Monday, June 20, 2011

Tell me all your thoughts on God...

I am currently on a business trip on the opposite side of the country from my home. I had a few drinks with my boss tonight and am now lying in my hotel room musing on the metaphysical. However, I am not pondering any philosophies of consequence, but rather am mulling over how dissatisfying I find the pantheon used in D&D. It's the beers talking! Leave me alone!

Nooo! They be stealin' mah bukkit!
Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 uses a set of deities known as the Greyhawk Pantheon. The world of Greyhawk has been the default setting for the D&D universe since the early days, and so its gods have been adopted as the default D&D gods.

The gods in the Greyhawk Pantheon are divided up into their particular areas of expertise, much as the ancient Greek or Egyptian gods were. There are gods of death, magic, nature and war. The trouble is that, while the ancient pantheons of the real world depict their gods as precocious, mercurial and generally dangerous to piss off, the gods in D&D have all been assigned alignments. (e.g. Heironeous, the god of chivalry is considered lawful-good, while Erythnuul, god of slaughter is chaotic evil.) This clear demarkation of deific morality poses a problem for DMs like myself who wish to create a more nuanced world in which heroes do not all wear white hats and villains do not always twirl mustaches or have names like Skeletor, or Baddie McKillstuff.

If, as the D&D rules suggest, deities favor those characters who uphold their ideals and withold favors from those who deny them, there is little room left for religious or moral dilemmas -a major driving factor in a lot of real world conflict! Why would anyone willingly follow the lawful evil god of tyranny, for example, if it is blatantly apparent he is an evil being. The devil does not show up with horns and a goatee. He is seductive and does not reveal his true nature until it is too late. Furthermore, the D&D rules state that clerical characters lose the ability to cast spells if they perform deeds that go against their deity's alignment. Taken at face value, this makes it very difficult to justify factionalism and intra-religious conflict in the game. Whichever side loses their powers is obviously in the wrong!

I have run into this challenge in my game. I have tried to establish a good vs. good civil war within a devoutly Heironean (god of chivalry and martial valor) country. In my scenerio, a new king has divided the country by denouncing his brother and ordering all to swear fealty to him alone. The trouble is, his brother ran a major branch of the military, forcing his soldiers to choose between loyalty to their commander and loyalty to their king. Now, if I followed the strict interpretation of the D&D rules, those who made the "wrong" choice would immediately lose the ability to cast divinely linked spells.

I feel that the trick to overcoming the black and white nature of D&D's moral spectrum is to take the alignment with a grain of salt and favor the deity's area of focus instead. For instance, Heironeous cares about loyalty and chivalry. Now, if two conflicting loyalties arise (king vs. commander), he may not necessarily show favor to one side or the other, especially if the side favoring the commander feel the King is illegitimate or overstepping his bounds.

I have been pondering other ways to add some enticing gray areas into the religious landscape of my game and have come up with a few other examples that may help make the minds of the gods less knowable.

  • Pelor (neutral good sun god) - A sect of his followers, obsessed with purity, launch an inquisition style campaign to purge the darkness from society.
  • Hextor (lawful evil god of tyrrany) - in the chaotic aftermath of a great disaster, his clerics establish a new authoritarian order, stabilizing society but at the cost of certain freedoms.
  • Ehlonna (neutral good god of nature) - a sect of this goddess of the woodlands begins razing woodcutters' villages in the name of preserving the forests.
  • Vecna (neutral evil god of secrets) - during a time of war, and underground resistance finds comfort and power from this god who helps them clandestinely struggle against their oppressors.

Thinking of these otherwise knowable deities in such a way, helps to increase the mystery of their mindset and opens up a number of conflict seeds that are absent under a strict interpretation of the D&D rules governing divine classes.
Dear Lord, please save me from your followers...


  1. I have no comment on the pantheon of gods other than to say I think it's a good idea to make their minds more unknowable, if that makes sense. Making them more fickle would add conflict, because their reactions to things would be more unpredictable.

    I can't believe the depth of this world you play in.

  2. D&D has always struggled with the fact that the gods and their religions are designed with the PCs in mind, first and foremost. So, their portfolios tend to separate along lines of supporting certain archetypes. Their temples tend to organize in such a way as to provide easy healing for cash, dispense quest cookies and divination hints, and allow individuals capable of performing miracles to wander off into the dangerous countryside looking for thrills. And, their ethos tends to break down into easily codified nuggets so that players and DMs don't have to think too hard about moral dilemmas.

    That all works fine for about 80% of campaigns. The problem comes when you want to use religion as a touchstone for either a more nuanced or more historical campaign. You can't really just add nuance to the system. Lots of things just won't make sense (as you outlined here).

    My solution has always been to just create my own pantheons. But, I'm wacky like that. I create pantheons for fun in the way other people roll up characters.


Follow by Email