This article deals in subjects that are sensitive issues to a lot of people. Everything contained within is written from a roleplaying context and no judgements are intended regarding the validity of any individual perspective on theology or on any social issues that may be referred to; no offence is intended. It’s just a game, people.
Deus-Ex-Machina is a term describing the sudden appearance of an unexpected way out of a difficult situation – literally, Divine Intervention. The term is latin in origin, but actually derives from Greek Drama in which a God would appear from off-stage to resolve the plot. In game terminance, it generally refers to an NPC appearing from nowhere to solve the problem and save the PCs bacon.
I chose the title for this week’s article very carefully. I’m not going to spend a lot of time going into the many reasons why Deus-Ex-Machinas are bad for a campaign; suffice it to say that they are damaging to a campaign in all manner of ways, from harming the plausibility of the campaign to minimising the significance of the PCs, and that this damage persists long after the actual event is history, slowly poisoning the campaign. Any reader who is not convinced as to this statement being true need only look at the list of “other benefits” that conclude this article and consider the alternative.
It follows that any monkey wrench thrown into the apparatus of divine meddling is a good thing. The more Impotent any Omnipotence can be rendered, the more protected from the use and abuse of such authority the campaign is.
As a general rule of thumb, there are only two real ways of limiting Divine Omnipotence: Keeping the Gods at arm’s length, or restricting the power that they can wield.
The first keeps the Gods as an abstract presence that cannot interact with the campaign and never could; this works, but only by sacrificing some of the flavour of the fantastic within the campaign. There are times and campaigns when that is appropriate and the best choice; in general, the more gritty and realistic the setting, the more appropriate this option becomes. This is the better choice for Pulp campaigns, Cyberpunk campaigns, hard sci-fi campaigns, most wild-west campaigns, superspy campaigns, and even low-level superhero and fantasy campaigns.
This is not an appropriate choice for campaigns in which that flavour of the fantastic is to be a central element; the price is too high. Most Fantasy Campaigns, High-power Superhero Campaigns, Horror Campaigns, even the occasional wild-west campaign or superspy campaigns can’t keep the Gods at arm’s length, and that means restricting the power that they can wield becomes necessary to avoid the damage caused by those pesky Deus-Ex-Machinas (pedantic side-note: technically, the plural is Dei-Ex-Machina. Observe it closely if you’re fussy because it’s the last time I’ll be using it).
Can’t think of a wild west campaign or superspy campaign where up-close-and-personal divine manisfestations would be appropriate? Here are three suggestions, plus a Hard-SF/Cyberpunk one, for your consideration:
Wild West Genre: a campaign in which the Native American Gods are real and active in opposing the invasion by white men. In a left-wing/humanist version, the PCs would be Indians, and the Gods would be good. In a right-wing/funadamentalist christian vesion, the ‘Gods’ might be devils and demons sent to lead the Indians astray, and the PCs would play White Men. In a balanced and more interesting version (from my perspective), both would be right from their point of view – the missionaries and educated white men would be doing what they think is the right thing, and the Indians and their Gods would also be right from their point of view, and there would be room for the whole panoply of human flaws on both sides, and no easy answers.
Superspies Genre I: Those notions lead naturally to the first Superspy Genre idea: The PCs come from a “Divine” Intelligence agency like Opus Dei and are constantly engaged in a battle with spies and intelligence agents of a Demonic bent.
Superspies Genre II: You could also have a less theologically-insensitive version by doing a superspies subgenre within a typical fantasy campaign setting. In such a campaign, you can either use a Fantasy Genre set of rules like D&D and provide house rules for the ‘superspies’ componant, or use a Spy Genre set of rules like Top Secret, and house-rule fantasy rules into the mix. The latter subordinates the campaign style to the genre, the latter subordinates the game setting to the intended campaign style but would be more work to set up.
Hard-SF/Cyberpunk Genres: A great way to bring virtual reality “to life” in a campaign is to run it as an independant game setting, possibly even with a completely different set of game rules. Integrating them can be tricky, but if you can manage that, it really does make simulated reality feel different. In this context, Gods would be SysOps and Hackers.
Okay, so assuming that you are on-board with the need to restrict Divine Power, lets get to the meat of this article: practical methods of doing so.
You can only meddle in a situation if you know it’s happening. An extremely effective means of limiting Divine Omnipotence in your games is to restrict the Gods’ knowledge of events.
