Today’s post is a guest post from friend, reader, and writer Arashidrgn. He explores religion and deities in D&D in two parts.
The influence of deities and religion is often overlooked but really has a huge effect in how it shapes the D&D world. Its actually pretty easy to talk about how individuals perceive their gods – after all belief and perception are uniquely subjective to each individual. What about gods and their place in the world? If we absolutely know multiple gods exist, we don’t necessarily know their exact positions and influences in the universe.
Its interesting exploring religious knowledge in D&D because we have canonical information: this celestial realm is here, the gods warred here and at this time, this god lives here, this god eats souls, this god likes ponies, etc. So I had to explore theoretical ideas about how people think where the gods fit into their universe without this empirical knowledge – because what the game designer dictates isn’t necessarily what the imaginary inhabitants in our fantasy world actually know. In other words: “The gods work in mysterious ways”.
Part II – Philosphy Pie
The Clockwork Universe
The Clockwork Universe is a particular viewpoint on the relationship between the gods and the mortal realm. It may be held by any deific practice. Omni-deific individuals most commonly hold this viewpoint. Whatever the reason, this religious philosophy thinks of the gods as architects and designers and the world is a great clockwork machine. Once the gods set the machine in motion they stepped back and let it run by itself.
This religious philosophy holds that the gods have a very small or no guiding hand in the petty affairs of mortals. The gods watch the universe from afar but rarely intervene in the affairs of the world. There are a number of explanations for why the gods do not intervene in the affairs of mortals. Some consider that to the gods an individual or even large group is insignificant in the eyes of the gods, or to the gods a single lifespan is too short to hold lasting meaning to gods who are eternal. The most predominant theory is that the gods have agreed amongst themselves to refrain from meddling directly with the mortal realm to prevent wars between the gods.
This religious philosophy sees the tenants of the gods as a set of guidelines they wish mortals to follow; however, since the gods do not take an active part in monitoring or punishing a mortal for breaking their tenants it is up to the individuals own dedication and integrity to adhere to them. Mortals who live their life very closely to the tenants of their god and are wholly devoted to their cause gain divine benefits and boons becoming clerics and paladins of their varying faiths. It is like each individual is a potential cog, axle, or spring and if they are right for the job their god will set them in motion with their blessings.
Because the gods are seen as taking no direct action in the universe, to anyone who believes in the clockwork universe they are ready to stand up and act taking a proactive involvement in affairs around them. Other religious philosophies that believe in praying and waiting for divine salvation are considered foolish. To The Clockwork Universe mortals must act on their own in order for anything to be done. The gods will only support the actions of mortals. Because of this those that practice of The Clockwork Universe hold self-reliance in great esteem.
A church of this philosophy is more likely to have active involvement. A church of Avandra may actively build roads between major trade routes or missions out on the frontier while a church to Erathis may train a police force to enforce the laws of the land.
Prayer for The Clockwork Universe is given less emphasis than in other practices. Typically prayers are made as a request for guidance or blessings in ones actions rather than for ones deity to solve their problems for them. While it is believed the gods hear their prayers the answers to them are much less direct. A request for knowledge may be answered by a readily available library or mentor. A request to defeat an enemy comes by receiving divine strength in fighting instead of a bolt of lightning striking them down. Whatever the answer, it will come from something already in place or already in motion.
The views of The Clockwork Universe can sometimes become pessimistic. Some consider the fact that the gods do not take direct action in the universe as abandonment and come to believe, “If the gods don’t want to take care of the world, then it is no longer their world. It should belong to those that must live within it.” This tangent view on The Clockwork Universe has spurred warlords to conquer great expanses or warlocks to summon terrible demons for power.
The Great Game
This concept is most commonly applied to a mono-deific or radiant-deific viewpoint. It is a viewpoint on the interactions between the gods themselves and the reasons for how they interact with the mortal realm. This idea is neither mutual exclusive or inclusive with The Clockwork Universe.
The Great Game is a concept which describes the mortal realm as a large and complex game and each of the gods as the players. The rules to this game are seen as being too vast for mortals to understand; however, it is commonly thought that the stakes are mortal souls and that mortals themselves act as pawns and other pieces on the board.
