Tuesday, February 8, 2022

(Planescape)On Hallowed Ground

It turns out one of my go-to Planescape jokes wasn't actually a joke at all. I would ask, rhetorically, if the reason we kept seeing all these Greek and Norse and Egyptian gods was because there were multiple Prime Material planes, each with their own Greece and Norway and Egypt? On Hallowed Ground confirmed that was the case.

Not only that, but it provided me with a concrete numerical estimate on how often it happens. According to the chapter on "The Reclusive Pantheons" (and we're just going to have to put a pin in that mess for now), the Chinese, Indian, and Japanese gods "exist across hundreds of crystal spheres" (ed note: solar systems). Now, this may seem like a very small amount - "oh, out of infinity worlds, there are hundreds of Chinas out there, okay" - but for Planescape's whimsical understanding of scale, that's quite a lot. In Planes of Chaos, they pick a bunch of random examples from the "infinite layers of the Abyss" and the highest they go is 643. The notion that infinity could contain numbers in the millions or billions or the absurd range exponential notation (layer 1.0e+82, anyone?) is never even countenanced. "Hundreds" means "lots."

I say that, because we also know that the Celtic, dwarvish, elvish, Greek, and Norse pantheons "pervade the cosmos" and, while we don't have particular figures for any of these, I've got to figure that European gods are not going to be more than ten times as common as Asian gods . . . right? 

I mean, it's really hard to read this book and not come away with the impression that the multiverse is predominantly white. Even aside from notional divine demographics, everywhere you go feels like Europe. Take a benign example, from the Finnish chapter - it literally starts with the words "Far to the north, in the lands of snow and ice . . ."

To the north of what, I ask. Are we talking about Sigil here? Or maybe Baator?

"Yeah, I've got some unfinished business, down south, if you know what I mean"

"Do . . . do you mean, hell?"

". . . yeah."

It's something that keeps popping up. "The Ancient Pantheons?" Ancient compared to what? You want to have worlds ruled by the Babylonian and Sumerian gods? Okay. Cool. But what does it mean to say "The Babylonian pantheon is most popular among folds who live in emerging cultures and those in fertile river valleys."

When I first saw this book's index, I was afraid that it was just another reprint of Legends and Lore, but it's got an entirely different agenda. The pantheons here aren't just a toolkit for building your own setting, they are actual characters in the Planescape setting. Aphrodite has a kind of hot girl club with the other fertility goddesses where they split custody of The Evergold (fountain of youth) and the elf goddess Hanali Celanil is specifically called out as her most stable friend (the book is oddly sarcastic about the notion that Baldur might be worthy company for this group, because D&D is for straight boys only). Similarly, the Dagda is friends with Garl Glittergold and Ares has managed to piss off both the Orc and Goblin gods (who are, themselves, mortal enemies).

And I bring that up because the fact that this is not a generic book makes it all the more mysterious when it tries to say that Sumeria #351 is a carbon copy of Sumeria #001. It takes a god that exists in the real world, gives them a weird, specific relationship to the world of Toril (Tyche has moved in and become two goddesses - Tymora, who brings good luck, and Beshaba, who brings bad luck), but then it implies that for all the hundreds or thousands of times this god appears throughout the multiverse, it's always in the same cultural context.

Let's go back to "The Reclusive Pantheons." The name of the chapter is only the first of the regrettable choices this book makes with Asia.

"In the mysterious East, in the steamy jungles and open plains, the forgotten temples, crumble under the weight of vines and lurking creatures, and civilization flourishes in the crowded cities. Here is the Orient, the land of ancient secrets."

The passage keeps going and keeps being extremely weird, but  . . . but . . . east of what? And mysterious? This is a book that has an entire chapter that reveals the ultimate fate of the souls of the dead. That's the level of the bar you've set for whether something is mysterious or not. So . . . what the fuck are you talking about?

