Sunday, May 21, 2017

Dungeons and Dragons, "Setting" part 3

            I have played Dungeons and Dragons for more than 15 years.  Lately, I have only just started playing again with any regularity, but I still have numerous ideas and want to use my blog as a creative outlet.  This is going to be a reoccurring thing as I just keep hammering out things and not all of them can be turned into elements in my “random fantasy novel ideas” folder.

What Have I Got: What a Wonderful World
            Last time I talked about borrowing from history.  That the eras as we think of them today were vast, both in length of time and in how big the area they refer to could be and to adapt them with that in mind.  What you consider the core or best aspects of a historical era might not even register with someone else.
            I also talked about the importance of ambiguity.  When introducing characters, places, and events to your world you want different people in the world to have different assumptions and dispositions toward those elements.  Maybe no one knows exactly what happened or why, only that the fallout from the events was so bad that everyone forgot what started it.
            The idea here is sort of a continuation from those in part one, when I talked about using published campaign settings and borrowing elements from other areas of fiction for adaptation.  All of this is very top down and broad strokes.  So, let’s look at something specific, Religion.
            I should warn you, occasionally this blog reads like the mad ramblings of someone who has tried to condense the topic of religion into less than 2,500 words.  Cause it is that.

Wrath of the Gods: Getting by with the Bare Minimum
            Dungeons and Dragons, in its most common incarnations embraces the idea of a pantheon of gods.  A collection of powerful entities that either created the universe or embody aspects of it.  This is in the same concept as the religious traditions of Ancient Greece, Ancient Egypt, the Norse, and even Modern Hinduism to an extent.
            In many ways, the game is set up for this sort of thing.  Having a collection of very real and very personal gods that regularly interact with mortals, jockey for position against each other, form alliances and break them with aplomb, all of this is the sort of classic drama that forms… Well, the Classics.
            In many stories of heroism or tragedy in Ancient Greek plays gods would appear, cause trouble or instigate a conflict, watch as it played out picking favorites and twisting circumstances, and often the power of the gods was what ultimately settled many conflicts.  The literary term “Deus ex Machina” means “God from the Machine” and refers to a literal crane used to lower an actor or statue playing the “god” onto stages back in Greece so that the character of Zeus of Athena could use their power and wisdom to resolve the play’s conflict and deliver the moral.  By modern conventions I imagine many of these plays to be kind of shit.

            Much of what we understand about heroic adventures (at least in Western Civilization) comes from stories taken from Greece.  The search for the Golden Fleece, with prominent supporting character of Hercules; the defeat of the Sphinx and subsequent mother sexing by Oedipus, caused by trying to thwart prophecy; and the supreme mother of all heroic epics in the West, the Iliad in which numerous demi-gods, numerous gods, and numerous mortal heroes and heads of state clash because of events set into motion over a beauty contest held by the gods.
            Gods, insane with power and capricious in their dealings with mortals are a big part of how heroic fantasy is conceived of and having a handful of these guys floating around to use as quest givers, reasons for cults, patrons for Paladins and Clerics, or just to have something to write parables about is important for how the world works.
            You can have a world in which no one is a demi-god and no one has ever seen a god face to face (welcome to Earth), but people will still believe in something.  It is human nature.  Better to have this kind of idea spelled out ahead of time instead of just trying to wing it, religious improve can be all over the place and have questionable continuity that can lead to conflict (again, welcome to Earth).

           You’ll need a gaggle of Gods.  That sounds silly, because the term for a large group of gods is “host” not gaggle.  Let’s move forward with these small assumptions, “There is a pantheon,” “The pantheon is all inclusive,” “There is no monotheism or other system of belief that denies the existence of any particular god,” and “Different groups emphasize the worship of different particular gods”.

The Gods Must be Crazy: Using What You Know
            This is where you have a choice to make, much like with using published materials in the Forgotten Realms or Greyhawk it is very easy to just pick a real-life Pantheon (I recommend using something that is not currently being worshiped to avoid offending someone who thinks you are making fun of their faith) and going with that.
            It is easy to say GREEK and everyone role with Zeus and Co.  You have plenty of legends you can work from and bend them to your own understanding.  You can do what Hollywood has been doing with them for years via scraping the bottom of the Public Domain barrel.

