Saturday, May 22, 2021

Killing Gods, Part 1

The other day, in the comments on my Whimsy Addendum, I decried a trend I've seen in a lot of adventure material recently, which is: players encountering (and fighting with) "gods." Part of my annoyance has been with regard to overuse of the scenario (welp, here's another adventure where the main antagonist is a fallen deity...) and part of it has stemmed from the execution: how such encounters are portrayed and used in these adventures. 

And the good Prince of Nothing took umbrage and issued me a challenge, writing:
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.
Wait...what? This is on me?

Set aside from the moment any notion of me doing the OSR "favors" (ridiculous to think they'd take any advice from me, even if I wanted to give it!)...what the hell qualifies me as the authority and resource for this particular subject? I'm just a blogger that runs his, keypad...a bit too much with long-winded meanderings. 

On the other hand, I have fought a god or two.

*sigh* Challenge accepted. 

I'd like to first start out with a discussion of the inspiration behind this particular idea, this claim that it is O So Very Sword & Sorcery for grungy, pulp heroes to be going toe-to-toe with gods and godlings. So let's crack out our fantasy literature and take a look. Never mind that these are stories, not games...we understand that these stories are the impetus and foundational pieces for Dungeons & Dragons play. And it's always useful to have a firm handle on one's source material.

First up, everyone's favorite barbarian: Conan. One gets the impression that the gods of Howard's Hyborian age are fairly mortal (much like the Norse gods)...if Conan stuck Crom with 3' of  good, Hyrkanian steel, he'd probably die. However, we never encounter Crom in Howard's stories, perhaps because Crom is an actual deity. Conan kills some godlike frost giants, an ancient "god in a bowl" (appears to be a naga, much like the one in module N1), and an alien time-traveller that resembles a small elephant. These aren't gods: they're monsters. In the bluntest of D&D terms, they are meant to be slain and looted. 

Elric gets prepared to
throw down with the
god of lizards.
Next up, we'll look at Moorcock's albino sorcerer, Elric. He fights all sorts of gods. The "Burning God." Balo the Jester of Chaos. In the end, he is responsible for the death of ALL the chaos lords (gods) including his own patron, Arioch. Except that, actually, he's not doing the killing. It's his Most-Powerful-Artifact-Weapon-In-The-Multiverse (Stormbringer) that is doing the actual soul-sucking, not Elric. In the final battle he does a one-shot spell that summons a multitude of Stormbringers (Stormbringer has siblings), and they fly around killing all the gods. Stormbringer, as an artifact, was forged to slay gods (and to "keep in check" higher powers). It's a plot point of the books. Do your D&D characters carry such an artifact weapon? 

Okay, Fafhrd and Gray Mouser. Haven't read as much of them as I'd have liked, but I can't remember them KILLING any gods. Running afoul of them, getting mixed up with them, fleeing their wrath or being cursed by them...sure, all that. But mortal combat (i.e. the hit point draining kind)? No, I don't think so.

Karl Wagner's Kane...well, I've only had the chance to read Bloodstone, and it's been a while. If memory serves, Kane "kills" a super computer masquerading as a deity. Machines break...they are mundane/mortal, not supernatural. Maybe. I get a little depressed thinking about Wagner; he died so young (age 48, alcoholism). 

I don't remember any hero versus god action in Clark Ashton Smith, but I probably haven't read enough of him. I have C.L. Moore's Jirel of Joiry ordered from Amazon, so apologies if she kills a bunch of godlings and I failed to mention it...haven't yet had the chance to read her stories.

H.P. Lovecraft isn't really an S&S writer, but there's no denying his writing's had an impact on D&D and many OSR offerings. Lots of extreme, alien gods walking amongst men in HPL's stuff. But people don't fight them. They get killed and eaten by them, or possessed, or driven insane. It's not really mano-a-mano. Well, except for a certain Norwegian sailor, who's ship-to-kaiju combat was absolutely NOT stolen by Disney for the climactic battle in The Little Mermaid against the giant octopoid entity. Nope, no way...that scene is straight out of Hans Christian Andersen. Regardless, it's one exception to a multitude of non-combats.

How about non-S&S literature...say, Tolkien's Sauron and all his knockoffs (Donaldson's "Lord Foul," whatever the hell Terry Brooks and Robert Jordan use, etc.). They're "gods" right? And the good guys fight and defeat them?

Well, no. At least in Lord of the Rings, Sauron is never confronted directly, and he's not killed so much as "dispersed" by the Ring's destruction. But perhaps he could have been, when he was mortal. Morgoth was wounded by Feanor with a mortal weapon, after all (elf weapons in Tolkien aren't, strictly speaking, "magical" but, rather, gear of exceptional craft). If he could wound Satan with nothing more than courage and a well-made blade what could the elf lord have done with a typical D&D magic weapon...something invested with supernatural power by a wizard?

