Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Dwimmermount and the Gods

One of the things I decided early on about my Dwimmermount campaign was that the actual existence or non-existence of the gods would be a matter of debate, even within the setting. The mere existence of clerics offers no help on this score, since clerics are just magic-users by another name. The traditional OD&D spell list is likewise of no assistance, since commune, contact other plane, and even speak with dead are all sufficiently vague in their effects as to raise almost as many questions as they answer. Certainly none make it clear that there are gods, only that there are intelligent entities beyond the mortal realm in which the player characters operate.

Indeed, in the world of Dwimmermount, demons, who are exemplars of Chaos, boast that humanity's hope in the gods -- and humanity's alone, for no other race worships gods -- is utterly misplaced, for there are no gods. Of course, demons have a vested interest in convincing humans to abandon their faith in the gods, so many, if not most, assume them to be lying. Of course, the demons' insistence on this point is troubling, since there really aren't any other examples of "extra-planar" entities to contradict them. I have no angels or devils in my campaign world and elementals care nothing for the affairs of men. Consequently, there's no easy way for anyone to confirm or deny the existence of the gods.

That doesn't prevent there being religions, of course. To date, three religions have played roles in the campaign. The first is that of Tyche, or Lady Luck (or even The Lady), as she is known. Her faith honors boldness of action and the acceptance of the reality that one can do all the "right" things in life and still suffer in spite of -- or even because of -- it all. There are no stories of Tyche ever walking the earth or doing great deeds on behalf of men. It's quite possible that "she" is nothing more than a personification of a philosophy about the nature of fate, free will, and destiny. Turms Termax was once a mortal man, or so the legends say. There are many stories of his former existence, including relics and sites associated with them, but since his apotheosis, he has not seen fit to return to the world in any form. Typhon, the Lawful (Evil) god of rulership, order, and civilization is much like Tyche: devoid of any stories of his actions on earth. His priests are among the foremost defenders of civilization against the depredations of Chaos and it's possible "Typhon" is just a focus for the devotion rather than an actually existent being.

Or not. The point is that I've made a concerted effort to ensure there is some mystery about the nature of the nature and existence of the gods. I think this lends a stronger swords-and-sorcery feel to the setting and it gives me lots more scope to describe a world in which "faith" is religion bears some resemblance to its real world counterpart. Likewise, by muddying the waters about the gods, it makes the nature of alignment much clearer: it's a statement of what and for whom one fights rather than being a shorthand for one's personality traits and moral philosophy. So far this arrangement has served me well and I look forward to seeing where it takes the campaign in the future.

27 comments:

  1. On a metagame level, I'd really be confused by the ability to turn the undead. Is it faith in the gods, or is there some innate power that only those who become clerics have?

    I'd turn that screw every once in a while and let them wonder over it.

    ReplyDelete
  2. since clerics are just magic-users by another name<

    Well, yeah, if you are not really into role-playing then that is about right. Come at it with a little soul and heart (God bless you Mr. Arneson) and put the cleric in the hands of a creative player and you just might start to see the difference.

    Over the years I tend to go back and forth with God-use. Sometimes it's like Lankhmar with Gods or Godlike beings strolling down temple row, sometimes the Gods are just very quiet and rarly answer major calls for intervention. I think it is really a matter of what suits my campaign.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I have been working on something very similar to this in my own campaign. I have never been a fan of the "Gods walk the earth" kind of campaign, so when I was designing a new pantheon of gods I left it ambiguous as to if they even existed. A heretical sect of the main church (the Universal God heresy) maintains that the only "god" is the universe itself, and all magic using beings tap into its power. They argue that clerics who maintain that a god is granting them their power are merely mistaking the source of their magic - the Universal God heretics point to magic users and creatures with magical abilities that do not worship any god as proof of their theories. The founder of the heretical sect eventually achieved the ability to cast both clerical and magic user spells through meditation and controlled movements, tapping into the universal power within and without himself. So far I have kept this heretical sect a strictly NPC class that can draw from both spell lists, and of course the church proper has been trying to stamp out this heresy for generations.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Does no one else use Christianity, or some ersatz take on Jesus H. Christ? Sure, if you're running a straight Greek or Egyptian antiquity campaign there's no need to dance around the issue, but if you have vampires, crucifixes, crusades, demons, the inquisition (a personal favorite bad guy), etc. it takes a lot less mental neck-twisting to simply have a version of the Church in the world. Plus, Latin always sounds cool.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Brunomac —