I am going to link to where I got this image, which is a blog about mythology.
However, this image is taken from the 3rd edition of "Deities and Demigods", a Dungeons and Dragons manual.
           Maybe you want Zeus to be past the horny days of his youth and looking to act more as a wise mentor to the younger gods who are coming into their own.  Maybe Zeus has left Olympus and now a divine civil war might break out between Athena and Poseidon over who is the new head of heaven.  Maybe you want things to be early in the timeline, and you want the Titans to be in charge, in which case you are going to have to explain why humans are not in their pre-Prometheus state of having four arms, four legs, and two faces.
            Maybe a reinterpretation is all the fun a creative exercise you want, but you might run into a player who is a Classics nerd who wants you to stick to the legends and might get cross when you don’t, the same sort of argumentative BS I mentioned as a potential issue with published campaign settings only in miniature.
            In all honesty, this can be plenty of fun and if your campaign world all takes place in an area that is a tight grouping of city states like the Greek Islands were, each with a patron god and all pushing to be king of the hill this will save you a lot of time.  It can also be a lot of fun when taken out of that setting.  Imagine Ancient Greek Gods but during a different era of history, I do not know how the Protestant Reformation would look different with the Greek Pantheon as the point of contention, but just that sentence alone could spawn a series of fantasy/alternate history novels.

Going a Step Further: Making Stuff Up
            If the easiest thing you can do is take a something that already exists and squish it up to your heart’s content so that it feels like your own, please do.  That’s what Rome did with the Greek Gods and people didn’t needle them about it.  But let’s try and do something that is both easier and more difficult, making up your own stuff.
            It is surprisingly easy to make up names for gods, Grisonant, Malpropre, Cul, Putain, and Autres.  You can just put a word into a translator and pick French to kick out some “names” that will have a vague context but be exotic enough to sound like… something.
            I would recommend having at least 5 gods, especially if you are going to be using the Alignment axis for morality in the world.  A god for each of the corners and the center square will allow any Cleric in Third edition to play any alignment and have clear guidance as to who they want to follow.  Here are five Greyhawk gods to serve as examples: Heironeous-LG, Kord-CG, Hextor-LE, Lolth-CE, and Boccob-N.
            You can then differentiate locations and nations by the names they use for the gods, sure Heironeous is called that in your campaign’s Paris-espy, but in London-espy they refer to Heironeous as Uther, and in Amsterdam-espy they call him Vangaret, and in Spain-espy he is Cid.  Whatever your starting point, no matter how few gods there are, people will still go to war about what the “right” name is, the proper headgear to be worn during services, or whether the Sabbath in on Saturday or Sunday.
            It is easy to create tension between the gods; it is perhaps even easier to create conflict within individual churches or fine details.
Honestly, you could create an entire pantheon based off of the Warcraft art you find by googling random fantasy names.
            Much like covering the basics of the alignment chart there is also the issue of covering lots of different things in the world.  God of Mountains, God of Time, God of Doors, God of Poetry, God of Fishermen, God of Fire, God of War, God of guys named Terry.  You can make as many gods as you want, but with fewer gods it might be best to make big ideas the baseline.
            Mother Nature could be a god of seasons, wild animals, trees, and fertility.  Dagon, god of the oceans, storms, secrets, and omens.  Moloch, god of war, fire, metalwork, and passion.  Discord, god of madness, humor, entropy, and dreams.  Cronus, god of time and space.  Think of all the things covered with just those 5 names.  Did anything feel left out?  Did anything feel incongruous?  Did anything feel unnecessary?  Are you offended that I listed Discord as a patron of dreams instead of Princess Luna?
"Oooh, Dream Weaver, I believe you can get me thru the night!"

            Gods are allowed to seem strange, they are gods.  They are big and powerful and jealous of everything.  They snap up being gods of anything and everything because they want power.  You might have a god of trickery, who is also the god of mice, odd numbers, clowns, and other useless shit.
            Those stupid little bends can be a lot of fun and add a lot of funny little chuckles at the game table, for instance: In a post-apocalyptic world, there is a shrine to a god of the woodlands, his symbol and form are of an unassuming mythical creature, they were called “squirrels” … or maybe it is “ducks” which is the word for a reptile with a shell on its back?  Not that it matters, they are all gone now.
The god of the "squirrels" or possible "ducks".

