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Deities: Unapproachable or Not?

Many fantasy games include pantheons of deities. Gods of mythical origins and ultimate power. These entities can shape worlds and sculpt reality to their very whims.

I have friends who treat the deities in their games as infallible beings. What a deity wants or desires cannot be questioned or challenged, and the mere mortal PCs must comply with a deity’s desires. The only way to avoid destruction for disobeying a deity’s wishes is to gain the favor of another deity to protect the PCs. In other words, the PC can oppose the will of an evil deity if the PC serves a good deity. A PC can never oppose a deity of any type though if that PC is acting as an individual entity.

I find this to be far too limiting of an approach. While some myths portray the god(s) as indisputable sources of authority I prefer for deities to be incredibly powerful but debatable creatures. I want legendary conflicts where the mortal hero stood against a deity and actually prevailed in the conflict. Should these situations be rare? Yes! Should they be impossible? No! Whether the PC can win such conflicts through brawn or wit is debatable, but the PCs can oppose a god without the protection of another god.

What do you think? Leave a comment below and explain your stance on whether or not deities in game worlds should be unapproachable beings that mortals can never dare to challenge, or is it better to have even the gods themselves be beings that the mortal heroes of the realm can oppose?

23 Comments (Open | Close)

23 Comments To "Deities: Unapproachable or Not?"

#1 Comment By Tybraal On December 18, 2012 @ 1:31 am

I feel that one way this has been done in a satisfying manner are the Epic Destinies of D&D 4e. At the end of their story the heroes can become mythical beings capable of deceiving Death, sitting at the right hand of a Divinity or mastering the secrets of creation. This combined with the fact that the most powerful foes found in the Monster Manuals are effectively gods themselves provide plenty a chance to stand toe-to-toe with gods themselves.

On the other hand, there is the matter of depicting gods in gaming. The Greek and the Egyptians described their gods as immensely powerful, but also possessing the same flaws and desires as ordinary people. They would envy, fight and die like the common man. In such a world opposing the will of a god would be perilous undertaking, but might even result in a deicide, the murder of a god. There must be some examples of this in fiction but I can’t name any on this spot.

#2 Comment By shortymonster On December 18, 2012 @ 2:21 am

I actually prefer the idea that Gods in fantasy settings exist in the same way that they do in our world. Throw in some magic to explain miracles, and preachers and paladins become people who claim to talk to the deity in question as they unapproachable by the laity. This can lead to some fun concepts and conversations when beliefs collide. More thoughts here… [1]

#3 Comment By valadil On December 18, 2012 @ 5:05 am

As a rule I used to avoid letting PCs interact with dirties and iconic NPCs. Who am I to write for these known characters? Anyway on an attempt to freshen up my GMing I threw out my old rules. Including these elements in the game was a whole lot more satisfying and I’d absolutely let the players do it again when it makes sense.

The whole point of RPGs is interactions. Let the played interact with your world and see what kind of marks they leave. Having an uninteractable entity seems to defeat the purpose.

#4 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On December 18, 2012 @ 6:42 am

I generally don’t mess with playing or featuring deities, but I do see and like where you’re coming from. I like the Greco-roman pantheon where the gods were essentially spoiled brats with ultimate power and while mortals couldn’t stand directly against them they could often broker deals or seemingly outsmart the gods.

#5 Comment By fmitchell On December 18, 2012 @ 8:15 am

Generally I’d make direct confrontations with a deity impossible. I prefer the Glorantha version of gods: they live outside of Time and only their worshipers or non-human agents interact with the mortal world. In other settings they might exist in a completely separate realm or plane, able only to send avatars and aspects to our world.

There’s also, as mentioned above, the way gods and religions work in our world: nobody knows for sure, and gods keep it that way. Miracles look like extraordinary luck to non-believers. If a distinct form of divine magic exists, non-theistic wizards have alternate explanations that fit all the facts: manifestations of intense shared beliefs (true or not), an as-yet-unexplored form of arcane magic, or the magical intervention of powerful but finite beings pretending to be gods. Polytheistic religions encourage the notion that gods have limits, if only because two distinct beings can’t both be omnipotent.

#6 Comment By Roxysteve On December 18, 2012 @ 8:28 am

Well, that depends now.

Infallible should go with standoffish, I think – what do Gods care about mortal shenanigans on one world when all of creation is out there?

Fallible Gods run the danger of being clichéd – Roman and Greek hissy-fit teenagers with Teh Awsum Powurz or Terry Gilliam’s Norse Pantheon – of children with Teh Awsum Powurz or…well you know.

I guess you have to go back to scratch and define what your God(s) ARE in relation to everything you will present in your game. Did they create everything or just stumble over it when they popped into existence in response to some gestalt unconscious need expressed by the paltry mortals? Is a god’s knowledge omniscience incarnate, encyclopedic or focused to the point of Aspberger’s Syndrome? Is the god omnipotent or is it just faking for the mere mortals? Are Teh Awsum Powurz real or volcano-smoke and celestial mirrors?