If the Gods know no more than they see with their own two eyes, and any activities they otherwise involve themselves in, the problem of Omniscience is definitlly solved. Effectively, this reduces the Gods to nothing more than powerful mortals. But this is a fairly extreme solution, and might not always be the most appropriate for a campaign as a result.
One use I have for the Gods in my fantasy is to make narration interactive with the Players. They give me an avenue for bringing aspects of a situation to the PCs attention that they appear to have neglected to consider and providing a broader perspective to events in the game – usually after the fact, but sometimes I’ll use them to impose additional difficulties to a situation that would otherwise be too simply resolved. Instead of me preaching to or lecturing the players, this moves the interaction to a character-level mode, which is inherantly more interesting to them because they get to roleplay it.
A complete absence of Omniscience severely curtails the viability of this Divine Meta-game Function, so this is too extreme a solution for most of my campaigns.
So, if Omniscience is to be present, but limited, it then becomes necessary to define one or more restrictions placed apon it. In reality, even in games where the Gods are considered Omniscient, there is usually at least one limitation placed on them: they don’t know what the “opposition” are doing.
The balance of this section of the article will examine ways of restricting Omniscience to managable limits.
Can’t Be Everywhere
The most basic restriction – the Gods can be anywhere, see anything – but only one thing, and one place, at a time. This is only a slightly broader solution than the total lack of Omniscience, but it works; it is essentially the omniscience restriction imposed on Sauron in The Lord Of The Rings, though that also implies that there are areas into which the Eye cannot see. Thus, while Sauron could monitor the comings and goings from Rivendell or Lothlorien, he could not ‘listen in’ on (or lipread) the discussion at the Council Of Elrond.
The Eyes Of The Faithful
Perhaps the Gods can only “see” through the eyes of the Faithful. Of course, they have millennia of experience apon which to draw in interpreting what they have seen, and they would automatically integrate this knowledge into a “bigger picture” perspective. They would, logically, also be restricted by their Intelligence in their ability to deduce implications and forecast consequences. This restriction means that the Gods are as capable of surprise as Mortals, and offers one solution to the question of why Gods need followers at all.
Perhaps the Gods can only see into the here-and-now, and are incapable of looking into the future or past. That forces them to make judgements based on the immediate problem, and let tomorrow’s problems be tomorrow’s tasks.
This invalidates or renders dubious some of the standard spells in D&D. A less constrictive version of this moderates the clarity of past and present perception – the farther away from the here-and-now, the greater the fog of uncertainty. Although it never came out in the course of play, this was one of the restrictions I placed on the Gods in my Rings Of Time campaign.
Actually, in that campaign, I went one step further, and permitted the Gods to have greater levels of perception when it came to their own domains – so the Goddess Of Life could see a birth many years after the fact, but could not see the intervening maturation of the individual, unless she had ‘looked in’ on that person from time to time along the way. And there is only so much time available for doing that – at one person a second, if a God does nothing else, they can monitor 86,400 people, less if they have to sleep, much less if they want to actually DO something in the course of the day. At a minute per person, the total drops to 1,440 – again, less if they have to sleep.
This restriction can be TOO confining; if that’s the case, consider permitting the God to have a restricted number of Avatars, but permitting each Avatar to act independantly, so that the God can do multiple things at the same time (within limits). But that opens a whole can of worms – what’s to stop multiple Avatars from forming a “Hit Squad” to achieve some end? Well, perhaps there can only be one present at any given place at once – but that then raises the questions of “how close is too close?” and “what happens if one gets too close to another?”.
One limitation that is really overdue for discussion in this article is the notion of Divine Fallability. This can come in either of two forms:
- The Gods cannot act effectively until it becomes impossible for them to make a mistake, relying on mortals to create the opportunity for them to act; hence, they are impotent do-nothings most of the time, occasionally emerging as glory-grabbing over-the-top scene stealers, certain to provoke resentment in all but their Devoted Faithful. Grim and Dark, a campaign moulded on this premise might be entertaining for a while but might not have a lot of longevity – but would definitely appeal to some subcultures within the ranks of gamers.
- The Gods are fallable and can make mistakes – errors of judgement, of interpretation, of execution. A cynic might add that they have become adept at Spinning these failures to retain the trust of the Faithful, though I prefer a more honest approach in which they reveal the truth to selected followers and servants.
