Obdormio.com Unwasted Hours

18 June, 2012

Welcome to My World: Gods

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , — Obdormio @ 00:00

Continuing on the general theme of gods, I’m going to shift from the factual to the fictional, and talk a bit about D&D gods. This post will have a pretty different tone than the previous Welcome to My World posts, being a bit more meta and not really directly related to the other posts in subject matter, but should you want a look at them anyway, you can find them all here.

I just wrote an exam paper on the definition of gods – problems of definition are a pretty central concern in religious studies – and throughout writing it I was distracted by thoughts of how I could apply this to fiction. This post is part of the result. One of the core set of terms used when discussing definitions in this kind of field is emic and etic. An emic definition is an internal definition, a subjective and personal one. When you ask a Christian to define the word “god” you will get Christianity’s emic definition – or more accurately, this person’s emic subset of Christianity’s definition. An etic definition, on the other hand, strives to be objective and neutral, capable of spanning all variations of – in this case – gods in various religions. A purely etic definition is of course as impossible as a pure objectivity in the humanities, but the point is to get as close as you can. The guy who coined the terms based them on phonemic and phonetic, and they have a similar relationship of culturally determined versus universal.

To bring it over to the game, in the core D&D 4th edition, there are several gods listed in the Player’s Handbook as suggested options for divine characters. In my own world, I have kept this core pantheon pretty much as it is so far, but that may change in the future – perhaps even in the writing of this post. Several of these core gods have also been given statblocks – that is, they have stats of the same kind as any other monster, and can be fought and defeated in battle by the players. I have seen, on several occasions when this has been the topic in various forums, people who are downright angry about this. The gods should not be statted out, they say, they are embodiments of eternal concepts and therefore indestructible. It is basically a case of these posters’ emic definition of gods not fitting well with the game’s definition – nor indeed with several religions’ definitions, but that’s beside the point here.

Within the game, however, there is a definition of god that for the game world is completely etic. D&D is after all a world where many rules are a great deal more solid than they are in the real world. The Dungeon Master’s Guide defines gods by their abilities and limitations. They are “powerful but not omnipotent, knowledgeable but not omniscient, widely travelled but not omnipresent. They alone of all creatures in the universe consist only of astral essence. The gods are creatures of thought and ideal, not bound by the same limitations as beings of flesh.”

This is still a very vague definition, being more poetic than practical – only the bit about consisting of astral essence is concrete. In the Draconomicon, however, there is a more definite and rule-bound definition for the word “deity”, found near the stats of Tiamat. A deity, within this universe, is a being who:

  1. Rolls saving throws when an effect is applied, rather than at the end of their turn, AND
  2. Is completely unaffected by player characters below level 20, AND
  3. Speaks the magical Supernal language, AND
  4. Discorporates when it is reduced to half its hit points, leaving it weakened, but not dead.

I think it is safe to say that the “god” spoken of in the DMG and the “deity” of the Draconomicon is the same category. It is very much a game’s definition, which makes sense, as this is a game. “God” is a word that is as narrowly defined within the game as the name of any other monster – and D&D famously has different monsters under names that in the real world are synonyms. It is all about carving out specific niches.

When it comes to making up the cultures of the world the game is set in, however, I am tempted to return to the vaguer definitions of real life. My paper wasn’t just on gods, it was on supernatural, or rather superhuman, beings in general. Now, within a D&D world, it doesn’t quite make sense to talk about superhuman beings as the core of religion, because there are oodles and oodles of superhuman beings in D&D, and chances are the players characters are among them.

I am tempted to, within the game world, expand the word “god” to include anything that is worshipped – so that what are in the game’s technical terms primal spirits or primordials, are called gods by the common citizenry who happen to belong to their cults. I worry that this might end up being just confusing, though, since the game has a built in etic definition of the word already. Some of life’s complexities are not worth reproducing in a game, simply because it becomes boring or confusing rather than fun, and the problems of definition faced by religious studies seems like such a one.

So let me focus on the beings which meet the game’s definition, then. Without going into specific deities, I’ll instead tell you a bit about how I do deviate from the standard set-up in my view of them.

