Wikipedia defines a ‘Deus Ex Machina‘ as a plot device whereby a seemingly unsolvable problem is suddenly and abruptly solved with the contrived and unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability, or object. It can be roughly translated, they say, as “God made it happen,” with no further explanation.

They also state that the Latin phrase comes to English usage from Horace’s Ars Poetica, where he instructs poets that they must never resort to a god from the machine to solve their plots. He refers to the conventions of Greek tragedy, where a crane (mekhane) was used to lower actors playing gods onto the stage or raise them through a trap door – both ways of having them appear miraculously on stage.

I just happened to be reading that page this weekend and my first reaction, as a Gamer & a long-time GM, was “there’s something wrong with this picture”. The disapproval of the literary device only makes sense if one assumes that the Gods are fictional.- that’s why Gods are continually showing up in the Greek plays, they were as real to the Greeks as Mountains, Fire, Lightning, and Rain, capricious natural forces that showed up whenever something interesting was going on. There is an implicit assumption of fictionality in the disapproval; if Divine Beings are ‘real’ within the context of the narrative, then it becomes unrealistic for them not to appear.

Immediately, there is a conflict between what we are taught by experience – through television and novels and accepted literary conventions – constitutes ‘good writing’ and the demands of verisimilitude. My second reaction therefore was, ‘examining that conflict would make a great article for Campaign Mastery’ – and so it is that you come to be reading these words!

Reconciling the Conflict

The conflict exists because on the one hand we have the principles of good storytelling demanding that we eschew Divine Intervention as a narrative tool, and on the other the insistence that if the Gods are real (which they supposedly are within the fictional context of the game), the internal logic demands that they appear. The conflict is inherently present in the game worlds that we present to the players, in the adventures that we craft to occur within those worlds, and in the expectations of the players. Ultimately, they come down to the burden of suspending disbelief, and the requirement that we have to have it both ways in order to satisfy that burden.

After spending a few minutes thinking on the subject, I have been able to identify three ‘acceptable’ ways of resolving that conflict to everyone’s satisfaction. There may be more, but these are the only three that I’ve found thus far. They are:

  • The Gods On Call
  • Out Of The Frying Pan
  • Just Another Character With An Agenda
The Gods On Call

If the Gods can only get involved when invoked by mortals – or can only intervene indirectly – then the conflict disappears because Divine Involvement is no longer a Deus Ex Machina. Instead, the gods become akin to the power pack on a science-fiction weapon or toolkit, extending the capabilities of the wielder. Their natures & personalities become a cloak of religious interpretation of physical phenomena and their existences mere metaphors for the limitations of the weapon/toolkit and its power supply.

The result is science fiction in fantasy clothing, as expressed in Larry Niven’s “Flight Of The Horse” collection, his “Dream Park” series, “The Flying Sorcerers”, or the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Devil’s Due”. It’s an extremely low-fantasy approach that finds favor with some GMs, especially those wont to explain “Magic” as some form of Psionics. This approach has never appealed to me, though I enjoyed all of the named sources, but I have a noted preference for high fantasy – others can and do prefer this approach.

Out Of The Frying Pan

It’s perfectly acceptable to employ a Deus Ex Machina in the classical sense of the term if it only gets the PCs “Out of the frying pan and into the fire”. This approach was used to good effect in Stargate, in which the Asgard are initially used to get the characters out of trouble – only for the piper to call for his payment with the introduction of the Replicators, a menace even greater than the ones SG-1 are already trying to cope with.

Although I rarely employ this approach in it’s pure form, it’s not entirely absent from my campaigns, especially the forerunners of the Zenith-3 campaigns.

Just Another Character With An Agenda

The final solution to the problem is to humanize the Divine Powers. If they become “just another character with an agenda” and their intervention makes sense in terms of that agenda, the implausibility of their involvement goes away.

This is my favorite of the solutions because of the depths of characterization it provides – a Divine Power can assist this week (in furtherance of their agenda) and interfere next week (in furtherance of that agenda). Interaction on a human, ie roleplaying, level becomes possible. What’s more, this approach lends itself to limiting divine power, as I advocated in A Monkey Wrench In The Deus Ex Machina in various ways, preventing them from being a universal Panacea to all the PCs problems.

