Wednesday, November 19, 2008

pillaging the gods

When I first started kicking around ideas for religion in my Cinder campaign I came up with this concept where the gods were basically fake but the divine force behind gods was real. The main idea behind that concept was that I wanted clerics to exist as written while keeping meddlesome uberbeings out of the setting. But more recently I’ve wondered whether this was just being different for the sake of being different. Meddlesome gods are a staple of much of the fiction and myth that forms the narrative underpinnings of D&D type fantasy adventure. In fact, I think the mysterious cloaked stranger in the tavern hiring PC parties for random tasks is probably little more than a watered-down, bastardized version of the patron deity sending a chosen hero on a great quest. When you’re first level and hungry for adventure there’s not much difference between the local Gandalf knockoff and Odin.

And truth be told I’m greatly amused by the prospect of PC ascension to godhood, as outlined in games like SenZar, World of Synnibarr, and Lords of Creation. The various quests for immortality proposed by Mentzer for D&D Masters-level play are pretty cool, too. The old Deities & Demigods even touches upon this subject. But for Cinder’s pantheon known as the Twelve* I’m inspired by the god mechanics of The Field Guide to Encounters. In those rules the gods are powerful but they can be killed through physical, magical, or psionic violence. So tough enough adventurers can kill gods and take their stuff. In order to keep the pantheon from going extinct the gods of the Field Guide automatically draft adventurers of 20th level into their ranks. 95% of the time apotheosis isn’t entirely successful and the mere mortal is killed by the process. The one in twenty who survive are welcomed into the club.

On Cinder I decided that the rate of replacement of gods (from old gods being killed, but new gods being inducted into the fold) tends to keep the pantheon normally between ten and twenty gods strong. Twelve is just the traditional number associated with the group, in much the same way that the local Big Ten football conference now has eleven teams, but the name remains. At the present date in Cinder there are seventeen deities in the Twelve, though four gods form the sub-pantheon of the Four Elemental Lords and one goddess is considered an unwelcome nuisance by the rest of the group (Omnia, who is partially inspired by Eris of the Principia Discordia).

So the pantheon of local gods always has roughly twelve members but over the eons gods die and new gods join the gang. During the course of the history of Cinder the whole pantheon has been replaced multiple times, but never has the entire pantheon been killed in one fell swoop. Instead you have a situation where the seniormost gods remember the good old days when they were the freshmen of the pantheon, while at least some of the new young bucks are trying to figure out ways to get the oldsters killed so they can move up the divine hierarchy. If only some dumbass adventurers could only be convinced that the head of the pantheon was plotting some great evil…

All of which finally brings me around to why I’m currently reading my copy of Gods, Demi-Gods & Heroes. I seem to have wrote myself into a campaign world littered with the corpses of dead gods. Where did all their cool stuff go? Clearly items like Mjolnir are buried deep in some dungeon, ripe for the taking! Peppered throughout the text are lots and lots of weird uber-powered stuff that would never make an appearance in a more respectable campaign world. Some of it I’m going to reserve for the current pantheon. Clearly they would have a vested interest in keeping this crap out of the hands of adventurers. But they can’t account for every shiny doo-dad in the book.

And then there’s the spell-fodder. Lots of gods have really neat abilities that can’t be duplicated by mortals. Until now. Taking inspiration from 3.5’s Ur-Priest prestige class, arcane casters who hijack divine powers, and the Soul Hunters, those guys from Babylon 5 who collect the souls of the dead, I’m positing a cabal of magic-users who are able to siphon off deific power at the time of a god’s death. So for example the sun-god Tonatuh can summon d4 fire elementals per turn. Upon Tonatuh’s death these wizards might have been able to steal this ability to make a new spell, maybe I’ll call it Word of Tonatuh, that achieves the same effect. Obviously, that’s going to be a pretty high level spell, maybe even higher than ninth. But these weirdos can make scrolls of it anyway.

*More properly this pantheon is called “the Twelve and the Four”. Although the shortened version is common in everyday speech, priests of the Four Elemental Lords get annoyed at their gods being truncated in the name of brevity. Sometimes the pantheon is called “the Twelve and the Four and the Thousand” or “the Twelve and the Thousand”. The Thousand are lesser not-quite-gods. Local spirits and fairies are lumped in with them, as are demons. The Thousand have no organized clergy (unless, like some faithful, you consider the Frog Gods of Chaos to be members of the Thousand), but they are sometimes mentioned in some liturgies and honored at special festivals and local holy days. This business about the number twelve, four, and one thousand explains why the number 1,016 is considered sacred by the faith.