If the gods never/rarely act because they are afraid of the consequences of error, they are effectively restricted, no matter how omnipotent they might be. The less Omnipotent they are made in the GM’s campaign, the more active – and interactive – they have scope to become. That’s an important general principle for GMs to bear in mind when creating their campaigns.
Another approach that can be taken to the restriction of Omniscience is the granting of Omniscient Hindsight to the Gods. This alternative is the ultimate distillation of the concept of Divine Narration that I described earlier.
It becomes even more interesting if the Gods are completely incapable of forecasting the future at all – they then become completely dependant on mortals, who prognosticate all the time. Of course, give two different people the same set of circumstances and let them make their own assumptions, and you will usually get two entirely different forecasts, and two entirely different plans of action stemming from those forecasts. The more obvious a future circumstance is, the more the Gods can act regarding it – but most of those obvious forecasts relate to relatively trivial matters.
The more diverse the opinions, even if the Gods can choose apon which they act, the more likely they are to restrict how they react. This concept really subordinates the Gods to Mortals, and hence to the PCs; they become akin to a hair-trigger pit bull, who can be unleashed on command but usually shouldn’t be, a trump card that can be dangerous if misplayed – a six-year-old with his fingers on the Nuclear Trigger. A campaign modelled on this concept would quickly evolve into a narrative on power weilded clumsily, with characters continually scrambling to limit the unwanted consequences of the last meddling by the Gods. While this might be amusing, even diverting, for a time, I suspect that it would grow frustrating and then annoying after a while.
Alternatively, it might be that the Gods simply become more hesitant and diffident with increasing uncertainty. This avoids all the hair-trigger calamities of the previous paragraph, but it means that the more critical the situation, the more the Gods will leave it to mortals (read: the PCs) to resolve. I’ve never used this particular solution, but it holds a lot of obvious appeal; the Gods can intervene to fix a broken bootlace or resolve any other trivial inconvenience, but the whole point of empowering mortals is so that they can deal with the important decisions – and their consequences.
The last section has drifted the discussion from restrictions of omniscience to restrictions of Omnipotence, so let’s continue down that path.
Where do the Gods get their power?
Way back in December 2008 I posted an article dealing with the value of asking Big Questions in RPGs, prompted by the fact that I had been ruminating on the question “What is the Soul?” for one of my campaigns – you can read that article here: A Quality Of Spirit. This is an article that I have often referred readers to in subsequent posts, because these metaphysical questions frame the objective reality within a campaign, and hence the subjective experience of players participating in that campaign.
So here we have another of those Big Questions, and the answers will have a substantial impact on the campaign. There are, in essence, four different answers.
Sources Of Divine Power: The Faith Of The Living
I’ll address this one first, because it’s one that Johnn touched on in his comments for the “Big Questions” article.
If souls are the currency of the Gods, the Gods are empowered by Faith. There are two variations on this concept: one in which it is the Faith of the living that grants Divine power, and one in which it is the faith of the Dead that grants Divine Power.
The first is hardly a new concept: I first heard it expressed in the early 80s by Mike Welles, a sometimes-GM and frequent player in D&D games, and who was a player in my first D&D campaigns and one of the founding players of my Superhero campaign. His point at the time was that this explained why Missionaries and Conversions from one faith to another mattered, and why Heresies were so despised – a Heretic is denying the God the Power. From this perspective, the only reason the Gods grant Clerics power is to enable them to protect the existing followers of that God and to persuade new Converts.
A simple one-to-one relationship between the number of living worshippers and the number of XP that the god posesses is possible: one Faithful = 1 xp. This defines immediatly what power level a deity can access – and makes certain deities extremely powerful. Goblin Hordes equal great power for the Goblin Deity – and there is a certain intellectual and perverse pleasure in such an inversion of the usual power heirarchy within an RPG.
Another variation on this concept that is more faithful to the standard structure is to key the relationship to the Wisdom of the Followers – which explains why the Wisest characters get tapped to be clerics and priests and paladins; in effect, the god is bribing them with power to remain loyal.
And a third postulates a new characteristic, Fanaticism – capped at 40-minus-INT or something like that – to which this relationship is keyed. This works especially well for Moorcock-styled campaigns in which cults worshipping Mad Gods empower those Gods sufficiently to compensate for the greater numbers of more moderate Faithful of the mainstream, while still retaining the connection between the Elite Faithful and the Gods that empower them.