Pullman's His Dark Materials (in which a couple kids kill old man God) hardly bears mentioning; not really the same genre. Neither is Piers Anthony's "Immortal Incarnate" series. Dragonlance I'll discuss when I talk about god-fighting in gaming proper. Probably I'm leaving out some (or a lot) of stuff, but I just don't read much fantasy anymore. And, anyway, one would think that "Awesome Confrontations Between Man and Godlike Being" would kind of stand out in Ye Old Memory. I used to read a lot of fantasy, and there ain't much popping up there.

SO...from whence this desire (in D&D) to fight/kill gods?

Just what are these "gods" in fantasy literature? I mean there's GOD, of course (omnipotent, omniscient, unknowable, and unavailable...more a force/influence than a being). Then there are 'the gods,' like the Greek/Norse pantheons (or Babylonian...currently reading Ship of Ishtar)...entities that are uber-powerful, live in a different realm, but have feelings/needs/thoughts that are recognizable by humans. There are supernatural entities from other dimensions/planets (Cthulhu, strange "intelligences," etc.). And then there are mortal beings of immense power that are worshipped as gods, but don't necessarily grant any special favors or divine influence...they simply inspire awe/reverence in lesser mortals (though the same could be said...on a grander scale...of ALL the various "god types" listed).

Different fantasy writers have tackled divinities in different ways (duh, JB) but, perhaps surprisingly, I feel a lot of authors take the approach of their being but one GOD (in the monotheist sense), perhaps with various demons and pretenders, but those certainly aren't necessary (Poul Anderson's Three Hearts, Three Lions is S&S and doesn't require any such entities). Certainly Tolkien is all Christian analogue with fallen angels and whatnot, but Howard's, too, stuff has a mostly Christian (i.e. monotheistic) vibe to it. Even his Conan stuff...while I joked before that Crom was probably mortal enough for Conan to slay, the fact is Crom never actually appears (and neither does Set or Mitra, etc.), nor do those gods grant any sort of "divine powers" to their devotees. Either they are false gods (as would be the typical monotheistic point of view) and their priests simply sorcerers, magicians, and charlatans OR they are just names/aspects of the One True God who (generally) stays out of mortal affairs, allowing folks to exercise free will.

And it makes sense that these writers would take this tack: American pulp writers of the early 20th century were, of course, individuals steeped in Western (generally monotheistic) cultures. They're just writing a fantastical version of the world they grew up in, some with reverence though plenty without.

[writers that leave out questions of divinity from their fantasy work at Vance and Zelazny...I chalk up in the same monotheistic category...the lack of a demiurge points to/emphasizes its existence. Regardless, no one is fighting gods in those books]

There ARE outliers, however, and three of them have had an immense impact on the Dungeons & Dragons game: Fritz Leiber, Michael Moorcock, and Howard P. Lovecraft. Leiber's world of Nehwon is filled with gods of the "pantheon" variety; so is Moorcock's Young Kingdoms (although antihero Elric is always searching for a Grand Designer behind it all). HPL, of course, gives us all his crazy-ass Star Children from the far reaches of space. Of these three authors, I'd judge Leiber and Moorcock to have had the greatest impact on the game as far as "cosmology" is concerned. That being said, I think in all three authors' cases a major takeaway from their stories is: the gods are NOT to be futzed around with.

You don't fight them. You're not going to kill them. You certainly don't loot their bodies.

All of which runs quite counter to D&D's credo.

But I'll be talking about that in my follow-up post, which will be specifically focused on god-fighting in D&D.
: )


  1. I think there are two origins for the “let’s kill a god” trope in D&D. The first is Supplement IV: Gods, Demi-Gods, and Heroes. It gives that most important to gods of several pantheons: Hit Points. If it has HP, it can be killed.

    The second is a bit more complicated, but directly related to the Western milieu of all the S&S authors you mention. Western Culture has been descending into secularism and materialism since the Middle-Ages when Aristotle got re-introduced to the intellectual class. We have been trying to kill God since.

    The irony is that the materialism of the secular world view utterly failed at bringing the new utopia. Rather, it regressed into the materialism of what we now call paganism. We “cast spells” with our technological wonders to manipulate the world, worshiping the idols of scientism like the priests-of-old used to try and manipulate the gods by making them bring rain, good fortune, etc.

    Thus, the desire to “kill the gods” is both an unconscious rejection of materialism and secularism and an unconscious return to the biblical narrative where the hero destroys the idols of Baal etc. and kills their followers. One of my favorite stories from the OT is Elijah taking on the blood-priests of Baal. It reads like an S&S novella.