A General Principle

All of these solutions require some work on the part of the GM. Some of this work is high-concept and some of it is mundane nitty-gritty, but it all has to be done.

One characteristic each of the solutions share is the insistent demand for consistency. Another is than none of them are fully encapsulated by the most common RPG systems, and each will therefore require careful examination of game mechanics, races, encounters, etc to ensure compliance with the chosen view of the game universe. I’m thinking specifically of D&D and Pathfinder here, though the comments are just as applicable to most other game systems – they are certainly true of the Hero System, GURPS, Rolemaster, TORG and 7th Sea, for example. Traveller, Space Opera, Paranoia, and the Star Trek RPG are all ‘hard’ SF series in which deus ex machina should all be technological in nature, if they exist at all, and hence the problem doesn’t arise. Interestingly, Call Of Cthulhu and The Lord Of The Rings RPG are amongst the most pure games in this respect – both have a specific solution in place and stick to it exclusively, requiring the GM to follow their line. Toon, of course, breaks all the rules and doesn’t care – and that more or less exhausts the list of game systems I’ve played enough times to comment on in this respect!

Most games simply assume that the Gods are, or are not – and then go straight into personalities (or perceived personalities) and other attributes of specific pantheons or divine beings. There is often little consistency between the concepts that frame one part of the game mechanics and another; and for a relatively superficial action-adventure series of dungeon-bashings, that’s probably good enough. For anything with more depth, though, there is the potential for scope and creativity here that can and should be exploited.

Conceptual Development

For longer than I have been writing for Campaign Mastery, I have been advising people to look at the big questions behind their RPG campaigns, the core assumptions that underlie everything that transpires within the game. I did so once again, here, in A Quality Of Spirit way back in December ’08. There are at least 7 such “Big Questions” that bear directly on these issues:

  • What are the Gods?
  • What is their origin?
  • What are their limits?
  • Where do they get their power?
  • How do they translate this power into effects and manifestations?
  • What is the role of Worship?
  • What are their limitations?

These are all about putting salt on the tail of Divine Power as applied to Deus Ex Machina, about determining what the Gods can do, how, why, and how they can interact with the game world – and with the PCs who live in it – in a consistent manner.

Nuts And Bolts

Once you have the high-concept answers, you need to determine what impact the answers have, if any, on the game mechanics. The Cleric and Druid classes, or their equivalents, are obviously right in the line of fire, but so are the Paladin, and potentially the Wizard, Sorcerer, and Ranger class – or their equivalents. And if the nature of magic is affected, that can affect all Magic Items – which in turn affects Rogues and Fighters and Barbarians. There will be additional high-concept questions to consider along the way as well, such as “Where do new Clerical spells come from?”

Another Perspective

It should always be remembered that the purpose of all this work is to answer the question of what the GM can justify doing within the game. These are deliberate limitations on his palette of in-game events, with a restriction that has as much to do with creating ‘good adventures’ as it does anything else. Any other benefits that may derive, such as uniqueness of campaign, are incidental rewards. It can help, however to look at the questions from a couple of different directions:

  • From the perspective of what the PCs and other character classes can do, in-game; and
  • The tone and content of the planned or existing campaign.

Both of these can be considered consequences or derivations of the answers to the fundamental conceptual questions posed, but there is no reason not to put the cart before the horse; choosing the set of consequences desired and then reasoning backwards to the concepts and assumptions that generate those consequences. Being able to find your way from desired outcomes to causes is always a useful skill to have for a GM, in any event.

Character-inspired answers

To illustrate the utility of this approach, and the scale of the impact that these questions can have on a campaign, here are four possible answers to the question, “Where do Clerical spells come from?”, or – more correctly – “What are Clerical Spells and how are they created?”

