Intelligent Denial or Why Dungeons and Dragons Should Kill Its Gods

When I was around thirteen, I wilted under parental pressure and briefly quit Dungeons and Dragons.  It didn’t take.  I did this because my Mother, who was and still is a devout Roman Catholic, objected to the game’s subject matter.  This occurred when D&D was under substantial pressure from religious conservative groups…well, more than it is now.  To her credit, my mother never prohibited me from playing it.

Call it a desire for logical answers or a simple love of science and the fictions around it.  Eventually I stopped following her faith.  The transition to rejecting religion en-masse took longer.  Despite the obvious pagan undertones of most fantasies, one thing D&D does not preach is a rejection of faith or a refutation of divine creation.  Even though a number of fantasy settings exist that don’t subscribe to divinity or use theology to explain their setting, Dungeons & Dragons is not one of them.  Through nearly every edition, the roots of the setting were deeply ingrained in the foundations of divinity.

Recently, Trask discussed religion and how it interacts with D&D.  He spoke of the death of faith.  He wondered why the faithful regard their deity as a simple weapon pusher–a pimp of power.  You subscribe to it like a mailing list and as long as you tolerate an annoying amount of spam, you can smite enemies in holy fire.  Fair trade.  If you play a character that has faith, said faith should have ramifications and complications.  This is not a distant god but an active one.  It demands servitude, and punishment doesn’t necessarily have to come from the hands of another mortal.  Your deity will smite you directly, avoiding any subtlety in the act.  I had made identical observations as Trask.  However, I came to a far different result…kill your gods.

My problem deals with the Douglas Adams’ argument.  Proof denies faith for without faith a god is nothing (slightly modified quote).  Neal Gaimen commented on this as well in American Gods–the personification of Odin explained that every human was a honeybee with a miniscule amount of honey, and gods fed on the honey of the masses underneath them (honey equating faith).  However, in a world where god/s exists without simple belief, a world with undeniable proof that can’t be discounted scientifically, there is no need for faith.  (When I mention undeniable proof, I don’t mean a setting sun or a rolling river—observable events that can be and have been explained by science.  I refer to the blotting of the sun and the stopping of clouds.  You know…the biblical stuff.)

I contend that settings like D&D that possess both faith and an overabundance of miracles (up to and including faith-bullets) is a farce–a world that can’t hold up to its own internal logic.  I find settings where gods require faith and show no proof of their existence far more realistic.  It was for this and many other reasons why I took divinity out of Amethyst.  This is a setting placed on our real Earth, which offers up obvious complications.  In the 3.5 version of the game (released in 2008, 30 days before 4E—awkward), we allowed divine classes by redefining them as tapping an obscure power some people claimed as divine.  Characters used such power without the need of being religious.  I later considered this a dodge.  I had an issue over allowing the proof of god/s in a setting, especially with it being on Earth.  I had received some criticism for this, as it limited class options in a system supposedly encouraging player freedom.  Thankfully, I took Dark Sun’s duplication (not imitation) of this setting point as vindication (Dark Sun took clerics out for different reasons).

If we allow a priest to have divine powers and a cleric to have divine powers, this forces a proof of god in the setting.  We could say, “Your faith gives you power, not your god.”  Unfortunately, that’s still heretical in the eyes of many religions.  We’re not smoothing the waters by allowing it without condition.  You can spend years reading books to cast a spell or you could just “believe” really, really hard.  I wanted to enforce the idea that WE, the human race, are still the same from modern-day. The issues over religion and faith are unchanged.  I wanted it to be a mirror of our real world, which means divine power is delegated to holy books and bad Kirk Cameron films.

Therefore, I would encourage one of two options.  Either you deal with the power of gods directly with consequences and commitments ever-present, as Trask suggests, or you allow faith to remain as it now.  Disputable miracles.  Blind fanaticism.  Corrupted spiritual leaders.  I would never admit to be the killer of faith.  We don’t require the parting of the Red Sea or someone leaping fire from his fingers like Colwyn from Krull (that’s right, I just made a Krull reference).  People find their symbols in clouds, coffee cream, and on grilled cheese sandwiches.  Most of the conflicts in our world come from the confused misinterpretations of holy books.  What fun is there in a setting if a god could just shout to the masses as a booming voice of heaven for what it desires?