The standard cosmology posits a universe where the two poles of the Astral Sea and the Elemental Chaos stand opposed. Somewhat inspired by Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn, I’ve taken this one step further, and decided that somewhere in the Elemental Chaos there lies a core, a heart, of pure change. A single point of unending change, which is never the same from one instant to the next. Likewise, in the Astral Sea, there lies a heart of pure permanence, a place of absolute unending stillness, where nothing can live or move or breathe. These are the poles, the cores of the universe, two equal opposites locked in eternal balance, radiating change and permanence and creating all things as they touch.  A tiny speck of change seeps into the area around permanence, and you have the Astral Sea, a place of serenity and preservation, but where change can still occur. On the other end you have the Elemental Chaos, where the merest touch of permanence seeps into the shores of change, enough that there can be things for more than an instant.

From the astral essence, then, you get gods – beings of permanence with just enough change in them to be beings at all – capable of thought and movement and will. Their counterparts, the primordials, are beings of change with just enough permanence to be beings at all, to have will and a semblance of form.

It follows then, that the gods are at heart conservatives. It is not in their nature to change their ways, or to change at all. Even the ones who claim change and invention and progress as their domains, are in the long view conservatives. They are creatures of permanence. It is no coincidence that those among them who flirt the most with change and chaos are the ones that have lost their sanity.

Though they are credited with feats of creation, they are not, as a group, creators. They are preservers. It was the primordials who created the world; the gods merely preserved it, locked it in its shape. The gods did not create souls, they do not know where they come from or where they go, they just bound them in flesh. Gave them that bit of permanence that keeps them in the world, for a time. The inhabitable universe is a mix of chaos and permanence; the gods merely represent one of the extreme points of the axis. They are powerful beings, very powerful beings, but being nonetheless, who can indeed be killed.

Because, really, what is the point of having evil gods in your game if your player’s can’t face them in the climactic showdown?


  1. Fun! One bit confused me:

    “I think it is safe to say that the “god” spoken of in the DMG and the “deity” of the Draconomicon is the same category. It is very much a game’s definition, which makes sense, as this is a game. “God” is a word that is as narrowly defined within the game as the name of any other monster – and D&D famously has different monsters under names that in the real world are synonyms. It is all about carving out specific niches.”

    Are you contradicting yourself here, or am I misunderstanding something? If the game famously has different monsters under names that are real world synonyms, how is it then safe to say that god and deity is meant to be the same thing?

    Comment by Loki — 18 June, 2012 @ 10:15

  2. Yeah, I can see how that’s confusing if you haven’t read the books. The thing is that both “god” and “deity” were explicitly used to describe Tiamat here.

    Comment by Obdormio — 18 June, 2012 @ 17:37

  3. Ah, thanks for clearing that up.

    By the by – can I, as a non-initiate, assume that the “primordials” of “elemental essence” are considered to be some sort of elemental spirits? The Lord of a Thousand Winds, the Mistress of Eternal Fire, that sort of thing?

    On a related note, how do devils fit into this? My scarce D&D lore seems to indicate these are a force in that universe. Are they simply a handy collective term for deranged, fallen or evil gods, or is the word synonymous with primordials. And if neither, are they a third sort of entity of similar power and longevity, or more earthbound creatures like dragons?

    Finally, are there mini-versions of gods and primordials, further from the centres but still reasonably close? Angels and elementals or demons, if you will.

    Comment by Loki — 18 June, 2012 @ 18:17

  4. That’s pretty much the primordials, yeah. Mentioned various places in the books are such primordials as Mual-Tar, the Thunder Serpent; Solkara, the Crushing Wave; Haemnathuun, the Blood Lord and Vezzuvu, the Burning Mountain.

    Devils are indeed of the immortal origin, meaning they hail from the Astral Sea (as opposed to demons, who are of elemental origin, and nest in the Elemental Chaos). Devils are pretty much fallen angels – their leader, Asmodeus, was an angel who ascended to godhood by killing his master. The gods in general didn’t want to encourage that kind of behaviour, and locked the devils away in the Nine Hells. It’s not a terribly efficient prison, but it is one nonetheless.