I don't want to get too high and mighty here. There's definitely some strange racial stuff to unpack here, and I can't explain how On Hallowed Ground manages to feel like a step backward from Legends and Lore, published 5 years earlier (my theory is that this book is even more explicitly a game, and thus even more careless about cultural insensitivity), but I can leave those questions for people who are qualified to answer them. I just want to focus on how absolutely out of left field the worldbuilding is.

Like, you have a setting that revolves around these magic portals that can take you anywhere you can imagine, but it also has a mysterious East. In fact, it canonically has hundreds of Easts and they're all mysterious (this, incidentally, is compatible with the bizarre treatment of Asian-inspired cultures in Spelljammer), despite the fact that they are also similar enough to each other that we can say with confidence that worshipers of the Japanese gods "are said to be islanders." And the Norse gods are always worshiped by "northmen" who live near fjords and so on.

I have a real problem squaring the unbound imaginative potential of the game's premise and the almost willful lack of vision shown by some of its editorial choices. It's like finite diversity in two or three combinations over here.

Maybe it's supposed to be respectful. Maybe you shouldn't divorce a culture's sacred stories from their historical and ecological context. Does it even make sense for the tropical vikings to think the world was made by slaying the ice giant Ymir? But if that was your intent, why even use real gods in the first place? This book cribs from Monster Mythology, and TSR's trademarked campaign settings, so maybe it could have just made those characters into the plane-hopping meta-deities with complex cross-world relationships with their counterparts in other realities. Why bring Hera into it? And why mention that she instigated a conflict on the Plains of Illyria, thereby making the Trojan War, and by extension our  entire real world, into explicit Planescape canon?

On Hallowed Ground is so strange that I'm not even sure whether it's offensive (I've already quoted the most racist passage, so I'll let you be the judge), but I can say that it's so strange that I doubt its usefulness. The opening chapters should be useful, because they tackle head-on the religious implications of the setting, but the first sentence of the "Priests" chapter is "On the Outer Planes, priests play a much more important role than anyone'd ever give them credit for on the Prime."

You know, organized religion, the force that has been famously neglected and sidelined in nearly every culture in human history. 

It goes on to make a distinction between knowledge and faith - "A priest can head for his deity's realm and ask a high-up there exactly what it is the power wants of him - and he'll likely get an answer"- but it stops at a pretty shallow level. Belief is food for the gods, and priests are like farmers. The stuff about Proxies and Petitioners is similarly pragmatic. We learn about "memory cores" which detach from the petitioner and float around in the Astral Plane when they die, but which conveniently reattach when the petitioner is raised from the dead (apparently the soul takes the exact same route forwards and backwards on their spiritual journey). 

It all winds up feeling irreverent and weirdly rigorous, which is something that I should maybe feel more comfortable with as an atheist, but there's this lurking setting incoherence that I talked about earlier, and so we've got all these old stories from all around the world, where the literal details are the same (down to proper nouns), but which are stripped of their thematic weight, and thus barely mean anything at all. And the appropriated, repurposed details aren't given enough fictional context to hang together in their new form. Scion 1st Edition shared many of this books sins, but chaos in the Overworld and a new war with the Titans was a strong enough plot to work past them. On Hallowed Ground has all the blasphemy of depicting real gods in a silly fantasy roleplaying game, but the plot is that you're traveling between barely distinguishable alternate realities and most of them are super white.

Ukss Contribution: Oh, I don't know about this one. It's the first book in awhile that I've actively disliked, but its main moral failing is casual 90s racism, rather than any sort of active slander. "On Hallowed Ground is a game supplement, and as such the author has taken certain liberties with various characters" and all that. I don't have enough of a stake in any of the depicted cultures to make a call.

I'll go with something purely fictional, just to be safe. Cyric, the Forgotten Realms' god of "Strife, murder, illusion, intrigue and deception" had the sinister idea to write a magical book that would cause any who read it to worship him as their primary deity . . . and then he read it himself. Now he's stuck in a self-destructive feedback loop of extreme narcissism that can only be satisfied by conquest of the entire multiverse and I find that to be pretty hilarious.

1 comment:

  1. "Anyone who reads this will think I'm the bee's knees. Oh, hey, this first chapter is pretty compelling...."