Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Articles of Dragon: "Setting Saintly Standards"

"Setting Saintly Standards" from issue #79 (November 1983) exemplifies two of the worst aspects of D&D: a mania for quantifying everything combined with forgetfulness about the game's origins. Written by Scott Bennie, the article to provide a system "for defining sainthood [and] classifying the precise abilities or capabilities of a saint." Saints, Bennie notes, are mentioned several times in passing in the Dungeon Masters Guide (the Mace of St. Cuthbert being the most notable), but what saints are and what purpose they serve is never explained. Bennie is correct so far as he goes. What he forgets (or is unaware of) is that Gary Gygax provided some good evidence as to the nature of saints back in an issue of The Strategic Review where he talks about alignment. There, saints are exemplars of Lawful Goodness, just as devils are exemplars of Lawful Evilness and demons exemplars of Chaotic Evilness. While AD&D provided lots of information on devils and demons, saints get no similar treatment (neither do "godlings," but no one seems to care about them for some reason).

That's where "Setting Saintly Standards" steps in. Bennie proposes that saints are special servants of the gods who've achieved immortality and some measure of divine power. He makes them on par with Greyhawk's "quasi-deities" like Murlynd or Keoghtom, but explicitly tied to a specific deity, whom they serve and whose cause they promote. The article lays out their spell-like abilities and offers four examples of saints from his own campaign to give the referee some idea of how to create saints of his own. He likewise suggests that some saints -- "patron saints" -- may have shrines dedicated to them and, over time, achieve sufficient power to become demigods in their own right. Exactly what this means for relations between the saint, his followers, and the deity he ostensibly serves is never discussed.

I'm on record as intensely disliking the reduction of gods and semi-divine beings to game stats. It's not for nothing that I dislike both Gods, Demigods & Heroes and Deities & Demigods. One of D&D's worst failings is its reductionism, its voracious appetite to turn everything into either a monster to be killed or a piece of magical technology to be wielded. Saints, as Bennie imagines them, are just big monsters -- or little gods -- to be confronted rather than anything more sublime. Maybe I'd be less bothered by this if he'd have adopted another term for what he's presenting; I don't think the idea of fighting gods is necessarily out of bounds. For certain styles of fantasy, it's even highly appropriate. But saint has a very specific meaning and Gygax's mention of them is almost certainly tied up in the implicit Christianity of early gaming.

Late 1983, though, was a long distance away from 1974, though, and the culture of the hobby had changed. What to Gygax had seemed obvious was now in need of explication and not just explication but expansion. That's why Bennie broadens the use of the term "saint" to include the servants of any god, not just Lawful Good ones. Thus we have St. Kargoth, a fallen paladin, among the four examples he provides us. To say that the idea of an "anti-saint" or "dark saint" is bizarre to me is an understatement. Mind you, I find the idea of non-Lawful Good paladins similarly bizarre, so clearly I'm out of step with a lot of gamers, no that this is any surprise.


  1. I interpreted the reference to saints and godlings as Judeo-Christian style saints and Greco-Roman style demigods respectively, which seems to fit well with them being the Lawful and Chaotic Good counterparts to demons and devils. I think I even used a saint in play once. Or maybe that was a godling, who knows.

  2. The secondary definition of paladin is "a strong supporter or defender of a cause." Under that definition, any Lawful causes could potentially generate knightly orders and paladins. Outside of a gaming context, I view NS Germany as a Lawful Evil cause, with the Waffen-SS its "knightly order" and the "cream" of that crop would clearly qualify to be LE paladins.

  3. What gets me going through The Dragon back issues is how useless almost all of these additional classes/monsters/spells/etc were. The saint strikes me as simply one more. If anything, all it demonstrates to me is that many people wanted more flexibility in their game to introduce different types of characters, beyond the fighter/thief/wizard templates.

  4. Played in a quest that involved an ascent to godhood. Our mechanics were somewhat similar to the concept of "mega-damage" in Rifts. Once attaining divinity, it was understood that our character's abilities were "scaled up" by a factor of at least a million.
    This meant that while dealing with other divine entities, we had no need to modify the game mechanics and when dealing with non-divines we had what amounted to godlike powers.