  • Clerical Spells are respectful requests of the Gods formulated by mortals. As such, formulaic prayers are given less weight than original compositions, and the Gods – to prevent themselves being run ragged – are literary snobs. Clerical Training is as much about poetic and lyrical improv as it is theology. Perhaps the gods only listen to their appointed followers and those within the bounds of a church or shrine consecrated to them. This gives the Gods far greater capacity for independent activity, implying that they are more (and do more) than what characters might read about in the equivalent of Sunday School.
  • Clerical Spells are means of compelling activity on the part of the Gods, formulated by mortals to bind the Gods to their will as part of a compact. This implies that mortals have something the Gods need – worship being the most obvious. Perhaps the Gods derive some form of spiritual sustenance from acts of worship. It is likely that the Gods would either ignore requests from those who can’t deliver the power of worship (non-clerics) or do the opposite just to be perverse – it depends on how willingly they entered into the compact. Either way, clerical spells tend to be formulaic phrases strung together in a logic as binding as that of a computer program, and the Gods are dependant on mortals.
  • Clerical Spells are means of compelling activity on the part of the Gods, formulated by the spiritual enemies of the Gods (Devils/Demons/Whatever). These enemies came up with this means of controlling and confining their enemies without realizing that it made them subject to the same limitations. As a result, they are perpetually angry and destructive. The whole “Good vs Evil” theology erected by mortals to explain the relationships between these opposing forces completely misinterprets the relationship. The previous answer was all about voluntary submission and a spirit of cooperation and collaboration; this is a much more sinister and adversarial solution in which both Gods and their Enemies are, to some extent, enslaved by the Mortals who worship them. Of course, both sides continually try to alter the rules of the ‘game’ – the Gods by imposing theological doctrine on mortals and Devils by twisting language like a lawyer. New Clerical Spells can be devised at any time but are as complex as designing a new clock, with its myriad of moving parts all functioning in harmony – or the clock doesn’t work.
  • Clerical Spells have been bestowed apon mortals by the Gods. They are ways of telling mortals, “this is what we’ll do and if it’s not on the list…” Of course, there are several ways of ending that sentence. Clerics might be able to request new spells from the Gods to perform specific tasks, or the limits might be absolute, or it might even vary from Deity to Deity. There’s something about the notion of the God Of Luck saying, “I’ll give you your spell if you can roll better on three dice than I can” that I find quite appealing. Clerical Spells are more like command words or passwords – and perhaps only key words or phrases within the spell actually matter and the rest is subterfuge designed to protect the authority of the church.

Each of these puts a fundamentally different spin on the relationship between the Gods and Mortals, and hence a different spin on the manifestations of those relations within the game. They all explicitly confine Deus Ex Machinas into categories of those that are acceptable within the games narrative structure and those that are not.

Tone-inspired answers

An equally-valid approach ois to decide the type and style of the plots that the GM wants to run and choose answers to the questions that support and enlarge apon those foundations – then deal with the consequences to character classes etc that result. A campaign might be a dramatic end-of-an-epoch series of stories of imminent Armageddon” – or it might be “the gods have gone away leaving just their miracle-fulfillment machines” – or “the Gods are Demons with a better grasp of PR who have succeeded in enslaving the mortal races” – or… well, you get the idea. Each of these campaigns deals with a theological context either as a central point or one of a series of distinguishing themes in quite a different way, and hence will have different answers to the list of “Big Questions” – which in turn will have knock-on effects within the game mechanics.

Perhaps there was a zombie apocalypse 20-odd years ago that has just been beaten back – and the survivors now want to know how it happened in the first place, who’s responsible, and why. As soon as you (or the game mechanics) state that “Clerical Magic works” – or simply that undead shun consecrated ground – you’re into the territory of “why?” Having answers permits the PCs to discover those answers, making them ever more-connected with the plotline and the world around them – and permits informed judgment calls on the part of the GM when they do something not covered by the game mechanics. (“Can you dehydrate holy water? What happens if you sprinkle it in a circle around your campsite? Is there such a thing as un-holy water? What happens if you inject Holy Water into the venous system of a Vampire, for example using a dart gun?”) I’ve never known a game system to answer any of these in its game mechanics (one probably has, and I’m sure my enlightened readership will quickly tell me about it if so!)

But they are all good, practical questions that I have been asked by players in the course of a game at some point. If you don’t know why Holy Water affects undead in the first place, you’re going to be scrambling for an answer.

I was going to follow this with a discussion of the theological foundations – the answers to those “Big Questions” – from some of my campaigns, but rather than dilute this article with material of only tangental relevance, I think I’ll leave those discussions as the foundations for other articles down the track. Besides, why blow my was in one article whemn I can get 4 or 5 out of it?

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