    IIRC, clerics in the Dwimmermount game specifically are just magic-users; they just use wisdom/holistic methods to channel the energy which wizards use intelligence/manipulation to channel.

    ReplyDelete
  6. @crazyred

    You know I haven't yet. While it would certainly make justifications for certain events easier. I enjoy the Greek model of a pantheon that is united as the representations of nature or humanity, but possibly divided on a more personal level.

    ReplyDelete
  7. In the Urutsk setting, there is a Creator God who is worshipped in different forms by various ethnicities (and species), but essentially, He does Whatsoever He Will and generally helps those He is wont to without displaying much 'concern' with the rest. Shr.d is the God of a specific people (the Durn), and has manifest His jealous love of them and their homeland, although He does not turn away others of humble heart.

    Likewise, there are 'wandering minds' or spirits of powerful extra-dimensional creatures (demons) that have been denied entrance into the Mundane, but can be summoned and provided a living shelter in which to dwell. Those bodies, over time, distort and weirden causing their powers to take on material manifestation (pincers, cloven hooves, etc.)

    Then there are a variety of Saints who are little more than legendary individuals who are claimed by those of similar vocation, etc. but who do not (normally) interact with the reverent.

    So, there are plenty of priests and priestesses, but only a smattering of things to answer the call, and usually for a rather hefty price.

    Mechanically speaking, different casters are able to utilise certain lists, but 'spells' per se are all 'states of mind', whereas Miracles come from the source without always needing to be prompted by the faithful.

    ReplyDelete
  8. "...if you have vampires, crucifixes, crusades, demons, the inquisition (a personal favorite bad guy), etc. it takes a lot less mental neck-twisting to simply have a version of the Church in the world."

    You're totally correct*, but the problem then is that the Christian Church radically violates a lot of the assumptions for pulp-like adventure settings. Which is the #1 problem with the cleric class in the first place.

    (* Except maybe about the vampires. Lots of different cultures have vampire-like creatures.)

    ReplyDelete
  9. James, to me a D&D Cleric is not magic user by another name, but a social worker by naother name and religion is the (machine) politics of the D&D world. Consider - Gods grant favors to their devoted worshipeers as did the Chicago and New York machine politicians, ward and precinct Captains delivered these favors to the masses in excange for the all important vote. In our world the medium of favor was jobs and social services, in the D&D world, the medium would be healing and preservation of crops and good weather (as Gary Gygax once stipulated).

    Of course, this brings in the question, if the various D&D religions and the political parties and political machines of their universe, does that put them at odds with the Kings and Queens and the Nobility, in whioch case the public serving priests would assume the role of the democrats, socialists and communists. Of course, a ***mere*** King is of no mortal challenge to Zeus, Demeter or some other ageless and timeless and immortal deity, WHAT CONTEST COULD THERE BE? What will keep the Kings and the Nobleman in power? Maybe different Gids opposing the Good? All nobility evil? Nobles forced to play their own realpolitik to stay in power?

    ReplyDelete
  10. clerics in the Dwimmermount game specifically are just magic-users; they just use wisdom/holistic methods to channel the energy which wizards use intelligence/manipulation to channel<

    Oh, I didn't know James had made those changes in the game yet. Personally, I like the different spells for the two very different character types. In my campaigns anyway, clerics and MU's get played in very different ways ,probably as dictated by spell availablity, but that is what the particular player might want. I don't think a player has ever told me "I wish my cleric could cast a lightning bolt.

    Shit, I just love clerics and wizards being very different animals, and I think my players usually do too.

