Recalling the creation of a Divinity

We’re continuing to build up to the big release of Assassin’s Amulet, and my excitement is reaching fever pitch (I can’t speak for Johnn & Michael). As part of that buildup, next week I’m going to present you with another excerpt from the book – but before I do, I wanted to tell you a bit about what you’re going to read, and what you aren’t – and why not – because it’s relevant beyond the boundaries of this one game supplement.

Concept Origins

Today, I’m going to be telling you about Cyrene, a Greater Goddess and part of the original Pantheon that we’ve created for AA. Cyrene started as a cipher, a name that Michael included in his product pitch to the two of us. Supposedly, the Assassins of the game supplement’s title carried out their bloody work in the name of this being – whether she was the Guildmaster, or the Goddess, or some pretender, we had no idea.

What’s In A Name?

To confuse matters still further, in the various places where she was referred to – or he, Gender was still uncertain at this point – her name was spelt in two different ways:

  • ”Cerene” (rhymes with “Serene”), and
  • ”Cyrene” (suggestive of “Siren”).

It’s true that to some extent, we could use any name we wanted to, since we were creating the concept of this entity from scratch. But we were concerned about the subtext and associations of the two names, as indicated above, and debated at length which one was more appropriate – Was “Cerene” to be a Deity of a placid, Elysian afterlife, with the suggestion of calm waters and endless late-spring days , or a more dangerous creation, who led men to their dooms (using ‘doom’ in it’s older sense of destiny – I was re-reading Lord Of The Rings at the time)?

A web search eventually settled the matter, when I discovered that “Cerene” was already in use, and was an existing and legitimate female name. But there remain aspects of Cyrene that date back to that alternative spelling; and I thought the anecdote worth sharing with our readers as an example of the logic to be used in choosing a name for significant NPCs in your games.

No Stat Blocks

What you won’t find, either here or in Assassin’s Amulet, is a stat block for Cyrene. One of the greatest ongoing annoyances to me is the use of stat blocks to describe Deities in various gaming resources, going all the way back to the original version of Deities & Demigods by TSR, in games which permit PCs to exceed the capabilities of the Gods as shown by the Stat Blocks. – A problem that was only compounded by the incompatability of the Epic Level Handbook and the 3.x version of Deities And Demigods. This annoyance has translated into formative influences in each of my campaigns, all seeking to address the central issue of the differences between a PC, no matter how powerful, and a Divinity.

  • In my Fumanor campaigns, the Gods were granted additional character levels and additional powers based on their province and portfolio within the Pantheon. Even if a character achieves or exceeds the stated power levels of the Gods, they would lack those additional abilities; they would also lack the restrictions that apply to divine beings. Freedom of choice is a mortal burdon, not a Divine one. In these campaigns, there are no such things as Demigods – but there are various other varieties of being of near-divine power or even divine-plus power, each with its own characteristic traits and limitations. One of the ongoing “jokes” within the campaign is that Lolth has spent most of her existance attempting to bridge the gap to Divine status (even claiming it when it was not so) because she percieved them as having more power than she did; having now achieved that at the end of the first Fumanor campaign, she may now be regretting that choice as she is no longer in total control over herself and what she does. Ultimately, she was better able to achieve her ambitions and goals the way she used to be; but she cannot go back, and has been hoist on her own petard. If the PCs have their way in the Seeds Of Empire campaign, this limitation will ultimately be her downfall – making her achievement the ultimate in Pyrrhic victories.
  • A similar approach is employed in my Superhero campaign, in which Gods not only get more character points to be built on, they get various cost reductions due to their natures, and get a whole slew of things for free that PCs have to pay good points for (and a lot of them). But, at the same time, there are restrictions imposed on Gods and the exercising of their powers, and some additional vulnerabilities that mortals don’t have to worry about. Demigods and half-divine beings fall somewhere in between. Once again, the concept is that Balance is achieved through a combination of restrictions and additional abilities; but this campaign doesn’t even pretend that Deities are built to the same restrictions and standards as ordinary PCs and NPCs.
  • The difference between a deity and a PC of the same levels was a central theme in the Rings Of Time campaign, something that I’ve documented at length in the past (‘A Monkey Wrench In The Deus-Ex-Machina: Limiting Divine Power‘). Suffice it to say that the ‘Gods’ were very respectable in that campaign (just ask them) but used mortals directly to do all their dirty work, making them not very admirable. They did have some genuine awesomeness up their sleeves, but if they ever used these abilities, the other side would also be free to do so. Hamstrung by this celestial Arms Agreement and Test-ban treaty, most of their supposed power was PR hype and spin and the hard work of a few cat’s paws – including the PCs. This was Erich Von Daniken meets D&D!
  • The PCs have slowly been learning, in my Shards Of Divinity campaign, that the Gods are even more hamstrung by their natures than they are in my Fumanor campaign, something they didn’t think was possible. One of the PCs expressed a desire to aspire to Divinity; the others (metaphorically) battered him around the head as a condemnation of the sheer stupidity of the notion. In this campaign, the Gods are atavistic representations of primitive dreams which can never progress or improve beyond the primitive definitions which described them early in their creations. The converse of the power they grant their priests and clerics is a total subjugation to the wildest imaginings of those priests and clerics. The gods have endured this treatment (lacking an alternative) for over a millennium and are suicidally bored to tears by it; but so long as their priesthoods remain active, they have no choice but to continue. Small wonder they act like spoilt brats and slip the leash at every opportunity! Their only hope is that the priesthood – which they have no control over – will start selecting priests for secular purposes (greed and property management) and not actual religious activities, letting them experience a quiet fading into nonexistance – or that the PCs take the burdons of power off their hands.
  • Although the question has never directly come up in the Adventurer’s Club campaign, the implication is that since the Power Of God is real (one of the PCs can manifest it) and so are the powers of Nameless Things Man Is Not Meant To Know, God is equally real – but existing on some completely seperate stratum of reality that can never be reached by mortals, because it doesn’t fit the genre for it to ever happen. Whether or not belief alone is the source of power or there actually exists some avatar with a reality external to that belief is one of those questions the campaign will never answer.

