Thursday, October 8, 2009

Apotheosis

In my Dwimmermount game, though there are many gods, only three have played much of a role in the campaign to date: Tyche, Typhon, and the mysterious Turms Termax. Of the three, the worship of Turms is unusual in the present day, because it is closely associated with the end of the Thulian empire. The Thulians, you may recall, are the Roman-equivalents of the Dwimmermount campaign world, but they began their historical role as northern barbarians who overthrew the Eldritch empire that preceded their own.

In the early days of their rule, they were highly suspicious of non-divine magic and its practice was highly regulated (which is the origin of the magic-user class's level titles). Given the misuse to which the Eld had put magic, there were few complaints and the Thulians ruled justly, if occasionally brutally, for several centuries. It was into this environment that an enigmatic wizard named Turms first appeared. Along with his female companion Sarana, he traveled the empire, seeking out forbidden magical knowledge and teaching that such knowledge allowed Men to reach their full potential as the true gods of the cosmos. A cult soon grew up around him, one which encouraged the use of magic and alchemy as a means to divinization and denouncing the gods of the empire as false.

Unsurprisingly, the Thulians didn't take kindly to this and persecuted the followers of Turms, eventually capturing and torturing him until, according to legend, he ascended into godhood before their very eyes. True or not, there's no question that the Thulian official attitude toward the cult changed. Termaxians (as his followers became known) were able to practice their faith openly and the restrictions on magic were lifted. Within a generation, the Thulian empire came to depend heavily on both magic and Termaxians, as it spread farther across the continent and tightened its grip over its subjects. Over time, the empire started to treat other religions as it had once treated the followers of Turms. Only those faiths who acknowledged their gods as aspects of Turms Termax were allowed to operate unrestricted. Those who resisted were ruthlessly quashed.

Resentment against the Turms-worshiping Thulians grew, especially as they grew ever more tyrannical. Rebellions across the empire eventually tore it asunder and the Thulians -- and Termaxians -- were cast down, to be replaced a welter of new, localized powers. In most regions, Termaxianism was outlawed once again and the common folk speak in hushed tones about its supposedly sinister "secret" doctrines. Even those with an inkling of the truth nevertheless show little affection for Turms and his faith has dwindled into comparative obscurity, except among magic-users.

Turms Termax is one of the "great mysteries" of the Dwimmermount campaign. I created the god to be a useful MacGuffin in both the megadungeon and other adventures. As you can see, he's an amalgam of Hermes Trismegistus, Simon Magus, and certain of the Roman emperors. He gave me a good way to introduce secret societies into the campaign (like the Argent Twilight), employ alchemical symbolism (like azoth), and open up the question about who and what they gods really are. So far Turms has proven very successful in these goals and he's one of my favorite recent creations, since he gives me an excuse to indulge in esoteric whimsies of various sorts. And finally, it's nice to be able to use a mystery cult in D&D rather than the peculiar kind of ahistorical polytheism that most gaming tends to present.

21 comments:

  1. James, have you revised your level lists for magic users, or are you still using the one you linked to? (I know the fighting levels were giving you fits.)

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  2. I've revised them slightly. I'll probably post the newer lists sometime soon, along with those for other classes.

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  3. Can you elaborate on the "ahistorical polytheism" you mention? You mean in a medieval setting, or something else?

    I'm also wondering if you could elaborate on the "mystery cult" idea (without spoiling something for your campaign, of course). Are these truly mystery cults in the sense of those of Mithras and the Eleusinian Mysteries, or more in the vein of "mysterious cults"?

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  4. really nicely considered, as usual (an I love the fact that you mention Simon Magus, which was exactly what I was thinking reading it).

    So now I want to know if Turms ever said anything about the ethics of magic use or if he said "here, use: go fulfill your destiny." I know you hate this road, but I kinda want a supplement...

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  5. Very nicely done.

    I have to admit I get very tired of the faux pantheonism that isn't a pantheon. Yes, certain cities/professions would have their patron deities that they would invoke them specially, but that doesn't meant that they would actually ignore the rest of the deities in doing so.*

    And the opposed gods cosmology of standard AD&D (where the gods are icons of the alignment) never really sat well with me. It makes very little cultural sense. Probably one of the reasons I was a fan of early Runequest – Cults of Prax was a real eye opener on how this thing could be done properly.