I look at the deities in D&D and consider them vastly inadequate.  Theology was crafted to explain a universe the people within it didn’t understand.  Deities weaved the threads of fate.  They controlled the stars.  They commanded nature.  They offered blessings or sapped a land of its strength.  They snaked their fingers into the lives of all mortals, absolving them of their actions (forced by the hand of the divine).  By their decree, they could beckon the end times, taking away all the lives they created.  Gods release us from the concerns of free will, allowing us to thank or blame them for all events in the world.  Without these testaments, gods are undeserving of our faith.

I know it may seem I am preaching an agnostic view upon your own game worlds.  I am not, well, not entirely.  But, by giving people divine power, we are saying that agnosticism and atheism is wrong.  Must all fantasy worlds be forged from the hand of god?  If you want clerics in your setting and wish to keep deities ambivalent, you can always spin the theological view of them and have the cleric PC an aberration, proclaimed by the temple/church as sacrilegious.  The cleric is a title in class only, as he may have no insight on the origin of his power.  He may be hunted under charge of being a heathen, a demon, or better still…
“A witch!  Burn the witch!  Burn her!”
And I end with Monty Python.  Good day.

Chris

Dias Ex Machina Games

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Chris Dias

Chris Tavares Dias is the literary equivalent of that crusty burnt cheese at the bottom of the fondue pot. Some people claim he looks like Mathew Perry. He would like that to be true. It's not. In 2010, Chris co-wrote and created Amethyst Foundations, a 4th Edition setting based on the previous version under 3.5. It has received critical acclaim for integrating science fiction into classical fantasy. In August of this year, Chris was last seen staring at a dead raven that had fallen beside his car. Two months later, his watch and notepad were found in the stomach of a basking shark that had washed ashore off the coast of Florida.

11 thoughts on “Intelligent Denial or Why Dungeons and Dragons Should Kill Its Gods

  • October 13, 2010 at 6:53 am
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    I usually take the view that the gods are not the omnipotent mystical answer to life, the universe, and everything. Instead, they are borne of more Greek sensibilities. They are vastly more powerful than mortals (and may or may not have had a hand in crafting the world–depending on your mythos,) but these beings are flawed. They have petty wars, tumultuous relationships, and sometimes act out of jealousy and spite. Which isn’t to say that they are all selfish dicks, just that they are decidedly human in logic and emotional content.

    In such a setting, the gods care as much about mortals as they would a household pet. The gods play games with them. They have petty fights over who is “loved” the most. Some mortals declare devotion and servitude to a specific deity, and that deity might be moved to give such a person gifts. Within the sweaty, writhing masses of mortals, temples serve as a pedestal to stand on so that you might be more easily noticed when making your devotions and prayers.

    In this case, it is not so much a question of faith as it is of favor. The cleric has been granted their divine power because they have somehow pleased a deity. This might be a whim (like those old stories where the main character happens to be nice to a god in disguise,) it might be from servitude (a childhood spent in the service of a temple is rewarded,) or it might be gathered in some other way (for instance, plenty of Greek gods liked to slum it with human lovers.)

  • October 13, 2010 at 10:38 am
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    So it appears that one of the objectives of your earth-based setting was to be ‘far more realistic’ and so you have drawn a comparison between D&D divinity and a more ‘realistic’ version (that which we know to exist on earth today).

    However, it seems to me that when comparing D&D divinity with the earth’s you have a choice to make. You either compare it against a contemporary understanding of earthly divinity (the here and now) or you compare it with the understanding of divinity from some point in earth’s history.

    Now, if you were to take a point in earth’s history then there are some obvious differences. Mass belief in ‘biblical miracles’ was generally more widespread, say, 500 years ago. It’s also worth pointing out that not only was belief in miraculous divine intervention more prevalent back then, so was the belief in the reality of Arcane powers. The belief that ‘magicians’ or ‘sorcerers’ existed and could perform real feats of magic goes all the way back to some of our oldest biblical texts (and no doubt a lot further back than that).

