Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Gods N' the Godly (Relations Between Gods and their Servants)

God (Or the Space Probe that Ran into God): Bender, being God isn't easy. If you do too much, people get dependent on you, and if you do nothing, they lose hope. You have to use a light touch. Like a safecracker, or a pickpocket.
Bender: Or a guy who burns down a bar for the insurance money!
God: Yes, if you make it look like an electrical thing. When you do things right, people won't be sure you've done anything at all.
-          “Godfellas”, Futurama

“If God is a God of justice and not of power, then He can still be on our side when bad things happen to us. He can know that we are good and honest people who deserve better.”
-          Harold S. Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People

The couple of quotes above make for unlikely sources of gaming inspiration, but they exemplify some thoughts I’ve been having regarding deities in D&D and other fantasy roleplaying games. The conundrum I’ve been pondering is the presence of active gods in the world and how it affects player character agency. There are plenty of questions to answer regarding a god’s relationship to the world. Why would a god let his own clergy be infiltrated by imposters? Why does divination have a chance of failure? Why does a god say “I don’t know” at times with the commune spell? Why do supposedly benevolent gods allow evil to exist? Why do gods sponsor paladins (or even celestials) that fall from grace if they can predict the future?

The usual answer I’ve heard is that the gods are bound by a (formal or informal) Cold War-like pact between the forces of Good and Evil, Law and Chaos, to avoid mutually assured destruction through direct confrontation. If Good interferes too much in the life of mortals, Evil can step in to fill in the imbalance of power (and also with Law vs. Chaos). However, this doesn’t explain why the gods are fallible (see the divination and commune above, for example), and it also assumes a certain cosmological model that won’t fit some worlds.

My perspective of the gods in RPGs is that they aren’t omniscient or all-seeing nor are they all-powerful, at least regarding the finer points of the mortal world. Rather, the gods are far removed from mortals and their ways, only able to approximate a bird’s eye view but a faraway bird’s eye view. The vantage point of a god on the outer planes removes it from the down-to-earth perspective of mortals and the finer points of their lives. The greater the power of the god, the farther removed it is from the mortal perspectives. Demigods, god kings, and hero gods who exist on the mortal plane can directly interact with mortals. However, as the god becomes greater in power, he becomes further removed from mortality as his perspective is dispersed across a wider and wider area of the world (or even the multiverse). Thus, a god must use finesse in how he interacts with the mortal world. This is where the clerics and other divine servants come in.

Gilbert […] reached the highest ledge.
Louis Loeb, from Via Crucis : a romance of the second crusade, by Francis Marion Crawford, New York, 1889. (source)

Clerics, priests, paladins, and other divine servants do not merely spread the faith or serve the god’s interest. Rather, they also act as the god’s eyes and ears. Everything from prayers (in the most minor sense) to the creation of temples and (especially) divination spells can act as lightning rods for the god’s attention. They not only inform the cleric; they can draw the deity’s attention to a certain point of relevant interest. Thus, the god and the cleric have a symbiotic relationship in that they must work together to achieve the goals of both.

The above model of the cleric/deity partnership has an important practical element regarding player agency. The deity interacts with the world primarily through empowering her agents (i.e. PC worshipers and servants), thus putting the responsibility for establishing the connection to the players. It also enables a god to be true to his mythos yet flawed and fallible (thus needing his servants’ help to work his interests in the world).  Therefore, a cleric must depend as much upon herself as her deity. 

He held, while earth and sky whirled with him.
Louis Loeb, from Via Crucis : a romance of the second crusade, by Francis Marion Crawford, New York, 1889. (source)

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