This concept spurs, or is spurred from, the gods being in conflict with one another. It is not agreed upon exactly what ‘winning’ is in the great game. To worshipers of Erathis having the most advanced, widespread, or prosperous cities may be sufficient while worshipers of Pelor see it as having the largest population of followers and the longest lasting church. Furthermore, followers of Bane, Gruumsh, or Kord focus on individual or military victory over worshipers of other gods in combat.
Whatever the goals of the gods in The Great Game, it is the responsibility of the individual to follow the tenets of their god in order for them to win. Those that believe in this concept often have a ‘my god is better than your god’ attitude. Any aspect that can be considered rival point between gods becomes a competition. Churches of Moradin and Erathis may try to best each other by building a larger church than the other, while Ioun and Corellon compete in scholastic competitions.
The Great Game is also sometimes referred to when mortals attempt to explain why gods act a certain way or why they keep the tenants that they do. The cultivation of nature praised by Melora might be a play to combat Erathis strength in civilization and cities. It is also considered that the gods may ‘make moves’ looking at the world in terms of centuries or generations. The actions that worshipers make may not pay out during their lifetime but will pay off for their children’s children. This is a common concept for Dwarves who worship Moradin as they begin building temples and strongholds which they will not see completed in their lifetime.
The Great Game best lends itself to Mono-Deific beliefs because of the close attachment and loyalty to their god. When The Great Game is referred to in a Radiant-Deific sense it is often a reminder that while all of the good aligned gods are working together to defeat evil; ultimately, each god has their own goals to achieve. This can often be used to imply that the alliance between good aligned gods may not last forever and is only a temporary truce until a more common threat is removed.
Believers in the Great Game who also follow The Clockwork Universe especially believe they hold direct control over whether or not their god wins. These individuals or religious groups often spend a great deal of time in religious practice and study in order to make themselves more valuable pieces on the board. Some who follow this concept attempt to interpret the game and base their actions on what they believe to be the winning move for their god. Others may adopt this ideology to give justification for their actions. Cults with skewed motivations from the gods they worship will arise from time to time in this manner.
The term The Great Game was originally coined by Halflings who preferred to put a lighter spin on the conflicts between gods. They also found it easier to apply terminology found in more universally known and understood games to explain the actions of the divine. The Great Game is a more modern alteration to the term which was originally coined as, “The Great Card Game.” When describing the game to other races like humans terms like ‘pawn’ that refer to other types of games became more common and the title was changed to be more inclusive. Worshipers of more militaristic deities may refer to this concept as The Great War.
The Celestial Garden
The Celestial Garden is a concept to describe the relation of how the gods view the mortal realm. It is juxtaposed to The Great Game point of view. It describes the world as large farm or garden and the gods as its caretakers.
In this view the gods goal is to raise and cultivate the world to make it healthy and prosperous. It is considered that there are varying views between the gods and their followers regarding what is considered to be prosperous. As described in The Great Game gods of combat may regard great warriors as prosperous while other revere civilization or the bounty of nature to be true prosperity. It is thought if the world is a great communal garden to the gods they would have differing views as to what should grow there.
The primary difference between this viewpoint and The Great Game is the scale of and reason for conflict between deities. In this viewpoint the only reason for conflict between gods stems from when their goals for The Celestial Garden are mutually exclusive. For example Erathis and Melora are constantly at odds between the desire for civilization and nature. In this way struggles between the gods are viewed more as territorial disputes than a desire to win and dominate another god’s realm. As such those who take this point of view are more open to resolve conflicts through negotiation and reaching common ground.
The Celestial Garden is a common viewpoint for those that practice radiant-deificisim. Those with this particular perspective see the deities of good as wanting to see the world thrive and being willing to set aside differences to make that happen; however, the evils gods are unwilling to compromise and are inclined to see the destruction of the garden in order to get their way.
Organizations that believe in The Celestial Garden general concern themselves more with creating and building. Worshipers of Erathis would focus on creating great structures or a follower of Ioun collects a vast library of knowledge. Kord’s warriors might be seen as the defenders of the garden and the creations of all of the other gods. While this viewpoint may seem counter intuitive to Kord as the lord of battle; however, this viewpoint is right in line with his tenant, “Be strong, but do not use your strength for wanton destruction.”