    Well, from reading your post it seems that you have taken a much more contemporary view of earthly divinity including our modern understanding of the sciences and a much lower level of belief in those ‘biblical scale’ divine actions and so, this brings me to my real question and reason for posting.

    If the modern earthly view of divinity leads you to take a more ‘realistic’ view of the gods in your D&D game then shouldn’t you start extending the same kind of realism to arcane powers in the game, as well as the divine?

    The arcane powers and sorcery, that at points in earth’s history may have seemed ‘real’, are for the most part dismissed today as tricks or simply as having been spawned from that same ‘need to explain a universe that they don’t understand’ that was mentioned in reference to divinity.

    So by extending this ‘realism’ to the Arcane would you also be removing all of the wizard or wizard-like classes?

    As a DM myself I know it’s sometimes tough to know where to draw the line between believable realism (suspension of disbelief) and incorporating spontaneous, fun, fantasy, ‘anything can happen’ elements into your game.
    Though I lean towards ‘realism’ in my D&D worlds I think the idea of potentially eliminating the divine and arcane aspects of the game is, for me personally, going a bit too far, and removes a little too much of the ‘plain old fun’ that is D&D.

    Yours respectfully

    S

    • October 13, 2010 at 12:02 pm
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      I actually do specifically explain how magic operates in Amethyst, up to and including wizard spells. I needed everything to make sense and fit together. It may not be clear now, but I think by the second book, people will begin to understand how the universe works in the Amethyst setting.

      That being said, I totally LOVE your comment and appreciate the intelligence of its delivery. Good show.

  • October 13, 2010 at 3:00 pm
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    If you haven’t already done so, Chris, I recommend you read “Small Gods” by Terry Pratchett. While a humorous book, it addresses most of the issues you’ve addressed in your way, but comes to a different conclusion, in particular the “faith vs. knowledge” issue.

    Just be careful you don’t become too like Richard Dawkins. Fundamentalist atheism is as harmful as any fundamentalism, IMHO; also, are the people who’d shun going to a church but wear ‘power bands’ or ‘Kaballa threads’ any different from a religious believer? And don’t pick on people who enjoy playing with the concepts of a more than mundane existance 😉

    W.

    • October 13, 2010 at 8:27 pm
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      Actually, you have a point and I agree on some level. I’m not a huge fan of Dawkins, though I do enjoy the writings of Hitchens. I would like to keep an open mind but only in areas not previously explained. I still hold out for some spirituality. My issue is that gods/God should either be present and part of the fiction in a direct way (Greek mythos) or external, silent, with a layer a doubt over their existence.

  • October 13, 2010 at 5:21 pm
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    This is a posting test

    • October 13, 2010 at 5:22 pm
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      Someone notified me that there were issues with the captcha system. It appears to be working now.

      Sorry for the issues.

      Trask

  • October 14, 2010 at 5:09 am
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    1) It is easy enough to remove divine magic from the game as Dark Sun 4E shows. All it requires is that you provide for healing in some form, such as the other power sources in 4E.

    2) Just because some characters (i.e. clerics) claim that their magic comes from the gods does not make it so. Using 4E as an example, sorcerers cast spells by “harnessing magic in their blood” and “through sheer force of will and physical discipline”. If this is possible, who is to say that Clerics are not simply doing the same, aided by a little self-delusion in to believing that their power comes from outside when in reality it comes from within? Those with faith say magic comes from the gods, those without faith say magic comes from within.

    3) In a world where there are powerful non-divine beings willing to make bargains for power, such as warlocks who is to say that the “gods” from whom clerics (and other divine classes) gain their power are any different. Just because these entities call themselves gods, that does not make it so.