    While the authors of the S&S stories that inspired D&D did not “mess with the gods,” as you put it, there is a nihilistic hopelessness that permeates the genre. They expose all that is left when we do kill God: violence, fear, madness, and death.

    1. Very interesting Padre. I indeed plan on discussing Supplement IV in my follow-up. The second part: huh.

      It’s an interesting interpretation. So (assuming I’m reading this correctly), there is an unconscious desire (by fiction writers as well as gamers) to return to the deeper spirituality our society had before the Age of Enlightenment?

      That seems...well, a bit of a stretch. An opposing view might say that it stems from our rebellion against the (perceived) “chains” of religious institutions and ideals and our subconscious desire to smash the divine in whatever form it happens to take (in fiction or gaming). Murder as a surrogate for iconoclasm.

      But I don’t think it’s that either. And, as I said, I think quite a bit of S&S fiction (other than Leiber, Lovecraft, and Moorcock) is quite on the same page as monotheism, if not Christianity. Kane himself appears to be the Biblical Caine, world weary after centuries of cursed immortality.

      But I do think that a lot of fiction since the advent of D&D has borrowed heavily from the tropes of the game.

    2. That seems...well, a bit of a stretch.

      I did say my point was complicated ;)

      This deserves a much longer conversation, but the crux of my argument is that reality as we know it and experience it — including science, language, logic, reason, etc. — cannot be real without the existence of the Trinitarian God of the early Christian Church. Once we move away from that foundational principle, it becomes impossible to justify reality as it is. Life as we know it cannot be possible if materialism if real.

      Thus, at a very instinctual level, human beings know that God is real — we are made in His image and likeness, after all. Since we live in a culture that is steeped within the Christian story, we are quite aware of the dangers of idolizing ,material things. We know it is wrong to make gods out of the created order. It makes sense that our mythological stories (a space within which D&D exists) would reflect this. Thus, we kill our gods — we unconsciously acknowledge the world as it is and destroy our idols as did the prophets (heroes) of old.

    3. As I said: interesting.
      ; )

      Thanks for the clarification, Padre. Good to hear from you and I definitely appreciate your perspective.

    4. Oof. I don't want to get into an argument about this here, and JB, I recognize that your perspective is probably a great deal closer to Fr. Dave's than it is to mine. But I'm not sure I can let everything being said here go unchallenged.

      >Life as we know it cannot be possible if materialism if real.

      Eppur si muove. Or, to be less glib about it, that's a whopper of an assertion — one best met with Hitchens' razor: "What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence."

      For all we know, Stephen Hawking could be right. The universe could very well be the proverbial "ultimate free lunch".

    5. Unfortunately, I cannot comment on Hawking’s theory either (not familiar with the context there).

    6. It's not a theory at all. Just a bit of speculation that the reason for the existence of the universe could plausibly be "no reason."

      When you can't observe "outside" the universe or "before" time, one speculation is as plausible as another.

    7. John,

      If materialism is true, the only thing we can know is empirical data — that information we can get through our senses. That is it. Language, logic, reason, and interpretive frameworks are all non-material realities that are not perceived empirically. To boot, our senses lie to us all the time. So, not only could we not reason, use logic, numbers, language or science, we would never be able to know truth. In fact, materialism can't really demonstrate any knowledge at all.

      Or to put it more simply, all the stuff we use to argue for materialism is non-material. We cannot prove materialism using only the things materialism can grant.

    8. *sigh* Well, JB, this is your house. Do you mind if I reply, or would you rather I didn't?

    9. John & JB: So this doesn't hijack JB's post, here is a space where people can play whack-a-mole with the Christian:

    10. @ Fr. Dave & John:

      Thank you both for being so considerate and respectful (of myself and of each other). I truly appreciate it.
      : )

  2. Lots of mythologies have gods that die as a reflection of some natural cycle, or as a supreme sacrifice of creation. Ymir. Osiris. Tiamat. Baldr. Countless more.

    Mortals going into battle directly with gods has at least one major classical antecedent in the Trojan War, where the gods cannot be killed per se, but they can be wounded, feel pain, need to retreat from battle, etc. Norse and Celtic gods are also vulnerable enough that they can lose body parts (Odin's eye, Nuada's arm). …And I supposed it would be best not to bring up Chronos and Uranos.

    But if we're going to look at god-slaying through the lens of modern gaming and the fantasy and sci-fi genres that developed out of the pulps, I think it's important to note that heroes in these stories are usually slaying false gods, horrible monsters, demonic entities, Sufficiently Advanced Aliens™, and the like.

    John Carter and Issus. The archetypical Conan and Lovecraft stories you mentioned. Star Trek ("Who Mourns for Adonais?"). All of Stargate. The Ghostbusters vs. Gozer. Zargon in module B4. These are all stories of steel or science triumphing over the charlatanism of a false god (or a godlike entity of real power that nevertheless does not morally deserve worship).

