Sunday, April 11, 2021

Small Gods

Also: D&Deities

I prefer my gods to be small, petty, morose, malignant, and self-important. They aren’t all-knowing or all-powerful, although they may pretend to be. They aren’t wise, although they are crafty. They’re more like Greco-Roman gods; they’re overly theatrical, appearing in claps of thunder, or a million writhing insects form into their body, or a burning white stag with nine arrows in it leaps over a waterfall, and with a booming voice announces their name and demands for obsequience. If they don’t get it they’re liable to throw around polymorphs or strike blindness or worse. They make henchmen quail and drop to their knees, and they like it if they can make player characters draw back in fear.

Gods are often made by mortals ascending to godhood, either via their own might, or by bathing in cosmic energies, or being raised by a their patron diety, or killing another god, or attaining enlightenment. These gods are the most self-serving type, as some small part of them remembers what it’s like to have absolutely no power, and they still derive ugly pleasure from punching down on those weaker than them. Think Buddha or Jesus, but with a chip on his shoulder.

Another type of god is created by the faith of their followers. Cultists dream up some deity, say Nartsag the Defiler. He’s a huge maggot, the size of two school buses, with a heavy-eyed human face, and he’s come to eat the dead flesh of the world and restore it to purity. Gods love purity, but they all have different ideas about what that means. This guy wants to restore the world to its primal state, a genetic soup of goo, and flies, and water. So these Cultists of Nartsag gather in town squares, collecting money, preaching, gathering in defiled ground, subjecting themselves to weird flagellation and purposefully contracting pestilences. They run sick houses in major cities where they collect all the infirm, ill, and mutated, and they treat them with ineffectual ablutions. Ostensibly, this is to help ease their suffering, but really they’re collecting the sick water in tanks in underground temples where they make an ocean of putrid filth to one day raise Nartsag from Oblivion.


How to Make a God

This is the important part: gods like this are very real to the cultists, but not to anybody else. They have to be brought into this world by rituals that player characters might have a chance to stop. Sometimes a high priest has to throw themselves into the fire at the end to grand the blood-payment to open the gate. Or they may believe that this deity is in another realm or universe, and they need help getting into this one. Either way it’s the Cult’s force of belief, their faith, that eventually coalesces into a godhead taking shape on this plane.

Gods love to be worshiped. It’s why they’re here. What did they do that’s so special, to be worthy of worship? Go ahead and ask one and find out, they’ll tell you. They’re the epitome of the cackling evil overlord, squawking on and on about their plans, about their greatness, about their triumphs, showing you all the special golden trophies they’ve been collecting since they were the squirt of a bigoted thought in a backwater sycophant’s head.

They are very powerful, but they aren’t omnipotent. They have certain powers, certain domains. They are immortal but they aren’t invincible. They can be killed, but they would never admit this, even to themselves. They might have armor that protects them from all wounds, or the ability to kill with a look, or regenerate 50 hp per round, or to teleport to the moon and live without air, but they aren’t invincible. Technically. They’re more like super-heroes. If Superman lived in my universe some idiot gong farmers would probably have started worshiping him and eventually it would have gone to his head. 


Introducing: The Lord of the Underworld!

All this makes the deities way more interesting. It gives them human foibles, makes them accessible. You can touch this thing, maybe not directly, but it’s another level of NPC above the kings and sorcerers. Also, players tend to feel a certain reverence for deities as long as you don’t surprise them with it.

I remember I had some players go and investigate a cairn I mentioned in the description for something else. I had to think up something quick, so in 30-seconds I sketched up a couple rooms, threw in a super obvious spear trap, a stupid key-and-door puzzle and some runes and skeletons and stuff.

They get through the key-and-door puzzle before I figure everything out so I start adlibbing some murals about a goddess of the earth and animals or something, there’s this god-goddess pair. They feel her presence and it’s all motherly, and she asks them to bring back her husband. Then they go and clear the spear-trap room.

I knew there had to be some big pay-off and treasure, then I remembered that part in Sailors on the Starless Sea, where the player characters sail...on a starless sea...and then there’s some big evil god they fight and everybody’s like woah holy shit we’re playing cool fantasy stuff. So I just do that, there’s a ship, and a giant squid attacks, and they end up at the bottom of an underground ocean with an alter to a god. There’s a silver bowl and a ceremonial knife, so obviously my players cut their hands and put their blood in.

I already primed them with the goddess stuff. She’s got qualities they like, earth and animals and motherly love, so they’re all down. Her husband turns out to be this bleak woeful god of war, kind of like Odin. He asks them to bring back their religion, to help them enter back into this world so they can set it to rights. The players agree. He gives them silver stuff and blessings they get to write on their character sheet (single use: negate a successful attack) and send them on their way. So now my players are totally inducted into the cult of whoever these guys are, and they’re totally on board with proclaiming these gods to the world. They bringing up the gods to NPCs every chance they get.

That’s way more fun than your player looking in some stupid book and going “I dunno, I worship the god of the sun… and beer!”  


Making Demands

So Now you have your petty god, and some powers, and you’ve introduced them to your players. But what do gods actually do? First, they’re perpetually at war with each other. They each want to re-shape the world, and they all want to be the only god. They have enemies, truces (never allies), colors, elements, favorite flowers, fashion sense, interior decorating choices, favorite board games, favorite foods, all that shit, and they hate anybody that doesn’t fawn over their taste. Including other gods. They’re jealous, vindictive, small-minded and incredibly fucking strong. Imagine a bunch of catty drunk girls at a bar, but they can all fly, have skin made from steel, can lift a truck, and secrete mind-control pheromones. Also they can grant wishes.