We havn’t strayed from the topic; I was explaining why there are no stat blocks for Deities in Assassin’s Amulet and why there will be none when I present Cyrene as an excerpt next week.

Stat Blocks are Inadequate

Stat blocks for Deities are, quite literally, more trouble than they are worth, because they are always subjective and have to be reinterpreted every time for each different campaign. No stat block for any deity has ever been sufficient to totally describe the powers of that deity in any of my campaigns. Or the restrictions. Or the nature of the “species” (for lack of a better term).

Stat Blocks are Straightjackets

At the same time, A stat block defines and confines and restricts the expression of the deity within the game system – so they are not only inadequate to the task at hand, they force the GM into that mould of inadequacy.

The Absence Of Wonder

The final crime inflicted apon a game when the Gods are given Stat Blocks is that they actively discriminate against the perpetuation of a sense of wonder. Deities should have an aura of mystery, and power, and awesomeness in which they cloak their every appearance.

The mere knowledge of the existance of a stat block undermines all three of those elements. Mystery? The answers are written down somewhere, in black and white; you just have to read the book. Power? the limitations and vulnerabilities are written down somewhere in black and white, and the players are fully capable of exploiting those restrictions and handicaps. Awesomeness: as soon as a character is subjected to a Stat Block, they become Just Another NPC. That’s not awe-inspiring to anyone.

A conceptual approach

Instead, what we have chosen for Assassin’s Amulet, and for the entire Legacies series, is to adopt a more conceptual approach. We describe the Deity, as he or she usually manifests; we describe the titles, incarnations, and offices within the Pantheon and Cosmology that the Deity posesses; we describe the concepts that drive the deity, and the personality, and the relationships; we describe the demesne of the deity.

We do everything but define the concept in hard numbers and game mechanics, because a Deity will either be above the level of game mechanics, capable of doing whatever is in their nature to do, or the GM will have his own system for devising and determining such game mechanics – or should have such a system.

For the most part, everything that we do descibe is written from a character point of view. These are the myths and legends and publicly-ascribed personae of the Deity; the reality may be something else entirely, and the core of Chapter 6 is how to go about replacing Cyrene to make Assassin’s Amulet fit within you campaign.

What can the deity actually do, and how easy or difficult for them to actually do it? That’s up to each individual GM. Suddenly, the players cannot know the answers – Mystery is restored. They do not know the flaws and foibles and limitations, other than by hearsay that has been deliberately ‘spun’ in various directions – the deity can have effectively unlimited power, at least relative to the PCs. Power is restored. The final leg of the trio, Awesomeness, depends in part on the circumstances of the encounter and the GM’s roleplaying abilities – but at least he has a fair shot at achieving it.

At the same time, the Gods usually work through mortal agencies, with all their shortcomings and flaws and inadequacies. PC interactions with those agencies are at a far more prosaic and mundane level. Church politics and greed and practicalities and compromises and relations with civil authorities and errors of judgement, all come into the picture – and a much darker, seamier and seedier picture it is, as a result. Gods may or may not have feet of clay; their clergies definitely do.

Around The Periphery

At least, this is the approach that we have taken when describing a Divine figure that is central to the game materials. As a member of a pantheon, no such Deity exists in isolation; to provide context, it became necessary to offer at least thumbnail abbreviations of some of the other members of the Pantheon, and describe the relationship between them and Cyrene. Also, and quite seperately, we described the relationships between the priests of Cyrene and those of other faiths, because these can quite often be completely different to the relationships between the deities.

Deities in future Legacies products

It is our intention – but not necessarily our commitment – to detail at least one additional member of the Pantheon in each new Legacies product. Slated (at this point) to appear in detail in Legacies #2 are both Pellina, the Goddess of Mercy, and an as-yet unnamed God Of War.

As the series proceeds and expands – for however long it does – these will form pieces of a Jigsaw representing the complete Pantheon and its place within the Legacies cosmology.

When that is mostly complete, we may or may not (depending on demand, amongst other things) put out a compilation ebook excerpting each Deity and filling out their rosters with new material – descriptions of temples, temple practices, and the like. (Let us know if you would be interested in such a product, if and when it becomes a viable proposition).

Next Week: Cyrene Revealed

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