    That said, the impulse for D&D characters to fight and kill actual gods probably comes from nothing more than the brute fact of scaling power levels. Once you kill weak monsters, you move on to killing strong monsters. And once you've climbed the ladder of strong monsters, what's next? What's stronger than the strongest monsters? Well, gods. One can think it silly or gauche (and the designers of D&D certainly thought so and said as much!), but it IS logical.

    I am, however, still trying to piece together why it is that final bosses in JRPGs are so often rife with Christian Deific or archangelic imagery. Probably just a culture clash, that one…

    1. What is a “JRPG?” I am not familiar with that term.

    2. Japanese console RPGs. Final Fantasy &al.

    3. Suspect J equals Japan. Final Fantasy et al.

    4. Japan's defeat during WW2 caused a widespread cultural shift towards the western cultural model(partially enforced). Given the clear influence of DnD and western mythology on early JRPGs (produced for the western market), it is possible the destruction of pseudo-supreme beings at the end of said games, which are usually some sort of hero's journey is a japanese interpretation of western post-religious morality. Japan is always difficult to figure out. Outwardly they seem much more similar to westerners then they are.

    5. My possible explanation for Japanese deicide in RPGs is much simpler:

      Japanese culture does not GET monotheism.

      That is, they do not really understand the concept of one supreme being in the way a Christian would. But they get the mythic imagery of "Oh look, angels and judgments and laws from on high!" So whether it's "the Creator" or in the MegaTen games explicitly God, he's just a really cool antagonist from their perspective. It's not a commentary on Christianity, because Christianity never had critical mass in Japan to begin with.

      And after all, if God is not good, he makes a really awesome villain. What are you going to have as a bigger final boss than God?

  3. A spirited first entry! I will of course offer a comprehensive rebuttal once you have reached your conclusion but I must protest that I feel my initial viewpoint has been distorted somewhat.

    In my adventure Palace of Unquiet Repose (10 American Dollars) one does not fight any gods that are alive, though one does encounter the severed head of one that has survived the cataclysmic battle between them and the empire whose ruins you are exploring. One monster, and it is much too powerful to overcome without aid , is indeed the re-animated corpse of a deity, still imbued with some lingering divine essence.

    I opined, that characters 'tackling' with gods is par for the course in S&S literature, and this is true; Fafhrd & the Grey Mouser steal Death's Mask, Elric tackles with Baalo, Pyaray or Orunlu the keeper (among myriad others) and Conan encounters the Iron Gods, which could also be termed demons etc etc. There are others. Here some sort of definition of divinity is perhaps warranted.

    Regardless, this is shaping up to be quite the series of posts, I must congratulate you for picking up the gauntlet and I eagerly await your conclusion before giving my response.

  4. I blame TSR: Queen of the Demonweb Pits.

    Certainly Lloth was a minor goddess compared to others presented in Deities & Demigods, but she was there.

  5. Yeah I totally agree with you JB, killing gods on D&D doesn't really come from pulp fiction, and despite the classical mythology argument, I dont think it stems from that either. As John Higgins said I think it's the whole premise of the early game of killing monsters and DDG basically made them monsters. At least in the immortals set they were unkillable for all practicle purposes(besides the fact that it could be debated whether they were gods because no mention of earthly worship was mentioned): they were pretty much immune to all mortal attacks, could cast any spell at will,had numerous other powers and even if you did 'kill' an immortal it was just an avatar and the immortal was still alive on its home plane or had other avatars. and good luck killing an immortal on their home plane!

  6. Secular point of view has not lead to paganism. Neitzsche said god was dead because he laid out the historical changes to the idea of god and said we must be making it up. Giving gods HP made them monsters to fight. Lloth being a prime example.

    1. I've fought Lolth. It was a highlight of my AD&D gaming.

  7. Hey JB, have you read Asprin's shared novels Thieves World? There's a very similar vein of gods-killing in it. I think it has to do with the shared world thing. A weird tendency of shared novels, and D&D is akin to that, is to spiral out of control like you describe.

    1. I owned the first novel for many years, though I lost it some 2-3 decades ago (much to my chagrin) influenced much of my AD&D gaming in my youth. I may have read the 2nd (The Vulgar Unicorn) but never owned it.

      Despite some inconsistencies with a shared world like TW, I think it is still more coherent (and, for me, interesting) than Asprin's other, more famous novels, which D&D tends to emulate.
      ; )

      I thought of mentioning TW and its "Flying Knives" in this post but, in the end, it would just be yet another example of a 'not-god-fight' in S&S literature (and to be honest, TW is really post-D&D literature and heavily influenced by D&D). I also understand that there may be a godlike major character or two in the later TW novels (??) but, as I said, I haven't read them, I've only read OF them.