Monday, May 7, 2012

"I am a Golden God"

I finally got around to reading that letter from Gary Gygax in Alarums and Excursions (July 1975) that was making the internet rounds recently.

There's are a handful of marginally interesting historical insights in it (full text here), but the one that I fixated on was this one about a religion in the original Greyhawk campaign: "I recall...that in Greyhawk we do not have existing religions included, for this is a touchy area. We have such groups as "The Church of the Latter Day Great Old Ones," Church of Crom, Scientist", "Brethren of St. Cuthbert of the Cudgel", and so on."

Google searches revealed Mike Mornard saying on Big Purple that he started those running jokes with neutral characters going to the "First Church of Crom, Scientist", Lawful characters being "Mitra's Witnesses", and “Chaotic characters belonged to the "Church of the Latter Day Great Old Ones" (nee Lovecraft)." Further searches had Rob Kuntz confirming the actual existence on the Greyhawk city map of the both the Crom and Old Ones temples. 

It's hard not to love that bit from before fantasy gaming became Serious Business. The mix of pulp fantasy with absurd humor hits a sweet spot and reminded me of how vaguely disappointed I was about the mostly dullish deities revealed in Dragon magazine circa 1983. We had been playing in our own corner of the published setting for almost three years already with a strange and eclectic mix of gods and the like, the canonical “newcomers” seemed so anti-climatic.

I have written before about how religion in the Hill Cantons campaign tends to distantly mirror my own all-over-the-place ambivalence with a (mostly gentle) emphasis on the human vanity and absurdity aspects.

Recently we even had the introduction of a somewhat cargo-cultish brand of medieval Catholicism thanks to the battlefield conversion of an evil high priest by the interdimensionally-hopping Father Jack. Vatek, son of Vatek, is not the best of listeners and throwing into the mix his rarely sober spiritual mentor and lack of doctrinal materials, he's created a rather distorted, dionysiac mystery-religion version of worship of the “Blood Jesus.” With nun-maenads and a small flock gathering around him I am sure this is going nowhere serious.

That the events above were player-triggered gets me around to my second point. One of the exceptions to my disappointment with the Greyhawk canonical deities were the “quasi-deities”, mythic heroes just below demi-gods in status. Some of them were explicitly mentioned as having been PCs in the original campaign such as the gunslinger and swordsman Murlynd, a character of TSR co-founder Don Kaye.

Those mentions and the half-page section in the first DDG on “Divine Ascension” (which is a surprisingly easy if power-gamey process by the book) totally grabbed us at the time. Our “end game” was never really about carving out a wilderness hold—though we did that—but about that megalomanical drive to ascend to demi-god status. In retrospect it seems nuts, but it was there and there in spades in how we played around that time.

Now obviously the BECMI series would come along and institutionalize that as the ultimate power arc, but do others remember the earlier reach for the stars? Did it play a role, even if just a distant and never-obtained carrot (as it was for us, fortunately)?  


  1. I like the concept of clerics being those "men and women of faith" whose faith is never quite understood. Each cleric could, in effect, start his own little religion when he builds his stronghold, thus throwing all of those mini-cults into competition mirroring the competition of all the palatinate baronies being established by the high level fighters.

    1. I really like this and I think it fits in well with the implied setting of AD&D. The DDG placed a lot of emphasis on how the number of followers on the prime generated the power for gods (indeed having a body of worshipers was one of the steps to divine ascension). Definitely fits well with the zealot description of high-level clerics.

  2. I recall back in the day that we occasionally had godhood obtained but was always more along the lines of Star Trek or comic books--a random encounter leading to a strange event--than something gamed for. And like in those sources, it tended to be not everything it appeared to be. I do like the ascension endgame as an in-world thing to drive adventuring, though.

    1. Oh, and nice callback to Hammer of the Gods. :)

    2. I was torn between posting a golden idol from South Asia or just going straight for the Plant. Zeppelin won.

    3. Interestingly in the DDG becoming a demi-god really was an "end game" full stop. Unlike with domain clearing, it explicitly says the character must be handed over to the DM.

  3. Totally, totally, totally aimed for demi-god status. Totally, totally, totally always died first.

  4. "That would be an ecumenical matter."

    In the games where I was a player, it was crashingly obvious we would never make it to that stratum. Our chief foe in one of our 1e games, though, that was another matter. He (played by the DM, obviously..) systematically began killing off high ranking priests of any and all deities he could find. He then, already growing in power, had the citizens of Europe's largest cities build large structures of mysterious purpose. They turned out to be enormous summoning 'circles' which gated in Xill and decimated all the people.
    This left him as the only remaining individual with worshippers.. thus conferring on him godhood as the only remaining deity in existence.

  5. At the end of my long running Kastmaria campaign, one player attained godhood and two others hit the equivalent of Quasi-deity, or Hero-deity, or something.

  6. Oh, absolutely! We were hell bent for leather to reach godhood.

  7. I must've read that DDG bit about ascending to godhood and then forgotten it, only to become convinced years later that the whole point of DnD was that ascent... and that I preferred to play Nephilim if I wanted to do that. Shlubhood-to-godhood remains fundamental to how I see leveling up.

    And no, I never actually got to play the game that way at all - it was the framework I imagined our grubby little murderhoboing worked inside, but we never saw anything past about 8th level.

    In that regard it worked quite remarkably like real world religion ;)

    Regarding not being able to work outside your own world-view - that's of course one of the main ideas of postmodernism, and even anthropologists and novelists and so on have come to this realisation (although I'm not sure what they believe they see "outside their world-view" that allows them to make this judgment that the world is of course bigger than what they can see...). But it seems to me especially clear/important/restricting for DMs and designers of RPGs because:

    An RPG is a framework for conversational improvisation. That framework has to "make sense" to the DM and players, in order for anyone to take actions within it and anticipate the consequences of those actions. Players must think of actions and DMs must think of results for those actions which the players will accept as being reasonable. And making sense/being reasonable generally means agreeing with one's preconceptions.

    Note: that does not have to be the case; any setup that is self-consistent can make sense even if it is made out of quite alien ingredients - speculative fiction strives towards this goal regularly, and strictly limited games like chess or othello can make sense out of any arbitrary nonsensical rules because they do not seek to model the real world and their rulings are non-improvisational - but the free form of RPGs tends to militate against such speculation in the realm of the "physics" of the game. And although religion is generally a matter of metaphysics, at the point at which it affects player choices, or the behaviour of characters in the world, it becomes in-game "physics."

    ...and any time you try to introduce a truly unfamiliar element, you are throwing your players a curve and demanding they sit and work through your explanation. I remember rejecting Talislanta outright because I just wanted to get on and play and I didn't want to try to understand 32 new races and classes straight off. I'm maybe ready for Tekumel now, but I know it involves a big investment up front and I'm unlikely to agree with any particular DM's interpretation when we actually come to play so I'll spend a lot of time being a tourist in the world until I feel confident about how it works. That's not a bad thing - it can lead to truly great games - but it is a barrier to entry (and everyone knows that so I'll stop there).