    [* Although I will admit I've been in a number of campaigns with Sumerian style city states that each worship a separate patron deity. Something which does combine monotheism with multiple gods very well.]

    Besides, monotheisms can be very fun, as there is a great environment for heterodoxies and heresies to spring up.

    Someone recently pointed out to me that the current popular approach in fiction is to have large churches (eg the Catholic) to be hotbeds of hidden evil conspiracies. On pondering this I realised that all my hidden large church conspiracies were actually forces for good. I suppose things start to get that way if you play too much Call of Cthulhu.

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  6. I suppose that depends on how you define "good", Pavane. ;-)

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  7. Very nice. I think that you have a dollop of Jesus in there too.

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  8. I like mystery cults, I've done this a bit with Lord Ksarul (from Barker) in my main campaign world. The Doomed Prince of the Blue Room has a lot of potential. Turms Termax is very cool too, though. :)

    "You can raise the dead? So what, I can FLY!!" >:)

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  9. Until I reached the end of post I had assumed the inspiration was Jesus / Formation of christianity.

    Some dude travels around, preaching a new message. A clut grows up around him. Thulians(Romans) "persecuted the followers of Turms, eventually capturing and torturing him until, according to legend, he ascended into godhood before their very eyes." Roman change to christianity, then persecution of of other religions, then fall of empire "to be replaced a welter of new, localized powers."

    Interesting how myths follow the same patterns / story of one able to be interpreted as another. Maybe something behind that monomyth thing.

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  10. Great job on the Thulian theology. I think that the biggest problem with AD&D deities is that deities and dei-gods in D&D ARE NOT finite and mortal. You can fight them. At the same time you have Elves, who live to 1000 years and Liches who can live to 1000's, hence the line between mortal and immortal is erased.

    I think that the definining charateristic of the divine is UNKNOWABLE and INFINITE. This can be easily grasped with Monetheism, but what about panthenon with lesser deities? Each panthenon is different and goes much deeper than the stats in deities and demigods. For instance, the Norse Gods, each God represented an aspect or a type of a warrior's personality, and served as a role model for the Norse warriors to look up to and base their lives on. Loki was a young warrior into death and destruction, Thor wss a more mature, but a young man also, you miht call him macho in today's terms, there was a god who was symbolic of a warrior in his 30's who lost a limb, Odin was the ultimate Norse warrior, an older man, who was a warrior, a poet, a rogue and a wise leader of his people. Aniother way to look at deities is as on personification of natural forces. Poseidon might be a God of the Ocean, he IS the Ocean, but He is so much more than just a bearded humanoid figure with a trident - Poseidon knows all there is to know about the Ocean - the marine bioogy, the hydrodynamics of the water, the ecology, Poseidon is infinite in his specialized knowledge of the ocean. A simple Dryad would have more in common with the divine than with human and with the mortal. A ryad only has ONE Tree, but she knows everyting about every cell, every bug in that tree, her knowedge of tree is infinite. It is just as infinite as the knowledge and power of the Christian God, who cerated the entire universe. The limiting factor on the Dryad's influence in the world of men is that her universe is but a tree in out universe, just as our universe, infinite it though may be, may be just a speck of dust in some other universe. My favorite AD&D deity of all is the Cat Lord, God of Felines. It xan appear as a human, a high level thief or a warrior, but it it only truly interested in the affaiers of common cats running in the street.

    It might be unrealistic and unnatural to say that deities and emigods can not engage player characters in combat (except spiritual), except through the mortal hands of their believers and followers, but I think that it is a lesser evil, to keep the divine as unknown, unknowable, infinite amd MYSTERIOUS, than to treat it as a D&D rules do, as another mini on the wargame table.

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  11. unrealistic and unnatural
    ? I genuinely don't know what you mean here. Perhaps it breaks your suspension of disbelief?