Good luck with that. You know that whatever you do you will not please someone, so you have to come up with something that works for you and sell it. Since if I remember right you run mostly Storyteller-type games I’ll assume this performance art stuff won’t be a problem for you Patrick.

Personally, I have no real views on the matter. As a player it might be neat to believe in gods that actually have no reality, or to find that She Who Strides The World is, in fact, a petulant harridan with frightening magical attacks who overhears *everything* and has a mania for having everything *just so*.

As a GM I would like people to stop telling me that Cthulhu and his ilk should “never be met”. The canonical story is about just such an encounter and if I want them in they are emphatically IN. *Gnashes teeth theatrically*

Coincidentally, one of the major problems I have with Cthulhu Dark Ages is the prominence of Christianity and the need to confront the issue of God as a Gamepiece. Does God get a page in the bestiary, and if so, in what manner does He intercede in human affairs?

My own take is that to stay true to the Lovecraftian Ethos, which can be summed up as “there is no God nor purpose to the universe in general”, God would have to be either a panacea invented to comfort people in a time when the Stars Were Almost Right, or an avatar of Something That Should Not Be, twisted and distorted over the long years by well-meaning but essentially ignorant (of the reality) Clergy.

Either way, it stands a good chance of offending a player, because a made-up God is playtime, God-god is serious business (for others; as God is my witness, I’m a life-long atheist).

An interesting and thought-provoking article. Thanks Patrick.

#7 Comment By shawnhcorey On December 18, 2012 @ 8:51 am

If you have more than one god, how can they be omniscience? If they all know what the others are planning, how can they oppose it without their opposition being known?

In my campaigns, the gods have an existence so different from mortals, that they find mortals as difficult to comprehend as mortals find them. Existence to them is like a chess game with an uncertainty caused by mortals thrown in. Some ignore mortals completely, some are very involved with them but most only get involved on occasion. It makes things unpredictable for the mortals and when two gods directly oppose each other, things, as the Chinese say, gets interesting. ☺

#8 Comment By Roxysteve On December 18, 2012 @ 11:57 am

Why would Gods “oppose” each other? Can’t they just build a new universe where people are less annoying and move out?

#9 Comment By shawnhcorey On December 18, 2012 @ 12:20 pm

Why do people oppose each other? Why can’t they just get along?

And some have moved out of the neighbourhood. The ones the mortals have to deal with are the ones that would leave.

#10 Comment By Roxysteve On December 19, 2012 @ 1:04 pm

Usually for want of space or resources. If those can be had as an act of will, no more war, at least, war as we historically have known it.

Of the few real wars fought from pure Xenophobia, they tended to be religious in motive (at least, in public). Would Gods even *have* religion?

#11 Comment By jpmg90 On December 18, 2012 @ 12:25 pm

I’ve always tented to think that the gods in a fantasy pantheon are limited to the ‘world’ that they are effected in. So these beings would push against other deities that are over reaching their boundaries (be them corporeal or incorporeal boundaries)

A BIG thing that one of my GM’s would do, was make it so that the good of death know when one of her charges (a dead person) has been resurrected (or raised in any way), and would have enforcers going after both the person who was raised and the person who raised them. (so you dont just think “Oh there’s no downside except for spending the gold and we can just find more!”

#12 Comment By Roxysteve On December 18, 2012 @ 12:01 pm

And who says omniscience comes with a good memory? How about a God that knows everything but is absent minded and keeps interrupting his own monologue with “…you know…the thing…that does…the thing…” with wild gestures to help *you* figure out what *he* can’t remember at that particular moment in time (but that will come to him later).

#13 Comment By Roxysteve On December 18, 2012 @ 12:05 pm

Hehhehheh. How about a Sun God that is obsessed to the point of distraction with his complexion? Knows everything in the universe but only talks about the anguish of spots.

#14 Comment By jpmg90 On December 18, 2012 @ 11:24 am

I always enjoyed stories, and plots that have included gods, or pantheon of gods as part of the main story. Either that being direct, as in a god coming down, or indirect in that a PC or NPC communicates through them.

I wouldn’t go as far to say that they should be like Greek or Roman, seeing as they seemed to be overly involved and as everyone says, ‘immature’ in their own ways.

I’ve tended to D&D and Pathfinder in my RPG experiences, so as such I enjoy a certain aspect of the gods being part of character development as well as plot development, and interactions with gods are very much a reality (or can be)

I’ve always pictured the gods living in their aligned plane (a Lawful Evil god has his kingdom in Hell, (as far as the Pathfinder world goes) and they are not ‘all knowing’ but they have knowledge of the Material plane (limited in other planes but seemingly more powerful in the material world, (be that b/c of worshipers, or whatever)

#15 Comment By Roxysteve On December 18, 2012 @ 12:17 pm

I once read a John Brunner “consumer report” on time machines which suggests that there is more mileage in the minor players than the “A” team – the prophets, saints, martyrs and so forth. They are the ones about whom others form cults.

