Friday, September 17, 2021

Random Roll: DMG, pp. 111-112

Toward the middle of the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide, there's a section entitled "Intervention by Deities" that has long fascinated me. In it, Gary Gygax addresses several questions pertaining to the action of gods in an Advanced Dungeons & Dragons campaign. He doesn't treat the topic at any length, but what he has to say is nevertheless provocative in places.

If the supernatural powers of the various Outer Planes could and would continually and constantly involve themselves in the affairs of the millions upon the Prime Material Plane, they would not only be so busy as to get neither rest nor relaxation, but these deities would be virtually handling their own affairs and confronting each other regularly and often.

This long opening sentence comes close, I think, to laying out Gygax's broad perspective on the gods and their activities: the gods, by and large, have better things to do than meddle in mortal affairs on a regular basis. This makes sense from a, shall we say, dramatic perspective, in that it ensures that mortal actions – such as those of the player characters – have their unique weight. This also makes sense from a logistical perspective, as he explains.

If an entreaty for aid is heard one time in 100, surely each and every deity in the multiverse would be as busy as switchboard operator during some sort of natural disaster. Even giving each deity a nominal number of servants able to supply aid to desperate adventurers, the situation would be frenzied at best. Add to this the effects of various spells – commune, contact other plane, gate – it is obvious that intervention by a deity is no trifling matter and it is not to be allowed on a whim, even if the characters are in extremis. 

There are a couple of things to note here. First, Gygax does not envision the gods of AD&D to be in any sense omnipotent, let alone omnipresent. Instead, they are limited beings, albeit extremely powerful ones, on par with, say, the deities of classical myth. Second, I think it's fair to surmise that Gygax's vision of the gods is at least partially grounded in his concern that the player characters deal with their own problems rather than looking to Heaven to aid them, this being the better basis for a game of heroic fantasy. That said, he is not entirely opposed to the idea of divine intervention.

This is not to dictate that deities will never come to characters. Serving some deity is an integral part of AD&D. 

That second sense is a remarkable one, particularly in light of occasional statements elsewhere that suggest or even outright state otherwise.

The mighty evil gods, demons, and devils are prone to appear when their name is spoken – provided they stand the possibility of gaining converts to their cause. The forces of good might send some powerful creature of like alignment to aid characters on a mission in their behalf. Certainly in the case of some contest between opposing deities all sorts of intervention will take place – but always so as not to cause the deities themselves to be forced into direct confrontation! 

The gods of AD&D prefer, it seems, to work at a distance and/or through intermediaries rather than directly. Again, this makes sense from a dramatic perspective, since it ensures that mortal actions are meaningful in their own right. Likewise, I might argue, this is in keeping with the traditions of pulp fantasy, where the gods, with some notable exceptions, rarely take center stage.

Otherwise, the accumulation of hit points and the ever-greater abilities and better saving throws represents the aid supplied by supernatural forces.

That's quite a statement! Yet, it's simply a reiteration of something Gygax has repeatedly maintained, namely, that the increase in a character's abilities, most especially his hit points and saving throws, represents, among other things, the favor of the gods. One might well quibble about this from a variety of points of view, but this is not a new statement by Gygax.

In most cases, therefore, you will have to determine the involvement of deities as you develop the scenario or series of scenarios of your campaign. (In my own Greyhawk Campaign there have been 9 demigods, 3 demon lords, and a handful of Norse and other gods involved in the course of many years of play. Once or twice there has been divine intervention – and twice the powers of the infernal region have at the mention of a certain name . . . .) 

I assume the 9 demigods mentioned are those imprisoned beneath Castle Greyhawk by the mad archmage Zagyg. More intriguing to me is the reference to "a handful of Norse and other gods." Did Gygax's campaign include the Norse pantheon before he created his own unique pantheons? In any case, Gygax then lays out a rough system for handling the likelihood of divine intervention.

Spur of the moment intervention can be handled as follows: If the character beseeching help has been exemplary in faithfulness, then allow a straight 10% chance that some creature will be sent to his or her aid if this is the first time the character has asked for help. If 00 is rolled, there is a percentage equal to the character's level of experience that the deity itself will come, and this chance is modified as follows:

Each previous intervention on behalf of the character                           –5%

Alignment behavior only medial                                                            –5%

Alignment behavior borderline                                                              –10% 

Direction confrontation with another deity required by the situation                                                                                                                                –10%

Character opposing forces of diametrically opposite alignment            +1%

Character serving deity proximately (through direct instruction or by means of some intermediary)                                                                     +25%

As you can see, Gygax clearly felt that, except in extraordinary cases, divine intervention, even of an indirect sort should be very rare indeed.

