... now with 35% more arrogance!

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Gods Against the Cosmos

Over at Lamentations of the Flame Princess, James Raggi has been writing about divinity and morality in roleplaying games and has said a couple interesting things: about dissociating the moral system (alignment) from the deities, about the difference between cosmic forces and beings merely claiming to be gods, and ways of revamping the D&D cosmology to dissociate it from alignment as well. There's some things there that I agree with and others I want to think about and mull over here.

The general thrust, stripping gods of alignment, is fine by me on at least two counts. I prefer swords & sorcery to epic fantasy; morally ambiguous gods
certainly reflect s&s better than a rigid moral pantheon. I also like a different approach to alignment, stripping it of behavorial and even moral relevance entirely. I like the idea of using just a few alignments, such as Law and Chaos, as sides in a battle, with the majority of creatures being unaligned. Being aligned grants a few small benefits, but demands obligations and presents risks when encountering creatures, artifacts, or magic of the opposite alignment. In keeping with this, I've even been toying with merging the cleric and thief classes; I should develop this more and post about it.

On the topic of cosmic forces vs. gods of a pantheon, things are a little bit murky. The default assumption in much of D&D is that the gods are really just very powerful monsters, which sort of fits with s&s, but not quite because of the way clerics and alignment traditionally works. The default assumption in general society is that pagan gods were personifications of elements in the universe -- sky, earth, sun, death. This is basically a 19th-century idea promoted by Max Müller, who claimed that myth was a disease of language. The post-Müller scholarly opinion is more along the lines of the gods as being endowed with these cosmic forces and even controlling them, rather than personifying them. After all, Zeus is not the Sky personified: that would be Ouranos. Kronos castrated his father the Sky, and gained its power, only to be overthrown by his son Zeus. So, according to Greek myth, killing or harming the Sky doesn't destroy the atmosphere, it just changes the natural order and puts someone else in charge. In fact, killing cosmic-level entities in general is a standard method of creation (see Odin and Ymir, or Marduk and Tiamat.)

Which is not to say that playing D&D with literally personified cosmic forces might not be interesting. However, I think I'm leaning more towards the personified cosmic forces as inscrutable supernatural entities acting indirectly on human life, with much more localized s&s-style godlings and demons being the focus of supernatural conflicts. So, for example, I would treat the Lord of the Fiery Green (from my 1-page dungeon in the previous post) more like a monster calling itself a god: powerful, aligned with Chaos, worshipped by jungle goblins, but quite mortal.

James Raggi's post inspired some other ideas, which I'll address in future posts.

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