that. I would love if a PC got some semi forgotten demigod up a rung of the celestial ladder.

  3. I'm not sure this issue was mentioned in your series, but do you differentiate killing gods on "our" plane vs. killing them on "their" plane. In the former case it's doable, but hard. In the latter case, neigh on impossible. In my past games (as a player) back in the 80's we were able to accomplish the former twice. Never even considered the latter.