Monday, July 5, 2021

Deities & Demigods is a Failure

In my weekly summaries of the contents of Chaosium's Different Worlds magazine issues, I rarely comment on the letters column, "Different Views." Occasionally, though, there are entries worthy of commentary and, in such cases, I make a post to highlight them. In issue #22 (July 1982) – about which I'll talk tomorrow – there's a lengthy letter written by Lawrence Schick, a game designer once employed by TSR, perhaps best known for White Plume Mountain. Schick was also editor of Deities & Demigods, an AD&D book about which I have generally negative feelings and it's about that book that he penned the letter that appeared in Different Worlds.

Issue #19 of the magazine featured a scathing review of DDG by Patrick Amory. Amory disliked the book even more than I do, saying it was "fit only for the trash can." One might reasonably have expected Schick to have defended the book he edited, but he does not. Instead, he agrees with Amory's assessment and indeed amplifies them. Schick's letter, which I reproduce in full below is remarkable, not just for what it says about Deities & Demigods but how it says it. I can't help but wonder if Schick's feelings were at least partly colored by his experience of having been recently laid off by TSR at the time this letter appeared. That's not to suggest his feelings about the book aren't sincere – I have no reason to assume otherwise – but I doubt he'd have been so forthcoming were he still a TSR employee at the time.

There is much to ponder here, but what most stands out to me is Schick's recommendation of Cults of Prax over Deities & Demigods even for referees of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. It's an unusual suggestion, though I understand Schick's point, namely that Cults of Prax treats the subject of religion far more seriously than does DDG – or indeed almost any RPG book whose content touches on gods and their worship. Mind you, I've long felt that there are almost no good treatments of religion in popular entertainment, which probably speaks to the cultural deracination of 21st century Westerners. D&D is far from the only example of this, even if it's one that frequently vexes me. Apparently, Lawrence Schick was similar vexed.

30 comments:

  1. Well DDG adds precisely nothing to someone's game.
    As much as I utterly dislike the Survival Guides, you may indeed find something valuable for your game inside.
    Even the demi-human deities section of UA does a better work of adding religion to the game, and Manual of the Planes does a better work on describing planar travel and the planes.
    I'm surprised that, with DDG being a recognized failure, 2e's Legend & Lore is basically the same book with little or no changes.

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    1. The 2E Legends and Lore I bought sight unseen and boy did I feel ripped off.

      The articles on the gods of the various demi-humans and the orcs in Dragon were better than DDG.

      The survival guides provide some information I still use (spotting distances, an overview of human needs for food and water, etc) which most of the later 3.x splatbooks on terrain provided in a much more overblown and game mechanical way.

      DDG contributed a bit of a view of the gods in various pantheons, but that's about the only value and that could have been obtained by looking to the source material in mythology.

      When should a player in a RPG interact directly with a god? My answer: Never. So DDG is useless. And Gods wouldn't fight like normal D&D characters so to stat their avatars is ridiculous.

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  2. I knew once you saw this letter from LJS there would be a post :o)

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  3. DDG exists for the Newhon, Cthulhu, and Elric monsters more or less.

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    1. There are other mythological critters in the "real" pantheons, all of which are suitable for use as monsters without having to involve actual deities. There are also the nonhuman D&D deities, who I'd contend are useful even if you're not going to be fighting them as a PC.

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    2. Yep, until they pulled that content. I wish I had one of the early DDGs with that content.

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  4. Thanks James - Deities & Demigods has always been a troublesome book to me, due to the main premise of how to use it in a campaign. One of the biggest concerns for me is that most of the pantheons chosen are from Earth culture, rather than fantasy culture. This seems exceedingly strange to me, when the majority of campaigns are not set on any form of Earth (although by our cultural context, they have almost impossible to remove correlations with our experiences - monsters that have basis in some Earthbound mythology, such as a medusa). Correct me if I am wrong, but I think that is why Tékumel is so appealing to you (due to the alienation from Earth culture).

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    1. I don't have any difficulty envisioning small-m medusa as a fantasy monster with no Grecian overtones at all. D&D is chock full of bizarre mashup critters like the owlbear, a snake-woman hybrid whose gaze turns you to stone is only vaguely odd - snakes are known for paralyzing their prey with they stare until they strike, the petrification is just an extreme interpretation of that trope.

      That said, yeah, I'd prefer not to see "real" deities in my fantasy games unless it's some kind of pseudo-Earth setting. Never use them myself when I'm homevrewing.

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    2. Yeah, my usage of the medusa as an example was not to criticize usage outside of a Greek environment - it was simply an illustration of how many of our monsters have a cultural resonance.