    With this in mind, there are two different directions one can go in a D&D-like fantasy world. There is the atheistic/agnostic approach: The “god” my LFR gnoll barbarian was raised to believe in was revealed to be nothing more than a demon (Yeenoghu) and not a god, and therefore by extension he believes that to be true of all gods – there are no gods and that all those pretending to be gods are also nothing more than demons using their cleric worshipers for their own ends. Conversely, one could believe that there is an effable God – and that none of the so-called deities are him/her/it. As with worshippers of Ao (Forgotten Realms) you would be without spells, leading your followers through faith, not flashy demonstrations of “divine power” and you would likely see the other “gods” as false gods intent on leading the flock away from the truth. Obviously, the “clerics” of this “one true faith” would not be Clerics in game terms as they would lack obvious spells, etc.

    In both cases, there is nothing about the assumptions of the typical fantasy world that requires or forces acceptance of the gods. Both atheism and faith are possible – one just has to allow for the possibility that the “gods” are real, they just aren’t really gods.

    In world design, to convey this idea to the characters one would probably need to create a culture or region where this idea has taken root. Perhaps in one area there are no divine spellcaster (although perhaps magic use of some other types are known) and the natives believe in an unknowable god and consider worshippers of all other “gods” to he pagans. Of course, given how societies often view pagans and given the likely fear of the attraction of the foreign “gods”, the “clerics” of this region will likely vilify and seek to destroy them.

    Carl

    Carl

    • October 14, 2010 at 1:07 pm
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      “As with worshippers of Ao (Forgotten Realms)”

      I always hated Ao. It’s basically the god of Christianity inserted into a fantasy setting because one of the authors must have had their religious sensibilities offended by all of the paganism running rampant in Forgotten Realms. If they hadn’t named him Alpha-Omega, it wouldn’t have bothered me so much, because I wouldn’t see the religio-political motivation behind it.

      Ok, enough ranting though, personally I think if you want to run a game without divine magic, that’s fine. It would have been nice to see an article giving suggestions on how to implement such a game, rather than a bunch of reasons why we shouldn’t play games with Gods and Clerics in them (because it isn’t consistent with reality! of all things… it’s a goddamn fantasy game).

      Look, like I said, I’m an atheist myself. I don’t find it offensive that most D&D campaigns assume the existence of Gods, it’s part of the fantasy world. FANTASY, as in, you know, things that don’t exist in the real world. That’s part of the fun. Justifying the removal of divine magic from Amethyst because it doesn’t jive with real life earth is silly, and the above commenter was correct in pointing out that that justification could apply to Arcane Magic (or for that matter, any element of the game not consistent with known scientific reality). Taking it away because it doesn’t fit the setting as imagined by the creators is fine. That’s part of writing a game. You don’t need a logical justification. But the author seems to have made that choice, not for artistic and aesthetic reasons, but for religio-political ones (or rather atheistic-political reasons). That makes the work as repugnant to me as the insertion of Jehovah/Christ into Forgotten Realms (in the guise of Alpha-Omega), for much the same reason-it has less to do with the internal workings of the game world than it does the author’s personal religious views.

  • October 14, 2010 at 5:14 pm
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    That’s an interesting point. I have personally never encountered a writer that has ever written against his moral or ethical values (at least not outside of a writing class). From Gene Roddenberry to CS Lewis, writers always invest their own morality into their stories. If there is an exception, it would be that. Regardless of this, Amethyst is classed as a science fantasy. It places a fantasy world overtop of our real world. Real world, meaning there was an obligation to maintain the status quo of our society. The fact that the setting eliminates clerics is almost a separate issue. Spellcasting emerges from years of study of an ancient language and the story is specific in that there are few exceptions. This is just setting matter, just like why there are no clerics in Dark Sun. DMs are more than welcome to ignore all these points in their personal game, but that’s how it is in mine, and thus that’s how it’s presented. That being said, we’re looping in a solution into the next book…because I am also a businessman. 🙂

  • November 23, 2010 at 11:26 am
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    If you substituted the word “faith” (which is a meaningless term even in a world without proof of gods), for the phrase “adherence to principles” as the mystical power source of the gods, then all would be explained, exactly as was explained years ago in some prior editions Deities and Demigods book (bearing in mind the substitution just mentioned).

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