And you can have an almost endless pantheon of Saints.

“I’ll pray to St. Bolli, the patron saint of Dwarves helplessly bedridden in Elf hospitals”.

“We need to offer sacrifice to Saint Benbo the Blind to remove this ruddy -4 modifier curse on our crossbows. It must needs be a noisy sacrifice so he can tell we made it”.

“Yes indeed, you *did* put the gold in the saddlebags, but as a follower of Halfdan the Open-Fisted I followed his teaching of ‘Cast ye wealth to ye masses that it return tenfold’ and handed it out to those beggars at the city gate.”

#16 Comment By drow On December 18, 2012 @ 4:08 pm

in the past, the gods in my campaigns have usually been approachable, and often meddle in the affairs of mortals. player characters, in particular.

i’m tempted to steal a page from warehouse 13 in my next campaign, whenever that is, and cast the gods as mere mortals themselves, anonymous peasants and commoners who manage cosmic forces and try to safeguard them from falling into the hands of evil.

#17 Comment By JackOfAllGeeks On December 19, 2012 @ 5:35 am

I strongly believe it depends on the needs of the campaign and the desires of the GM. Obviously, if you’re game intends for the PCs to parlay with Zeus or run from Cthulhu, then having the gods be simply inaccessible doesn’t make any sense. At the same time, if the PCs *can’t kill Cthulhu* then that’s a very different encounter, and by “very different” I mean “oh god, oh god, we’re all going to die” (as it should be when one meets Cthulhu).

If instead, as in my game, one of the themes is the ambiguity of the divine, the nature of heresy and orthodoxy, and questions of “this priest claims to speak for our god, but his actions seem problematic, how are we supposed to deal with that?” then it kind of requires a more-distant, inaccessible god. If the evil priest says Zeus wants all the elves dead and Zeus does *not* want all the elves dead the dramatic scenario only lasts as long as asking Zeus’s opinion directly isn’t an option.

I think the formulation of your question is a little problematic, though. What do you mean by “A PC can never oppose a deity of any type though if that PC is acting as an individual entity”? If you man that Arachne will always lose her contest against Athena, or that acting against Hades without the protection of Zeus is a quick way to a short life, that merely assumes a level of power in the gods that PCs can never hope to meet. If instead you want to wrestle Ares to the ground or confound Death, then the gods of your world are not as all-knowing or all-powerful. Either one is valid given the needs of the campaign.

(If you instead mean that any action against a god without the consent of another god is simply forbidden by the GM and can not happen in the game then I think we’re on a completely different topic…)

#18 Comment By Evilhalfling On December 19, 2012 @ 8:28 am

Heroes should not be able to directly interfere with deities before epic levels. Then its practically part of the job description. IMC there is one “Ascended” god who can interfere directly with the world. (Avatars, prophecy, direct interventions etc) while all the others can only work though worshipers.
Every few hundred years the “ascended” god changes, although the hand over is usually rarely smooth. During the last transition(between gods of Magic & War)somebody ganked the god of Nature.
The Pantheon includes 4 mortals that rose to godhood, each while an appropriate god was ruling the world.

#19 Comment By Norcross On December 19, 2012 @ 1:43 pm

You could always run deities the way Q was portrayed on Star Trek 🙂

#20 Comment By Scott Martin On December 19, 2012 @ 4:42 pm

I’ve never run deities as anything other than abstractions– PCs have never crossed paths with them. That said, I could really see the fun in playing Greek or Roman style gods, who are powerful, peevish, and beatable… but rarely directly.

#21 Comment By Trace On December 20, 2012 @ 9:00 am

I ran an E6 D&D homebrew where the gods were all fictional. All “divine” magic was just that, magic… but with a different flavor. The churches claimed there were gods, and used them to claim power, but there actually weren’t gods.

#22 Comment By amazingrando On December 20, 2012 @ 1:34 pm

I agree with Scott Martin, generally gods in my games are abstractions. Followers express their faith in consistent methods, a god of learning has librarian clerics, a god of death has murderer clerics, etc.

That said, I once ran a year long campaign in Arcanis, where the gods have portfolios but no alignments. This meant that followers expressed the god’s portfolio in typical human fashion, interpreted as they saw fit.

For instance the god of death could have a murderous evil cleric or a lawful good paladin who put the walking dead to rest as followers. Now, these factions didn’t get along, but it made for an interesting game.

#23 Comment By Wayne On December 23, 2012 @ 8:04 pm

I like the way Eberron did it: the deities may or may not even exist and clerics may or may not be drawing power from them. And other sources of power exist for them to draw from, like amazingly powerful charismatic beings (Vol) or simple power sources (The Silver Flame).

One of the better things I liked doing in one campaign was where an evil god masqueraded as a good one. Because of the non-interference pact all the deities had, all the good ones could do was send disquieting dreams or cryptic omens to their followers about it.