  5. You can have fallen angels (satan), so why not fallen saints? Unless I'm misunderstanding the nature of them in this case.

    In the earliest days I loved to have gods be more involved in things, but I never had characters need to face off against them in combat. I never had characters get beyond 12th level or so in my games (always itching to do new campaigns with new characters) so they never got powerful enough to fight gods, outside of minor types that the likes of Conan or Fafherd and Mouster might face (I did not read Elric when I was very young otherwise I might have been more into the fighting of bigger dieties).

    But gods appearing before characters or sending agents or avatars was common in those wild and wooley early games. I even allowed last ditch divine interventions for all characters. Fall off a cliff to certain doom, and you could ask a god for help and have a very minor chance of help. I don't recall specifics, but it was something like level plus charisma or something on a percentile die. If he saves you, you now serve him (possibly changing your alignment).

    I have much less god involvement in my campaigns nowadays. But I have to say, I love going through the god books and looking at stats and such just for fun.

  6. I always thought that the main reason for Gods, Demi-Gods, and Heroes was simply to provide fodder for the Gate spell. [Maybe it was the large number of the descriptions that began "[Name of god] appears as a..."] Looked at in that way, the ability descriptions do make a certain sense, portraying not so much the god but an avatar of what the deity represents from the myths from which they are drawn. [In a similar way that the Gate spell could later be used to summon completely mythical heroes from the "Giants of the Earth" series in The Dragon.]

    On the other hand Deities and Demigods was much more of a monster manual for deities. They had a defined place where they could be encountered. They had worshippers and clerics and all the impediments of religion. A Gate spell could still summon them, but it summoned they from their home plane. They are deities, rather than creatures drawn from the myths that give them shape.

    So in OD&D you aren't actually summoning a god with the gate spell. You are summoning an "ultrapowerful" character from the mythic structure that contains the god. In AD&D on the other hand, you are summoning the god.

    Does that make sense?

  7. Two points:

    First, articles like the ones reference just highlight the absurdity of alignment systems. Francis of Assisi was a saint, no doubt, but in his lifetime he attacked the church for putting bureaucracy over salvation, refused to organize his followers and condemned nobles and nations as distractions from God. What alignment would he be? Likewise, Mother Theresa is on the fast-track for sainthood, but it is well known that her hospital deliberately refused pain medication because Theresa believed that pain and suffering were needed for redemption. How do you pigeon-hole someone who dedicates her life to helping the poor but allows suffering?

    Secondly, the articles show a poor understanding of sainthood in the early Christian church. Moving from a polytheistic tradition to monotheism was unsettling to people used to having city and household gods. So the church co-opted them. They created stories of great saint and martyrs and began giving them roles as intercessors. Saints were demi-gods, with specific portfolios and altars dedicated to them. So even in a setting with multiple deities, it would make sense for the gods to have a line of "customer service reps" to handle the lower-level prayers and requests for spells.

    Which is why I really liked the concept of clerical domains. The God of War could have War, Strength, Nobility, Glory, and Destruction as his Domains. A cleric would chose two of these. A cleric who chose War and Destruction would follow a very different cult than the cleric who chose Nobility and Glory.

  8. One thing I find amusing is the DDG introduction to the Indian Mythos, which has a cautionary note like: "This mythos is unique in using the concept of an 'avatar' which will be very foreign and hard to understand by most D&D players" -- the idea having then been spilled over to many people's general ideas of gods, other pantheons, earlier works, video games, movies, and basically everywhere in our culture now.

  9. Although I agree with James, it all started with Vancian faith healing and miracles.

  10. In the instance of St. Francis and Mother T:

    If we are to assume that both "characters" were lawful good, it can be assumed that they had their own personal code that they would never violate, and this could run contradictory to the over-arching ministrations of existing institutions.

    I, for one, have always rejected the idea that Lawful Good is the "best" Good and Chaotic Evil is the "worst" Evil. Good is Good, Evil is Evil, as are Law and Chaos their own entities without moral implications.