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    3. True, but that also goes both ways. I've run into a shocking number of non-D&D players who expect dragons to breathe different things based on their scale colors, for ex, and giant floating eyeball monsters that definitely aren't beholders sure seem to project beams from their eye(s) a lot. Some of that's due to computer and console games stealing ideas from TSR, but some of it doesn't seem to have as obvious a heritage. There's some cultural osmosis going on, in much the same way that I can vaguely recognize far too many Pokemon despite never playing any version of its games.

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  5. Gary Gygax made a characteristically tone-deaf response to this letter in Dragon #66 (Oct 1982) in which he starts with personal attacks on Schick and his skills as an editor and then pivots to some speciousness about how presenting only combat stats and leaving out details of religion makes the book more useful and doesn’t creatively hamstring individual DMs the way a more detailed and specific treatment would have (while also noting that his forthcoming treatment of the gods for the World of Greyhawk will include that level of info because they serve as different purpose - as examples of a fully formed pantheon rather than a toolset to create your own pantheon). This is the period when Gygax was at his most unhinged and was rhetorically shooting himself in the foot and alienating people on a near monthly basis, making it no wonder why almost everybody who was active in the hobby then (not including me - I didn’t start playing until s couple years later) hated him.

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  6. Agree but as a portfolio of TSR artists at the height of their ability, it can't be beat.

    Roslof's Greek gods, Wild Hunt, full page Thor, and samurai fighting a sea dragon.
    Dee's Egyptian pantheon and Gruumsh.
    Otus' Lovecraftian horrors (especially Yog-Sothoth), cover art, title page, and Theleb K'aarna.
    Trampier's Shakak, Jaquays' Rat God, and on and on.

    I just wish Howard's Hyborian Age had been included in the first, copyright-violating edition.

    And I have to wonder if the satanic panic is why Schick's vision of a book that outlines the proper rituals for worshipping pagan gods was never realized.

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    1. 100% this. The book is beautiful — some of the greatest artwork of TSR in that period. Love that cover especially!

      As a kid I loved this book, since I had Ward’s mindset. As an adult, yeah, Schick’s criticisms make sense. It’s amazing to read that the slim (but useful) sections on worshippers’ behavior, etc, were apparently written at Schick’s request. >_<;;;

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  7. Cults of Prax is genius for what Schick wants in a "religions" book, rivaled only by Cults of Terrorn and the treatments of the uz deities in Trolpak.

    That said, Deities & Demigods isn't anywhere near as useless for what it is as he claims - it just isn't a book about religions. It's a monster book, with a lot of its content aimed at the kind of ludicrous ultra-high-level campaigns that cropped up in pockets back then. Hundredth level PCs, groups with multiple artifacts, characters working toward apotheosis themselves - it wasn't my thing but I knew people who played in games like that and they loved this book. I can't even say they were "playing D&D wrong" because there's no such thing, and I'm not foolish enough to think Schick is right when he makes a blanket statement about everyone's games being richer with a more nuanced approach to religions and deific interactions. To paraphrase, for good or ill, power gaming and wish fulfillment has always been an important shaper of tabletop roleplaying, and I suggest it's pretty elitist to ignore that part of the community has needs to.

    Even people with more restrained tastes can find things to enjoy in D&D. There are a fair number of mythological critters in the "real" pantheons that can be pulled out and used in homebrew fantasy settings easily enough. There are (in 1st edition, at least) the Mythos, Melnibone, and Nehwon sections, which offered a lot of people their first looks at those settings. And there are the nonhuman D&D deities, many of whom had been mentioned elsewhere previously but having them collated in one spot was nice even if you never touched their stat blocks.

    Really can't bring myself to dislike this book no matter what arguments you make about it - and going by its sales at the time and its lingering mystique, I'm not the only one who found merit in it. I may admire Prax (and all of the vast setting of Glorantha) but that doesn't mean I can't get a good smile out of a naked lady with a lobster head and claws for hands. Hail Blibdoolpoolp and all that. :)

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    1. A lot of people I have known got DDG simply because it was the latest book. Most were expecting more about the practices of the religions and the churches and some novel stuff maybe for their clerics. I can't think of anyone (even the power gamers I knew) that appealed (I don't recall anyone loving it like the loved the PHB and the DMG). And if you had the 2nd printing without the branded pantheons, that was even more true.

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  8. I agree with Schick's assessment of that book. complete trash, except for the art.

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  9. 5E still has historical pantheons? They removed the stat-blocks but why have them at all? Why not have gods of Forgotten Realms or Greyhawk or whatever instead?