One Step Forward and One Step to the Side
            Rather than make a whole new pantheon whole cloth let’s instead do a combination of both borrowing and building.  There are numerous cultural figures that people see in Americana, we see them as symbols or totems in displays of strength and wisdom, but if we were to find these statues in the ruins of an ancient civilization we would label them gods without question.  Let me throw out some.
            Let’s take a quick moment to say, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and Teddy Roosevelt have their faces carved into a mountain.  A mountain that was considered a holy place centuries before the US ever existed.  They’re deified to a comical extent, let’s move past that though, because that might cause some uncomfortable reflecting on the absurd levels American Exceptionalism operates on.  So, let’s exclude real people.
People make jokes that there is no more room on Mount Rushmore.
I always took that statement too literally and replied with, "Yes, there is, it is a huge god damn mountain".
            Lady Liberty is the largest statue in the world.  She is not a real person, but never the less has a decree written in giant letters and carries a symbol of what she is and does.  She is a God.
            Justice, a blind woman waving around a sword in a courthouse is not a real person, but (and here is a fun thing) aside from being a woman and representing Justice, she is totally different than the Greek gods of Themis and Dike whom she was originally based.  For instance, American Justice is only blind because she was drawn that way to mock how ineffective the Justice system is, and somehow that was taken as part of the package and sold as a positive!?
            Though I suppose Justice’ blindness could be a direct subversion as the Ancient Greeks had the belief that beautiful people were chosen by the gods and thus “proved” their moral superiority by stripping in court, so they would sometimes have the equivalents of judges and juries look away to keep their objectivity.

            Uncle Sam is a combination of multiple figures in Americana, mostly Lincoln obviously, but he is effectively a god, especially when he is explored in DC comics as having magical powers tied to idealized notions of America, like living in a mythical extradimensional place called “the Heartland”.
            How about the Eagle we see everywhere?  With a shield, an olive branch, and a claw full of arrows?  Nobody want to call that a symbol of divinity?
            Let’s move beyond the positive ones, how about Slender Man?  An otherworldly terror that hunts children in the night and has no face but many hands?  Sounds like something from mythology.
            Then there are figures like the Man in the Moon, Santa Claus, or the Grim Reaper.  All of these things have domains over the night, generosity and good cheer, or freaking DEATH.  How about Lady Luck?  Or Bigfoot?  His symbol of course being a plaster cast of a really big footprint.

            The question of, “What strange fictional characters keep showing up in our culture that could be reverse engineered into a mythology?”  You know, like how Abraham Lincoln fought vampires, freed the slaves, and then died for our sins; that is why they rebuilt a wonder of the world with Lincoln in the place of Zeus.
Seriously, this is meant to evoke the Statue of Zeus, one of the original 7 Wonders of the World.

The Future: I have to write a more dedicated series on this
            I have plenty of ideas of how to outline and develop more substantive religious material in a fantasy setting, I will write about that down the line in what will perhaps be far too long a series of blogs.  If this entry has been a little lacking on the nuts and bolts that is by design, this is more about ruminating on the basics of drawing inspiration and seeing how you could borrow and adapt existing stuff or make subtle permutations to ideas you have.

The Beg for Attention:
            This is an incredibly shallow look at the topic of religion, this is done deliberately.  Religion as it is depicted in fantasy gaming could be several blog entries all its own (I have already started kicking around a better plotted series of entries for just that purpose).  As someone who owns a copy of “God’s Breath” and has had my entire adult life affected by people’s incredibly poor grasp of religion, I prefer to keep it shallow.
            Real life religion is a lightning rod for misinterpretation and crazy.  To me, it doesn’t matter what you believe, so long as you follow some variation of the Golden Rule, and it is important to know, that no matter how black and misery inducing any act of heresy is derided for being, some asshole is going to go whole hog into the practice of worshiping it.
            Real life religion is complex, deep, arcane, and keeping this topic light is key to enjoying it in the context of a game.  Keep it light and have fun.

First Impressions 5th Edition
            Since we are talking about religion I thought I would point to a monster that is all about starting strange cults to gods that do not exist and somehow still getting super powers from doing so, the Kuo Toa.  Why did I want to focus on them and not something more substantive like demons?  Because this picture of the default Kuo Toa is adorable.
"Welcome to weekend cult services.  Can I interest you in a Sprite?  It is my favorite soda."

            Because of the necklace and face things I keep thinking he is giving me some thumbs up.  To see if I was alone in this common mistake I did another facebook poll of a RPG group I belong to and see if anyone else shares my illusion about this Fish Man being so encouraging.  Apparently, they can at least see where I am coming from.


            If you like or hate this please take the time to comment, +1, share on Twitter, Tumblr, or Facebook, and otherwise distribute my opinion to the world.  I would appreciate it.

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