Ultimately, these are all Generator analagies – the Faithful acting as Generators of Divine Power that can be tapped by the God.
Sources Of Divine Power: The Faith Of The Dead and Dying
The alternative is for Souls to be, more literally, the currency of the Gods. At the moment of death, a God claims the power of a specific soul based on the fidelity of worship of the mortal at the moment of death.
I’ve heard this proposal used to explain the power of Necromancy in games, and a measure of the power that a soul generates under this paradygm is the power of Liches and Vampires (okay, so the latter have been reportedly wussified in 4e, but you get the idea). When lesser undead are created, part of the power goes into reviving the dead, but most of it can be drawn off and used by the creating agency – and all of it is (effectively) being stolen from the God who should have recieved it.
Adopting a chemical battery analogy yields this solution, which is also frequently combined with the first Faith-as-power proposal. Another couple of GMs of my acquantance, in another of the bull sessions that don’t seem to happen as frequently these days (possibly because it takes a lot longer to write something than it does to toss an idea out verbally), mooted that interesting consequences result if the souls are actually consumed by the process. This actually draws apon Ancient Egyptian theology, which divides the Soul up into multiple parts – one of which goes on to the afterlife, and others which do not (and which can therefore be used for other purposes).
I’ve employed this specific solution in my Shards Of Divinity campaign; in order to utilise their powers, the Gods have to consume some of their stockpiles of power, and if they don’t have enough, they have to kill off some more of their worshippers to make up the shortfall. (I also use an attenuated version of the Faith Of The Living power source). But that’s an Evil campaign, the concept doesn’t work so well in normal campaigns.
Sources Of Divine Power: Prayer & Sacrifice
This can actually be considered an indirect version of the first set of Faith-of-the-living solutions offered above. Each Prayer, Sacrifice, or other appropriate Act of devotion empowers the God in some manner. The God then repays some of these by granting the prayers, to keep the power coming – the chance of which is obviously enhanced by devotions that are at least proportionate to the request.
This brings up new questions for consideration – can this power be stored, or must it be used immediately or lost? If it can be stored, can this be done at 100% efficiency – or is there a loss? What can the power be stored in? Can stored power be used by others? Can it be stolen? As it has a Spiritual context, can it be contaminated or twisted? What happens if it is?
The answers to these questions will affect the behaviour of the Gods, the behaviour they demand of their worshippers, and hence the nature of theology-related adventures that the PCs have.
Sources Of Divine Power: Internal
The next most obvious source of Divine Power is that the Gods generate it themselves – they can do whatever they want with it once they have done so, but are limited by the fact that consumption is faster than generation. A God can do a lot of little things, or can store up his powers for big flashy shows, or can adopt a middle course.
This model assumes that the God is somehow still tied to his worshippers, still dependant on them in some respect, and hence has to occasionally do something to keep them faithful. The form of this link then becomes a vital element in the relationship between Flock and Faith.
While there are a number of possible answers to this need, the best I’ve found is that the God stores his internally-generated power within the faithful by the process of their worship, and also within the structures and artifacts of the faith. He can generate it internally, but can’t store it up himself – he needs his worshippers for that.
While there is no need to do so, it is possible to extrapolate on this premise to make a campaign built on this concept more unique by speculating on what being so “charged up” does for a character – or what having the charge consumed by the deity does, depending apon which state is considered the “baseline” described by the character sheet. The first confers some extra ability or advantage on almost everyone some of the time, the latter imposes some extra penalty at times.
As a GM who strives to keep his games balanced, the latter holds greater appeal to me, but I suspect that it would cause problems with players unless clearly explained in advance to them (and possibly even then). The latter, on the other hand, can be managed by altering the duration described by the phrase “some of the time”. But you may have more tolerant players.
Sources Of Divine Power: External
The final source of Divine Power, logically, is something else external to the God. Frankly, this alternative combines many of the worst aspects of several of the above alternatives; it doesn’t connect the Gods with their Worshippers, it doesn’t explain any particular aspect of the campaign universe like Clericism or Necromancy, it leaves the Power of the Gods restricted in some fairly inchoate and abstract ways instead of offering menaingful limits… it’s not my preferred answer. (It works great for Mages, though).