    >Except maybe about the vampires. Lots of different cultures have vampire-like creatures<

    Uh, yeah - lots of cultures also had holy symbols (not crucifix's but same difference), demons, crusades...

    ReplyDelete
  11. @ Brooze
    - well for starters, kings and queens and the nobility, both historically and in most D&D settings and homebrewed campaigns that I am aware of, support and are supported by one or another of the religions so I don't see a conflict between church and state. I think it would require the modern notion of seperation of church and state for there to be the kind of conflict that you are getting at.

    ReplyDelete
  12. @ brunomac
    Oh, I didn't know James had made those changes in the game yet. Personally, I like the different spells for the two very different character types You should click on the link in James original post about clerics being magic users. They still have different spell lists (and even clerical abilities like turning undead), but the source of the clerical powers is not a god granting the power, but rather the cleric using his or her wisdom to manipulate the magical energies of the universe.

    ReplyDelete
  13. but rather the cleric using his or her wisdom to manipulate the magical energies of the universe<

    I can dig it. In various famous fantasy worlds, such as Conan's, that works just fine. In world's like Elric's or in Lankhmar, where Gods are all over the place (fairly powerful ones, not those minor demon-Gods of Conan), clerics may need to be envisioned as getting their powers directly from a God (although I guess Elric did not seem very "clerical" to me).

    Everybody does their own God-bit in their pesonal worlds, and that is a good thing. My current game world is the same as when I came up with it as a kid, and in those early days I designed the major cities temple row based on Gods my earliest players came up with for their clerics. Most (all) of those player of yore have moved on, but their Gods and temples remain in my world. In my case, with so much established history, I personally don't have much choice but to continue on with the cleric-God relationship.

    I guess being raised Catholic (by Europeans, no less) had a lot to do with the importance of clerics and Gods in my world.

    ReplyDelete
  14. I like it. Do let us know if one of your PC clerics ever finds out for sure. How would you handle an "atheist" cleric, then, in the Dwimmermount campaign (someone who is a cleric but either starts out as an unbeliever or arrives at this conclusion later, somehow)? Presumably this would be possible, and they'd keep their spells.

    ReplyDelete
  15. This demonstrates the beauty, strength and flexibility of OD&D and its emulators. With very little effort, Delta, James and I all get to interpret the rules and use Clerics in the way we want to use them. Delta gets rid of them entirely, James makes them into magic-users, and I use them as fantasy versions of the Christian Church. Despite these radical differences, none of us are wrong.

    ReplyDelete
  16. crazyred, I've used a Christianity analgoue on a couple of occasions, although I don't know how much the players picked up on it. There's an element of it in WFRP also, with the Imperial Cult.

    ReplyDelete
  17. I like your cosmic setup. Its much like how I (and a number of other Conan fans I know) do things. I like worlds with ambiguous gods, and vary real demons! Moreover, I think divine intervention is really cheap! The Clerics in my games are just Magic-users with unique benefits and restrictions based on their Priestly duties.

    ReplyDelete
  18. Carl,
    Religion as an institution does not have the kind of power in the physical world the way a Church would have it in D&D - raising dead, preventing black death and starvation.

    In our world social institutions of Religion and Nobility have banded together, because each needed the other to exist. But why would an organisation of men in the AD&D world with Christ-like powers, military training and spell casting ability be willing to share power with Nobility? Even in our world consider the historical antagonisms between Vatican and the various Kings. Now consider the historic Vatican clergy being able to casts D&D Clerical spells. You don't think that the Pope would not use it to his advantage against the reticent Kings?

    ReplyDelete
  19. It's a long way from Appendix N, but Jorge Amado's War of the Saints does a lovely job of showing a (demi)goddess walking and acting among men while remaining ambiguous, being revered through statues that might or might not act as conduits to power etc etc etc.

    It's also a tiny window into Candomble, which I at least have found hugely useful in helping me think beyond my usual assumptions about religion.

