Sunday, March 20, 2022

(Planescape) Dead Gods

 This was a surprise addition to my collection. It apparently became available as a PoD sometime in the window since my last big order of Planescape PoDs and the time when I actually finished reading my last big order of Planescape PoDs. Would this at last be a chance to explore the fate of that one dead god that the supplements keep bringing up whenever they needed an example of a god that died, and who had an active cult devoted to his resurrection?

Nope. It's Orcus.

I have to be incredibly careful about interrogating my motives and reactions here, because I spent the vast majority of this book being incredibly annoyed whenever Orcus showed up, and I'm not entirely sure why.

One of my notes said, "it feels like I've stepped into a previous generation's nostalgia," and I think that's part of it. The adventure only works if it centers around an iconic villain, one who whose very name counts as a spoiler. Throughout much of the text, he goes by the alias "Tenebrous." There are times when the DM advice actively admonishes you not to reveal that Orcus is involved in these events. Whenever he comes into conflict with one of Planescape's original characters, he absolutely dominates, with a kill list that includes Primus, god-overseer of the modrons and the illithid god of secrets. He can do this because they invented a never-before-hinted-at ultimate weapon for him to use at the start of the story.

It all points to the payoff being that "oh shit" moment where players think they have a handle on things, until they realize - Orcus is back.

And I wonder if the reason it didn't work for me is because I have no emotional connection to him as a character. The Wand of Orcus is one of the example artifacts in the 1st edition AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide, and so I have to imagine that a lot of people whose formative D&D experience was in the 70s-80s had fond memories of going up against its wielder, but I started playing in late 2nd edition, when they'd already gone through the trouble of removing the "satanic" elements from the game, so I didn't even know about him until sometime in 3rd edition, where he was such a perfectly forgettable presence that I had to go back to the wiki to remind myself which book I saw him in (Manual of the Planes, by the way). 

For me, he was always "the example demon."  He's the demon you use when you want a demon who looks and acts exactly like a demon. To the extent that I'd want to use the hells at all, I'd want to go beyond that and invent a villain who was a little less one-dimensional. Imagine my surprise when I found out he had a convoluted backstory.

 Short version - He lived, being a generally assholish high-tier boss monster. This allowed him to advance to the rank of god. He was then killed by the drow Goddess of vengeance who erased his name from history. Somehow, for reasons that are never adequately explained, he came back to life, much reduced in power. After futzing around for an indefinite amount of time, he discovered that the gods apparently left a whole stash of cheat codes buried in the ground with only passive traps and mid-level monsters to defend them. He learned the most boring one (kill.character) and destroyed the rest. Then he used The Last Word to slay Primus, a much more interesting god, and briefly take over the modron hive mind, dispatching the Great Modron March several decades ahead of schedule to search for his missing wand. Other stuff happens, and it turns out using the Final Word so much is slowly killing him, so he desperately needs his wand to boost his power level back up. A group of adventurers comes along to play keep-away long enough for him to perish once more, but despite their precautions (no, seriously, it happens no matter what the PCs do "Voridan can easily overcome any locks, barriers, guardians, or magic wards put in place to protect the wand") his high priest manages to recover the wand and enact a foul ritual to resurrect the twice dead god. There is a desperate, last-minute race against time as heroes try and stop the ritual, but whether they stop the ritual or not, the outcome is the same - the priest and the body of Orcus vanish. No resolution is forthcoming and eventually he shows up in later editions like nothing happened.

And look, don't let my snark fool you. Dead Gods is mostly a pretty okay adventure. Hop from plane to plane unearthing the secrets of the past and thwarting the return of a dark god - it's a bit of a basic plot, but it makes good use of the Planescape setting. The only thing wrong with it is the way it tries to stretch out the big reveal.