Nevertheless, it’s a viable answer to the need to restrict Omnipotence, which is the primary objective; every shortcoming listed in the previous paragraph is just the absence of an ‘extra’ that comes free with the other solutions.
An Alternative: The Limited Conveyance Of Power
So far, the alternatives considered have all been direct limits on the amount of power available to the Gods, simply because that bears the most direct relationship to the capabilitied that we wish to restrict. But that is not the only constraining mechanism that can be used to achieve our goals, so -having disposed of the obvious – it is now time to turn our attention to more esoteric constraints.
If divine power all stems from a single external source, perhaps an electrical metaphor is inappropriate. A better analagy might be that of a hose of fixed volume and current; the more this is divided up amongst a number of gods, the less power each has, but if there are too few, the hose experiences excessive pressure, triggering a ‘relief valve’ that elevates someone else to divine power levels – as depicted in the illustration.
This concept produces a generational model amongst the Gods in which they are constantly fighting amongst themselves for a greater share of the available power, diminishing their numbers, while new gods periodically arise to challenge the old. If there are too many Gods – if someone persuades the current generation to ‘give peace a chance’ – individual Gods will be too weak to overcome their enemies. Picture the Greaco-Roman gods with anger management issues (okay, with more extreme anger-management issues) and you will get the idea. Actually, in many ways, this model is also appropriate for the Ancient Egyptian mythos, where alliances are temporary and (in general) it was every God for him- or herself.
This is a restriction on the dispersal of Divine Power, and it would probably be paralelled by a similar restriction in terms of the number of Clerics each deity could or would maintain. You could have a lot of relatively low power priests etc – with a few specimens getting additional boosts – or you could have a relatively small number of very high-powered priests. A single temple can be harder to take down, under this model, than a hundred temples scattered here and there – so Dark Gods might linger in hiding until long after their temples are thought destroyed, only to resurface once again to trouble more mainstream society.
As you can see, this model is rife with adventure possibilities.
An Alternative – A Long Long Way From Home
But this is not the only alternative, either. Perhaps Divine power is more like AM-band Radio Transmission; the gods have powered amplifiers, and are able to pick up at least some signal most of the time, while their followers are like crystal radio sets, able to pick up the transmission only when conditions are exactly right – unless the Gods re-broadcast the signal.
Just as there are a whole range of phenomena that can interrupt, distort, or interfere with such radio signals, so there would be phenomena that would block the Gods and their followers from receiving the ‘power’ being ‘broadcast’.
This model introduces an uncertainty into the Divine Equation – the Gods can never be sure of exactly how much power they are going to have. A smart deity will stack the odds in their favour by recruiting self-powered mortal backups.
I havn’t devoted much thought to this model, but it shows some interesting potential.
The Divine Vessel Overflowing
Some of the earlier proposals yielded a result in which Divine Power rose with the number of active Worshippers. In some respects, that seems like getting two benefits for the price of one, so (some years ago) I set out to envisage a form of divine limitation in which the opposite was true.
What I came up with looked something like this: The more followers a Deity has, the more of his power is consumed by attending to the needs of those worshippers. Instead of a limit on just the one element of the theological relationship, power is distributed amongst the faithful, enabling the Deity to be in many places at the same time – in severely attenuated form. Thus, you can have a deity who can’t do very much (and hence tends to lose worshippers to brasher and flashier gods) or one with few adherants who can do truly spectacular party-tricks (who tends to attract new worshippers every time they do so). Cosmic power thus tends to oscillate about a mean value:
The priests are continually seeking to cultivate and attract new worshippers for their own temporal power and security, but if they are too successful, the Deity lacks the power to protect the population in what is a dangerous world.
The logical development of these circumstances is for many deities to gather into a pantheon, which shares the Worshippers amongst all the participants. The more broadly-based the pantheon, the more followers they attract, but any excess can be passed from one deity to another like a game of pass the parcel. When combined with the jurisdictional portfolio concept, which is common to pantheons, and with events that affect their worshippers, this has some interesting ramifications.
A God of War has plenty of power to start a conflict, but once one does, many worshippers flock to his banner, leaving him relatively powerless. Only when the populace tires of war, and begin praying for peace, does he gain sufficient power to be able to bring about the crushing victories by one side or the other that resolve the conflict. He is the God Of War because he starts and ends wars – but is relatively helpless to alter the course of events in between, which falls to other deities – luck, agriculture, crafts, knowledge, etc.