    I think that it is a lesser evil, to keep the divine as unknown, unknowable, infinite and MYSTERIOUS
    I agree with your aesthetics here, but.
    I'm trying to wrap my head around Pokemon right now, where you're told that some of the creatures (corporeal spirits? Kami?) you meet are gods - and not godlings, but creators of time, space, the world, stuff like that... yet you can still fight them and catch them in mass-produced plastic balls for repeated use as pet fighting cocks. There's something deliciously bizarre about it: it's like the flipside of Lovecraftian horror; where HPL still preserves the numinous, albeit in atheist drag, Pokemon is littered with enslaveable gods, which are still presented as objects of worship.

    My head asplode. Which doesn't happen often enough in RPGs.

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  12. Joseph,

    Termaxianism was (and is) a genuine mystery religion. Participation in its rituals was restricted to initiated members and there was no public cult of Turms. Instead, the other existing religions were used as exoteric vehicles for its teachings, which tended toward the thelemic in nature.

    My "ahistorical" comment was twofold. Firstly, I always found the quasi-medieval society of D&D a poor fit for the kind of religion we see in most fantasy settings. Likewise, such religion is rarely pantheonic, tending more toward a kind of weird henotheism.

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  13. I know you hate this road, but I kinda want a supplement...

    I have some back burner ideas along these lines, but it'll be a while before they see the light of day, if ever.

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  14. I think that you have a dollop of Jesus in there too.

    Almost certainly. The cult of Turms is heavily inspired by the religious ferment is the 1st-3rd centuries A.D., particularly Gnostic and other esoteric faiths, many of whom borrowed from or influenced Christianity. The faith of Turms is a very thelemic one, though, so most of its similarities to Christianity are superficial.

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  15. Funny how henotheism keeps coming up around me over the last week or so in a variety of contexts, all of which are completely unrelated.

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  16. a kind of weird henotheism.
    I kind of like that, actually, but maybe because what I really want to see - what I think fits D&D best - is a mythical India supplement based off the Mahabharata or, better yet, off the TV series Mahabharat.
    If only it were more widely known, I could see it providing exactly the right inexplicably gonzo-yet-perfectly-natural kind of vibe. Also the special powers of the characters provide the missing link between ancient high magic and video game powerup that I think just might blow Brooze's mind (I mean this with the utmost respect and friendship).

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  17. The faith of Turms is a very thelemic one, though, so most of its similarities to Christianity are superficial.

    Yeah, I meant it in the same way as Norman Harman. None of the other Mystery Cults or Gnostic sects ever won over the Empire and then began to persecute others.

    @Richard--I've been waiting for someone to do a Mahabharata-type setting forever. I'm constantly tempted to do it myself, but lacking any knowledge of the language and getting all my info second-hand, I don't feel up to the job. I know that there must be gamers of Indian-origin or Indologists out there who could do this. If Phil Barker could write Tekumel, someone could write Arjuna: the RPG.

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  18. Correct me if I'm wrong, but these religious-history posts look like a case of grad school well spent? :)

    (Captcha: 'BIONSWIN,' the nanotech division of Microsoft.)

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  19. I think that Mahabharata setting would be perfect for D&D. Just as Tibetan Nine Hells and the Book of the Dead would make for a great Dungeon adventure! (Just think, you get a module that kicks in
    after the player characters die!!!!)

    Richard, I now nothing about Pokemon, but frojm what you have written, it segues consistently with the traditonal animism and notions of Kami.

    BTW, somewhere Gary Gygax picked up on the Mahabharata notion of Indra's Web, but in his ignorance (dare I say?) he only was able to adopt it as Lloth, the spider queen on the Drow. A mediocre literal translation at best. Considering what the Indra's web is: There is a God/dess named Indra. And it catches the souls of the reincarnating dead. There is a drop of dew hanging at each place where the strands of the web intersect, and that drop is reflecting brilliant sunlight. Anybody traveling through that web see a reflection of themselves in every drop reflected in every other drop in the infinite variety of ways. Those that can't see past themselves get trapped in the web and they are doomed to wander eternally among their own reflections...

    Nice, eh? And think of some wonderful role-playing encounters that the Tibetan Titular Deities will make. Too bad that Gygax took the world's fanatstic creatures, turned them into monsters, reducing them to sets of combat related statisstics and omitting the mystical, spiritual and philosophical significnce that the eraturs had in their native folklore.

    Ahhh... Gygax... send him through the Web!!!

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