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?

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