A Goddess of the Harvest has the least power to intervene when the climate turns harsh, and everyone is praying for relief – and the most power in times of plenty.
In comparison to normal theological structures, the tail is wagging the dog, and the concept takes a little getting used to before it can be used instinctively; but, by limiting the power of the Gods when that power is most in demand, this construct fulfills the brief – while leaving the Gods powerful enough to stir up mischief the rest of the time.
Limits through Anthropomorphis
A completely different solution to the need to limit Omnipotence is to distinguish between the conceptual existance of the God and the metaphysical manifestations of the Deity. This approach works well with the “Can’t Be Everywhere” limitation to Omniscience. The principle is that the God himself is omnipotent, but can only manifest that power through avatars, who are inherantly less-powerful than the real thing. The more avatars that the god manifests, the less powerful each individual example becomes. The effective power level of any individual deity thus becomes a compromise between ubiquitousness and utility, and an expression of the divine personality.
This has direct effects on the independance of the Organisations of worshippers. The less direct supervision the Deity gives to his Worshippers, the more capable they are of independant action in his name, and the more powerful his avatars are when he puts in a rare personal appearance. This opens the door to secular ambition and corruption, and the occasional purge of the impure when they go too far. The more he keeps his ‘message’ pure, the less power he has to do anything else with, and the more reliant on his mortal Worshippers he becomes to do his work.
Manifestations Of A Primal Principle
Most deities in an RPG represent some portfolio, a primal principle of some kind – “God Of Storms”, “God Of The Sun”, and so on, and are considered to have limited powers outside of that jurisdiction. One reasonably effective way of limiting Omnipotence is to take this concept a step further and have the Gods become completely helpless – mere mortals in effect – outside of their jurisdiction. “I can’t break down that door, I’m just a Storm God. I can level the entire castle with a hurricane, if that would help” – but this is a rescue mission, and in any event, a hurricane would cause collatoral damage, and impede the PCs just as much as the door.
Constraining the ideological power of the Gods in this way makes them utterly dependant on those more rounded, more flexible and adaptable, mortal servants.
One of the big questions to be posed concerning the Gods is the matter of Immortality. Throughout history, very few civilizations have percieved the Gods as being truly immortal, though most give them a limited form of that characteristic. The Norse gods certainly weren’t immortal, for example.
For game purposes, Immortality is generally a bad thing because it permits the Gods to be unaffected by whatever is going on. Making them mortal – even if it is only to another deity – gives a personal stake to whatever is going on, and gives a reason for them to hesitate, equivate, and risk mortals instead of themselves.
But this raises other questions, as explained in the Blog post that I referred to earlier (A Quality Of Spirit) – such as, what happens when a God dies? Their domain goes untended? Their clerics lose their power? Can another God fill in? Can a God be ressurrected? Even if one can’t, would that stop mortals from trying anyway?
There are all sorts of possibilities, each of which can become one of the central pivots around which a campaign can be built.
The Word Is Truth
One of the foundations of most theology is that the Gods define their own doctrine, and that mortal religion is a process of discovering the nature of the God. The Word Of God defines the theology.
My Fumanor campaigns deliberately inverted this relationship. The Gods were defined by, and constrained by, the theology imposed on them by Human Priests – something they discovered the hard way. If the priesthood decides that Thor has the head of a bull, and makes that canon within the Church, Thor will wake up tomorrow in the shape of a Minotaur. If the priesthood decrees that Thor creates storms but does not end them, Thor can only create storms, he cannot end them. If the priesthood decrees that Thor only rides storms, and that storms are natural phenomena, Thor gets to use thunderclouds as chariots – but can no longer create storms. And, if they decide that a personal conflict has arisen between Odin and his Son, the two will find themselves in a bad mood whenever they are in the same vicinity as each other – and soon enough, there will be a conflict between them. Only when there is a significant plurality of opinion does the Deity have a choice as to his nature; the rest of the time, he can simply choose what to do about it.
Much of the backstory of the Campaigns that have been set in that Game Universe have been explorations of this concept, and its ramifications, and more is to follow. But here are a few highlights.
