Monday, October 27, 2008

Sublime Intervention

Should you ever find yourself wandering the lands of R’Nis, take these words of warning: the gods here suck.

Not quality-wise, mind you (I hope), but in terms of divine power. Some sages and world-walkers report that on other planes of existence, the natives there enjoy the benefits of omnipresent and omnipotent divine guidance. Alas, such is not the case here.

I’ve always been fascinated by mythology and religion, extending this interest to earn a minor is Religious Studies during my undergraduate college career. Whatever one’s belief in the existence of some higher power in the universe, you have to admit that the sheer variety of belief systems on this planet is quite amazing.

Because of this personal interest, I tend to have a lot of gods, religious systems, cults, idolaters, philosophers, mystics, shamans, and the like running about the canvas of my world. I was greatly influenced during my formative years by a love for the old Savage Sword of Conan comic, in which that friendly Cimmerian seemed to run into yet another strange cult every month. It’s no surprise then that when it comes down to world-building, there’s a lot that old time religion going around.

The problem for me back then was: with so many gods about, who has the final say in matters of divine influence? Is magic firmly under the control of one god or goddess and all other gods of magic just pretenders getting by on the isolated faith of their worshipers? Or are the individual gods of the various races just many aspects of the same deity? Maybe there is an all-powerful being in charge of the whole works and the gods are just different faces of the same.

Originally, I went with the “many aspects to individual gods” approach. The elven god of healing was just another incarnation of the human god of healing, which was an aspect of the dwarven goddess of healing, etc. It was workable, but not completely rewarding to me personally. I still felt a little restrained by this approach, being more inclined towards lots of gods, great and small. But now that I’m revamping things for the classic dungeon, I wanted something more satisfying. I found my solution in Fritz Leiber.

Leiber is the most influential author to me when it comes down to the flavor that I prefer in a D&D game. It wasn’t until college that I finally managed to read the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser tales – for some reason my college library had the entire” Swords Against” books in its collection – but even the entries in Deities and Demi-gods had me enamored of Nehwon long before I read the source material. When I read “Lean Times in Lankhmar,” I found myself thinking that if I ever ran a AD&D game again, I’d want to do something similar to the way that Leiber portrays the gods in that story: limited of influence and their power waxes and wanes with their believers. I filed that notion away for future consideration.

When I started putting Ol’ Nameless together, I chanced upon a used copy of TSR’s Lankhmar: City of Adventure (1985) at my local hobby shop. Being a fan of the source material, I purchased it and spent some time looking it over. Fittingly enough, Chapter Six of that books deals with the gods of Nehwon and their abilities. In that chapter, I found that a lot of my work was already done for me.

I didn’t lift the rules whole-cloth from the book, but I did decide that a few of the limitations work quite well for what I wanted to do. In the end, my plethora of pantheons shares the following traits with the gods of Nehwon:

1 – The gods can see, or hear (or any other sense) into any single place in the world.
2 – They can understand any language spoken.
3 – They may alter any one object, condition, or creature anywhere in their influence.
4 – They may create any object, condition, or creature anywhere in their influence.
5 – They can only see (or any other sense) one place at a time.
6 – They cannot change an area outside of their influence.

The key words here are “one” and “influence.”

The gods are not omnipresent; they simply cannot be. If you need your patron deity to intervene on your behalf, you’d better make a production of it. The religious ceremonies of my world are lavish affairs, done not so much to appease the gods, but more because they’re the theological equivalent to firing off a signal flare that says, “Oh divine being, please pay attention to us over HERE!”

In many house-ruled games, clerics do not have to choose their spells at the start of the day, the DM allowing them to call upon the divine fountain-head for specific spells as needed. This is not the case in R’Nis. A cleric had better plan ahead and ask the divine for any spells they foresee themselves needing during the coming day while he and his patron are having their daily one-on-one time during prayers. There’s always a chance their deity might be paying attention to them when they need help, but the odds are not in their favor (I don’t have a copy of D&DG available, but if I remember correctly that chance is no greater than 1 or 2%). The patriarchs of religion of course explain that the gods want their worshippers to fulfill their potential as divine creations, aspiring to the godhood within, but then they tend to mumble and wave their hands a little if the issue is pressed.

With their powers limited to areas and individuals directly under their influence, the gods are very anxious to have their tenets spread across the land. Thus, wandering priests and holy prophets are common encounters. Clerics, both PC and NPC, who wish to keep their deity in the “big leagues” had better engage in acts of conversions and spreading the word. With influence limited, many gods of the same portfolio exist, often stepping on one another’s toes in the process and generating bad blood between each other and their followers. The only thing that tends to get them to work together is the threat of some upstart godling and his cult muscling in on the action.

As beings with limited power, the door to mortal apotheosis via usurpation is always open. While I don’t foresee this being a common occurrence, it’s nice to have that option available should either I or one of my players decide to go that route.

This is definitely more of the flavor that I was looking for. Not only does it appeal to me personally, but it adheres to the core rules of AD&D in regards to clerical spell-casting, preserving the flavor I’m looking for. It’s much more classic “sword & sorcery” and more pulpy and gritty, which are the spices that I enjoy cooking with.

1 comment:

mr scratch said...

Something that has always made me wonder is why do all clerics get the same spells. Since you are a priest of the god of good fortune why are you able to make the undead turn tail?

I would take an opposite view regards getting spells: You have nothing prepared because you are not doing anything except begging. The act of casting clerical magic is just a begging for a miracle. If you really need something it is best to do it where the god you are asking tends to be looking (like a temple) and you should start doing things that are bound to get his attention. For me the power of the priest would come in investiture you would receive, like the ability to lay on hands from the good of health. It isn't a spell or a miracle you have to ask for, its something that priests of the order get to do. Of course if you want to keep that trick or get better ones you better start towing the line and doing what is needful.