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    1. They also have those, as well... In addition to the gods of the Celtic, Egyptian, Greek, and Norse pantheons they list the gods of Eberron, Greyhawk, Krynn, and Toril, plus the Non-Human deities.

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    2. I mean, thank gosh they have at least a nod to historical pantheons, since I can’t stand FR…

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  10. Wow, I’d completely forgotten I’d written this letter to DW. What an angry, self-righteous, and condescending prick I was in my twenties! In my defense, I had just left TSR after they’d unilaterally canceled my royalty agreement for Star Frontiers, so I was pretty sore. Nonetheless, I should not have descended into mud-flinging, and I regret having done so. We live and we learn.

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    1. Thanks for stopping by to comment! In retrospect, I don't think anyone would blame you for being sore at the time.

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    2. Don't beat yourself up. Being an angry young man happens to everyone at some point, albeit not always while you're actually young. Getting stiffed on Star Frontiers royalties gives you better grounds to be mad than many folks.

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    3. I did not know they'd stiffed you like that. That's pretty crappy.

      You deserved better. Star Frontiers may be the light end of the SF RPG, but it was fun for us as early teens and we enjoyed it and Knight Hawks quite a bit because they had tactical aspects (from having maps and counters) and integrated that with the character's capabilities. Good fun for quite a while. I've still debated using it to let my wife and daughter try the lighter end of the SF RPG.

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  11. Thanks for dropping by Eljayess! I wish I could take back a ton of things I said in my youth (and some in recent days, too!). Live and learn, indeed.

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  12. To play devil's advocate, in some religions (Norse, Ancient Greece) the gods come across more as low tech superheroes than truly transcendent beings. So there's a case for treating the gods as super powered monsters. Aaron Alston's Mythic Greece explicitly noted that the strongest heroes (in Hero System terms) could sometimes win fights with some Greek gods, which reflected mythology. However, the gods always came back. I think DDG would have been improved if they gave more roleplaying background for the mythologies (e.g., tweaking clerics for each pantheon) and made it clear you couldn't normally kill a god for good.

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  13. Always figured if you were going to bother giving a God stats, they should have 1HD per worshipper...

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  14. I must be in a contrarian mood. I like D&DG the way it is, crunchy mechanical focus and all. I have no trouble inventing cultures and religions, but I don't want to have to stat up gods if there's a rulebook that'll do it for me. A book entirely devoted to the fluff of religions, cults, priesthoods, rituals, calendars, etc. would be just about useless to me (and quite possibly dull beyond measure).

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  15. When I think of an interesting pantheon to look to for inspiration in D&D, I look to the pantheons in some of Glen Cook's work. They have flavour, they obviously draw some inspiration from real world non-European religions, but they have their own feel.

    And for Gods handled with some sense, I think of Harn's supplements that focus more on the priests, fighting orders, and the politics and the particulars of the religion's practice and its goals in the world. It was useful to understand how religion and the gods tied to the secular world that players lived in and helped flesh out the followers of the gods.

    You would never, in that setting, fight a god, but you would often enough meet the followers. That's sort of what I expect in most OSR style games.

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  16. Tim Kask explains here that the gods' stats were created both in response to players wanting higher level challenges and specifically so players could not kill them, as a reaction to a letter about players doing so already. So confusing! http://kaskoid.blogspot.com/2016/02/how-i-helped-to-pull-rope-that-tolled.html?m=1
    "Time passed and the game continued to grow as well as expand in unexpected directions. Level-creep--PC’s at high Levels that were never considered, let alone allowed for, began to proliferate. In the early years PC’s “retired” at Lvl 9 or 10 and a new PC started; this level-creep was eating up the game. We were getting pleas for help from DM’s and players alike.

    The tipping point came one day in a letter I had to open that day that spurred a supplement almost that very week. (I must have “had the duty” that day; we took turns opening and reading mail to TSR.) In this powerful thought provoker, a bewildered DM wrote the following, more or less (I will paraphrase a bit):

    'Dear TSR, I don’t know where to go with my campaign next. Last session, my players went to Valhalla. They killed Loki, all the Valar, a dozen Valkyries, Thor and Odin and destroyed the Bifrost Bridge.'

    I read this aloud to Gary and Brian; when we picked ourselves up off the floor or regained our senses, as the case may have been, ( I swear to you that this is true) we knew level-creep had gone too far. That week saw the impetus for one more supplement gather enough steam that I set out to edit the last of the RPG-oriented supplements, Gods, Demi-Gods & Heroes. This was the closest to a rule book that we came; we felt that PC’s should not be powerful enough to knock off gods. So we gave them really high amounts of HP: Odin 300, Thor 275. We charted out character levels undreamed of in the original game."

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