The Dangers Of Heresies
Heretical Beliefs immediatly become the bane of a Deity’s existance. Especially if these heresies become widespread. Gross heresies are easily countered by a conservative theological administration, but more subtle heresies and misconceptions can become common belief without opposition. Any aspect of a deity’s personal mythology that is not fixed in place by the church is up for grabs – from what they prefer for breakfast to how they treat their wife, or even who they are attracted to. Hence Zues finds himself lusting at various times over anything that moves, while Athena becomes a jealous wife, and all because someone thought a Swan looked pretty.
The enemies of the Gods sought to actively use this against their opposition in a pre-campaign era of the background. Impersonating priests, they started spreading all sorts of stories that sounded good at the time, and eroded the purity of concept and purpose of the Gods.
The Limits Of Mortal Imagination
Some people have very active imaginations, others do not. Most people have limits to their imaginations – I would say “all people” but I can’t prove that! It’s also human nature to be skeptical except in certain circumstances, such as when a lie is wrapped around a good and plausible story. There’s no such thing as a God of Gravity because no-one ever imagined one and convinced people that he existed. The Gods can only manipulate time in very limited ways because people have trouble imagining and believing anything else – time just IS.
The bigger the concept, the harder it is to make the belief in the concept to be widespread. Some people still think the moon landings were a Hoax, and it wouldn’t surprise me if there were still people who think the earth is flat. Personally, I think the moon landings were real, and that the Earth is an imperfect oblate spheroid – and so do most people. That doesn’t make either of us right or wrong, for that you need evidence and facts.
While the collective human imagination is able to dream up some pretty wild things, convincing a majority of people that they are real is another trick altogether. The astonishing thing is that it happens from time to time!
The Hazards Of Mortal Corruption
Clearly, if mortals grow corrupt – and it happens – they can corrupt the message to their own benefit. Wealth can be spent on beautifying temples and granting priests lives of luxury “for the greater glory of our God” in place of actually performing the Deity’s work. Divine favour can be withheld from the poor, or the impure, or even simply the racially or culturally different. Greed, Racism, Lust for Power, Ideology – these can all contaminate the pure “word of god”, and constrain the God’s ability to use what power he has.
Something that has yet to emerge – largely because I’ve not yet decided whether to take ‘the next logical step’, or if it is one step too far – is the possibility that since moral corruption breeds moral corruption, that this sort of behaviour can corrupt the morals of the Gods themselves. While a logical possibility, I’m not sure that this would not violate the history of the campaign (because I didn’t think of it at the time) – it might be a little too late at this point.
The Devestating Impact Of Trade
Given this central premise, the ramifications keep coming. What happens when two different population groups start to trade? Ideas get exchanged, ideologies blend together, and concepts hybridise. Parts of one language get absorbed by the other, and vice-versa. And theologians attempt to reconcile the things they thought they knew with foreign notions and experiences and mythologies.
Normally a positive outcome, prompting social and philosophical growth, when beliefs dictate the nature and limits of the Gods instead of the Gods dictating the Theology, the consequences can be unexpected and undesirable.
Consider the consequences of a blending of Roman and Norse mythology, for example. Both contain a Deity whose trademark characteristic is the Hammer, but one of them is the Lame Hephaestus, master of the forge, and the other is a God Of Thunder. Combining those characteristics produces a Deity who is lame, weilds a hammer, is a smith, and who creates thunder and lightning whenever his hammer strikes his Anvil. One deity takes on the characteristics of both, and the other is left an empty shell. Further, in Norse mythology, the master smiths are the Dwarves – so perhaps Thor is suddenly a Dwarf, or half-Dwarf. Invent a little dalliance in the past between Odin and a Dwarf Princess to explain this and before you know it, the entire Mythos and Pantheon has been redefined.
When Civilizations Fall
With the Gods having active and evil opposition from outside their number, collatoral damage from the conflicts between the two will ensure that mortal civilizations will rise and fall, and each time this happens, Holy Books get lost or damaged, legends are forgotten and new myths written to take their place. Invented material replaces theological foundation, and the Gods are as changed by the calamity as are the Mortal Societies that are affected.
If a culture is wiped out by a great storm, how likely is it that a storm god will emerge as a villain in the next civilization to emerge? If a tidal wave devestates a culture, what odds that a placid god of Fishing will be cast as wrathful and angry unless appeased?