    On Alignment, I will quote the AD&D 2nd edition PHB:
    "The character's alignment is a guide to his basic moral and ethical attitudes toward others, society, good, evil, and the forces of the universe in general. Use the chosen alignment as a guide to provide a clearer idea of how the character will handle moral dilemmas. Always consider alignment as a tool, not a straitjacket that restricts the character."

    That last sentence has always guided my thoughts, feelings, and attitudes concerning alignment both as a player and a DM.

  11. Gridlore's take on the development of Church history is actually the one I use for our campaign world. It's not the take I use in real life, but it works great for trying to match the later D&D focus I've noticed with that 'implicit Christianity' that has been mentioned in the earlier days of the hobby.

  12. I agree that PC interactions with gods or semi-divine beings can be very silly. Some of my favorite fictional heroes, however, encounter gods or god-like creatures: Conan, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, Elric of Melnibone. But the thing about their encounters is that when the gods manifest themselves in the material world they assume a fallible, mortal shape. I sometimes thought this was what certain source material did when they spoke of "Avatars" of the god. I remember the Avatar trilogy of FR novels. These weren't the best, but I think they did a good job dramatizing encounters between mortals and gods; however, the narrative tone of those novels quickly leaves "sword and sorcery" behind and moves on into "epic fantasy." I personally have always tried to hew to sword and sorcery conventions in my D&Ding as opposed to "epic fantasy," simply because the emphasis on individual heroes and personal, local struggles--as opposed to armies and macro-political elements--draws D&D campaigns in that direction.

    The key to "sword and sorcery" interactions with gods, I am convinced, is *bringing the gods down to a human level.* I like how H.P. Lovecraft sometimes does this in his stories: what we *thought* were gods were really just demented, unnatural abomination that, for this reason or that, came to be worshiped *as* gods.

    Thanks for the great post!

  13. Ok, for all of those folks who are trying to use "Real world" examples, just stop.

    Stop it right now.

    Doing so just doesn't work. Pigeon-holing Mother Theresa, the Waffen-SS, or anyone into the D&D/AD&D alignment system is absurd.

    Reality is much too complex.

    The argument against the alignment system is stupid because:

    1. Alignment works within the confines of the game system.

    2. Once a person attempts to impose "real world" analogies and personal moralistic and ethical views, it makes the alignment system irrelevant.

    And why is that?

    Because it's fantasy.

    The alignment system works because it's a fantastical and idealistic view of morals and ethics set within a fantastical game system universe.

  14. In Leiber's Knight & Knave of Swords, Hisvet had become a "Saint of the Rat God" AIR. >:)

    I just wanted to say thanks James for your earlier discussion of implicit Christianity in D&D, it inspired me to start an AD&D Yggsburgh campaign last week with a monotheist, clearly quasi-Christian religion, 'The Great Church'.

  15. "He likewise suggests that some saints -- "patron saints" -- may have shrines dedicated to them and, over time, achieve sufficient power to become demigods in their own right. Exactly what this means for relations between the saint, his followers, and the deity he ostensibly serves is never discussed."

    Actually, praying at a shrine dedicated to St. Bane gave a chance of granting a "+1" bonus to turning undead to those that prayed at his shrines as well as accepting a whole passel of trouble for being known as one of St. Bane's admirers.
    The Anti-Saint Kargoth was listed as serving Orcus directly, besides being the first Death Knight. (inb4 Lord Soth?) The last Saint in that article 'Eleador (?) is the most intriguing and worthy of development for his ties to the Plane of Time and prophecy.

    As for the deities they serve (Kargoth serves Orcus and Ol' goat boy is pretty much present in most if not all campaigns),is undefined because not everyone used the same gods. Perhaps it was assumed in that article that the DM would assign a deity appropriate to them.

    All in all I thought the Saintly Standards article was a nice way to put an end game for a cleric, paladin or devout follower to retire in style rather than a half hearted religious trope alluding to real world saints.