That brings me to my next point: Gods love to dangle carrots in your face if you do their dirty work. Gods want to do the least they can possibly get away with, while taking all the credit and all the power. Kind of like the CEO of a big evil company, but with heat vision. Their self-improvement program is a huge pyramid scheme, where the more followers you induct the higher in the power-ladder you get to grow. You dump money and time and energy into it and they dish out magic weapons, and spell powers, and give you extra henchmen when you please them. If you fail them they rip it all away and leave you hanging, just to remind you who’s in charge. Your magic sword turns into a dove, your healing spell summons a bunch of locusts, your hands turn into wheels. And your patron diety just laughs and laughs until you apologize and make a big show of sacrificing bulls/maidens/jewelry at their nearest shrine.

Thus you need to have the gods interacting with the world somehow. Gods are lazy, they don’t show up in person unless they have to. Instead, they prefer to send stand-ins or omens, the vaguer the better. Thus, shrines and temples and priests. Need some sage advice? Go to Pithion Lord of the Dark Water’s temple, burn some incense, toss a few coins in the slot, and the high-priestess does a little dance and dispenses wisdom. What does this have to do with Pithion? Who cares? Now we know where to go to get the Crystal of Blhabla.

Need a different thing? You gotta do a quest, just like any other NPC. If you want this thing I have, you gotta do a thing. Also you have to dedicate your eternal soul to my whims or I’LL GET ANGRY.

Get healing, get quests, get spells. Players love this stuff. Last but not least: Clerics.


Meet my old class: Pilgrims

My favorite class in Morrowind is the Pilgrim. It’s a stealth-based class, specializing in speechcraft and healing, with minors in illusion magic and alchemy. The idea is these free-booters traipse about, talking their way in to trouble, and when they get there they use magic and running the fuck away to get out of it.

It makes me think of pilgrimages in Medieval Europe. Basically, making pilgrimages was a big deal, everybody was doing it for all kinds of reasons. Healing, fertility, boredom, for showing off to your friends how devote you are. Humans haven’t changed at all in ten-thousand years. A whole class of lazy asshole grew up around making pilgrimages, where these guys would wander around, avoiding work, going from holy site to holy site, collecting all the badges, and along the way they would hawk fake holy relics to idiots, shmooze their ways into monasteries so they could drink up all the beer and drool on the tabernacle, dawdle up to peasant farmers and demand room and board on account of their holy rigor, eat all the food then sleep until 11:15, then go off to the next place, all that jazz.

That’s what I want my clerics to be! No more being some ‘holy warrior’ for the church but oh yeah sorry, we can’t afford anything so go meet up with some cut-throats and hedge-wizards and figure it out yeah? Mitra will be pleased. Traditional clerics make no fucking sense outside of the original Blackmoor campaign.

We live in a world with dozens of gods, covering dozens of different realms of power, from oceans, to rot, to love, and animal-husbandry, etc, and they all grant the same twenty spells? They all give their followers power to rebuke undead? They all send their holymen on crusades to…. Go beat up goblins and take their stuff?

Instead, what I want is a conman or a ne’er-do-well who’s going off on adventures for personal gain and, yeh, if they can pitch some coin Patron Deity’s way, or beat up some Holy Foes great.

So let’s do it like this.

Everything's the same as Cleric except:

They can use their deity’s favorite weapon, which they carry as a symbol of their faith, and also the same kinds magic-users use. Optionally, just let them use all weapons because fuck it.

Instead of Rebuke Undead they can cast Protection from Evil as a spell-like ability, whereas “evil” is whoever is trying to kill the pilgrim, or is the enemy of the god they’re calling upon for help. The god gets to decide whether this is an appropriate use of their name. If they demand it too many time maybe it fizzles out, or the god doesn’t hear them, or afterwards the god demands some quest or penitence for bugging them too much.

At first level it’s only a couple feet wide, centered on the Cleric, let’s say enough room for one other person if they’re hugging onto the Cleric. The way I think of this spell is that it kind of pushes back monsters and they have to work really hard to step into the light and try to hit the caster. It’s kind of the like old way Rebuke Undead was adjudicated. At fourth level if becomes 10’ wide, they can block up a whole corridor with it.

 Undead are supposed to be horrible, unstoppable monstrocities. Isn't lame if the cleric can just roll dice to see if he can scare them away? And then, when it doesn't work? 

"I try to turn the zombies" *clatter*
"Oh sorry, St. James is helping a kitten right now call back later"

Alternatively make them spend 10 minutes transcribing a sigil of power from the god on the floor, with chalk or salt or silver dust. It lasts for an hour and keeps out all bad stuff, but you can't move it.

As for their spells, they don’t just automatically get all those spells/miracles/prayers. They have to travel to holy sites and preform duties for their patron to be granted those spells as spell-like abilities, just like how a Magic-User has to search for their spells, be taught them, or gain them from spellbooks. They can have as many as their normal spell list, which they transcribe all those spells into a prayerbook (see where I’m going with this?)

Additionally, they get spells from this pilgrimages from their deity which are within the realm of the deity to grant. So Gods of Shadows and Sneaking grant Invisibility and Darkness, Gods of Fire grant Burning Hands, Light, only Gods of Healing Grant Healing. Maybe Gods that have particular foes, like Undead, or Devils, or Unicorns can grant turning against those foes.

Maybe a Pilgrim can have like two or three favorite deities, as long as they don’t clash with each other. Gods are selfish and petty but also they’re kind of dumb and I dunno. It’s probably fine. Or whatever. Dance monkey, dance!

 What does this fix? It makes the Cleric more dependent on deity interaction. It takes out the stupid Judeo-Christian stuff. It gives more variety in spells, and differentiates between clerics (they haven't all been personally granted specific spells). It puts the cleric reason for adventuring in-line with the other adventurers, while still giving him excuse for building a temple.

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