    ReplyDelete
  20. Brooze -
    I am not sure I agree that church and state banded together because each needed the other to survive; while monarchies and nobility often justified their positions of power through claims of divine right, the church was not dependent on any monarch, nor did some monarchs hesitate to break from the church. While a D&D church would obviously be a powerful force, that seems to make it even less likely IMO that a ruler would attempt to struggle against it. It seems far more likely that any king or nobility in power would be a member of a church, not in opposition to it. If anything, the weaker the church, the more likely that a monarch would attempt to divorce his government from the church and rule on his or her own authority. As for why a church would want to "share" power with a monarch, most churchs have as their mandate the promulgation of their doctrine, and not necessarily to get bogged down with the details of ruling a nation. It would make more sense for the church to worry about spiritual matters, and for a monarch to be a member of the church and rule the country under the auspices of the religion.

    ReplyDelete
  21. All y'all should check out the good Friar Dave's blog:
    http://bloodofprokopius.blogspot.com/2009_04_01_archive.html

    Really good stuff on sin, God and the Law, and the role of Satan, and smelly gnolls. =)

    Has anyone read Agincourt? Cornwell uses Saints to great effect in his latest.

    ReplyDelete
  22. @richard
    It's also a tiny window into Candomble, which I at least have found hugely useful in helping me think beyond my usual assumptions about religion.I agree that trance possession religions truly open a whole new door as far as role playing opportunites. In my current campaign the "cleric" is an initiate into a religion that I based off of Yoruban trance-possesion by way of Santeria (very similar to Candomble). He started off knowing how to invoke a limited number of gods into his body through song and dance and has been slowly expanding his knowledge of the Orishas (gods, or really intermediary spirits that go between the high god Olorun or Olokun and humanity). He has to carve a ritual tapper and learn the song and dance of each god he wants to be able to become possessed by. Each affects his personality while the possesion lasts, grants some stat changes and special abilities, and gives access to a different limited set of spells. Instead of spells per day he has possessions per day, and the slightly greater power that a possession grants vs. a spell (because of the stat changes and special powers) is balanced by a chance of failure when invoking a diety and the greater time required to become possessed vs. simply casting a spell. This has worked really well for me and has also allowed me to put some magic user spells into play because they fit well with the domains of some of the orishas (there are no PC magic users in my campaign). I highly recommend people that are dissatisfied with the rules for priestly magic in D&D to research trance-possesion religions as an alternative model.

    ReplyDelete
  23. Kev, I'm ignorant, what's WFRP?

    ReplyDelete
  24. crazyred

    wfrp is warhammer (Warhammer Fantasy Role Play, I believe)

    ReplyDelete
  25. How would you handle an "atheist" cleric

    Since the gods have nothing to do with the functioning of clerical magic, whether the god one worships exists or not is ultimately irrelevant. And, as I said, it may well be that every cleric is effectively an atheist one, since no one can say for certain whether the gods truly exist.

    ReplyDelete
  26. James, I think you mean Agnostic, no? Even so, though, it would seem unlikely that they would all openly embrace/admit their lack of knowledge, as agnostics do. I’m sure some Clerics in your world would have faith, and others would pretend to have faith. And quite possibly some would be atheists.

    ”Fr Dave: This demonstrates the beauty, strength and flexibility of OD&D and its emulators. With very little effort, Delta, James and I all get to interpret the rules and use Clerics in the way we want to use them.”Not to say that it isn’t a feature of these games, but it’s hardly unique to them. IME games which are mechanically tied to an in-game cosmology are relatively rare. Almost every big fantasy game published in the last thirty years (GURPS, HERO, the later editions of D&D, etc) has the same virtue. There’s nothing within the system preventing you from doing the exact same thing.

    ReplyDelete
  27. I think you mean Agnostic, no?

    The setting itself is agnostic on the question of whether there are gods or not, since it's not a matter I care to delve into and which is beyond the scope of the campaign. As for the clerics themselves, most firmly believe in the existence of their patron deity (and possibly others as well), but they can offer no more proof for their belief than can anyone in the real world.

    ReplyDelete

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.