    And, yeah, there are ‘lesser’ versions of both poles. Angels and lesser gods serving as exarchs for the big guys. There are plenty of elemental beings that served the primordials too, the big ones being what the game calls archons. Titans (and so their descendants, the giants) also originated in the Elemental Chaos.

    Comment by Obdormio — 18 June, 2012 @ 18:35

  5. Wow, fun! Does Asmodeus, now being a god and all, still employ the same unhappy angels (now devils), slipping two or three out of the hells whenever needed, or has he gone native and only uses the same square, union angels as the rest of the gods do?

    Comment by Loki — 18 June, 2012 @ 18:40

  6. I don’t quite recall the details on this, but I think his status as god gives him angels, which is probably a more loyal workforce on the whole than the horde of plotting back-stabbers he rules over.

    The devils are always trying to get out of the hells, and sometimes, with enough power, they succeed for a time but end up being dragged back in the end. They basically want souls to use as a power source for further excursions.

    Comment by Obdormio — 18 June, 2012 @ 20:21

  7. Cool! And now I wonder about more stuff! How do demons differ from devils, soul-interest wise? Do they have it too, or could they not give a shit about the whole business?

    You also mention worship often happening vis-a-vis non-divinities as well. Do lower beings such as devils, angels, demons, titans, spirits of the dead, mortal rulers or dragons receive any actual benefit from worship, or is that only for gods (and/or primordials)?

    Finally, how do demons differ from more traditional elemental spirits of more or less pure elemental incarnation – you know, the traditional “water elementals” and such?

    Comment by Loki — 18 June, 2012 @ 20:28

  8. Demons are corrupted elemental beings. See, there was this mysterious object, a seed of pure evil made manifest. Some git planted it in the Elemental Chaos. The result is a churning maelstrom of extra-evil chaos known as the abyss, and the elementals that were caught up in it became demons. It’s hard to say what demons care about – most of them are just into rage and destruction and have a general desire to be kings of the wasteland. Devils are the sort of deal-making, fine-print-abusing lawful evil, demons are the froth-at-the-mouth, death-and-destruction evil. They also really hate each other and have fought numerous wars – When Asmodeus killed his master, he did it by stealing a shard of the seed of evil and making a weapon out of it. The demons want it back.

    As for the benefits of worship, it’s unclear whether even the gods get any real benefit from it – other than devoted tools to carry out their agendas in the mortal world.

    Comment by Obdormio — 18 June, 2012 @ 20:34

  9. With their physical states being so ephemeral, are there visually easily recognisable attributes common to any of these types of being? Do, say, all gods have a face, all angels have wings, all devils handsome goatees, etc? Or are all these types of being – dead, living, imprisoned or otherwise – completely and utterly undefinable groups as far as the arts and written descriptions go?

    Comment by Loki — 20 June, 2012 @ 18:15

  10. Gods pretty much look like what they want to look like. Angels look humanoid, but with no legs, and eyes are their only facial feature. Elemental beings generally incorporate the element they’re based off prominently in their design. Devils are a pretty varied bunch.

    Comment by Obdormio — 20 June, 2012 @ 18:20

  11. If gods attempting change on the deeper, serious levels tend to go bananapants, does this mean that there are also bonkers primordials out there with a fascination for conservatism?

    Comment by Loki — 19 June, 2012 @ 08:45

  12. Interesting idea. There might be. Most of the primordials are dead or eternally imprisoned, though, so there’s not much chance of asking.

    Comment by Obdormio — 20 June, 2012 @ 17:59

  13. Dead-dead or Sauron-“I just need a few millenia to catch my wind”-dead?

    Comment by Loki — 20 June, 2012 @ 18:03

  14. Well … that remains to be seen.

    Comment by Obdormio — 20 June, 2012 @ 18:04

  15. DU-DU-DU-fucking-DUNNNN, man! :O

    Comment by Loki — 20 June, 2012 @ 18:11

  16. Hey, it’s a game. You got to have some ancient evil rising up somewhere for the players to stop.

    Comment by Obdormio — 20 June, 2012 @ 18:14

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