At one point, the PCs are literally in Orcus' stronghold and it says, "the PCs should be remain in the dark. There shouldn't be any way for them to link Tcian Sumere to either Tenebrous or Orcus" and no, I couldn't figure out why they weren't allowed to know the alias either, because I guess making the mental leap from "mysterious citadel in the Negative Energy plane" to "maybe those demons we've been fighting have been acting under someone's orders" would be too much context, too soon. Seriously, real quote: "if the PCs (and the players) are frustrated and confused as to what's going on . . . the DM should know he's done his job well."

I keep thinking about the big moment, when the DM announces, "you make a shocking discovery - Tenebrous is actually Orcus!" And I ask myself, how much plot coherence and player agency is it worth sacrificing to make that moment happen? Because it does not seem improbable that the response is going to be, "Cool. . . Who's Orcus?"

So, I don't know, maybe your group has the exact right cultural touchstones to make Dead Gods a relevant adventure, but if I were running it today, I'd skip the alias entirely and reveal the stakes in the middle of the Tcian Sumere chapter, probably around the time the PCs find the giant statue of Orcus (sorry, an unnamed "muscular, ram-headed humaniod" who really could be anybody).

Also, there's a second bookend adventure about a ruined temple in Sigil, controlled by the Athar, which contains spiritual remnants of a dead god who may have been in Sigil before the arrival of the Lady of Pain, but there's a splinter group of the Sign of One who wants to use the power of their collective belief to bring the god back to life. Yeah, that's right, it's the saga of the never-before-seen rain god Badir.


Sorry, a lost track of what I was doing, though it is funny to me that when you're trying to stop the high priest of Orcus from completing the resurrection ritual, and the spirit of Orcus reaches out to trap you in a false reality, there are three signs that the world is an illusion:

'Course, many canny bloods will realize that this horrid scene can't be real, and the Rule of Threes (ed note: I've written it in my notes for at least a half-dozen books, but the "Rule of Threes" is absolute garbage - and for an example why, consider what it is adding to this very passage) dictates why. First of all, a body can enter Sigil only through a portal - no other means of magical transportation works. Second, gods can't get into the Cage, so Zeus and the others couldn't possibly lie at Tenebrous's feet. And third, the Lady can't be beaten in a simple brawl.
I mean, in context, it's not such a big deal, because the thing that's being disbelieved is that the PCs were suddenly transported into a bleak future Sigil where Orcus was triumphant and that's not a very plausible scenario when they started the scene standing on top of Orcus' dead body, but this was an out of character section that is pretty much setting absolute limits for the adventure's stakes. What is this worldbuilding even trying to accomplish?

Overall, I'd say that I'm the wrong audience for Dead Gods. I thought the basic plot was done better in Doors to the Unknown, and even then I think Planescape has the potential for stories that are a lot more interesting than "go to these isolated locations to find the macguffins that will thwart the return of a dark god" (though, interestingly enough, Dead Gods does send you to the fourth layer of Pandemonium - a place that I thought was not quite unique enough to justify being the endpoint of a 500-year portal in Doors to the Unknown). If you buy into the main villain's star power, though, it does seem like a perfectly serviceable story.

Ukss Contribution: It comes as something of a shock to me, but my choice this time comes from the adventure's detour to Oerth. Because Orcus was killed by a drow goddess, he needs some information from a drow warrior in order to recover his wand. Thus, you must travel to the Vault of the Drow first.

The entire Vault has some definite potential, because it's in the middle of a civil war where two powerful nations (the githyanki and the illithids) use the various combatants as proxies by exploiting sectarian differences in the drow religion, and I'm absolutely certain that it is not intended as a metaphor for cold war meddling in the middle east, but it could very easily be made into one.

However, that would require more layers of context than I usually like to add with a single entry. So I'm just going with the Vault's initial description, "Filled with phosphorescent fungi and strange, glowing minerals, this underground chamber has a subterranean beauty unlike any other. Within this dark fairyland . . .[boring and obvious stuff about the drow]"

It's lovely imagery (and from what I understand the new edition of D&D is starting to lean in to it, so that's nice), and I think I can use it as inspiration for one of Ukss' underground kingdoms.

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