Note: Deities will not intervene on the planes which are the habitation of other deities, i.e., the Outer Planes. They will neither venture to involve themselves in the Positive and Negative Material Planes. Intervention in the Elemental Planes is subject to DM option, based upon the population he or she has placed there. (If there are elemental gods, the deities from the Outer Planes will NOT go there.) Intervention occurs only on the Prime Material, Astral, or Ethereal Planes in most cases. 

Whenever I read passages like this, I get wistful for the lost Gygaxian second edition of AD&D, which would surely have expanded upon his conception of the Planes. Judging from some of his later work, I think it certain that Gygax had begun to develop an elaborate understanding of the Planes, their inhabitants, and relationships to the mortal world, an understanding I would have liked to see. The Planes were, in my opinion, an underdeveloped aspect of AD&D and it's a pity Gygax was never able to present a fuller vision of them in print. 


  1. "If an entreaty for aid is heard one time in 100, surely each and every deity in the multiverse would be as busy as switchboard operator during some sort of natural disaster." This basically means that the most powerful deity in any D&D pantheon is Santa Claus, who visits every child and delivers presents in a single night averaging to about 300,000 per day!

    1. Sigh. As usual, his poor elves get none of the credit. It's always Santa that gets the thanks despite just being glorified delivery man, never a word for the actual workers in his polar sweatshop. Even the reindeer get more respect.

  2. I think I prefer Runequest (or specifically Glorantha) for this sort of thing. The entire setting is built around interactions with divinity and the myths they inhabit and worship is an integral part of the culture(s) the PCs are part of - or not part of, if they're outcast or isolated due to refusal to acknowledge the appropriate gods. It's a rare D&D campaign where the characters' religious beliefs are center stage throughout.

    For most other fantasy settings I prefer hands-off deities who have to work through servants and worshippers, usually clerics or their equivalent. 13th Age has a good take on that, if not a terribly original one. At some point in the past the gods agreed never to appear in person outside of their Overworld homes, thereby avoiding damage to the parts of the universe that can't just easily be willed back into shape if damaged by a godly tantrum. Their interventions are always through worshippers or more rarely Overworld servants, and their actual impact on the world is generally less than the various Icons, who are at least theoretically mortal beings (although many of them are more like eternally recurring roles played by various people, and the Lich King has been around since the First Age).

    1. Agreed on both points- If we are going to have a game with Religion/Faith as a meaningful part of the setting, then Runequest does a far better job than D&D ever could.

      And if we must play D&D and still have Religion/Faith as a meaningful part of the game then 13th Age has the best approach in a D&D game* towards Clerics and Deities for my tastes. My players seem to like it better as well- whether we are talking about The Priestess (and Gods of Light) , The Lich King, The Crusader, or The Diabolist, my players engage more with religion/faith in the world and the impact of faiths on the world when dealing with those ICONs.
      Pretty hilarious considering there are essentially no details about the Gods and no stereotypical D&D approach to Gods and Faith. By changing the entire approach, we get more investment.

      *official or otherwise

  3. heh, until I read Jeff Reints 20 questions, I always seemed to hand wave away religion questions, you know there are the norse gods, just pick one of them. Now I take it more seriously. Not a complete workout of a worldview complete with history, but more than just "yah sure, that'll do"

    and this post made me nostalgic, because, yah, right before the party wipe, we would suddenly develop Piety, and BESEECH! mostly it was to give the DM a chance to bail us out.

    I have never even seen it as an adult...

    1. Impending TPKs are great for one's faith. The old myth about there being no atheists in a foxhole springs to mind. :)

    2. exactly! altho, now that I think about it, we also ran no encumberance, so we DID take coppers, etc. And we just gave the cheap crap (copper pieces, maybe silver, small gems, etc to the local church to soften up their powers of restoration, etc

      and at least once, the on-the-ball GM had the small thing we gave them (a trinket) turn into the macguffin for a long quest....

  4. I wonder if those percentages are in some way connected to that elusive rule about the percentage chance of a Cleric not getting a spell. There is a magic item that increases the odds that a Cleric gets a spell approved by the deity, but I'll be if I can find any rule about what the base chance is in the first place. Could this be it?