Chinese Whispers Through The Ages
And finally, there is the simple failure of clear communications. Tales get misinterpreted, parables are taken as factual event and vice-versa. Names get exchanged in stories, responsibilities get misplaced. No-one with any experience of the childhood game would entrust any significant information to the Chinese Whispers mode of communications – but that is exactly what happens when reading and writing is not universal and people are educated through spoken narrative and rote.
Interpretations naturally change and evolve over time, and not always for the better.
The Impact On Cosmology
Limiting Omnipotence has a substantial effect on a campaign’s Cosmology; certainly, the origins of the universe would need to change (unless the act of creation is what consumed so much Divine Power that it is the cause of restricted Omnipotence, of course).
While it is more frequently the case that a change in the nature of Divinity will prompt a change in the Cosmology of the campaign, it can occasionally be inspiring to reverse this process. What if the Astral Plane is the place of Nightmares, a location in which these monstrosities are real and actual? How might the Mythology of the campaign be altered by this premise, which requires the Gods to battle their way through these horrors in order to affect the Material world? Perhaps the Soul, on death, has to fight it’s way through these terrors in order to reach the afterlife? Perhaps there are bridges, safe passages, that are protected by the Gods?
How would these changes affect various spells? The nature and purpose of Demons and Devils? The nature and cause of Evil?
Any of the methods of limiting divine power that have been suggesed will have an impact on the behaviour of the Gods, on the structure and (possibly mythic) origins of the universe, on the behaviour and role of the church, and so on. A campaign does not have to be a high-magic cosmic quest through the planes of existance for these changes to have a real and observable impact on the society surrounding PCs and to shape the adventures that are open to them.
Other Benefits OF Divine Limits
We’re nearing the end of this exploration of constrained omnipotence. But, before I wrap the subject up and put it to bed, I wanted to take a moment to look at some of the other benefits that derive from limiting the power of Gods in a D&D game. These are advantages that I didn’t consider necessary to justify the concept, but that come along for the ride, as it were – fringe benefits that should convince just about everyone that this is a good idea.
The Impact On Opposition
If the Gods are less powerful, so can be the enemies they face – which brings them within range of PCs who need something to get their teeth into. Or the Gods can be seriously outmatched, requiring the PCs to get clever in finding ways to even the match between the two. Either way, Divine Enemies become viable opposition for high-level PCs.
Deities who are not much more powerful than high-levelPCs, or are perhaps even less powerful (but have different constraints) means that Divine Ascension becomes a viable objective for an ambitious character. In fact, there can be all manner of intermediate stages between Greater Gods and 1st-level characters, offering progressive ambitions – which means that instead of one big payoff, the GM can permit characters some success along the way.
Making the Gods fallable and limited makes them a lot more playable in many respects. “Deity” becomes little more than a powerful race with few members, and the appearance of these individuals within a game no longer stretches credibility to the breaking point. In practical terms, the strength and number of abilities that they can bring to bear is clearly reduced, and this makes them manageable even in combat conditions.
The Expression of Personality
There’s not a lot of scope for the expression of personality if everything can be resolved with a wave of the Divine Hand. Limiting the Gods means that characters can interact with them as they would with any other NPC – they might be powerful, respected, even revered, but they don’t take over the campaign with their mere presence.
Spotlight On The PCs
If the spotlight is no longer being hogged by the Gods in any interaction with the PCs, that means that there is more scope for the PCs to figure prominantly. The more that the players can take their character’s destinies into their own hands, the better off the campaign is. What’s more, removing the Gods as a ‘cheat mode’ puts the pressure to succeed back where it belongs, on the characters that are supposed to be the stars of the campaign.
Fallability and the Mortal Backstop
The less the Gods can solve the big problems on their own, the more scope there is for the PCs to be called in to solve them – in other words, to have an adventure. Ironically, making the Gods smaller makes the Campaign potential bigger.
The Gods Help Those Who Help Themselves
In a metagame context, this is referring to the ability of limited Divinities to help the GM create a memorable and lasting campaign. I mean, seriously – there are just too many up-sides not to seriously consider weakening the Gods in any campaign you run.
That’s not to say they should be walkovers – just that if they are mountains, top-level PCs should at least be foothills, able to see the peaks and heights to which they might aspire. As always, there is a perfect balance that will be different in every campaign and for every combination of players and GM. But that balance is often to be found a lot lower than most GMs set the bar.